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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #137 
June 8, 2012

What a pleasure to get back to John Greenleaf Whittier’s House in Amesbury, just about my favorite literary shrine. Maryellen and I were called to pinch hit as guest speakers for the annual “garden tea.” For the ladies of the house that means finger sandwiches, fancy cookies, tea cups, fine china – the whole nine yards. It rained and thundered at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon, so we never got to enjoy the finely manicured back yard where hundreds of funeral guests gathered just 120 years ago. It was standing room only in the meeting room where we did something we’ve never done before. (Continued below)


I’ve performed a couple hundred history lectures and Maryellen speaks at functions weekly, but in 10 years of marriage, we’ve never spoken in the same room at the same time to the same group. Maryellen described it as a “Burns & Allen” presentation as we passed the narrative back and forth, interrupting and correcting each other where necessary.

The house remains very much as Whittier left it. His hat is still on his desk, spread with books written by his famous friends, his clothes in the closet, his boots by the stove. The carpeting and wallpaper haven’t changed since the Fireside Poet installed them in 1847. Harriet Livermore (a Portsmouth woman featured in the poem “Snow-Bound”) and her lost fiancé are still hanging in the hallway near sister Lizzie’s bedroom. Whittier’s downstairs bedroom is now the “research room” and his ailing mother’s bedroom by the front door was set up with dishes for tea. Whittier’s death mask is displayed in a box a few feet from where 4,000 mourners passed in 1892 to view his mortal remains. There’s a new bust of the poet in the central hall that is eerily larger than life. A candle burns nearby.

John Greenleaf Whittier bust /

Whittier's study in Amesbury /

A few items have been moved in the last decade. Whittier handmade lounge chair is now downstairs in “the museum room” hung with portraits of the poet, his brother, mother, and sister. Celia’s photo is there too. The two writers were very close, Celia filled Whittier’s head with exciting stories of seacoast lore, and he in turn, pushed her to publish her romantic tales in what became her prose classic AMONG THE ISLES OF SHOALS. It was published as a book in 1873, but I was surprised to discover that Whittier had been prodding Celia to publish in the Atlantic as early as 1864. When Celia’s marriage to Levi Thaxter began to falter, the bachelor Quaker comforted her.

I would love to write a book about Whittier. It has long been high on my list. He is fading, I fear, from even local memory, and could use a booster shot. Thre is much to say about the man – abolitionist, literary rock star, advocate of women’s rights – but I fear the chance may never come to spend the dedicated year or more it takes to write a nonfiction history book. My clock too is running down, but hope springs eternal.

At least we know the house is being cared for by a devoted group of fans. If you’re ever down Amesbury way, you must knock on the door. The poet is no longer in, but it looks as if he just stepped out.


Maryellen Burke lectures at Whittier House /

Audience at Whittier House in Amesbury MA /

Afternoon tea at the Whittier House in Amesbury /

AFternoon tea at the Whittier House in Amesbury, MA /

Copyright (c) 2012



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