- Whittier, Ballad Reading, and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Poetry
No American poet was more celebrated in the late nineteenth century than John Greenleaf Whittier. In December 1877 his seventieth birthday was nationally recognized and publicly honored by schoolchildren, teachers, reading groups, ministers, fellow authors, politicians, and newspapers and magazines across the country (at the end of the year he allegedly wrote twenty-three hundred replies to well-wishers) (Letters 3: 367). Schools, colleges, streets, ships, towns, mountains, and even a glacier were all named in his honor during the last decades of his life. But this massive memorial effort belied the relatively slender poetic basis of Whittier’s popular poetic celebrity after the American Civil War. Americans of the postbellum era celebrated Whittier for being the poet of everyday life in rural New England, and for writing poems that captured the texture of New England history, supernaturalism, and folklore; very few Americans cherished Whittier for his antislavery activism before the Civil War. This concentrated disavowal of his antislavery work meant that readers had to ignore most of Whittier’s poetry in order to celebrate him as a poet. Whittier’s career had begun in the 1820s; he had become prominent as an antislavery poet associated first with William Lloyd Garrison, then with the political antislavery movement, and eventually with the Republican Party. He published scores of antislavery poems from the 1830s onward, which were printed in broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, books, giftbooks, and anthologies, and which were recited and sung frequently throughout the antebellum decades and during the Civil War. [End Page 1] But despite this massive presence in nineteenth-century public culture, one 1877 review of Whittier’s career claimed that “his reputation as a poet will rest chiefly upon what he has done since the abolition of slavery”—in a fifty year career, less than fifteen years had determined his “reputation as a poet” (“Notable Anniversary”).
This essay will track the history of this shift, locate its causes, and assess its meanings for nineteenth-century culture. The implications of this shift go beyond the basic reception history of a particular poet; rather, they speak to the broader ways in which people encountered and understood poems and the relation between poems and the larger social world. This will also be a history, then, of nineteenth-century reading practices and the political functions of poems in nineteenth-century America. Whittier’s elevation to prominence within postbellum critical histories of American poetry occurred through a complex renegotiation of his antislavery legacy and a concomitant reorientation in the hierarchy of genres during the late nineteenth century. Whittier, who had been known as an antislavery writer, became known as a poet of New England folklore and regionalism. As this change in perception became more entrenched and widespread, critics and readers of the 1870s and 1880s increasingly considered his “ballads of our eastward tradition and supernaturalism” to be his greatest “successes” (E. C. Stedman 112). This change in reception corresponded with the political climate of the postbellum era, when antislavery sentiment went into deep eclipse, but it also speaks to changes in the social meanings of poems and poetic genres in the later nineteenth century. The crucial change, I think, relates to the term “ballad.” Antebellum readers had understood Whittier’s antislavery poems to be ballads, and they identified the “balladic” form as inhering in the political relations that these poems established among readers. A postbellum critic like R. H. Stoddard, on the other hand, argued for a basic distinction between Whittier’s antislavery poems and his “ballads,” among which Stoddard included poems like “Cassandra Southwick,” “Maud Muller,” “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” “Barbara Frietchie,” and “Telling the Bees”—all poems of “eastward regionalism,” “supernaturalism,” or folklore. Along with Snow-Bound, Whittier’s best-selling poem of 1866, these poems had “no prototypes in American poetry,” according to Stoddard, and their chief strength was their direct appeal to “the human sympathies of their readers”: [End Page 2]
The reputation of such poems is immediate and permanent, and beyond criticism . . . the touch of nature in them is beyond all art. I should never think of comparing “Barbara Frietchie” with Bryant’s “O...