John Greenleaf Whittier

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John Greenleaf Whittier (hwĬt´ēər), 1807–92, American Quaker poet and reformer, b. near Haverhill, Mass. Whittier was a pioneer in regional literature as well as a crusader for many humanitarian causes.

Early Life

Whittier received a scanty education but read widely. An introduction at the age of 14 to Robert Burns's poetry inspired him to write verse; his first poems were published (1826) in the Newburyport Free Press, edited by William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, who became his lifelong friend. In the years from 1828 to 1832, Whittier edited and contributed stories, sketches, and poems to various newspapers. His first two published books, Legends of New England (1831) and the poem Moll Pitcher (1832), warmly portrayed everyday life in his rural region.

Abolitionist and Poet

Whittier is depicted so often as the gentle hoary-headed Quaker that the fiery politician within him is often forgotten. He declared himself an abolitionist in the pamphlet Justice and Expediency (1833) and went to the unpopular national antislavery convention. In 1834–35 he sat in the Massachusetts legislature; he ran for Congress on the Liberty ticket in 1842 and was a founder of the Republican party. He also worked staunchly behind the political scene to further the abolitionist cause and was an active antislavery editor until 1840, when frail health forced him to retire to his Amesbury home.

From there he sent out more of the poems and essays that made him a spokesman for the cause, and he was corresponding editor (1847–59) of the Washington abolitionist weekly, the National Era. In addition, Whittier compiled and edited a number of books; the most entertaining was the semifictional Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal (1849). Meanwhile, his volumes of verse came out almost biennially; the first authorized collection appeared in 1838.

After the Civil War he turned from politics and dedicated himself completely to poetry. Although he liked to think of himself as the bard of common people, as in Songs of Labor (1850), his best work is his careful and accurate delineation of New England life, history, and legend. His most famous poem is Snow-bound (1866), an idyllic picture of his boyhood home; other memorable volumes are The Tent on the Beach (1867) and Maud Muller (1867). Such ballads as "Barbara Frietchie," "Marguerite," and "Skipper Ireson's Ride" ; perennial favorites like "The Barefoot Boy" and the war poem "Laus Deo" ; and his nearly 100 hymns, of which the best known is "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," gave him popularity in his time surpassed perhaps only by Longfellow.

In current critical estimation, Whittier's ability as a balladist surpassed his ability as a poet. His meters and rhythms were conventional and his poems tended to be too profuse. Nevertheless, as the voice of the New England villager and farmer prior to industrialization, his work portrays an important period in American history.


See biographies by S. T. Pickard (1907, repr. 1969), J. A. Pollard (1949, repr. 1969), W. Bennett (1941, repr. 1971), W. J. Linton (1893, repr. 1973), and T. W. Higginson (1902, repr. 1973); studies by L. G. Leary (1961) and E. Wagenknecht (1967).

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John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was an American poet whose humanitarianism and great popular appeal established him as an important 19th-century figure.

John Greenleaf Whittier was born on a farm near Haverhill, Mass., on Dec. 17, 1807, of poor Quaker parents. His formal education was meager. At the age of 14 he discovered Robert Burns's poetry, with its Scottish dialect and humble, rural subjects. He began writing poems; one caught the eye of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published it in 1826 in his paper, the Newburyport Free Press. Garrison encouraged him to continue his schooling, and Whittier attended Haverhill Academy on and off for two years. For a time he also taught school. Meanwhile, his poems were being published in local newspapers.

Between 1829 and 1846 Whittier edited various journals, including the abolitionist Pennsylvania Freeman (1838-1840). In 1835 he served in the Massachusetts Legislature.

With his vigorous antislavery essay Justice and Expediency (1833), Whittier firmly committed himself to the abolitionist cause. His antislavery poems such as "The Yankee Girl," "The Slavery-Ships," "The Hunters of Men," "Massachusetts to Virginia," and "Ichabod" were equally vigorous. He was well aware of his limitations as a poet; his was poetry in service of a cause, a poetry, often, of declamation. As he had put it in "Proem," he was concerned with "Duty's rugged march through storm and strife" and viewed the "softer shades of Nature's face,/ … with unanointed eyes." His volumes Lays of My Home (1843), Voices of Freedom (1846), and Songs of Labor and Other Poems (1850) reflected his belief in art as a weapon.

Poor health caused Whittier to curtail his editorial duties, but he was able to serve as contributing editor from 1847 to 1859 of the abolitionist journal National Era.

There was another, gentler side to Whittier. After about 1850 he also wrote folksy New England ballads and narrative poems, sentimental country idylls, and simple religious poems that appealed strongly to his readers. Among the most popular are "Skipper Ireson's Ride," "John Underhill," "Maud Muller," "Telling the Bees," "The Barefoot Boy," "Snow-Bound" (his masterpiece), "The Eternal Goodness," and "My Psalm."

In his later years many honors came to Whittier. He died on Sept. 7, 1892, at Hampton Falls, N.H.

Further Reading

The standard edition of Whittier's work is The Complete Poetical Works, with a biographical sketch by Horace E. Scudder (1894). The standard biography is Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (2 vols., 1894; rev. 1907). Edward Wagenknecht, John Greenleaf Whittier: Portrait in Paradox (1967), is compact and balanced. Other sound studies include John A. Pollard, John Greenleaf Whittier: Friend of Man (1949; repr. 1969), a thorough work; Lewis G. Leary, John Greenleaf Whittier (1961); and John B. Pickard, John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation (1961).

Additional Sources

Burton, Richard, John Greenleaf Whittier, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977 c1901.

Fields, Annie, Whittier: notes of his life and of his friendships, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977 c1893.

Woodwell, Roland H., John Greenleaf Whittier: a biography, Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead, 1985. □

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Whittier, John Greenleaf (1807–92) US poet and editor. A Quaker, he quickly became involved in the abolitionist movement and much of his verse is anti-slavery in theme. His works include Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question (1838), Lays of My Home and Other Poems (1843), Voices of Freedom (1846), Songs of Labor (1850), and Among the Hills and Other Poems (1869).