Perhaps there were many John Whittier’s around, so the poet had to distinguish himself by using a middle name. It’s no doubt ancestral, and not some proto-hippie name like Yarrow or River or Sequoia. Still, it sounds a little fey, and I associate him with bland, harmless, 19th century poetry that goes on longer than it should. I’m sure that mine is the last generation to read “Snow Bound” in grade school.
But Whittier was not bland. He was a resolute, passionate abolitionist. “I was mobbed in Concord, N. H., in company with George Thomson…and narrowly escaped danger. I kept Thomson, whose life was hunted for, concealed in our lonely farm-house for two weeks. I was in Boston during the great mob in Washington Street…and was threatened with personal violence…My office was sacked and burned by a mob soon after but I continued my paper until my health failed.” In late 1862, with the Civil War going disastrously for the Union, he said of Lincoln, who wavered regarding emancipation, “I am much afraid that a domestic cat will not answer when one wants a Bengal tiger.”
So far there has been no sacking and burning with our mobs, but then, there are no Bengal tigers around either, though one keeps hoping the cat in the White House turns into one, as Lincoln did.