Friday, August 24, 2012

Words About Whittier; Secret Solved

NOTE: This is part II of a post. If you haven't read Part I read A Few words From Whittier first."

I’m almost disappointed that I so quickly solved the conundrum of the scrap of letter in the Whittier book, but it looks like I very likely have. One of you smart people deciphered a word on the envelope which contained said scrap and ended up adding great credence to what I’d already learned. But more on that later. The important thing is that I am ninety-nine per cent (at least) sure that Whittier wrote it – and here’s why. Samuel Pickard, the author of the little green book and the one who sent the scrap of letter to the unknown Ohioan, was married to Whittier’s favorite niece Elizabeth (Lizzie) to whom Whittier had written the letter in 1868 while she was away in Richmond, Virginia. Whittier also hand-picked Pickard to be his literary executor and biographer.

If you recall, on the envelope containing the scrap Pickard stated that he was sending the small snippet of the poet’s handwriting because it came from a letter that “could not be used” due to the fact that it discussed personal matters. Initially, that comment shot up red flags for me because I viewed him only as the author of a minor book which I thought was more of a tour guide than anything else. In a sense the book IS that, as it gives the reader a tour of the Whittier house and grounds, but there is also much biographical and anecdotal information. It’s rather ironic -- I spent hours combing the internet when some of what I was searching for was right there IN THE BOOK, including a picture of Elizabeth Whittier Pickard (see image above). Once I realized that Pickard was closely allied to both Whittier and Lizzie I could see why he wanted, and had the authority, to use his own discretion about what was kept for the historical record and what was jettisoned.

The next big game changer came in the form of the private email referred to above. One of my readers somehow made sense of the word “freedmen.” I had already verified that Lizzie was in Richmond, Virginia in 1868 just as Pickard had said she was, but all I knew was that she had likely been teaching. The word “freedmen”, however, coupled with the reference Whittier made to “school” and “scholars” on the back of the scrap) shed a whole new light on it. Whittier himself had been a vocal abolitionist, so it stands to reason that after the emancipation of the slaves his beloved Lizzie, like many young white women of the day, would head south with a missionary group to teach in the schools set up for the freed slaves by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In fact, one of the earliest freedmen’s schools had been built in Richmond in June of 1865 and immediately attracted 300 students. By 1868 figures showed that the age of students ranged from four to twenty-nine! I’m still puzzled though as to why Pickard chose to cut up the letter’s contents, as there was certainly nothing incendiary, at least in the north, about volunteering to teach ex-slaves, but there may have been other things mentioned. Of course we’ll never know.

What I do know is that Samuel and Lizzie figured large in Whittier’s life until his death in 1892 at the age of 85. Ten years later Lizzie died also after a sudden unnamed illness overcame her as she was decorating her famous uncle’s grave! Samuel and Lizzie had just one child, a son named Greenleaf, who grew up to make major contributions in the field of radio communication. Below see a photo of Whiiter's funeral in the garden.

But what does all this mean in terms of bookselling? Do I have a valuable book here? I suspect that I do not, at least monetarily. Whittier was a popular poet during his lifetime, especially after he published the long poem Snowbound, and even for a lengthy span after that, but these days it seems that he's been largely excised from the study of American literature. In fact, I read that though vistors still enjoy Whittier House the Pickard family actively works to keep his name in the vernacular. Whittier, it would seem, is not Whitman. But having said that I also think the book DOES have some value to the right person especially given the provenance that exists.But how MUCH value is a huge question. Everyone I told about the book and its secret had heard of Whittier, but only two could pin down an actual title of one his poems. One said Barbara Fritchie and the other, my friend Nancy,said A Barefoot Boy. Of the two, only Nancy could provide a quote.

Blessings on thee, little man, Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

Nancy was a poetry major at Ohio University back in the day, so whenever information is needed in a poetic emergency she's the woman! But here’s the kicker – Nancy hadn’t heard Barefoot Boy from a professor. She’d heard it straight from the lips of a moose.

Remember Rocky and Bullwinkle? Bullwinkle was a Whittier fan!


sundaymornancy said...

My knowledge of Whittier was indeed whetted by Bullwinkle the Moose reciting the poem in his inimitable dulcet tones on the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show.
At least in the 1970s, poetry was supposed to make you feel lost and wild, not comforted by images of a bygone era. So no Whittier was spoken at Ohio University.

tess said...

"Lost and wild" -- love that. Sadly, Whittier encourages niether. But the spirit of Barefoot Boy (which I found and read) has a quaint charm in its celebration of little boyhood. Made me think of two little grandsons. BUT, having said that , I won't be looking for the collected works!

Saturday Evening Post said...

I'm delighted that Sundaymornancy learned of Barefoot Boy via Bullwinkle. Few are so receptive. Much of what I know has been gleaned from such sources.

tess said...

That's true! I've learned things from odd and disparate sources as well. But never Bullwinkle!