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The Second Death of John Greenleaf Whittier

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.

 

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