Biographical / Historical
John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He was the son of John Whittier and Abigail Hussey Whittier, Quaker farmers, and began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. William Lloyd Garrison published Whittier’s first poem in 1826 and persuaded his parents to send him to Haverhill Academy for two terms. His poetry, influenced by Byron, Burns, and Wadsworth, was well-received, and he also edited several New England newspapers and served one term in the Massachusetts legislature.
In 1833, Whittier published a tract proposing immediate and unconditional emancipation of slaves. He became a leading abolitionist, writing poems and essays supporting anti-slavery, lecturing, and editing newspapers. Believing that the anti-slavery movement needed a political vehicle, he helped found the Liberty Party in 1839 and supported the efforts of Massachusetts legislators to influence decisions in Washington, D.C.
Poor health forced his retirement after 1840 to a house in Amesbury, Mass., where his poetry focused on New England rural life and traditions. In particular, his poems “Snow Bound” and “Tent on the Beach” were critical and financial successes, and he was widely accepted as a major American poet. His poetry focused on religious and moral themes, but was not encumbered by theological issues; he appealed to both Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers, combining Quaker quietism with a respect for the Bible. In 1881, he was awarded an LL.D. from Harvard, and he died September 7, 1892.