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Snowbound With Mr Whittier

 

Whittier Home in AMesbury, MA / SeacoastNH.com

"It goes and goes, and now, today, we are bankrupt again, not a one being in crib. I fear it will be impossible to get along without printing another batch."

"Snow-Bound" sold 10,000 copies over the next few weeks and double that by mid-summer and that was just the beginning. With his 10-cent royalty per book, starving artist John Greenleaf Whittier was, at long last, a bestselling author. Future books of verse, including hundreds of his older poems, continued the trend.

Fame nourished Whittier through his elder years, but the demands of his ever-expanding public weighed heavily on "the hermit of Amesbury" as his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dubbed him. Hundreds of letters and requests for autographs and favors poured in. Curious fans knocked on his door, breaking his concentration. He was shocked when an anonymous woman arrived at his doorstep requesting a lock of his hair, and told a colleague that he preferred chopping wood to talking about poetry with strangers.

Entranceway to Whittier's Amesbury House/ SeacoastNH.com

These intimate details become even more dramatic inside the Whittier House itslef. Here, a tour guide points out, is the hole in the door where Whittier’s red African parrot Charley flitted from room to room. Upstairs is the "original recliner" that was presented to the poet by philanthropist George Peabody, where Whittier loved to read, write and doze. Hanging in the stairway is a portrait of the eccentric Harriet Livermore, a religious zealot with a wild temper who makes an appearance in "Snow-Bound" as "the not unfeared, half-welcome guest". Visitors see the bed where Elizabeth died still covered in a hand-sewn bedspread bearing the date 1837. On the wall nearby hangs an ornamental wreath that Elizabeth braided from human hair in memory of her mother.

"Through this door," our guide says pointing toward the downstairs entrance where a large white bust of the poet stares out from an alcove, "passed 5,000 mourners who viewed Mr. Whittier’s body as it lay in state here."

It is impossible not to picture the dead poet with his signature gray beard stretched out half-way across the room beside the green ottoman and between the huge portraits of his late mother and sister. Nothing has changed here in the Victorian sitting room either. And around the corner, in what was the poet’s bedroom, a plaster death mask of Whittier’s face and hands float eerily inside a glass-covered case.

Beloved for poems about Barbara Frietchie and her flag ("Shoot, if you must, this old gray head") and the "Barefoot boy with cheeks of tan", Whittier died a superstar. Besides Quaker and anti-slavery verse, he loved to tell dramatic tales of witches, shipwrecks, ghosts and devils. Many of these poems were drawn from the rich canon of folklore that still attracts visitors to coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Romantic Victorian poets have grown increasingly out of style. Yet his fading fame, in many ways, helped keep the Whittier Home intact. In 1898, soon after the poet’s death, an association of local women stepped in to preserve the building and its contents as a literary shrine. Since everything, for them, was equally precious, Whittier’s home was essentially hermetically sealed, like the world beneath the surface in "Snow-Bound". It has survived unchanged for a century.

Today the members of the Whittier Home Association still hold meetings with tea, as they have since the organization was formalized in 1916. They are working to adapt the collection, the property, its gardens and backyard "summer kitchen" to meet modern museum standards – but without changing the unique and intimate quality of the poet’s home. That would certainly please John Greenleaf Whittier. Remembering the past, he discovered while writing "Snow-Bound" in his sheltered Amesbury room, is forever connected to the present.

VISIT THE HOUSE
Whittier Home
86 Friend Street
Amesbury, MA 01913
Open May 1 – October 31
10 am to 4 pm
Winter by appointment.

To see the actual location of Snow-Bound visit
Whittier Family Homestead
305 Whittier Road
Haverhill, MA
978-373-3979

Writer J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the regional Internet portal SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of "Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel" and is currently writing a history of Strawbery Banke Museum. He recently completed juvenile biographies of outlaw Jesse James and Maryland founder Cecil Calvert.

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