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.