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Snowbound With Mr Whittier


A snowstorm can be threatening or a snowstorm can be peaceful. For John Greenleaf Whittier it was also profitable. His pastoral poem about a family farm hidden under a blanket of snow became his first bestseller. This childhood memory earned enough to pay off his Amesbury, Mass home – today a museum.




SEE ALSO: Whittier in NH

A Victorian Home Frozen in Time

John Greenleaf Whittier’s writing parlor remains exactly as he left it when he died in 1892. His hat and glasses and ink bottle still lie on the tiny dropleaf desk that seems too small for the lanky Quaker poet. His precious books, many inscribed by the most famous English and American authors of his day are still in place, as are the portraits hung against the worn and somber wallpaper. His walking stick and boots are propped behind an ornamented Victorian wood stove. There is no escaping the feeling that the enormously popular New England abolitionist, editor and author is just about to step in from the hallway carrying a cup of tea, squeeze into his familiar alcove, and settle back to work.

"We had a scholar in here once who had been studying Mr. Whittier’s poetry for years," a former manager of the Whittier House museum in Amesbury, MA told me once. "The moment he walked in, he burst into tears. It was all so suddenly real for him, just being here among the worn rugs and old furniture."

Whittier in his Study

Whittier’s true fame, like some New England winters, arrived late and stayed long. By 1865, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody conclusion, the 57-year-old Whittier was best known for three decades of anti-slavery activism. Born and raised in Haverhill, he lived his last 56 years in the Amesbury house, never married, and provided for his elderly mother Abigail and sister Elizabeth and an aunt. The year before he wrote "Snow-Bound", his most famous poem, Whittier earned only a thousand dollars, not enough to pay taxes even in the 19th century.

Then everything changed. His aunt and mother died. Abraham Lincoln freed an enslaved race and was assassinated. When Eliza, his sister and closest friend, succumbed to a mysterious illness, Whittier was suddenly alone and, for months, he was unable to write. He returned to his favorite haunts in the New Hampshire mountains and visited his friend Celia Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals. Slowly, his hope and inspiration returned.


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