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THE PANORAMA AND THE MILLS: A Review of The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier Lewis Perry An elderly beloved poet whose birthdays were celebrated by the nation's schoolchildren and whose days passed in entertaining uninvited guests, John Greenleaf Whittier knew he could not escape biographers. He received so many requests for information about his life that he armed himself with a printed reply. Though recognizing that his public life was "public property," he recoiled "with perfect horror from personal and private histories." He burned much of his correspondence. He fumed at one unwelcome visitor who proceeded to interrogate his neighbors, while telling them to keep quiet about his snooping, and then issued an unauthorized biography. Did this violate his copyright, Whittier wondered, in addition to his privacy? Finally he defended himself by providing for the authorized Life and Letters (1894) by his nephew Samuel T. Pickard, who was a newspaperman in Portland, Maine. A new collection of The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, edited by Pickard's grandson, a professor of English at the University of Florida, continues a family interest in the public record of the poet's life, though it takes liberties with private history that might have made Whittier wince.1 It was characteristic of the Quaker poet that he planned his biography with concern for its property value as well as for his privacy. In spite of the quiet rural setting of many of his poems he knew that he had made a profession, as a reformer and as a poet, of living in public view. He was also aware that his life was "double-motived"—his knowledge of sin told him as much—and as a poet he lived "a sort of dual life ... in a world of fancy, as well as in the world of plain matter-of-fact about me" (III, 413, 452). A saucy friend teased him about his pretentions to Quaker simplicity and the commonplace interests of a small New England town: 1 This essay is a review of John B. Pickard (ed.), The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, 3 vols. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1975. Pp. xxxv, 684; x, 482; xi, 735. $75.00). For quotations and information in this paragraph, see Vol. Ill, pp. 158, 451-55, 546. Hereafter, references to these volumes appear in parentheses in the text. 236 he dressed as carefully as a dandy in spite of his professed disdain for worldly reputation, and even the muffled light of Amesbury could not conceal that "all the inside of your heart is aglow" (III, 72, 433). With good reason Whittier compared himself to P. T. Barnum as he made money from a well-timed succession of volumes of public poetry about a passing way of life. He submerged his private history and justified his literary reputation by insisting that his chief pride lay in his early devotion to the selfless cause of abolitionism. But an enigmatic note of showmanship remained: the unauthorized biography "entirely ignored my anti-slavery work. Lt was the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out" (III, 465). In certain respects these volumes are disappointing. Whittier was generally a reticent correspondent even when his heart was glowing ; after the success of Snow-Bound (1866) and The Tent on the Beach (1867) he was too overwhelmed with letters and guests to correspond freely anyway. Constant illnesses furnished other excuses for clogged correspondence and dormant relationships. Important letters went to the fire. These shortcomings are aggravated by editorial and publishing decisions. It is difficult to interpret Whittier's side of the correspondence when letters to and about him are excluded. Such exclusion is especially frustrating when we come to his 1859 love letters to Elizabeth Lloyd, a series that invites comparison with the well-known letters of Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké.2 Some of the annotation, furthermore, verges on pedantry. When Whittier mentions "St. Augustine's City of God" we do not learn of Augustine's importance to Whittier or his contemporaries but find instead this note: "St. Augustine (353-430) was an African bishop and writer" (II, 237). The editor's irksome bias against William Lloyd Garrison distracts attention from the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 236-253
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
N
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