Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Evidence of the decline and fall of John Greenleaf Whittier

I counted the pages devoted to 19th century poets in eight anthologies of American poetry. With one exception, the books all try to cover all of American poetry, from the Anne Bradstreet or what have you to their own day. The Library of America anthology is in two volumes, and covers the 19th century only. Robert Frost is included as a reference point. Clicking should enlarge the table:

I find this all a little too interesting. Look at that stuffy 1912 Yale Book of American Verse - no Dickinson, no Melville, almost no Whitman. Just Fireside Poets as far as the eye can see. The 1900 E. C. Stedman anthology is much more daring.

Note how David Lehman's 2006 New Oxford anthology, compared to Richard Ellman's 1976 version, decimates the 19th century poets. He puts everything before the 20th century in a vise, and freezes the pre-World War II poets, in order find room for more recent poets. Look what he does to poor John Greenleaf Whittier - 39 pages in 1976, 6 in 2006.

Another way to see this is to look at the rankings. I report the top 6 or 7:

Note the rise of Walt Whitman from obscurity to crushing eminence. Dickinson, and to a lesser degree Melville, also show nice, steady increases in ranking. The Fireside Poets do terribly. Holmes and Lowell completely shrivel, Bryant fades with dignity, Whittier hangs on with the long "Snow-Bound" (typically half of his pages). Only Longfellow maintains any sort of parity.

This is one way that canon formation works. Editors have limited space in their anthologies. If they want to add anything, they have to cut something else. A publisher can add pages - see the "Total Pages" row - but there are physical limits.

Whitman was clearly underrated. Dickinson and Melville, too. Or maybe now we greatly overrate them. Based on my own reading, this progression has been exactly right. But I live now, so of course my tastes, prejudices, and judgments are not those of a reader of 1900. I guess I could be a cranky contrarian. That's fun. Actually, I would say that Longfellow is now a bit underrated, and would also note that Poe is probably not served well by this page-counting measure, since he did not write much verse, although he seems to do all right in the rankings.

This is all motivated by my reading of a collection of John Greenleaf Whittier poems, the oddly labeled John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry "by" Robert Penn Warren. Not sure about that "by" - Warren includes a long essay on Whittier, but I'm pretty sure the 150 pages of poems are by Whittier. The selection (and length) is similar to the Brenda Wineapple Library of America volume. The heart of the problem is that despite the seven thick volumes of John Greenleaf Whittier poems, there are nowhere close to 150 pages of good poems. Maybe forty. The great puzzle to Warren is not how a great poet wrote so much junk, but how a bad poet occasionally wrote a masterpiece.

David Lehman is too hard on Whittier, but to anyone who classifies him as the third or fourth or fifth best 19th century poet, I say: overrated!

All errors my own (and likely), data available by request, etc. Bibliography, in chronological order:

An American Anthology: 1787-1900 (1900), ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman, Greenwood Press reprint, available as a Google Books PDF.
Yale Book of American Verse (1912), ed. Thomas R. Lounsbury, Yale University Press.
The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927), ed. Bliss Carman, Oxford University Press.
The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950), ed. F. O. Matthiessen, Oxford University Press.
American Poetry (1965), eds. Gay Wilson Allen, Walter B. Rideout, and James K. Robinson, Harper & Row.
The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976), ed. Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press.
American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vols. 1 and 2 (1993), ed. John Hollander, Library of America.
The New Oxford Book of American Verse (2006), ed. David Lehman, Oxford University Press.


  1. This is a fantastic way to think about things. I've tried to get interested in Whittier's poetry, partly because I think he has an interesting biography. But, he has this strange turn as this militant Quaker anti-slavery poet, then becomes this laid back domestic "Snow-Bound" sort of poet. I'm not particularly impressed by either period. My attempts at reading "Snow-Bound," by the way, are often thwarted by the same "this is taking too long" feeling I get from attempting "Song of Hiawatha."

    As an aside, I have the same problem with Lowell. Such a fascinating man, but the poems are either boring or too thick to read. I wonder if this is a general problem for so-called "abolitionist poets." I agree with you that Longfellow deserves at least some more interest, but maybe not too much.

  2. Your charts are not as much fun as your graphs, but almost. Thanks!

  3. Your fascinating approach to the topic provides several great insights and a few provocative surprises. An example of the latter is Poe's endurance on canonical lists. Following and endorsing Harold Bloom's tongue in cheek assertion that Poe is the one writer in America whose work is improved by translation into languages other than English, I avoid Poe's poetry in all of my courses; it may be included in anthologies, but it does not make it into my syllabi.

  4. I agree with Sparkling Squirrel, and I must explicit weighting for length of anthology? Ahem.

    The demise of Lowell is pretty serious; Longfellow had a pretty rough time of it too for a while. But what strikes me most is the clustering beginning around 1950. They nudge each other around, but other than Whitman, who is clearly God, they're all restricted to a pretty small amount of the anthology. Of course, not as restricted as in 1900--no one got much space at all there. And by 2006 they're all more restricted again. Is there something about those two anthologies that is more inclusive than normal, or perhaps more stuffy and less likely to gush?

  5. Nicole, the rankings actually control for the length of the anthology. Nevertheless, the percent graph reveals some interesting things, doesn't it - primarily, that for the last fifty years, the real estate devoted to the top poets has remained remarkably consistent. The anthologists just tinker with the ranking.

    The Lehman (2006) and Stedman (1900) anthologies have one thing in common - they both wanted to include as many contemporary or near-contemporary poets as possible (so, right, more inclusive). So Lehman really squeezes the older poets to make room. And, in the 1900 book, Dickinson and Whitman and Melville are near-contemporaries.

    Now, R.T., one must consider Bloom's opinion as a whole. Check his lists of books in The Western Canon, and you will find that Bloom includes: Poetry and Tales, Essays and Reviews, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and Eureka. In other words, everything!

    Rob, I share your difficulties with Lowell. I seem to have more patience with Whittier. I'll write about "Snow-Bound" on Friday. Robert Penn Warren thinks that the Civil War freed Whittier from politics, and allowed him to become the Poet Laureate of New England nostalgia. Which is not necessarily an improvement.

  6. I am familiar with Bloom's recommendations in _The Western Canon_, but I so much enjoyed his off-the-cuff comment about Poe that it bears repetition and recollection (notwithstanding the paradox of Bloom's list). Bloom's curmudgeonly swipe at Poe appeals to my own curmudgeonly impatience with Poe.

  7. Fantastic bit of work here--really seems like you've outdone yourself. As far as I can tell, pretty much everything we need to know about reading 19th c. American Poetry is here, with the necessary historical perspective.

    The rising and falling is just an amazing thing. It raises a couple of questions. The Fireside poets were read and deeply appreciated in their own time. That should count for something, shouldn't it--kind of what R Velella is saying, interesting fellows, but the poetry doesn't work for us so well. But the way in which it worked for their contemporaries is important. It says something about society, how it functioned, what it accepted, the emotional chords it was eager to hit.

    And then it turns out that the dark horses don't just win the race, they run away with it. Again, and I think you mention this, just because they appeal to our contemporary, modern sensibility doesn't mean that they're timeless. But I think that you can put the crushing conquest by Whitman down to his modernism, and the same goes for Dickinson--they write poetry pretty much the way we would want them to today. They're early versions of ourselves, and the distance of time seems much shorter than it does with the Fireside Boys. Great post.

  8. that for the last fifty years, the real estate devoted to the top poets has remained remarkably consistent. The anthologists just tinker with the ranking.

    Yeah, I was sort of trying to say that, mostly incoherently.

    Now I keep thinking about the Beloved citations and graphs and rankings many projects. I like this one, but it's hard for me to really understand because I know so little of American poetry. But now I know approximately what percentage of my time to devote to each poet, I suppose.

  9. Zhiv, no, Nicole is right about this - everything we need to know? No, the barest beginning. Think of the methodological problems that need to be fixed, the alternative metrics, all of the possibilities for future research.

    But otherwise, yes, exactly. Tastes - particularly the tastes of people who edit and consume poetry anthologies - changed in response to Modernism and so on. That completely scrambled the relative esteem of these poets.

    But, to be a bit contrary, I do think people, societies, readers, can be wrong about the value they give to books. They can be indulging in fads, for example, or seeing something that really isn't there, or missing something good or bad that obviously is.

  10. Again, charts and math seem to make everything so much clearer. I guess I'm mathematically minded...? Though I'm with Sparkling Squirrel here - the graphs do edge out the charts by a small margin of coolness.

    Hmm, carrying on... This is really interesting. If, as you say, Whittier only has about 40 pages of good poetry, is it any wonder that he's received comparatively little attention in recent years? Perhaps 6 pages isn't enough but I can't fault an editor for wanting to showcase better poets on the whole in place of an unreliable (and often bad) poet...

  11. Oh man, how I love looking at cultural history this way. I have about a 100-year span of guides to classical music, and have charted out all the composers in terms of how much coverage they are given relative to Beethoven. Mahler gains, Goldmark loses, etc.

    Whittier and Longfellow do seem like poets that our grandparents learned about in school, but that we didn't so much. As a cheerfully kneejerk Dickinson basher, it's interesting to look at her numbers: Look out, Walt! She's gaining!

  12. AnCh, that's a strong assumption, that Whittier is being replaced by better poets. Lehman, for example, is certainly replacing him with newer poets.

    And Whittier may be unreliable, but his best poems are not. An anthologist cares about the poems, not the poet.

    Michael, are you going to \ have you posted any of that? I'd be interested. This sort of thing can be applied to any art form.