Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Welcome Back (Again) John Greenleaf Whittier

A rather extraordinary individual, in addition to being a tremendous poet, John Greenleaf Whittier seems to have sadly disappeared from the public school curriculum. (Full disclosure: Though to be fair, I am unclear as to how significant a part of it he ever was.) Despite being beloved by a who's who of American poets (as evidenced by guest list of attendees at his seventieth birthday dinner in 1877: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, and Oliver Wendell Holmes), the poet's name draws only blank stares from students when asked about his works, though I would venture to guess in the New England region he is much more well-regarded (and remembered).

My introduction to the works of Whittier was through an assignment given to my students last year. Each student was assigned an American literary movement and genre. Along with general information such as relative dates, each student was also supplied with the names of relatively familiar representative authors. For those assigned the Fireside Poets, a Northeast regional sub-genre, Whittier was one of those suggested starting point for research. Wikipedia notes that while Whittier was "[H]ighly regarded in his lifetime and for a period thereafter, he is now remembered for his poem 'Snow-Bound'..." I vividly recall students' having a difficult time finding much background information that was not clearly form a single source. I had asked students to used resources from the library as well, and while our school librarians were more than willing to assist in digging through the meager collection of poetry books available ion site, the actual hard cover sources where limited to a dusty anthology which included a single poem.

Just as his spirit was briefly conjured in my upstate New York classroom a number of year's ago, Thanksgiving gives me an opportunity to all on John Greenleaf Whittier once again. Given the subject matter, Whittier's popular poem, "The Pumpkin," lacks the political bent of his more renowned abolitionist works, but through its simple, accessible images of comfirting pumpkin pie shares with "Snow-Bound" the purpose of showing how the idyllic past can be brought briefly to the present.


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