July 8, 2010

The thing for your publishing list this fall

In the mid-19th century, an up-and-coming writer could get no better endorsement than one from John Greenleaf Whittier. On behalf of a young female poet he had befriended, Whittier wrote to his publisher James T. Fields on July 8, 1853:

I enclose to thee what I regard as a very unique and beautiful little book in MS. I don't wish thee however to take my opinion; but, the first leisure hour thee have read it, and I am sure thee will decide that it is exactly the thing for your publishing list this fall.

Whittier noted that these poems were "unlike anything in our literature" and would appeal to both "young and old." It was not until the postscript that Whittier mentioned the author's name: "Lucy Larcom of Beverly [Massachusetts]."

Larcom had published a few poems here and there, especially in the Lowell Offering, a publication which catered to the mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts. She met Whittier in the mid-1840s; the two became good friends and Whittier often promoted her work. Later, they co-edited three books together.

James T. Fields, however, did not see her potential. He passed on the manuscript. It later was given to John P. Jewett, who published it as Similitude from Ocean and Prairie. Whittier concluded Jewett, not Fields, was "the best publisher for it."


  1. Tell me a little more about these two friends-- were they of a similar age? did Whittier live in teh Lowell/Beverley area? How did they come to be friends?

  2. Whittier lived in a relatively close area - he was in Haverhill or Amesbury almost his entire life. Larcom was a good 17 years younger and I think Whittier really saw himself as a booster for her career. He may have served a similar role for other up-and-coming young poets but no other relationship is like the friendship he shared with Larcom.