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The Second Death of John Greenleaf Whittier

Whittier_cemeteryHISTORY MATTERS

John Greenleaf Whittier is dying -- again. When he died the first time in 1892 Whittier was an American idol, one of the best-read most-loved poets in the nation. The author of “Snow-Bound” and “Barbara Fritchie” and “Maud Muller” and “The Barefoot Boy” was a household name. But that famous name, like the romantic poetry of his era, is fading fast.  (Continued below)



An estimated 5,000 mourners passed by Whittier’s open coffin in the parlor of his home  on Friend Street near the Quaker church in Amesbury, Massachusetts. The room is just as he left it.  His wire-rimmed glasses and ink bottle still lie on the tiny dropleaf desk that seems too small for the lanky 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.

Tea at Mr. Whittier’s

John_Greenleaf_Whittier“The wallpaper and carpeting were installed in 1847,” a guide at the Whittier Home tells us. We have come, my wife and I, to talk about Whittier’s deep connection to the New Hampshire seacoast and the Isles of Shoals.

“Mr. Whittier liked to lie down on that couch for a little nap,” the guide tells us. “But he always left his hat near the side door so that he could slip out if he saw someone coming.”

Few American literary shrines feel more authentic. Whittier’s walking stick and boots are propped behind an ornamented Victorian wood stove. There is no escaping the feeling that the once popular New England abolitionist, newspaper 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.

The “ladies” of the Whittier House don’t have meetings, they have teas. We were supposed to give our talk in the garden that had been meticulously groomed for the event. But rain and thunder forced as many as 50 guests to squeeze into the largest of the small rooms in what is now a museum. The ladies had sett up a picture-perfect table of cucumber sandwiches and cookies on silver trays in what was once the bedroom of Whittier’s mother. The bachelor poet lived 53 years in the Amesbury house, nursing his mother and sister whose portraits still hang on the walls. Whittier was born in nearby Haverhill where the beautifully pastoral Whittier Homestead has also been preserved as amuseum.


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