The Second Death of John Greenleaf Whittier
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.


Whittier_Study_in_Amesbury/ J. Dennis Robinson

Mourning the master

On September 10, 1892, Amesbury was draped in black. Church bells rang and schools closed. After viewing Whittier’s corpse, members of the funeral party filed into the back garden. Portsmouth poet Celia Thaxter was among the grieving members of the crowd, as was author Sarah Orne Jewett of South Berwick. An astonishing photograph shows them squeezed in among hundreds of mourners who filled every inch of the garden for the memorial service.

It was James T. Fields of Portsmouth, later a successful Boston publisher, who made Whittier wealthy. An editor and staunch abolitionist in his early years, Whittier didn’t become a bestselling author until “Snow-Bound” appeared at the end of the Civil War, turning him into the Victorian equivalent of a rock star. An enthusiastic traveler, Whittier often visited the White Mountains and the Isles of Shoals.

As an advocate of women’s rights, he mentored a host of female writers including Annie Fields, Edna Dean Proctor, Lucy Larcom, as well as Ms. Thaxter and Ms. Jewett. He pushed them to become published poets in a male dominated field. He corresponded with them, encouraged them, and critiqued their work. It was Whittier who, as early as 1864, was pressing Celia Thaxter to write her most enduring work, Among the Isles of Shoals. And Whittier, in turn, transformed many of the local legends he learned from Celia into popular poems about devils, witches, and ghosts.

Whittier’s folksy poems of rural family life, both moral and patriotic, became especially poignant as America throttled forward into the hi-tech twentieth century. His nostalgic tales of “Tenting on the Beach” in Hampton, or stopping by a South Berwick spring for a drink of fresh water were reminders of simpler less hectic days. School children memorized his poems. Monuments and plaques appeared in towns throughout New England where Whittier set his poems.



Trending downward

In 1907, on the centennial of his birth and 15 years after his death, John Greenleaf Whittier was still a popular figure. Amesbury, Haverhill, Newburyport, Boston, and other cities including Whittier, California held elaborate memorial ceremonies. Booker T. Washington, the African American author of Up from Slavery was the keynote speaker in Amesbury. Although unable to attend the celebration, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to express his own “peculiar affection and reverence for the Quaker poet.”

Despite two wonderful historic house museums, we are losing Whittier again. His reputation is dying and his name increasingly evokes a cocked head and a curious stare. He is often confused with his graybeard contemporaries Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, both of whom enjoy more respect from scholars and teachers of American literature.

A quick look at Google sets the sad scene. Google Trends tracks and compares the frequency of words searched by users from 2004 to the present. Horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is six times more popular than Henry David Thoreau (On Walden Pond) and Nathaniel Hawthorn (The Scarlet Letter). The Beatles, by comparison, are three times more popular than Poe. But airheaded socialite Paris Hilton is five times more popular than the Beatles in Google searches these days. And how does John Greenleaf Whittier compare? There are not enough searches on Whittier in the last decade, according to Google, to generate any statistics at all. The “immortality” that his eulogists promised in 1892 is slipping away.

Whittier_Amesbury_Home / J. Dennis Robinson photo

The End is Near

It will be a shame to lose Whittier again. What fame remains is often focused on his role as an abolitionist long before the Civil War, his deep-set moral principles, and his support of women’s rights and writing. But his strong rural American voice still resonates in his poems. Many of them are highly readable and entertaining today since Whittier was a simple poet of the common man. In one ballad, Gen. Jonathan Moulton of Hampton, NH attempts to trick the devil out of his gold. In “The New Wife and the Old,” Moulton’s dead wife appears beneath his bed to grab her wedding ring away from his new bride.

And let’s not forget that we owe Whittier special attention because he died right here in the New Hampshire seacoast. Too weak to travel far, even to the Isles of Shoals, the elderly Whittier vacationed close to Amesbury in the summer of 1892. He stayed at a Georgian-style estate called Elmfield in Hampton Falls, NH. Like Whittier, the owners of the home were Quakers who could trace their American ancestry to the mid-1600s.

From his simple room on the second floor Whittier had a view of the gardens, the marsh and the distant beach. He often sat in a wooden rocker on a small balcony reading. He wrote his last poem here at age 84. A final photograph shows him on the balcony, a tiny figure drinking in his last view of the seacoast scenery.

Whittier did not become truly famous until he was in his mid-50s. Shy by nature and imbued with simple Quaker ways, he maintained a love-hate relationship with his growing fan club. Although he basked in their attention, the aging bachelor was discomforted by aggressive autograph hounds and constant requests for private meetings, speeches, dedicated poems, loans, contributions and even locks of his hair. Hampton Falls was the ideal hideaway.

While at Elmfield Whittier happily announce to the other guests that he had managed to elude his pesky “pilgrims” for almost three weeks. He was unaware, when he suffered a stroke in early September that a reporter from the Boston Globe was hiding in the bushes outside the Hampton Falls house.  At the moment of the poet’s death a nurse signaled the reporter by placing a lamp in the bedroom window.


Whittier_portrait at Amesbury Home museum / J. Deenis Robinson photo



Death in Hampton Falls

Samuel T. Pickard, related to Whittier by marriage and his literary executor, tells a wonderfully creepy tale from the poet’s last days. Whittier, the story goes, was last to dinner one night at Elmfield where a dozen guests were already seated. Thirteen visitors at one table was considered bad luck, so Whittier’s niece Elizabeth, Pickard’s wife, moved her plate to a small table In the corner of the room.

“Why, Lizzie, what has thee been doing that they put thee in the corner?” Whittier said jokingly in Quaker style as he entered the room and sat at the large table.

Then another guest arrived unexpectedly and took the thirteenth position at the table. Without explanation, the Pickard’s son Greenleaf, moved quickly to sit with his mother, but the curse was cast. Whittier suffered his stroke the next day while dressing, and never dined with the guests again.  When he walked up the stairs to his room for the last time, Pickard adds, an old clock struck once as he passed it. The clock had not sounded for years and, despite their efforts, no one at Elmfield was able to make it chime again.

Whittier’s last whispered words reportedly were “I love all the world”. On the morning before his death, attended by three physicians, Whittier gestured weakly in protest when the nurse tried to lower the window shade.  It was his final sunrise. He died on September 6, 1892 -- making this year the 120th anniversary of his death.  Before her own death two years later, Celia Thaxter called Whittier “America’s greatest lyric poet” who was “as strong as truth itself.”

Despite rumors that the poet was buried in New Hampshire, Whittier rests in the Quaker section of Union Cemetery in Amesbury. As many as 2,000 pilgrims a day came looking for his grave following the funeral. The simple rounded gravestone reads “Here Whittier Lies.” His is the tallest in a row of stones of family members. His sister and mother are buried to the right of the poet’s headstone.  Whittier’s niece Elizabeth and biographer Samuel Pickard are buried to the left.

The mansion called Elmfield, like Whittier, has left New Hampshire. Despite efforts to preserve the historic colonial-style house, it was sold in 1996. The new owners disassembled the building and moved it to Greenwich, Connecticut.


SOURCES: Whittier-Land by Samuel T. Pickard (1904) and John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography by Roland H. Woodwell (1985). A new DVD of Whittier’s life is available from the Whittier House in Amesbury and the Whittier Homestead in Haverhill. Also look for a new children’s version of “The Barefoot Boy” illustrated by Lisa Greenleaf and Celebrating Whittier, a new book edited by Pamela Johnson Fenner.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.