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John Greenleaf Whittier

1807–1892

An American poet and editor, John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The son of two devout Quakers, he grew up on the family farm and had little formal schooling. His first published poem, "The Exile's Departure," was published in William Lloyd Garrison's Newburyport Free Press in 1826. He then attended Haverhill Academy from 1827 to 1828, supporting himself as a shoemaker and schoolteacher. By the time he was twenty, he had published enough verse to bring him to the attention of editors and readers in the anti-slavery cause. A Quaker devoted to social causes and reform, Whittier worked passionately for a series of abolitionist newspapers and magazines. In Boston, he edited American Manufacturer and Essex Gazette before becoming editor of the important New England Weekly Review. Whittier was active in his support of National Republican candidates; he was a delegate in 1831 to the national Republican Convention in support of Henry Clay, and he himself ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.

His first book, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse, was published in 1831; from then until the Civil War, he wrote essays and articles as well as poems, almost all of which were concerned with abolition. In 1833 he wrote Justice and Expedience urging immediate abolition. In 1834 he was elected as a Whig for one term to the Massachusetts legislature; mobbed and stoned in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1835. He moved in 1836 to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society. During his tenure as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, in May 1838, the paper's offices burned to the ground and were sacked during the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall by a mob.

Whittier founded the anti-slavery Liberty party in 1840 and ran for Congress in 1842. In the mid-1850s he began to work for the formation of the Republican party; he supported presidential candidacy of John C. Frémont in 1856. He helped to found Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Although Whittier was close friends with Elizabeth Lloyd Howell, a fellow Quaker and poet, and considered marrying her, in 1859 he decided against it.

Whittier's verse gave unique expression to the ideas he valued. The Civil War inspired the famous poem, "Barbara Frietchie," in which the subject of the poem, an older woman, confronts a Confederate general. From 1865 until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; he became the most popular of the Fireside poets.

In 1866 he published his most popular work, Snow-Bound, which sold 20,000 copies. He was close friends with Frederick Douglass, and with the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and her companion Annie Fields. For his seventieth birthday dinner in 1877, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells attended. He died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892.

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