InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Greenleaf Whittier

He is now remembered as an early local colorist, whose example and support blessed the careers of later regional artists (such as Sarah Orne Jewett, whom he championed and advised), and whose warm depictions of American rural life rise occasionally above the patterned sentimentality which makes so much nineteenth-century poetry inaccessible to twentieth-century readers. His present reputation rests largely on a single poem—the nostalgic Snowbound (1866), in which the poet re-creates a scene of his childhood on the weatherbeaten, isolated Massachusetts farmstead where he was born; describing the family “snowbound” indoors together, the poet dwells with poignant affection on the firelit faces of beloved family members, now long dead, but then gathered in the midst of life around a winter fireside. Although he produced many volumes of poetry and prose, and was widely published throughout his career, it was Snowbound which brought him national recognition as a poet and, after a lifetime of poverty, a comfortable income as a writer. But in his own time, and his own estimation, John Greenleaf Whittier was an abolitionist first, and a poet second.

Whittier was born in 1807 to a devout, debt-ridden Quaker farm family, which was struggling to retain the homestead near Haverhill, Massachusetts, where the Whittiers had been farmers since 1648. It was a costly battle: heavy physical labor in childhood broke Whittier’s constitution, and in later life he would be subject to chronic headaches and, on several occasions, severe physical breakdowns. His formal education was necessarily limited, and though as a Quaker he was encouraged to study and express himself, few books were allowed him beyond the Bible and the journals of the early Friends; however, when at fourteen he was exposed to the poetry of Robert Burns, he was inspired—for Burns, too, was poor and ill educated yet could use his rough dialect and rural environment as the medium and subject for poetic expression.

But the habits of mind and spirit which he developed in that Quaker homestead drew Whittier into a life dedicated to social reform. Though Quakers were no longer openly persecuted, their history and faith still set them on the margin of New England society, and gave them a critical perspective on that society as well as a tendency to look with compassion and understanding on the outcast and the oppressed. Their belief in the Inner Light, by which God’s grace may move in any human being, regardless of outward condition, led them to honor all souls—including women, native Americans, and blacks—as equally precious in God’s sight, and therefore in man’s: to treat a human being as property was an outrageous violation of both man and God. When in 1826 the young Whittier published his first poem, he met William Lloyd Garrison, the journal’s editor—and they became comrades in the movement to end slavery in the United States.

Encouraged by Garrison to pursue his writing, Whittier threw off the cobbling trade for which he had been training, and wrote—surviving by teaching school and editing an assortment of newspapers while his poetry and articles were being published in a number of publications. But with Justice and Expediency (1833), a significant abolitionist tract, he cast his lot—and his creative energies—with the then-outcast and abominated anti-slavery movement, a choice which exposed him to much abuse—and, during the 1830s, physical danger: he and the British abolitionist George Thompson were attacked and stoned on a New Hampshire lecture tour in 1835, and on another occasion in 1838 he joined in secret a raid on his own offices in order to salvage his papers from the flames. He was elected as a delegate to the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, which in turn led to his election in 1835 to a term in the Massachusetts legislature; and while he poured out anti-slavery poetry for political journals, he was a tireless and skillful manipulator of politicians in the Whig party and later the anti-slavery Liberty party (which he helped found in 1839).

In 1836 he moved with his mother and sisters to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he soon settled permanently; and from this rural hamlet he sent forth his tracts, articles, broadsides—and poems and fiction. In the 1850s, when abolition became more fashionable and the movement developed a larger following, Whittier’s reputation improved considerably; with the publication of Snowbound in 1868 he achieved national reknown as a poet; and over the remaining two decades of his life his work enjoyed steadily increasing popularity.

Whittier is sometimes eulogized as an inadequately trained artist whose talents were martyred to mere topical journalism. His association with the abolition movement doomed for several decades any hopes he might have had for popular acceptance as a poet, but it also monopolized his creative energies throughout the 1830s and much of the ’40s and ’50s. Often-quoted lines from Whittier’s meditative Tent on the Beach (1867) offer the self-portrait of “a dreamer born / Who, with a mission to fulfil, / Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn / The crank of an opinion-mill, / Making his rustic reed of song / A weapon in the war with wrong.” But perhaps more representative of his own self-perception is his remark that he placed a “higher value on my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery Declaration . . . than on any title-page of any book.” He threw himself into the emancipation movement with fierce commitment, for the fact of slavery simply enraged him; and as a devout Quaker, he believed that his verses should not be ends in themselves but means to the ends of spiritual understanding and practical piety—means by which good works in the world could be generated.

But it was also through his labors in the “opinion mill” that he found and developed his own simple, passionate poetic voice. In the poetry Whittier devoted to the struggle against slavery, the occasion demanded not just expression but persuasion; to achieve his goal, the poet learned in some degree to discipline his language for effect, and, by lacing his verse with small inversions of language and eerily ironic impersonations, he hoped to stimulate thought and encourage the reader to examine his or her conscience. The poems here should be read not as imperfect precursors of some later and purer art, but as topical poems: they draw their power as much from Whittier’s political theme as they do from his artistic techniques. In the abolition poems, strategies for compression and self-control are employed to express feelings of profound moral outrage—a combination which yields some of Whittier’s most affecting and expressive poetry.
Elaine Sargent Apthorp
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
The Hunters of Men (1835)
The Farewell (1838)
Massachusetts to Virginia (1843)
At Port Royal (1862)

Other Works
Legends of New England (1831)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


"The Gift of Tritemius"
The text of Whittier's poem.

Folklore Ballads
Selection of Whittier's poems, including contextual information for each.

Selected Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier
A collection of twelve poems and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Secondary Sources

Miller E. Burdick, "The Immortalizing Power of Imagination: A Reading of Whittier's 'Snowbird,'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 1985

James H. Justus, "The Fireside Poets: Hearthside Values and the Language of Care," Nineteenth Century American Poetry, 1985

Jayne K. Kribbs, ed., Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier, 1980

Charlotte Lindgren, "Barnes and Whittier: Early Folklorists," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, 1981

Albert Mordell, Quaker Militant, John Greenleaf Whittier, 1933

John Pickard, John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1961

Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, 2 vols., 1894

James Rocks, "Whittier's 'Snowbound': 'The Circle of the Hearth' and the Discourse on Domesticity," Studies in the American Renaissance, 1993

Edward C. Wagenknecht, John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox, 1967

Robert Penn Warren, John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry: An Appraisal and Selection, 1971