Poet Whittier’s Personal Letters Reveal Humor, Scorn, Humanity

Gus Reusch (WHAV News file photograph)

Whittier Birthplace, Curator Augustine “Gus” Reusch. (WHAV News photograph.)

The Haverhill Whittier Club observed its 134th annual meeting Sunday with a humorous, yet educational, review of excerpts from letters written by the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

Speaking at Whittier Birthplace, Curator Augustine “Gus” Reusch revealed “Nuggets from the Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier.” Reush said it was no easy task to assemble a picture of the poet through his personal correspondence. He explained there are 5,500 known letters written by Whittier. Reusch said letters went to everyone—from the ordinary to very high-profile personalities of the day.

“He wrote to politicians, former classmates, neighbors, editors of many newspapers, fellow Quakers, anti-slavery groups, the Grimke sisters—Sarah and Angelina, Benjamin Greenleaf, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, John Quincy Adams, Caleb Cushing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Celia Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, Lucy Larkham, Hellen Keller, publisher James T. Fields and his wife Annie.”

In one example—a letter sent to Annie Fields—Whittier admits feeling left out of the gossip surrounding the marriage of feminist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.

“’I have received no letter about this. I feel rather aggrieved that I was not consulted. Ever affectionately, John G. Whittier.’ Now, here’s the catch. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps married Herbert Dickinson Ward on Oct. 29, 1888. She was 44. He was 27.”

Amesbury artist Ron Quinn, moved by a story he was told while visiting Whittier Birthplace, donated his impressionist-style painting of the Birthplace. (WHAV News photograph.)

At the gathering, Ron Quinn, an Amesbury artist, donated his impressionist-style painting of the Birthplace. He was motivated to do so after taking one of Reusch’s famous four-hour extended tours of the famous farm.

During the tour, Quinn learned of an 1847 incident where two neighbor boys were shooting at a mark near where Whittier stood in his Amesbury garden, partially obscured by a fence. The shooter, Philip Butler, would grow up to be an acclaimed painter.

“He accidentally grazed the face of Mr. Whittier with a bullet and so upset that he did that—he was a fine painter at the time also—he painted the picture of Mr. Whittier’s home.”

Quinn observed the Butler painting at the Birthplace.

“When I heard that, I felt so cusped by it, being a painter myself, that I reproduced the painting as it looks now in the impressionist style that I do.”

The Amesbury artist added the impressionist painting style was in vogue around the time of Whittier’s death in 1892.