Famous Once Again
Longfellow reaches his bicentennial; here's why his poems became perennial
- By Nicholas A. Basbanes
- Smithsonian magazine, February 2007, Subscribe
(Page 4 of 4)
Nicholas A. Basbanes' several books include Every Book Its Reader (2005).
Even in his later years, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did not mind birthdays. He inspired others to celebrate right along with him. His 70th, for example, took on the air of a national holiday, with parades, speeches and lots of his poetry. "My study is a garden of flowers," he wrote in his journal on February 27, 1877, with "salutations and friendly greetings from far and near" filling his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
By then, Longfellow was a celebrity of almost modern magnitude—"the object of a national adulation enjoyed by few poets before or since," according to Andrew R. Hilen, who edited a comprehensive edition of the poet's correspondence. He was dazzlingly prolific, equally adept at prose, drama and poetry, and a scholar as well; his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy was the first in America. He also had the good fortune to come along just as the United States was forming a distinctive cultural identity. "Longfellow did as much as any author or politician of his time to shape the way 19th-century Americans saw themselves, their nation and their past," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Today, only people of a certain age can recall the Longfellow poetry they memorized as schoolchildren, perhaps passages from "Paul Revere's Ride" or "The Wreck of the Hesperus" or "The Village Blacksmith." Many more speak of "the patter of little feet" or "ships that pass in the night," or declare, "I shot an arrow into the air" or "Into each life some rain must fall," without realizing that those words, too, are his. If his contemporaries celebrated him as an American bard, subsequent generations pushed him to the margins as a relic.
Yet in the light of his 200th birthday this month, Longfellow is looking fresh once again. A Library of America edition of his selected writings, published in 2000, has gone through four printings, with close to 37,000 copies in print. To celebrate his bicentennial, the U.S. Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp—the second to bear his likeness; Herman Melville is the only writer similarly honored. Longfellow was not a "stuffy Victorian," says Christoph Irmscher, curator of a bicentennial exhibit of rare books and other artifacts at Harvard University's Houghton Library. Rather, he was a highly motivated writer who "worked hard to professionalize the business of literature and to earn his status as America's first—and most successful to date—celebrity poet." In his ambition, in his approach to fame and in his connection with his audience, Longfellow can seem, even now, quite contemporary.
He could have been a country lawyer like his father, Stephen, who represented Maine in Congress from 1823 to 1825, but Henry had other ideas. "I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centres on it," he wrote home during his senior year at Bowdoin College.
Born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, he would cite Washington Irving's Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon as the most influential book of his youth. By the time he was 13, he was reading Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, John Milton, Alexander Pope and Edward Gibbon; he had even published his first poem, "The Battle of Lovell's Pond," in the Portland Gazette. His Bowdoin acquaintances included Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become a lifelong friend, and Franklin Pierce, who would become the 14th president of the United States.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1825, Longfellow spent three years in Europe learning French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese, then five years teaching European languages at Bowdoin and translating scholarly texts for classroom use. He had married Mary Storer Potter, a 19-year-old neighbor from Portland, in 1831. Three years later, Harvard College named him Smith Professor of Modern Languages and of Belles Lettres.
To prepare for the job, Longfellow made another trip abroad, this time with Mary. Over the next two years he added Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Old Icelandic and Dutch to his repertoire. But he suffered a grievous loss as well: in 1835 Mary died in Rotterdam after a miscarriage. It wasn't until 1836 that Longfellow reported to Cambridge, eventually taking a room in an elegant old house on Brattle Street that had served as General Washington's headquarters during the Siege of Boston.
As he had been at Bowdoin, Longfellow was a popular teacher and energetic scholar, introducing his students to the European forms he had mastered while honing his own literary skills. In 1839, he published Hyperion: A Romance and Voices of the Night, his first collection of poetry, followed in 1841 by Ballads and Other Poems. And he married Frances "Fanny" Appleton. Her father, Boston industrialist Nathan Appleton, bought the house on Brattle Street for them as a wedding present.
In 1847, Longfellow published Evangeline, the story in verse of an Acadian woman's heartbreaking separation from her bridegroom on their wedding day. It generated six printings in six months. Other successful works followed—Kavanagh, a short novel; The Seaside and the Fireside, another collection of poetry; and The Golden Legend, a medieval tale in verse. By the mid-1850s, he was financially secure enough to leave Harvard and concentrate on writing. In 1857, The Song of Hiawatha, arguably Longfellow's best-known poem, sold 50,000 copies, blockbuster numbers for its time. A year after that, The Courtship of Miles Standish, a story based loosely on his own Pilgrim ancestors, sold 25,000 copies in the United States within two months—and 10,000 copies in London in a single day. But his sales figures only begin to suggest the impact Longfellow had on 19th-century thought; his books remained in print year after year, and many were translated into no fewer than ten foreign languages.
In Evangeline, Longfellow created a character whose experiences were based on the expulsion of French-speaking Acadians from modern-day Nova Scotia by the British in 1755; inspired by the wanderings of Homer's Odysseus and Virgil's Aeneas, he gave an epic structure to a local theme. Similarly, Miles Standish and Hiawatha brought a human dimension to the lives of the continent's European settlers and its indigenous people—and let Longfellow achieve his goal of explaining America to Americans through poetry.
Moreover, he proved to be a shrewd manager of his literary properties. He insisted that inexpensive paperbacks be made readily available and that his poems be widely reproduced in newspapers and on posters. His image appeared on cigar boxes, beer bottle labels, inkwells, bookends, lithographic engravings, even fine china. His house became a tourist magnet; he kept a stack of autographed cards handy to distribute to the hundreds who came to call. "There is never an hour in the day, when someone is not pounding at the brass knocker of my door," he wrote in a letter to the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne, "never a moment when some unanswered letter is not beckoning to me with its pallid finger."
That grumbling notwithstanding, Longfellow scrupulously answered his mail, sometimes writing up to 20 responses a day. (More than 5,000 were gathered in six volumes published between 1966 and 1982.) He also knew the value of a fascinating new medium, photography: 12,000 images, including many of him and his family, are among the some 800,000 documents, household items, artworks and furnishings maintained by the National Park Service, custodian of his home, called Craigie House, since 1972, when his descendants turned it over to the nation.
Among luminaries to drop by over the years were Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anthony Trollope, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde and singer Jenny Lind; even Dom Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil, came calling. In 1867, Charles Dickens, the most famous novelist on either side of the Atlantic, spent Thanksgiving Day with Longfellow, renewing a friendship they had established 25 years earlier, when Dickens first visited the United States.
Dickens wrote in a letter to his son that Longfellow "is now white-haired and white-bearded, but remarkably handsome. He still lives in his old house, where his beautiful wife was burnt to death. I dined with him the other day, and could not get the terrific scene out of my imagination."
Dickens was referring to Fanny Longfellow's shocking death six years earlier, apparently after her dress was ignited by candle wax as she was sealing an envelope containing a snippet of hair from one of her six children. Longfellow's white beard hid scars from wounds he suffered while trying to smother the flames.
Longfellow and Dickens met again the following year, in England, where the American's whirlwind itinerary included stops at Oxford and Cambridge universities to receive honorary degrees, a stay at the home of Alfred Tennyson, breakfast with Prime Minister William Gladstone and tea at Windsor Castle with Queen Victoria.
"I noticed an unusual interest among the attendants and servants," Victoria later confided to her husband's biographer Theodore Martin. "When [Longfellow] took leave, they concealed themselves in places from which they could get a good look at him as he passed. I have since inquired among them, and am surprised...to find that many of his poems are familiar to them. No other distinguished person has come here that has excited so peculiar an interest."
After his death on March 24, 1882, at 75, dozens of memorials were erected throughout the United States. A national campaign was launched to fund a statue to be unveiled in Washington, D.C. In England, Longfellow became the first American to be honored with a marble bust in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. "Never had a poet been so widely loved," Charles Eliot Norton declared in an essay that commemorated the centennial of Longfellow's birth, "never was the death of a poet so widely mourned."
Widely, but not forever. Longfellow seems to have understood the vicissitudes of fame as well as anyone. His first book of consequence, the travelogue Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Seas, concluded with a prophetic riff: "Dost thou covet fame?" he asked. "This little book is but a bubble on the stream; and although it may catch the sunshine for a moment, yet it will soon float down the swift-rushing current, and be seen no more!"
Still, Longfellow did what he could to hold the sunshine as long as possible. When he died, he even left behind a collection of pencil stubs wrapped in pieces of paper identifying, in his handwriting, the works that he had composed with each one.
"Above all, Longfellow wrote poems that were meant to be enjoyed," says Christoph Irmscher. "Storytelling, unfortunately, goes against the modernist belief that in order to be any good a poem has to be concise and compressed, and difficult to figure out."
Perhaps Longfellow provided his own best summary in "A Psalm of Life":
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Nicholas A. Basbanes' several books include Every Book Its Reader (2005).
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