Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
Whittier, born December 17, 1807 in the southwest Parlor of the
Whittier Homestead, was the first son and second child of John and
Abigail (Hussey) Whittier. He grew up on the farm in a household
with his parents, a brother and two sisters, aunt and uncle, and
a constant flow of visitors and hired hands for the farm.
first poem to be seen in print appeared in 1826 in the Newburyport
Free Press, where the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was
editor. Under Garrison’s encouragement Whittier actively joined
the abolitionist cause and edited newspapers in Boston and Hartford.
He was associated with the Atlantic Monthly Magazine from
1857 until his death.
In 1831, he
brought out a book of prose works, “Legends of New England,”
and the next year returned to his native town to run the farm after
his father’s death, and later moved to Amesbury. Until the
Civil War, he became increasingly involved in the abolitionist cause,
serving in numerous capacities on the local, state and national
levels. He was also involved in the formation of the Republican
With the publication
of Snow-Bound in 1866, Whittier finally enjoyed a relatively comfortable
life from the profits of his published works. It is Snow-Bound for
which he will always be best remembered as a poet. Nearly every
volume of his verses published thereafter was truly a best seller.
Whittier died on September 7, 1892 at a friend’s home in Hampton
Falls, NH, and was buried with the rest of his family in Amesbury.
of Whittier’s Life
Born December 17 in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the farm remembered
in “Snow-Bound,” to John and Abigail Hussey Whittier,
the second of four children. The Whittiers came to New England in
1683 and the first Whittier had, in his old age, personally built
the house in which Whittier was born. The birthplace, and Whittier’s
later Amesbury home, are now open to the public.
Begins to attend the short winter terms of the district school.
One of his teachers introduces him to the poetry of Burns and he
begins to write verses himself.
Sister Mary sends “The Exile’s Departure,” an
imitation of Scott, to the Newburyport Free Press, whose editor,
the young William Lloyd Garrison, publishes it and seeks out the
author to encourage him to get an education and develop his literary
Thus encouraged, Whittier sends out many poems to local newspapers,
which accept more than eighty of them. The works of Scott and Byron
seem to have furnished the models from these fluent, “correct,”
and often-florid verses in which Whittier found neither his own
voice nor his own subjects. When preparing the notes for his definitive
edition late in life, Whittier described one of them as suggesting
(1827-1828) “the idea of a big Indian in his war-paint strutting
about in Sir Walter Scott’s plaid.”
Supports himself by shoemaking and school teaching for two terms
at Haverhill Academy, completing his formal education.
Edits the Boston weekly newspaper, The American Manufacturer, a
position obtained for him by Garrison. Supports Clay and high tariffs
and attacks Jackson and populist democracy.
Edits the Essex Gazette (Haverhill), a less prestigious position
which enables him to live at home. His father dies.
Edits the important
New England Review in Hartford for some eighteen months. Nervous
and physical exhaustion force his resignation and second return
to the farm. Publishes Legends of New England, his first book, a
mixture of prose and verse aimed at showing that “New-England
is rich in traditionary lore…”; he later deprecates
the work and refuses to permit it reprinting.
Hoping for a career in politics, he is elected to the state convention
of the National Republican party and unsuccessfully seeks office
as a Whig.
Urged by Garrison, joins the Anti-Slavery party and is a delegate
to the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Convention. Begins
to write Abolitionist verses and publishes Justice and Expediency,
a powerful anti-slavery tract.
Elected to the Massachusetts legislature. Continues to live at home
and oversee the management of the farm. Edits the Haverhill Gazette.
Sells the farm and moves with his mother and sisters to nearby Amesbury,
where he continues to live until his last years.
Works actively 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
Publishes the first authorized collection of his poetry, Poems.
Edits the Pennsylvania Freeman.
Breaks with Garrison over the issue of Abolitionist tactics and
helps to found the Liberty party, which he hopes will find for the
antislavery cause a wider political base than Garrison’s radical
Resigns the editorship of the Pennsylvania Freeman in ill health
and returns home for good.
Begins his gradual withdrawal from political activism.
of Lays of My Home suggests the renewal of his early interest in
regional and historic subjects for his verse.
Edits the Middlesex
Standard in Lowell.
Becomes a corresponding
editor of the National Era, which serves as the chief outlet for
his poetry and prose for the next decade. Publishes Super-Naturalism
in New-England, which Hawthorne, reviewing the volume, finds somewhat
deficient in imagination.
Publishes Margaret Smith’s Journal.
of Labor, Poetical Works, and Old Portraits and Modern Sketches.
During the 1850’s writes many of his best poems, including
“Telling the Bees,” “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,”
and “The Double-Headed Snake of Newbury,” signaling
his beginnings to find his poetic role as “the poet of the
commonplace” and of New England’s past. Persuades Charles
Sumner to run for the Senate. After Sumner’s election, the
shift of Whittier’s poetic energies from the political to
the personal and legendary becomes still more pronounced.1857
With the founding of the Atlantic Monthly, he is assured for the
first time of a wide reading public in the company of the period’s
most respected authors. Mother dies.
Publishes Home Ballads. Sister Mary dies.
Sister Elizabeth dies. A niece, also named Elizabeth, moves into
the Amesbury home to look after him. With the Emancipation Proclamation
and the Union victory in the Civil War, he feels that the cause
of freedom has been won and he may rest from his reforming labors.
Snow-Bound, his masterpiece, is an immense popular success and gives
him financial security for the first time.
The Tent on the Beach, and Other Poems makes explicit his decision
to “lay aside grave themes, and idly turn / The leaves of
memory’s sketch-book.” Writes an increasing number of
religious and devotional poems.
Ballads of New England
The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, and Other Poems, containing “The
Brewing of Soma” the final stanzas of which, beginning “Dear
Lord and Father of Mankind,” have become Whittier’s
best -known hymn.
Harvard grants him an honorary LL.D., a somewhat belated acknowledgment
that is age had come to think of the “uneducated farm boy”
and one-time “radical” reformer as belonging in the
company of Harvard-educated Emerson, Lowell, and Holmes and Bowdoin-educated,
Houghton Mifflin Co., the country’s most distinguished publishing
house of the period, issues a definitive edition of his poetry and
prose in seven volumes.
Privately prints his last book, At Sundown.
Dies September 7 at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire and is buried in
the family plot in Amesbury, where in his boyhood his family had
regularly attended Friend’s Meeting.
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