American Literature John Greenleaf Whittier
David Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0169


John Greenleaf Whittier (b. 1807–d. 1892) was a major 19th-century American poet, best known for his anti-slavery poetry, his activism, his regional poetry, his religious poetry, and his interest in New England folklore. He is known as one of the 19th century’s so-called fireside poets. Two conditions of his childhood are often seen as central to his later life as a poet: being raised as a Quaker and growing up on an isolated farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts. As a young man, he put himself through school at the Haverhill Academy. Inspired by various popular poets of the period, Whittier published widely in the periodical press, worked as a newspaper editor, and got involved as a National Republican in politics before becoming committed to antislavery action in his mid-twenties. From 1833–1865 he was known mostly as an antislavery activist and poet, though not all of his poetry in this period was related to slavery. His background in politics helped to make him a particularly savvy participant in the increasingly popular antislavery parties of the 1840s and 1850s. After the civil war, he had great success as a poet on the strength of his long narrative poem Snow-Bound. Since his death, he has never fully regained his canonical status, though he found new life as a “schoolroom poet” in the first half of the 20th century. Only Snow-Bound has received the kind of varied detailed critical attention some authors have enjoyed with many of their works. Recent critical work has offered new insights into his reception, complicating the traditional view of an abolitionist who settled later in life into more genteel literary work. In general, literary criticism of Whittier since his death has continued to shift the poet’s reputation and change his place in the landscape of American studies.

General Overviews

Many of the critical overviews of Whittier’s work take a partly biographical approach, though they can still be distinguished from the critical biographies. Most of the overviews contain a strong evaluative element, not only discussing Whittier’s achievement but assessing the terms on which it should be celebrated. Parrington 1927 anticipates many later 20th-century criticisms of Whittier. Warren 1971, Arms 1953, and Pickard 1961 all concede a great deal to the dominant 20th-century view that there are many limits to Whittier’s accomplishment. Scott 1934, Arms 1953, Leary 1961, and Miller 1968 all acknowledge the context that his reputation has dimmed as 19th-century aesthetics came to seem outmoded. Scott 1934, Cohen 2015, Miller 1968, and Warren 1971 seek to distinguish Whittier on various grounds from the other fireside poets. Leary 1961, Scott 1934, Wineapple 2004, and Cohen 2015 seek to dispel the prejudices against his period that is still the lens through which Whittier is often viewed. Kennedy 1892, Warren 1971, and Wineapple 2004 place the antislavery poetry at the center of Whittier’s achievement. Despite having been published so long ago, Wagenknecht 1967, Pickard 1961, and Leary 1961 remain useful full-length overviews for contemporary readers. In different ways, the shorter overviews such as Wineapple 2004, Irmscher 2015, and Cohen 2015 reveal the importance of Whittier to 21st-century readers.

  • Arms, George. The Fields Were Green: A New View of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow; with a Selection of their Poems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1953.

    This work is both an anthology and an overview of Whittier and his contemporaries. Like many who offer overviews of the poet’s work, Arms describes Whittier’s achievement in the context of his limitations as a poet. His view that Whittier manages only in a few poems to bring together a fit structure, a complex view of character, and control of narrative technique is then reflected in Arms’s strategy of analyzing closely only a few of Whittier’s poems, including Snow-Bound.

  • Cohen, Michael C. “Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and the New England Tradition.” In The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Edited by Alfred Bendixon and Stephen Burt, 259–281. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Cohen shows how Whittier’s poetry occupied the very different cultural space assigned to poetry in the 19th century. He also examines how the circulation and cultural function of his poems shifted as he moved from his antislavery poetry to Snow-Bound. Cohen thus complicates the traditional distinction between the two styles of Whittier’s poetry by showing how that distinction grew out of historically conditioned reading practices.

  • Irmscher, Christoph. “The Fire this Time: Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Poets. Edited by Mark Richardson, 47–60. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCO9781316403532.005

    Points out that despite the Longfellow revival, Whittier remains one of the fireside poets who still “languish[es] in the bottom drawers of literary history” (p. 49). Irmscher focuses on Whittier’s declining years but links them to his earlier antislavery activism. Whittier becomes for Irmscher the most vivid proof that for the fireside poets “it is not poetry that matters, but life” (p. 55). In this context, he gives some welcome critical attention to Whittier’s late poem “Burning Drift-Wood.”

  • Kennedy, William Sloane. John G. Whittier: The Poet of Freedom. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1892.

    By the author of an 1882 biography published in Whittier’s lifetime, this charmingly written study places Whittier’s antislavery poems at the center of his achievement. Kennedy usefully contextualizes Whittier’s participation in the antislavery movement and considers some poems rarely considered over the next 125 years.

  • Leary, Lewis. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Twayne, 1961.

    This study is divided between biography and criticism. The critical half is subdivided in parts dealing with his general achievement, his antislavery poetry, his poems of legend and lore, and his nature poems/democratic pastorals, including Snow-Bound. Leary’s book includes a brief but useful annotated bibliography.

  • Miller, Perry. “John Greenleaf Whittier: The Conscience in Poetry.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 50 (1968): 128–142.

    Like so many pieces, this article offers a commentary on what Whittier can mean to the 20th century. Miller makes Whittier himself the source of critical misinterpretations of him as innocently simple. He also examines the complexities of Whittier’s political engagement. Miller concludes that 19th-century didacticism rescued Whittier from a “tepid Byronism” and examines how his Quaker conscience enabled and channeled his ferocity as a prophet and poet.

  • Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the beginnings to 1930. Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.

    Illustrating how Whittier became a foil in the reconfiguring of the 19th-century literary canon, Parrington holds that Whittier was a throwback to previous eras in a variety of respects. Parrington’s judgment is not entirely negative, however; he names Whittier “the last authentic echo of the spiritual democracy of the seventeenth century” (p. 362).

  • Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961.

    Written by the foremost Whittier scholar of the 20th century, Pickard’s study subdivides its treatment of Whittier’s works by genre. He argues that Whittier’s antislavery commitment both distracted him from and propelled him toward his true calling as a poet of more universal themes. Of particular interest is the fifth chapter, which offers a reading of Whittier’s poetic theory and practice that reconciles his Quakerism with his love of beauty.

  • Scott, Winfield Townley. “Poetry in American: A New Consideration of Whittier’s Verse.” New England Quarterly 7 (June 1934): 258–275.

    DOI: 10.2307/359899

    Scott gives an overview of his career, accomplishments, and influences. His piece is representative of the attempts to restore Whittier’s fading reputation in the mid-20th century. Scott distinguishes Whittier from many of his contemporaries who are commonly lumped together in the same category. He finds Whittier more earth bound and more fully realist than the other fireside poets. He largely ignores Whittier’s antislavery poetry.

  • Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    This study evaluates Whittier and recounts his life through the prism of his character and tastes, the conflict between his ambitions and his principles, his political evolution, his practice as a critic, theorist, and poet, his pacifism, and his religious views. His poetry is used as evidence for the account of his life. Wagenknecht ends his study with an idiosyncratic but useful bibliography.

  • Warren, Robert Penn. “John Greenleaf Whittier: Poetry as Experience.” In John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection. By Robert Penn Warren, 3–62. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

    Though marred by an unfortunate New Critical contempt for Whittier’s period, this overview is nonetheless valuable as an illustration of how a major 20th-century literary figure could esteem Whittier’s contribution. Warren’s study breaks through the false dichotomy between Whittier’s poetic commitment and his antislavery poetry by claiming that Whittier only truly became a poet, paradoxically, by subordinating his literary career to antislavery, which freed him from “the ‘poetical’ notion of poetry” (p. 33).

  • Wineapple, Brenda. “Introduction.” In John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems. Edited by Brenda Wineapple, xi–xxvii. New York: Library of America, 2004.

    This overview of Whittier’s career traces the writer’s own experience as a reader of Whittier. Giving a biographical account that focuses on Whittier’s intellectual development in his childhood and youth, she links his origins as a rustic poet with the “forceful immediacy” of his later antislavery poetry. With the support of Whitman’s evolving view of the poet over the years, Wineapple makes a strong case for the appeal of Whittier to 21st-century readers.

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