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A Truncated Version of Whittier

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Edited by John B. Pickard. Harvard. 3 volumes. $75.00.

In the light of current pactice in editing, Mr. Pickard’s first two volumes of Whittier’s letters meet all the tests, which is to say that he has treated the text as a scripture. He has not let the merest printed notice of an antislavery or Liberty Party meeting or any report of an ephemeral crisis in reform or a single proclamation delivered to Garrison, Sumner, or Cushing rest quietly in oblivion. He has dredged up everything in the stream of time bearing the name “Whittier,” and he has footnoted everything that could be footnoted, even the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. In addition, Mr. Pickard has furnished introductions to the various periods of Whittier’s life, which are detailed and authoritative.

Had Mr. Pickard been editing the letters of Hawthorne, which still await publication, such industry and devotion would have produced books which are their own excuse for being. But Whittier, the abolitionist and spokesman for emancipation through political action, only claims attention by his historical importance. Unlike several of his lesser colleagues in reform (I think particularly of that splendid writer, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers), Whittier’s is the cliche-ridden rhetoric of the sermon, the editorial, and the political diatribe. His 200 or more letters to the press seem to have been written by the Spirit of Reform and Moral Indignation with little interference by Whittier himself. Characteristically, he tells us rather than shows us. He announces ex cathedra that Samuel Houston, then president of Texas, is “the ruffian and drunken blasphemer who acts as president” (1:551) and that Walden is “capital reading but very wicked and heathenish” (11:267). Such a temperament inevitably found few excuses, few mitigating circumstances for the slave owner, and the Civil War had to intervene before Whittier could demonstrate imagination and compassion for those on the other side, such as the Confederate poet, Paul Hamilton Hayne, whose poems he helped get published in Boston.

As early as 1839 Whittier was privately “getting heartily tired of the whole thing,” that is, “this everlasting ding-dong about “sacrifices” and “trials” and “martyrs” and all that” (1:344). Ten years later his weariness was even more evident: “I feel a growing disinclination to pen and ink. Over-worked and tired by the long weary years of the anti-slavery struggle, I want mental rest” (11:138). But Whittier must not be misunderstood. In 1868, when he rivalled Longfellow as national poet laureate, he wrote Celia Thaxter that he didn’t believe “in anybody’s making literature the great aim of life” (111:171). One year after “Snow-Bound” had apparently sealed his fate as the New England poet, he wrote the editor of the Nation that he thanked Divine Providence for saving him from “the poor ambitions and miserable jealousies of a selfish pursuit of literary reputation” (111:149). But if Whittier thus made his own first ambition service of God and the neighbor, his polemics may have had more to do with his poetry than he realized. In his brilliant critical study of Whittier’s poetry, Robert Penn Warren gets to the heart of the matter: “What I have been saying is that by repudiating poetry Whittier became a poet. His image of knocking Pegasus on the head tells a deeper truth than he knew; by getting rid of the “poetical” notion of poetry, he was able, eventually, to ground his poetry on experience.”

For those interested in this development Mr. Pickard’s volume III will be a disappointment. Instead of printing all available letters as in volumes I and II, he now furnishes a selection of only one eighth of Whittier’s correspondence for the last 30 years of his life. Perhaps the scholar of abolition will want every extant letter from Whittier’s antislavery years.

Must this result in such a truncated version of Whittier and his increasing skill not only as poet but as prose writer? Have we in Mr. Pickard’s work a well balanced edition of Whittier’s letters? I expect that it is Volume III which will be primarily read by students and the general public, for here is often the delightful precursor of Robert Frost as depicter of New England, inner and outer, but few readers of American literature will be satisfied. They will believe that Mr, Pickard and Harvard University Press should have made room for more of Whittier’s 4500 letters written between 1861 and 1892 either by cutting back on the earlier letters or significantly expanding the pages allotted to an important and still impressive poet.


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