Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.
Early Years and Schooling
John Greenleaf Whittier was born on December 17, 1807 to the Quaker couple, John Whittier and Abigail Hussey Whittier, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the family’s farm, where he was raised with his brother and two sisters.
Also making up part of the household were his mother’s sister and his father’s brother; also on the farm lived many farmhands who helped keep the family farm functioning.
Whittier received scant formal education, but his ill health prompted him to read widely. He began by studying closely the family’s books on their religion.
The Quaker faith became a strong influence in his life; he especially was drawn to the qualities of compassion and humanitarianism which led to his strong feeling of social awareness and justice.
During one of his forays into school attendance, Whittier was made aware of poetry through the instrumentality of a teacher. He began trying his hand at composing verse.
At age 19, he penned "The Exile’s Departure," and without his awareness, his sister, Elizabeth, submitted the verse to the Newburyport Free Press, whose editor was William Lloyd Garrison, the staunch proponent of abolition.
Editor Garrison published the poem, and after becoming acquainted with Whittier, encouraged the budding poet to finish his education.
The Haverhill Academy had recently begun taking students, and Garrison suggested to Whittier that his career in poetry could benefit from further education.
Whittier lacked funds for tuition to the school, so he took up a job as a shoemaker to save money for school tuition. Interestingly, he also gave crops from his family’s farm to help round out his tuition payments for the first term.
For the second term, Whittier took a teaching job in Merrimac, Massachusetts. He then was able to complete his high school education at age 21, requiring only two terms of study.
Editor and Abolitionist
Through William Lloyd Garrison, Whittier succeeded in securing his first editorial position at the temperance weekly, the National Philanthropist. And Garrison later made Whittier editor of the weekly magazine, American Manufacturer.
After becoming a strong voice in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, Whittier was assigned to edit the most influential publication, the New England Weekly Review in Hartford, Connecticut. This publication was the most prominent and influential magazine featuring the political views of the Whigs.
In 1833, after acknowledging his newly found interest in politics, Whittier once again resumed a relationship with William Lloyd Garrison, who had become an ardent abolitionist.
Garrison persuaded Whittier to join the cause for ending slavery. Whittier joined that cause immediately, published his abolitionist pamphlet, Justice and Expediency, and then spent the next twenty years working for the abolitionist cause.
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He became a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, signing the Anti-Slavery Declaration. He deemed this act the most important event he had ever experienced.
Whittier’s dedication to the cause of ending slavery prompted him to travel widely as he lobbied politicians, gave speeches, and attended anti-slavery conventions. From 1838 to 1840, he served as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman in Philadelphia, an influential abolitionist newspaper.
After the paper relocated its office to North 6th Street to Pennsylvania Hall, a pro-slavery gang torched and burned the new structure.
Whittier often suffered attacks during his travels, as he encountered resistance to the cause of ending slavery, but he also continued to push for ending that institution as he continued to write poetry.
By the end of the decade of the 1830s, Whittier realized that ending slavery would entail more than employment of persuasive rhetoric. He knew that only legislation could bring about the end of that heinous institution, but he was also aware that the likelihood of such legislation being passed was slim.
This newfound awareness caused a rift between Whittier and his long-time fellow crusader Garrison.
Whittier, however, became a founder of the Liberty Party, formed in 1839. This party later transformed into the Free Soil Party and finally into the Republican Party in the early 1850s, whose sole raison d’être remained the abolition of slavery.
Whittier, nevertheless, continued to push for abolition, attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, held in London, England. He also continued to edit and compose works attacking the institution of slavery, against which he so fervently had fought.
By 1845, he was experiencing a worsening of the health; he then returned to his home in Amesbury, ending his active public participation in the crusade for abolition.
Despite his retirement from traveling, Whittier continued to write and speak out against the evils he believed slavery heaped upon the country. His essay, "The Black Man," made people aware of a free black man named John Fountain, who had been confined to prison in Virginia after assisting the escape of a group of slaves.
After Fountain finally gained release, he engaged in a tour speaking out against slavery and including his gratitude to Whittier for Whittier’s essay making Fountain’s presence known.
The Liberty Party, before ultimately resulting in the successful Republican Party, had morphed into the Free Soil Party. Whittier is credited with persuading Charles Sumner to seek the nomination of the 1850 Free Soil candidacy for the United States senate.
As the decade-long editor for the National Era, whose publisher was the staunch abolitionist-physician, Gamaliel Bailey, Whittier had the chance to continue writing both poetry and abolitionist tracts. Employing his poems to dramatize issues in oppressive policies, Whittier became known the Free Soil Party’s poet laureate.
He published two collections of abolitionist poetry, Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States: Between the Years 1830-1838 and Voices of Freedom.
After serving as an elector during the 1860 and 1864 elections of the first Republican President Abraham Lincoln, and after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment—both of which essentially ended slavery—Whittier was finally free to concentrate on poetry other than that of political persuasion.
He became one of the first to publish in the fledgling journal, The Atlantic Monthly, still in publication today under the abbreviated title, The Atlantic.
In 1866, Whittier first published his widely anthologized classic masterpiece, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl. This work met with great success, and financially the poet earned $10,000 from the poem’s first edition. The poem has remained one the most widely read American poems of all time.
In 1831, Whittier published his first collection of works titled Legends of New England; the next year, he published his 900-line poem, Moll Pitcher, also something of a legend but based the biography of actual person.
Interestingly, in 1833, Whittier anonymously published The Song of the Vermonters, 1779, in The New England Magazine. Then Ethan Allen was incorrectly cited as the author of that poem, and that error continued for the next sixty years, until it was finally revealed that the poem was, in fact, a Whittier composition.
During Whittier’s lifetime, he remained a celebrated writer, widely-noted political activist, and beloved, famous poet.
With the onslaught of mid-20th century postmodernism and the current failure to teach the accurate history of the United State of America, Whittier’s reputation has been diminished, despite his tireless dedication to ending the dreaded institution of slavery.
That failure became evident recently, as a statue of the poet in his namesake, Whittier, California, was defaced by vandals with Black Lives Matter slogans. According to Pam Fenner, former president of the John Greenleaf Whittier Home and Museum,
This is particularly disheartening to read about the defacing of a statue of a man who worked for the majority of his adult life on behalf of the abolition of slavery and the rights of all human beings . . . Whittier was a man who worked to better humanity around the world. You could easily pass this off as young people who don't know their history. So I think everybody has to take a look at how we are educating our children, in the schools and in the home.
Despite the negativity surrounding certain historical and literary figures, their classic works will continue to speak to every generation of observant readers and thinkers. For example, certain Whittier poems continue to garner fans, poems such a "Barbara Frietchie," "Maud Muller," "The Barefoot Boy," and his ever attractive Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl.
Whittier never married, but he had been close friends with the Quaker poet, Elizabeth Lloyd Howell. In 1859, he contemplated marriage with Elizabeth, but he changed his mind, and they never married.
On September 7, 1892, Whittier died. He was 84 years old, just three months away from his 85th birthday; he had been in poor health for many years. In Amesbury, Massachusetts, the home in which he resided for 56 years now features a museum dedicated to the abolitionist/poet’s life.
- Francis Henry Underwood. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Palala Press. December 5, 2015). Print.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson. John Greenleaf Whittier. Wentworth Press. February 23, 2019. Print.
- Osborn T. Smallwood. "The Historical Significance of Whittier's Anti-Slavery Poems as Reflected by Their Political and Social Background." The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 35. No. 2. 1950. JSTOR. Accessed 22 Aug. 2021.
- George Edward Woodberry. "John Greenleaf Whittier." The Atlantic. November 1892.
- Curators. "John Greenleaf Whittier Letters." Syracuse University Libraries. April 2009.
- Frederick J. Blue. "Charles Sumner." American National Biography Online. February 2000.
- Jim Sullivan. "Damage to Whittier Statue Causes Ripples on Both Coasts." The Daily News of Newburyport. June 19, 2020.
© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes