Monday, March 24, 2014

John Greenleaf Whittier: Quaker Abolitionist Poet

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Who was John Greenleaf Whittier?  For residents of Southern California, he is "the guy the city of Whittier is named after."  But for readers in 19th century New England, he was much more than that.  He was born on a farm near Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1807 to a Quaker family.  Quakers in New England were a sometimes persecuted minority, and young John grew up with a sense that he was different from his neighbors.  

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Though born into relative poverty, he befriended noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as a young man, who encouraged him to get an education.  Eventually he did, and went on to a career that included politics, abolitionism, and literature.  In his lifetime, he became a beloved poet, and a well-known opponent of slavery.  In 1833, he published an abolitionist manifesto called Justice and Expediency, in which he blended his Quaker faith and social justice.  He called for: "Immediate abolition of slavery; an immediate acknowledgement of the great truth, that man cannot hold property in man; an immediate surrender of baneful prejudice to Christian love; an immediate practical obedience to the command of Jesus Christ: 'Whatsoever ye would that man should do unto you, do ye even so to them.'"

Future generations, however, would remember Whittier more for his poetry than his politics or social views.  In his poetry, he focused on American village and rural life, and he struggled with "how to be true to the occasional beauty of rural life without portraying it in the sentimental manner that prevailed at the time."  In representing life poetically, he didn't want to be cheesy or overly-sentimental.  He wanted to capture things as they are, as he experienced them growing up on a small Quaker farm in Massachusetts.

Perhaps his most famous poem of this kind is "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," in which Whittier reflects upon and portrays a scene from his youth, in the small cabin where he grew up, in the winter.  It is a beautiful poem of memory, community, simplicity, and the power of storytelling.  My filmmaker friend Steve once said that movies are our modern-day fireplaces.  What he meant is that, back before television and radio, human beings used to sit around fireplaces and tell stories about their lives.  This tradition goes back thousands of years, and it is something that has largely been lost in our age of mass communication, or has been replaced by television and films.

Whittier's poem was written before these modern media, and it is about a group of family and friends sitting around a fireplace in a small house in Massachusetts, in winter.  The fireplace becomes a kind of sanctuary in the midst of the storm outside, and an important way for people to creatively understand their lives.  It is much more participatory than staring at screens.  It is how human communities interacted and took solace for generations.  Whittier writes:

What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its show
Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow.

The fireplace provides both a literal protection from the elements, and a metaphorical/spiritual protection from the difficulties of life.  Story-telling is important in this way:

"We sped the time with stories old,
Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told."

Each person, young and old, takes turns telling stories, from the educated local schoolmaster, to the uneducated uncle, whose folktales are perhaps equally important:

"Our uncle, innocent of books,
But rich in lore of fields and brooks."

The more educated schoolmaster speaks of current events.  The poem was written in 1866, just after the Civil War ended, and the local teacher is an abolitionist (as was Whittier):

"Large-brained, clear-eyed--of such as he
Shall Freedom's young apostles be,
Who, following in War's bloody trail,
Shall every lingering wrong assail,
All chains from limb and spirit strike,
Uplift the black and white alike."

When taken in its historical context, Whittier's poem is more than just a nostalgic "idyl."  It is perhaps a  call for brotherly love, for human communities to sit around hearth-fires and tell each other stories.  America was tremendously traumatized by the Civil War, and perhaps Whittier is suggesting that storytelling can be a healing act, that it can provide shelter and solace from the storms of nature and of life.

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