Longfellow: His Life and Work
by Newton Arvin
Atlantic-Little Brown, $6.75
After his second wife’s horrible death by fire, in 1861, Longfellow’s face was too seared to be shaven, and he grew a beard. It was this beard in which he was received by Queen Victoria, toasted by Gladstone and seen by a vast international public as the foremost of American poets. For those of us who were taught in grade school to revere him and in college to shrug him off, the beard is an obstacle to fresh acquaintance, and Newton Arvin has wisely chosen a frontispiece in which the forty-eight-year-old man is obscured only by burnsides. What the photograph shows, immediately, is the “lit-up face and glowing warmth and courtesy” which Whitman encountered. But that we might have guessed: less expected is the general air of robust youthfulness. In the lift of the head, in the strong brows and nose, there is a look of romantic adventurousness, or perhaps, as Mr. Arvin suggests, of command. The eyes are direct, clear and full of life, though a pronounced fold at the outer corners gives them a touch of sadness. The mouth, in contradiction to all that may seem rugged in the other features, is generous, comfort-loving and a bit unformed.
Like the frontispiece, Mr. Arvin’s excellent account of Longfellow’s life presents the man rather than the idol. This is not to say that the biographical chapters confer any illusion of intimacy with Longfellow; the proportions of the study permit very little detail, very little quotation from journal or letters; the method is neither dramatic nor atmospheric, and we do not fancy that we are “there.” We do, however, gain from Mr. Arvin’s spare, pointed narrative a just perspective on a unique career, and an admirably reserved interpretation of a character which was less simple than it seemed.
Few writers have been so fortunate. Longfellow suffered three painful bereavements, but the rest of his life was incessantly sweet. He was born into a cultured, comfortable family of good standing, and brought up in a home town—Portland, Maine—which he never ceased to love. As a senior at Bowdoin College he developed a fervent aspiration toward “future eminence in literature,” and events promptly conspired to give him his wish. Bowdoin’s trustees preserved him from the study of law by appointing him, at the age of eighteen, to a professorship of modern languages, and after three years of happy preparation abroad he returned to teach, first at Bowdoin, and then for eighteen years at Harvard. If he sometimes found teaching onerous, he was always successful at it, and never wearied of his material. As America’s first poet-professor he was luckier than many since, in that for him there was “a complex and fruitful reaction between literary scholarship and literary creation.” His house in Cambridge seemed to Emerson a palace; his domestic life, as Mr. Arvin says, “was one of almost pure felicity”; and his poetic reputation, beginning with Voices of the Night in 1839, grew …