The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIII. Whittier

§ 1. Quaker Ancestry and Nurture

IT was in 1638, when the great Puritan emigration to Massachusetts was beginning to slacken, that Thomas Whittier, a youth of eighteen, possibly of Huguenot extraction, landed in New England and made a home for himself on the shores of the Merrimac River. The substantial oak farmhouse which, late in life, he erected for his large family near Haverhill, is still standing. Descended from him in the fourth generation, John Greenleaf Whittier, the poet, was born in this house, 17 December, 1807. This is the homestead described with minute and loving fidelity in Snow-Bound, and it is typical of the many thousands of its sort that dotted the New England country-side, rearing in the old Puritan tradition a sturdy pioneer stock that was to blossom later in the fine flower of political and ethical passion, of statesmanship and oratory and letters. Though Whittier’s family tree was originally Puritan, a Quaker scion was grafted upon it in the second American generation, when Joseph Whittier, the youngest son of the pioneer, married Mary Peaslee, whose father had been an associate and disciple of George Fox. The descendants in this line remained faithful to the doctrines of the Society of Friends, and the poet, although he persisted in the characteristic and quaint (although ungrammatical) use of the second person singular pronoun in address, found the principle of non-resistance something of a strain in the days when his fondest hopes were bound up in the holy cause for which his friends were bearing arms and laying down their lives upon the battle-field.

  • The levelled gun, the battle brand
  • We may not take,
  • But, calmly loyal, we can stand
  • And suffer for our suffering land
  • For conscience’ sake.
  • The temperament of the New England Quaker was not unlike that of the New England Puritan. The one could be as cantankerous as the other, on occasion, but when the early Puritan intolerance of the sect had been smoothed away, the Quaker was found to be a man whose ideals were essentially those of the founders of Massachusetts, contributing to those ideals his own element of kindly sympathy, his own insistence upon the dignity of the individual, and his own uncompromising spirit of democracy. These traits were permanently stamped upon Whittier’s character, and all rested upon a foundation of unshakable faith in the spiritual order of the world. Christianity has perhaps never assumed a purer or lovelier guise than it took in the lives of those New England Quakers of whom Whittier was the type.

    The life of the household in which the poet grew to manhood is reproduced in Snow-Bound with a fidelity which makes of that poem, for its truthfulness and sincerity, one of the imperishable things in American literature—a document whose significance is becoming fully apparent only now that the phase of life it describes has all but vanished from American life, whether in New England or elsewhere. The home which Snow-Bound describes was a comfortable one, as New England farmsteads went, and, in poetical retrospect, its gracious human aspects are raised to a prominence which somewhat obscures the hard facts of the daily life of the household. It was a life of toil, with meagre opportunities for recreation, and the young Whittier did not have the constitution needed for its requirements. The physical disabilities under which he laboured all his life were doubtless traceable to the hardships of these early years on the farm.

    Whittier had but little education of the formal sort. There were sessions of the district school for a few weeks every year, and these he attended off and on. In his twentieth year, an academy was opened in Haverhill, and in this institution he was enrolled as a student for two terms, earning the money to pay for his tuition. Meanwhile, he had been acquiring the best kind of education by devouring every book that he could lay his hands on, including the few on the family shelf—mostly the writings of pious Quakers—and

  • The Bible towering o’er the rest,
  • Of all other books the best.
  • One evening the district school teacher, Joshua Coffin, brought to the house a volume of Burns, and read from it to the family. This reading was a revelation to the boy of fourteen, who eagerly sought permission to keep the book for a while. The Scotch poet aroused in him the poetical stirrings which were to occupy his mind from that time on, and marked an epoch in the intellectual development of his boyhood. It was Burns, as he confessed many years later, who made him see
  • through all familiar things
  • The romance underlying;
  • The joys and griefs that plume the wings
  • Of Fancy skyward flying,
  • and so shaped his imaginings that he became, in a more exact sense than is usually connoted by such literary analogies, the Burns of his own New England country.