John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and forceful advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. In his work with the abolitionist movement, he was also involved in the formation of the Republican Party. In the field of literature, he is best known as a hymnist, as well as for writing and publishing Snow-Bound, in 1866, which was a best seller throughout the remainder of his lifetime. From the profits of this poem, he was able to live comfortably at home until he died on September 7, 1892, at a friend's home in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, and was buried with the rest of his family in Amesbury. John Greenleaf Whittier was both artist and strong moral voice.
John Greenleaf Whittier was born on December 17, 1807, the second of four children, to John and Abigail Hussey Whittier, at their rural homestead in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He grew up on the farm in a household with his parents, a brother and two sisters, a maternal aunt and paternal uncle, and a constant flow of visitors and hired hands for the farm. The house that he and his family resided in was originally built by the first Whittier, after coming to New England in 1683. This home, John Greenleaf Whittier's birthplace, is now called Amesbury home, and is open to the public as a tourist attraction. Beginning in 1814, he attended the district school during the short winter terms. In 1821, at school, he was first introduced to the poetry of Robert Burns by a teacher. After this, he began to write poetry on his own in his spare time.
In 1826, his sister sent a copy of his work, entitled The Exile's Departure, which was an imitation of Walter Scott, to the Newburyport Free Press to be published. The editor at the time, William Lloyd Garrison, published the piece and liked it so much that he sought out the author to encourage him to get an education and develop his literary talents. Due to this encouragement, Whittier sent out many poems to local newspapers, which accepted more than eighty of them. The works of Scott and Lord Byron seem to have furnished the models for these fluent, "correct", and often-florid verses that Whittier produced. However, Whittier was far from famous for his poetry. In fact, he supported himself by shoe-making and school teaching for two terms at Haverhill Academy. This also completed his formal education as well in 1829. Throughout this time in his life until 1832, he edited a number of newspapers, including Boston weekly newspaper, The American Manufacturer, and the Essex Gazette (Haverhill). While living at home at this less prestigious position at the Essex Gazette, his father died. He went on to edit the important New England Review in Hartford for around eighteen months.
Even though Whittier enjoyed writing, he desired for a career in politics as well to better express his views, specifically as a member of the Abolitionist Movement. In 1833, he was elected to the state convention of the National Republican Party and unsuccessfully sought a position in office as a Whig. After the election, Garrison urged him to join the Anti-Slavery Party; he also became a delegate to the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Convention. At this point, Whittier wished to connect his two passions, and began placing Abolitionist verses into his writing. The result was, Justice and Expediency, a powerful anti-slavery tract.
In 1835, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, where he continued his work with Abolitionist pieces of legislature. He was still living on the farm, which he managed and oversaw, while editing the Haverhill Gazette (also from home). He eventually sold the house and farm, in 1836, moving along with his mother and sisters to the home which he would ultimately reside. During this time, he became actively involved in working for the Abolitionist cause in New York and Philadelphia. A collection of his Abolitionist verse, Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, appears in print.
Through his intensive involvement with the Abolitionist movement, he feuds and breaks with Garrison, specifically regarding the issue of Abolitionist tactics. Whittier then helped to found the Liberty party, which he hoped would find a wider political base than Garrison's radical Abolitionism for the antislavery cause as a whole.
Whittier was an activist all his life, although there is no record of him ever speaking in meeting, and, unlike some others who were Orthodox, he found time to engage in politics and championed abolitionism. He was also no stranger for the price that voicing a desire for freedom cost him. Not only did he loose friends over the movement, but also, in 1838, a mob burned him out of his offices in the antislavery center of Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. Such dangerous situations became a norm for Whittier, as he fought for the Abolitionist Movement for the rest of his life. Whittier also involved himself in the formation and foundation of the Republican Party in politics as well.
Due to his failing health, Whittie gradually withdrew from political activism in 1840, when he returned home for good, and resigned the editorship of the Pennsylvania Freeman. During this time, he published a number of poems and various works that became well known. With increasingly poor health, Whittier died on September 7, 1892, at a friend's home in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. He was buried with the rest of his family in Amesbury, where the grave can still be seen.
After his father's death, Whittier published Legends of New England, his first book, which was a mixture of prose and verse. Later in life, he deprecated the work, and even refused to permit it to continue to be printed and placed into circulation, due to his embarrassment about the book. However, his poetry was somewhat more successful with himself. In 1838, he published the first authorized collection of his poetry, Poems while editing Pennsylvania Freeman. He continued to write and publish Abolitionist poetry throughout this period in his life.
During his withdrawal from the movement due to his failing health, Whittier began to show an interest in history, as he had in the beginnings of his poetry. The publication of Lays of My Home suggests such, the renewal of his early interest in regional and historic subjects for his verse. While working on other pieces, such as Voices of Freedom, Whittier edited the National Era, which served as the chief outlet for his poetry and prose for the next decade. After this, he continued to write and publish numerous poems, placing his name with that of other popular writers of his time.
In the 1850s, he encouraged Sumner to run for office, after which, his poetic energies shifted from the political to the personal and legendary became more pronounced in his writings. Then, in 1857, he was assured, for the first time, of a wide reading public in the company of the period's most respected authors in founding the Atlantic Monthly. The publication of Snow Bound in 1866, made Whittier famous in his own writing, not editing, making him still known today.
Highly regarded in his lifetime and for a period thereafter, he is now remembered largely for the patriotic poem, Barbara Frietchie, as well as for a number of poems turned into hymns, some of which remain exceedingly popular. Although clearly Victorian in style, and capable of being sentimental, his hymns exhibit both imagination and universalism of that set them beyond ordinary nineteenth century hymnody. Best known is probably, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, taken from his poem, "The Brewing of Soma".
A bridge named for Whittier, built in the style of the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges spanning Cape Cod Canal, carries Interstate 95 from Amesbury to Newburyport over the Merrimack River. The city of Whittier, California, the Minneapolis neighborhood of Whittier, and the town of Greenleaf, Idaho, were named in his honor. Both Whittier College and Whittier Law School are also named after him.
Whittier's hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, has named many buildings and landmarks in his honor including J.G. Whittier Middle School, Greenleaf Elementary, and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School. Whittier's family farm, John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead also called "Whittier's Birthplace" is now a historic site open to the public as is the John Greenleaf Whittier Home, his residence in Amesbury for 56 years.
All links retrieved August 7, 2013.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.