Arts and culture in Whittier’s neighborhood honors its namesake   

Whittier's poet-namesake admired George Washington. A statue of the president stands in Washburn-Fair Oaks Park. Photo by Linda Koutsky

Streets and neighborhoods in Minneapolis are named after all kinds of people: explorers, presidents, literary characters, clergy, landowners, early industrialists, founders of our fair city and a poet.

I’ve passed through the Whittier neighborhood a million times but just learned it was named for poet John Greenleaf Whittier. According to the Whittier Alliance, the area bounded by Franklin, Lake Street, Lyndale and I-35W is an “International Neighborhood,” with 15,000 residents representing 30 countries. It’s also home to numerous stores and organizations whose missions support education, history, spirituality, social justice, theater, literature, music and the arts. The neighborhood named after him would make John Greenleaf Whittier proud.

In 1807, 51 years before Minnesota became a state, John Greenleaf Whittier was born in Haverhill, Mass. He was raised in a 17th-century farmhouse built by his grandfather. His family followed the Quaker faith and Whittier embraced the liberal ideas early in life.

The Quaker movement began in England in the late 1600s when people questioned the established church and wanted a simpler, more direct way to express their faith. Though it has roots in Christianity, Quakers don’t adhere to a strict set of rules but encouraged individual exploration with God or a divine will. Today’s followers often incorporate spiritual concepts from other religions, too, though most believe that a higher power touches each person directly and is part of them. Being aware of that connection guides Quakers in their daily lives. Typically Quakers have a commitment to nonviolence, are conscientious objectors to war, live a life of simplicity, care for the earth, promote peace and equality, and vow to help better their communities. In 1688 the Quakers were the first organized religious group to take a stand against slavery. There are three Quaker groups in Minneapolis.

As a child, Whittier attended a small country school for 12 weeks a year. He was an avid reader and writer and by the time he turned 19 his first poem was printed in the Newburyport Free Press. “The Exile’s Departure” expressed the sadness of an immigrant’s move. With encouragement from the paper’s publisher, Whittier continued writing and worked as a shoemaker and teacher to pay for a year at Haverhill Academy.

In 1833 Whittier joined the abolitionist cause and was a delegate and secretary at the first National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia. A broadside of his antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains,” is in the collections of the Library of Congress. Whittier was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and also served in the Massachusetts State Legislature. He worked as an editor for several newspapers and magazines and helped found Atlantic Monthly.

Whittier’s poems exemplify his Quaker upbringing. His widely distributed poetry addressed and documented the people, places, and issues of the growing United States. Many are about freeing slaves, promoting rights and equality for all people, and events leading up to and after the Civil War. (The following stanzas are excerpts from larger poems.)

Go, leave behind thee all that mars
The work below of man for man;
With the white legions of the stars
Do service such as angels can.
Wherever wrong shall right deny
Or suffering spirits urge their plea,
Be thine a voice to smite the lie,
A hand to set the captive free!

In 1866 Whittier published his long poem, “Snow-Bound,” an homage to his family, Quaker beliefs, war, and a winter storm. It was a national best-seller and sold 20,000 copies. With its release Whittier became one of the country’s most popular poets.

The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.

Although Quakers don’t regularly sing, Whittier’s poems were often turned into hymns and he specifically wrote at least 100 more that are still today sung in Protestant churches. Spirituality, simplicity, and being content with life’s situations are inherent in Quaker principles.

Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm!

With his charged poems, Whittier made many enemies. Once they torched the anti-slavery newspaper office where he worked as an editor and it burned to the ground. He had many more admirers though. Sales of his books of poems, and their placement in various publications, provided an ample living. He had numerous friends including many other poets and writers. Several of them showed up for his 70th birthday including James Russell Lowell, William Dean Howells, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mark Twain. Along with Whittier, many of these people were considered part of the Fireside Poets—the first group of American poets whose writings were more popular than the reigning British poets of the era. They were known for their moral and political themes and the rhyming stanzas that were easy to remember.

Though he never married, Whittier lived a long life, nearly twice the life expectancy of the time. He died while visiting a friend in New Hampshire in 1892 at age 84. Both his birthplace in Haverhill and his home in Amesbury are historic sites and open for tours.

There should be a statue of John Greenleaf Whittier in the Whittier neighborhood but there isn’t. There is however, a statue of George Washington in Washburn-Fair Oaks Park. Whittier admired the first president and even wrote a poem about him that was read in 1889 at the centennial celebration of Washington’s inauguration.

     The sword was sheathed: in April’s sun          
     Lay green the fields by Freedom won; 
And severed sections, weary of debates,   
Joined hands at last and were United States.

An advocate for justice, tolerance, and humanitarianism, John Greenleaf Whittier is a great reminder for us that the arts are a powerful tool for change.

Up, laggards of Freedom!—our free flag is cast
To the blaze of the sun and the wings of the blast;
Will ye turn from a struggle so bravely begun,
From a foe that is breaking, a field that’s half won?

Come forth all together! come old and come young,
Freedom’s vote in each hand, and her song on each tongue;     
Truth naked is stronger than Falsehood in mail; 
The Wrong cannot prosper, the Right cannot fail!

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TIP: For a summer-read-style peek into Quaker faith and John Greenfield Whittier, check out the recently released book “Delivering the Truth—A Quaker Midwife Mystery” by Edith Maxwell. The Amesbury, Mass. author spoke about her book at the Whittier Home and Museum in June to kick off Amesbury’s summer community read.

LUNCH TIP: New on the street of many worlds: Kung Fu Noodle, serving Japanese-style ramen in a neat, orderly, sit-down restaurant. (2710 Nicollet Ave. S.)