Whittier in New Hampshire
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Whittier in NH

He lived just beyond the Massachusetts border, but John Greenleaf Whittier had the soul of a New Hampshire man. Like many Victorian poets JGW explored the White Mountains, the NH lakes and the rocky Isles of Shoals. Whittier was even kind enough to die in the Granite State. We're proud to claim the popular poet as an almost native son.




READ: Whittier Died in NH

Undeniably a Massachusetts poet, threads of John Greenleaf Whittier's life are still very visible in New Hampshire politics and literature. The Whittier family farm, built in Haverhill in 1688, is just over the Merrimack River that divided the two colonies by royal British decree. Before he was born there in 1807, his father John, Whittier, a Quaker farmer and trader, had walked to the hills of New Hampshire and beyond. Greenleaf's father warned his talented son that poetry would not earn him bread, and for the most part, his father was right. Though he published his first poem in the local newspaper as a teenager, Whittier's national recognition and success didn't hit until he was in his 60s, when the rise of the Civil War brought his anti-slavery stance into the spotlight.

For much of the interim, Whittier was an editor, working for nearby North Shore papers in Haverhill, Newburyport and Essex where he also published his poetry. At age 27 he made a giant unpopular leap into the abolitionist cause by self-publishing a 23-page pamphlet calling for emancipation of black slaves on moral grounds. Soon, after an anti-slavery lecture in Plymouth, NH, he and English abolitionist George Thompson, were attacked by a mob in Concord, pelted with rotten and eggs and Whittier was wounded in the leg by a flying stone.

Often in ill health, Whittier tried to run the family farm after his father's death. When his brother moved to Dover, NH, Whittier sold the farm, moved his mother to Amesbury, MA and struck out for Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers and a center for abolitionist activity. He was on the scene when the newly-dedicated Pennsylvania Hall was trashed and burned by mobs, angry that anti-slavery meetings there had included blacks. Dressed in a borrowed wig and white coat to disguise himself, Whittier dashed into the burning building to save his poems and the abolitionist newspaper he was editing.

Unlike many whites who favored abolition from a safe distance, Whittier criss-crossed the eastern states inspecting slave-holding pens, housing, auction sites. He talked to southerners, wrote with journalistic accuracy and poetic passion, argued with Quaker Friends and anyone who would listen. He met with government leaders including the aged John Quincy Adams, current President Tyler, with opponent Henry Clay, with legislators, social groups, with blacks and whites. He advocated not just emancipation, but schooling, job assistance, equality, brotherhood and respect for African Americans. Frequently sickly while traveling, he wrote continuously, but his literary work earned him little and his finances were usually precarious.

To earn an income Whittier found himself back on the Merrimack as editor of a Lowell, MA newspaper at the rise of the giant mill culture. He watched the young women arriving in droves, free of the farm, but tied to long hours at hard labor. He documented the story from both sides, saw the birth of the suffrage movement, the rise of the manufacturing economy, and the early demise of traditional American family life.

As the slavery issue began to split the country, Whittier turned his literary rage and praise on two New Hampshire men. He lauded Dover's John P. Hale, the country's first anti-slavery Senator who fought the Annexation of Texas and the slavery "Gag Rule." He savaged Senator Daniel Webster in a poem titled "Ichabod" when the beloved orator came out in favor of the Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act.

The creation of Harper's Weekly in the 1850s gave Whittier a voice and an income as the Civil War loomed His Granite State poem "The Great Stone Face" had already appeared. Among his new material was a poem set just over the New Hampshire border in Maine. "Maude Muller's Spring" is still popular today.

A lifelong pacifist, Whittier supported Lincoln's war, but with deep sadness. He worried that, while the South was united in favor of slavery, the North was not of one mind. Most northerners, he said, were still not passionate on the slavery issue, and favored a united country over an emancipated one. It was at the height of the war in 1862 that Whittier, through his sister Elizabeth and his niece LIzzie, discovered the Isles of Shoals. Like Hawthorne, Emerson and others, Whittier would return again and again for the solace of the rocky islands and the artistic camaraderie of Celia Thaxter's salon. Ill, elderly, never married, now famous and very much alone, Whittier sat for hours watching Celia painting her teacups or walking through her garden on Appledore Island. With his sister and mother now dead, Whittier wrote to Celia, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Emily Dickinson, and other literary women.

Whittier was so shocked by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that he could not write a word on the subject. But out of the misery blossomed "Snow-Bound," nearly 800 lines in which he finally told the story of his youth and his family. It was an instant bestseller and a financial success.

But John Greenleaf Whittier wasn't finished with New Hampshire. He wrote of a shipwreck and a witch from Hampton in the poem "Wreck of Rivermouth." Then he bundled years of visits to the mountains there, the area his father had known before him, and produced a volume called "Among the Hills and Other Stories." The collected poems paint scenes in Ossipee, Holderness, Center Sandwich, Center Harbor and Intervale. Mt. Whittier in the Sandwich Mountains bears his name today.

At 70 John Greenleaf Whittier was a national hero with the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at birthday party. A new writer with only two names, Mark Twain, was also in attendance. Whittier kept up his voluminous correspondence and added a new favorite, Sarah Orne Jewett of South Berwick, Maine to his growing fan club. She was just into her 40s at the time and had yet to publish her most astonishing prose and poetry.

Until his death at age 84, Whittier traveled from the Amesbury house to his 600 acre Newburyport homestead at Oak Knoll, back to the hills of New Hampshire. After his brother and Longfellow died, he told his Portsmouth friend and Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich that he could not write again. But he did write again, right until the last.

Six hundred well-wishers attended his 84th birthday party. Whittier didn't visit his New Hampshire hills that summer, but early that fall he stopped by to see a relative and friends in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. He died at their home overlooking the Hampton marsh on September 7, 1892.

READ: More of Whittier’s NH Poems 

Primary source:
Mr. Whittier, A Biography by Elizabeth Gray Vining, Viking 1974

Copyright © 1998 SeacoastNH.com. Updated 2005.