Biography John Greenleaf Whittier
- Time Period1807 - 1892
- CountryUnited States
John Greenleaf Whittier was born to John and Abigail (Hussey) at their rural homestead near Haverhill, Massachusetts on December 17, 1807. He grew up on the farm in a household with his parents, a brother and two sisters, a maternal aunt and paternal uncle, and a constant flow of visitors and hired hands for the farm. Their farm was not very profitable. There was only enough money to get by. John himself was not cut out for hard farm labor and suffered from bad health and physical frailty his whole life. Although he received little formal education, he was an avid reader who studied his fathers six books on Quakerism until their teachings became the foundation of his ideology. Whittier was heavily influenced by the doctrines of his religion, particularly its stress on humanitarianism, compassion, and social responsibility.
Whittier was first introduced to poetry by a teacher. His sister sent his first poem, "The Exile's Departure", to the Newburyport Free Press without his permission and its editor, William Lloyd Garrison, published it on June 8, 1826. As a boy, it was discovered that Whittier was color-blind when he was unable to see a difference between ripe and unripe strawberries. Garrison as well as another local editor encouraged Whittier to attend the recently-opened Haverhill Academy. To raise money to attend the school, Whittier became a shoemaker for a time, and a deal was made to pay part of his tuition with food from the family farm. Before his second term, he earned money to cover tuition by serving as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in what is now Merrimac, Massachusetts. He attended Haverhill Academy from 1827 to 1828 and completed a high school education in only two terms.
Garrison gave Whittier the job of editor of the National Philanthropist, a Boston-based temperance weekly. Shortly after a change in management, Garrison reassigned him as editor of the weekly American Manufacturer in Boston. Whittier became an out-spoken critic of President Andrew Jackson, and by 1830 was editor of the prominent New England Weekly Review in Hartford, Connecticut, the most influential Whig journal in New England. In 1833 he published The Song of the Vermonters, 1779, which he had anonymously inserted in The New England Magazine. The poem was erroneously attributed to Ethan Allen for nearly sixty years.
One of his most enduring works, Snow-Bound, was first published in 1866. Whittier was surprised by its financial success, earning some $10,000 from the first edition. In 1867, Whittier asked James Thomas Fields to get him a ticket to a reading by Charles Dickens during the British author's visit to the United States. After the event, he wrote a letter describing his experience:
My eyes ached all next day from the intensity of my gazing. I do not think his voice naturally particularly fine, but he uses it with great effect. He has wonderful dramatic power... I like him better than any public reader I have ever before heard.
Whittier spent the last few winters of his life, from 1876 to 1892, at Oak Knoll, the home of his cousins in Danvers, Massachusetts. Whittier died on September 7, 1892, at a friend's home in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. He is buried in Amesbury, Massachusetts.