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Seventy Years of Whittier Biographies: 1882-1952
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The BULLETIN of Friends Historical Association VoL 43Spring Number, 1954No. 1 SEVENTY YEARS OF WHITTIER BIOGRAPHIES 1882-1952 By Edward D. Snyder* I. The Biographies as a Group THE self-imposed task of reading all the book-length biographies of Whittier has turned out to be the most interesting literary experience of my life. It has been a little like reading Browning's long poem The Ring and the Book, where the same story is told over and over by different people. With each re-telling, Browning's story gets more interesting and at the same time each narrator unconsciously reveals his own character. So to a large extent with my study of Whittier: I have found that the story of his life never gets tiresome , while many of the biographers reveal amazing facets of their own personalities. It is my purpose in this article to show the special features of each biography and, in many cases, to show why the book was written. But first let me mention a few large impressions which have forced themselves on my attention while doing this reading. The biographies as a group show that throughout the sixty-odd years since Whittier's death, there has been a persistent interest in his life. This is not a sectarian prejudice—few of the biographies are by Quakers—it is something much more universal. People are fascinated to discover what a tremendous influence Whittier had * Professor of English, Haverford College. 1 2 Bulletin of Friends Historical Association on so many different people, and in such diverse matters—despite two heavy handicaps: his lack of formal education and his inability to speak in public. How did he get General Fremont to step aside and clear the way for Lincoln's renomination in 1864? That is a long story. How did he stir Lincoln to writing the Emancipation Proclamation? That is a short one: he wrote one poem, "Ein Feste Burg." How did this third-class rhymester turn into the poet who wrote the most moving of our religious poems and the immortal "Snow-Bound"? These are the puzzles that make Whittier biography fascinating both to write and to read. Furthermore, Whittier lived the Quaker way of life very deeply and intelligently, and he disseminated many of the finest seeds of Quakerism throughout the English-speaking world. Let me quote from the late Rufus Jones on Whittier's standing among Friends: It is my sober judgment that John Greenleaf Whittier grasped more steadily, felt more profoundly, and interpreted more adequately the essential aspects of the Quaker life and faith during the fifty years of his creative period, from 1830 to 1880, than did any other person in the American Society of Friends of that half century. I am unable, furthermore, to think of any English Friend of those same years who saw as clearly or who expressed with equal wisdom and balance the universal significance of the central Quaker principles.1 The foregoing are probably the main reasons why Whittier has been so important to so many people over so many years. But as efforts toward internationalism grow stronger, Whittier grows more important year by year. This point, which many people overlook, was emphasized as early as 1908 by Bliss Perry in an inspired passage from which I quote a part: The race-question transcends any academic inquiry as to what ought to have been done in 1866. It affects the North as well as the South, it touches the daily life of all of our citizens, individually , politically, humanly. It moulds the child's conception of democracy. It tests the faith of the adult. It is by no means an American problem only. The relation of the white with the yellow and black races is an urgent question all around the globe. The present unrest in India, the wars in Africa, the struggle between Japan and Russia, the national reconstruction 1 "Whittier's Fundamental Religious Faith," in Howard H. Brinton, ed., Byways in Quaker History (Wallingford, Pennsylvania, 1944), p. 19. Seventy Years of Whittier Biographies3 of China, the sensitiveness of both Canadian and Californian to Oriental immigration, are impressive signs that the adjustment of race-differences is...