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The Second Death of John Greenleaf Whittier

 

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.

 

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