Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet and abolitionist.
December 17, 1807
September 7, 1892
Hampton Falls, New Hampshire
Time and geography link John Greenleaf Whittier with such American literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—the so-called New England Group. Whittier’s New England, however, was never the same as theirs; he stands apart from them in background, schooling, and the general direction of his writing talents. To begin with, he did not share their Puritan heritage—Whittier was a Quaker, derived from Quaker stock. Nor did he inherit a ticket of admission to the cultural benefits that nineteenth century Cambridge, Concord, and Boston were able to provide. Instead, "the American Burns" was born to the rugged labors and simple pleasures of rural life and to such limited educational opportunities as were open to a Massachusetts farm lad. John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier
Whittier was born near Haverhill, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1807. His birthplace was the plain colonial homestead that he later made famous in Snow-Bound, and his boyhood environment, though not poverty-stricken, provided no luxury or special incentives to a literary career. Whittier’s formal education was confined to winter sessions of a district school and two terms at Haverhill Academy. It was the village schoolmaster, Joshua Coffin, who introduced him to the poetry of Robert Burns, a powerful source of inspiration to the imaginative boy.
Whittier’s early poems appeared chiefly in local newspapers, one of which was published by William Lloyd Garrison. When he was about twenty-one, Whittier left home to embark on a career of itinerant journalism which led him to Boston, back to Haverhill, then to Hartford and Philadelphia. In 1833 he attended an antislavery convention in Philadelphia, thus launching abolitionist efforts so zealous as to engage his best strength for the next thirty years. The end of the Civil War, however, freed him to endeavors less didactic, and in 1866 the success of Snow-Bound gave him not only important literary recognition but also the beginnings of financial security. As the poet of rural New England and as a voice of calm and sincere religious faith, he became increasingly popular. His seventieth and eightieth birthdays were widely celebrated. He died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892, at the age of eighty-five.
Whittier’s reputation today rests on poems which, at their best, express the very heart of rural New England. His literary reputation has suffered a marked decline, and the reasons are easily discernible. For one thing, most of Whittier’s antislavery poems have not survived the cause in which they were written. For another, the author’s work, despite its sincerity and intensity, often suffers from limitations of range and craftsmanship. Finally, his poetry is direct, simple, and emotional, qualities to which modern criticism tends to turn a deaf ear. Interesting also is the now almost-forgotten Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal, a fictitious but accurate account of colonial life.
Nevertheless, Snow-Bound alone is enough to place posterity in debt to Whittier. The simplicity and dignity of family affection, the sharply etched view of a winterbound farmhouse, and the recaptured charm of a lost way of life—in these features no other American poem displays a greater, or perhaps even equal, degree of felicity.