John Greenleaf Whittier

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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! Life of John Greenleaf Whittier By W. J. Linton Walter Scott Ltd., 1893
FREE! The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier By John Greenleaf Whittier Houghton Mifflin, 1884
FREE! American Prose: Hawthorne: Irving: Longfellow: Whittier: Holmes: Lowell: Thoreau: Emerson By Horace E. Scudder Houghton Miffin, 1891 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: "John Greenleaf Whittier" begins on p. 165
FREE! Makers of Literature: Being Essays on Shelley, Landor, Browning, Byron, Arnold, Coleridge, Lowell, Whittier, and Others By George Edward Woodberry The Macmillan Company, 1900
Librarian’s tip: "John Greenleaf Whittier" begins on p. 302
FREE! The Early Years of the Saturday Club, 1855-1870 By Edward Waldo Emerson Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918
Librarian’s tip: "John Greenleaf Whittier" begins on p. 188
FREE! American Poets and Their Theology By Augustus Hopkins Strong Griffith and Rowland Press, 1916
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "John Greenleaf Whittier"
The History of Quakerism By Elbert Russell Macmillan, 1942
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of John Greenleaf Whittier in multiple chapters
American Literature: An Interpretative Survey By Ernest Erwin Leisy Thomas Y. Crowell, 1929
Librarian’s tip: "John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)" begins on p. 134
The Literature of the American People: An Historical and Critical Survey By Arthur Hobson Quinn Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of John Greenleaf Whittier begins on p. 347
FREE! Poets of America By Edmund Clarence Stedman Houghton, Mifflin, 1892 (11th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "John Greenleaf Whittier"
Cyclopedia of World Authors By Dayton Kohler; Frank N. Magill Harper & Row, 1958
Librarian’s tip: "John Greenleaf Whittier" begins on p. 1154
A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1850s in America By Robert L. Gale Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of John Greenleaf Whittier begins on p. 419
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