Monday, January 14, 2013

"Shut in from all the world without": John Greenleaf Whittier's Snow-Bound, A Winter Idyll (1866)

(Frontispiece to the first edition, available here)
There's a dusting of snow on the ground, which is excuse enough to return to the delights of John Greenleaf Whittier's Snow-Bound, A Winter Idyll (1866).

I gestured to this poem, briefly, in a post on Charles Dudley Warner's Back-Log Studies last year. (And talking of that, I'm hereby copyrighting the idea of an article tracing the image of the fireplace through these two works and David Grant Mitchell's Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) - watch this space, but don't hold your breath...) But my inordinate affection for Snow-Bound means that it had to get a post of its own at some point. In the poem, Whittier reaches back into his childhood to describe the experiences of his family during a snow-storm that strands them, contentedly, in their home. Family members tell stories reaching back into their earlier lives, connecting the intimate domesticity to a wider sense of American (or at least, New England) history. And, too, Whittier interweaves this reverie with a consciousness of the passing of time from those happy days of childhood, and his attendant feelings of loss. You can peruse a copy from 1866 - already having sold sixteen thousand copies, as the front-matter highlights - here.

As those numbers suggest, Snow-Bound was a significant commercial success in post-war America, and secured Whittier's popularity in the latter half of the nineteenth-century.* Arriving in the literary marketplace in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it seems like a very prescient publication, looking back to the domestic sentimentalism of the pre-war decades and nodding to the local color movement that was just beginning - the same kind of bridging work undertaken, in different ways, by Whittier's friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, I feel. For all its nostalgia for times past (itself a profound post-war trope), the poem also reflects fascinatingly on its immediate context, referencing the abolition movement, unsurprisingly, but also meditating on the Civil War. So if you get snow-bound, or just wish you were, there's no better read.

Given its evident significance, there's not a huge amount written about Snow-Bound. (Whittier, like Longfellow and other nineteenth century male sentimentalists, still awaits his revival, apparently.) But this collection of his letters gives a good potted account of the genesis and publication history of the poem; Angela Sorby's reading of the poem in her book on the Schoolroom poets links it usefully to the colonial revival and race; Marilyn C. Wesley pays interesting attention to the poem's status as "an important male work celebrating stasis"; and this account of "Whittier's "Snow-Bound": "The Circle of Our Hearth" and the Discourse on Domesticity" from Studies in the American Renaissance looks compelling.

* James D. Hart's The Popular Book states that 28,000 copies were issued in its first year, and notes that "it was this work that made him truly popular." Interestingly, though, that's not enough copies for the poem to make Frank Luther Mott's Golden Multitudes as either a best-seller or even better-seller of its day - though Mott also testifies to its popularity, highlights that the poem became a "school classic", and notes that a plethora of publishers released single-volume editions of Whittier's works in the latter decades of the century. Fair to say, then, that following Snow-Bound, his work saturated American culture across the Gilded Age and into the twentieth century.


Rob Velella said...

Great post. Full disclosure: I have not yet read "Snow-Bound" in its entirety, but I have had the opportunity to visit the original Whittier Homestead which inspired the work (including the original family hearth). Its status as a best-seller is significant, just as the period in which it was a best-seller. More work certainly is justified!

Thomas Ruys Smith said...

Thank you, Rob! Sounds like a great trip. Angela Sorby talks about visiting the homestead in her chapter on the poem - and relates a very interesting visitor response from Harriet Prescott Spofford, too. Apparently, you used to be able to buy "boxes and paperweights [...] made from the boards of the garret floor" of the house!