The Academy of New England Journalists will honor John Greenleaf Whittier with its Yankee Quill Award on Oct. 10, an action that may well raise questions.
“A poet being honored as a journalist?”
A poet, yes, but one who became one of the state’s earliest newspaper editors, and not for his poetry, although that became an important, anti-slavery asset.
Truth to tell I hadn’t thought of that role for him until I began to pay some attention to what followed his relationship with William Lloyd Garrison, who was similarly honored in 2005.
They were of an age when Garrison, only a few years Whittier’s senior, became aware of him.
Garrison, in what was then Newbury, was publisher of his own newspaper, The Free Press, and Whittier, a farm boy in Northeast Haverhill, who would, one day, settle in Amesbury, would become two national figures in the anti-slavery movement.
They started as friends. Whittier, sorely needing income, was encouraged by Garrison to further his education, and, finally, to work for a newspaper.
He did with The American Manufacturer, a Boston political weekly, and later, as editor of the Haverhill Essex Gazette in 1836.
That would be followed by employment with the Hartford, Conn., New England Review and other newspapers during his journalism career.
In 1838, he was editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, where he could have lost his life.
On May 17, the new, but ill-fated Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed by anti-abolitionists, and there are accounts of Whittier, wearing a disguise, entering the ill-fated building to recover his galleys.
That opened the door to opportunities with other journals, and he became a parallel force to Garrison’s even more turbulent anti-slavery efforts.
That fractured their bonding because Garrison had added women’s rights to his anti-slavery agenda, and Whittier, together with other anti-slavery leaders, feared it would erode support for ending slavery.
They split, and Whittier became editor of The National Era, which many regarded as the foremost anti-slavery publication of its time.
As for the award for Whittier, it follows those of the three earliest awardees of the Yankee Quill who either published or edited newspapers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
To cite them is to better understand this year’s choice of Whittier.
Garrison was the first honored, but the earliest newspaper in what was then Newbury was the Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, published by Isaiah Thomas in 1773.
Unschooled, except by way of early exposure to newspapers as a child, Thomas would subsequently publish in Boston, where he was so threatened by the British he was forced to flee to Worcester where he continued his publishing.
Ultimately, he became the major book publisher of his time and created that city’s Athenaeum.
Among the three earliest awardees was Benjamin Edes, the Boston newspaper publisher sought by the British as the co-conspirator of the Boston Tea Party. British Governor Benard would seek his arrest as a publisher of sedition.
Edes was a pre-eminent publisher of a long career, and one of his sons published a newspaper in Newbury in 1806 following the death of his father.
From all accounts, Garrison and Whittier were opposite types of personalities. They dressed differently. Garrison’s style was anything but conservative. Whittier’s was.
Garrison was, by his own assessment, “on fire.”
Whittier’s “fire” would be his anti-slavery poetry.
To read it today is to relive what it was — gripping reality that transports readers to the living hell that would, eventually, be reduced to lingering, heat-bearing ashes by the Civil War.
As for the ending of their relationships, Whittier and Garrison lived long enough to restore their friendship and admiration for what each had contributed.
It is well that the Academy of Journalists has added to that re-bonding with a reward that speaks so eloquently of the history both made.
The award will be presented at the annual dinner meeting of the New England Newspaper and Press Association dinner on Thursday, Oct. 10 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Natick.
Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.