Authors: John Greenleaf Whittier

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet and abolitionist.

December 17, 1807

Haverhill, Massachusetts

September 7, 1892

Hampton Falls, New Hampshire

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: Legends of New-England, 1831 Moll Pitcher, 1832 Justice and Expediency, 1833 Mogg Megone, 1836 Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, 1837 Poems, 1838 Lays of My Home, and Other Poems, 1843 Voices of Freedom, 1846 Poems, 1849 Songs of Labor, and Other Poems, 1850 The Chapel of the Hermits, and Other Poems, 1853 The Panorama, and Other Poems, 1856 The Sycamores, 1857 The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1857, 1869, 1880, 1894 Home Ballads and Poems, 1860 In War Time, 1863 Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl, 1866 The Tent on the Beach, and Other Poems, 1867 Maud Muller, 1869 Among the Hills, and Other Poems, 1869 Ballads of New England, 1869 Miriam, and Other Poems, 1871 The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, and Other Poems, 1872 Hazel-Blossoms, 1875 Mabel Martin, 1876 Favorite Poems, 1877 The Vision of Echard, and Other Poems, 1878 The King’s Missive, and Other Poems, 1881 The Bay of Seven Islands, and Other Poems, 1883 Saint Gregory’s Guest, and Recent Poems, 1886 At Sundown, 1890 The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1894 Long Fiction: Narrative of James Williams: An American Slave, 1838 Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal, 1849 Nonfiction: Justice and Expediency: Or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition, 1833 The Stranger in Lowell, 1845 The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 Old Portraits and Modern Sketches, 1850 Literary Recreations and Miscellanies, 1854 Whittier on Writers and Writing: The Uncollected Critical Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1950 (Edwin H. Cady and Harry Hayden Clark, editors) The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1975 (John B. Pickard, editor) Edited Texts: The Journal of John Woolman, 1871 Child Life, 1872 Child Life in Prose, 1874 Songs of Three Centuries, 1876 Miscellaneous: Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1866 The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1888–1889 Bibliography Grant, David. "‘The Unequal Sovereigns of a Slaveholding Land’: The North as Subject in Whittier’s ‘The Panorama.’" Criticism 38, no. 4 (Fall, 1996): 521-549. Whittier’s "The Panorama" discusses the interdependence of the two ideals exploited by the Republicans and Democrats: sovereignty and Union. The poem places the slave system at the root of the threats to the North. Hollander, John, ed. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. New York: Library of America, 1993. Contains a biographical sketch of Whittier and a year-by-year chronology of poets and poetry. Kribbs, Jayne K., comp. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Kribbs’s extended introduction locates four periods of the poet’s writing career and suggests in conclusion that the central question about Whittier is not how great, but how minor a figure he is in American literature. All the essays are written by respected scholars. Contains a bibliography and an index. Leary, Lewis Gaston. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Twayne, 1961. Although this introductory study looks at Whittier’s life and art, the poetry discussion is more useful than the biographical section, which contains some errors and no new information. Leary discusses the poet’s limitations, especially as a critic. Includes bibliography. Miller, Lewis H. "The Supernaturalism of Snow Bound." New England Quarterly 53 (1980): 291-307. A good reading of how Whittier broke through his usually plain style to create an impressive rhythm, tone, and syntax in his striking creation of a bleak landscape and snow-bound universe. Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1961. The book begins with a biographical summary; the last seven chapters are a critical guide to Whittier’s work. Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Wagenknecht arranges his facts and anecdotes topically rather than chronologically. The result is a vibrant and energetic portrait of Whittier that displays the richness of his inner and outer life. The thesis of this book is that many facets of Whittier’s life seem paradoxical to one another. Includes bibliography. Warren, Robert Penn. John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Warren discusses "Snow-Bound," "Telling the Bees," "Ichabod," "To My Old Schoolmaster," and other poems addressing themes of childhood and nostalgia, as well as a controversial Freudian view of the poet’s development. Includes thirty-six poems by Whittier. Woodwell, R. H. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead, 1985. This biography, based on years of research, is encyclopedic but has a very good index. Woodwell’s 636 pages are not highly readable, but he includes a useful review of Whittier’s criticism.

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