Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868

On December 17, 1877, Mark Twain delivered an after-dinner speech at a banquet of graybeards gathered in a Boston hotel to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday and the twentieth anniversary of the founding of The Atlantic Monthly. Seated at the head table along with Whittier were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—a band of authors, one newspaper worshipfully noted, who bathed the place in an “almost holy air.”

Twain was introduced by The Atlantic’s editor, William Dean Howells, and proceeded to entertain the assembled literati with a lengthy tale he thought pretty funny at the time. Three seedy characters calling themselves Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow enter a lonely miner’s cabin at the foot of the Sierras. They chug his whiskey, cheat at cards, and by spewing famous lines from one another’s work, they hoodwink the old miner, who doesn’t know these “littery swells” are impostors. “This is the forest primeval,” shouts the sham Longfellow as he dances around the cabin. “Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world,” the sham Emerson replies. Early the next morning, just before the scoundrels take off, Longfellow grabs the miner’s only pair of boots and quotes another of the poet’s best-loved lines: these boots will lay “footprints on the sands of Time.”

The audience laughed, perhaps with embarrassment, but many newspapers took offense. “Literary men in America, where so much is tolerated, ought to aim higher than the gutter,” scolded the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican. Howells was horrified: Twain might actually have been suggesting that those venerable men weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Nicholas Basbanes doesn’t include this anecdote in Cross of Snow, his affectionate new biography of Longfellow. To Basbanes, it was “modernism” that exiled the once best-selling Longfellow to the antechambers of literary history, demoting him from beloved bard to “fireside” or “schoolroom” poet. Critically acclaimed as well as hugely popular, by the time of his death in 1882 Longfellow’s verse had been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish, and he was meeting most of the prominent and fashionable figures of the day (except Abraham Lincoln, though Lincoln read him), from Harriet Beecher Stowe to the emperor of Brazil. Shortly after Longfellow’s death, a marble bust of the poet was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Thirty thousand copies of Evangeline were in print just two years after its release in 1847, and 50,000 copies of The Song of Hiawatha after its publication in 1855, the same year Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. (Whitman is regrettably absent from Basbanes’s pages, although the two authors met.) Twenty-five thousand copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish were sold in the first two months after its appearance in 1858. But in 1857, in “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” Lewis Carroll was already mimicking what Basbanes calls the “tom-tom tempo of the meter” of Hiawatha: “From his shoulder Hiawatha/Took the camera made of rosewood,/Made of sliding, folding rosewood;/Neatly put it all together.” And in 1854 the American poet Phoebe Cary had taken aim at Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” which begins: “Tell me not, in mournful numbers,/Life is but an empty dream!/For the soul is dead that slumbers,/And things are not what they seem.” Cary’s version opens with:

Tell me not, in idle jingle,
Marriage is an empty dream,
For the girl is dead that’s single,
And things are not what they seem.

Though parody can be a form of flattery, a number of Longfellow’s critics had already thought him overrated. Margaret Fuller considered him “a man of cultivated taste, delicate though not deep feeling, and some, though not much, poetic force,” adding, with certain foresight, that “he will rank as a writer of elegant, if not always accurate taste, of great imitative power, and occasional felicity in an original way, where his feelings are really stirred.” Edgar Allan Poe, who notoriously accused Longfellow of plagiarism, also said that he wrote “beautiful poems, by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking,” and he balked at Longfellow’s didacticism. Henry James, with typical understatement, christened Longfellow “not quite a Tintoretto of verse,” and James’s father dubbed him “good inoffensive comforting.”

Whether or not we blame modernism for Longfellow’s putative fall from grace, the poet Dana Gioia’s superb essay “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism,” published in 1993, evidently influenced Basbanes. Gioia argued that Longfellow created the American prototype of the “poet-professor,” which conferred authority on the poet and anticipated the role that would be assumed by such modernists as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. What’s more, Gioia admitted that Longfellow’s poetry could be pedestrian, but because it’s “as much a part of our history as of our literature,” it deserves to be approached on its own terms, not in relation to the more major poetry of Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, or Emily Dickinson. Coincidentally, Gioia’s essay appeared the same year as John Hollander’s capacious anthology American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, which nestled Longfellow between William Gilmore Sims and Whittier and included thirty-four Longfellow poems as well as selections from such well-known long works as Evangeline and Hiawatha. It’s an important chronological sampling.

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Take “The Spirit of Poetry,” composed in 1825, when Longfellow was only eighteen. It anticipates an older Longfellow who is still in love with the “old poetic legends” that he sought to revive:

…gifted bards
Have ever loved the calm and
   quiet shades.
For them there was an eloquent
   voice in all
The sylvan pomp of woods, the
   golden sun,
The flowers, the leaves, the river
   on its way,
Blue skies, and silver clouds, and
   gentle winds,—
The swelling upland, where the
   sidelong sun
Aslant the wooded slope, at
   evening, goes,—
Groves, through whose broken
   roof the sky looks in,
Mountain, and shattered cliff, and
   sunny vale,
The distant lake, fountains,—and
   mighty trees,
In many a lazy syllable, repeating
Their old poetic legends to the
   wind.

Some twenty years later, in “The Fire of Drift-Wood,” the poet more successfully creates a quiet setting to meditate poignantly on the passage of time. Two friends chat in an old farmhouse while sitting in front of the hearth:

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished
   scene,
Of what we once had thought and
   said,
Of what had been, and might have
   been,
And who was changed, and who
   was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of
   friends,
When first they feel, with secret
   pain,
Their lives thenceforth have
   separate ends,
And never can be one again.

In 2000 the late J.D. McClatchy judiciously edited a selection of verse and prose for a Library of America volume devoted entirely to Longfellow, and in it we can rediscover such fine poems as “The Ropewalk,” “Vox Populi,” or “In the Churchyard at Cambridge.” Several biographies and critical assessments subsequently followed—notably by Christopher Irmscher, who claimed that Longfellow was an early multiculturalist.

Yet reputations ebb and flow, and the fact remains that he is seldom read today.

As Whitman remarked after Longfellow’s death, he was the perfect antidote to “our materialistic, self-assertive, money-worshipping…America,” as well as easy to take and never radical: “His very anger is gentle, is at second hand.” Longfellow did publish in 1842 a volume entitled Poems on Slavery (written in part at the behest of his friend Charles Sumner, the antislavery senator from Massachusetts), but as Basbanes observes, he himself said they were “so mild that even a Slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast.” Still, in 1844 the abolitionist Whittier was so impressed that he asked Longfellow to run for Congress on the antislavery Liberty Party ticket. Characteristically, Longfellow demurred: “Though a strong anti-Slavery man, I am not a member of any society, and fight under no single banner…. Partisan warfare becomes too violent, too vindictive for my taste.” “He always thought it wisest not to do a thing,” one of Longfellow’s sons recalled. “He hated excess or extremes.”

Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, and descended from Mayflower passengers on his mother’s side, Longfellow attended Bowdoin College. A studious young man, he was selected to deliver the commencement address, “Our Native Writers,” in 1825. He told his father, a well-respected lawyer who had represented the district of Maine in the Massachusetts legislature, that he intended to “be eminent in something” and most particularly aspired to enjoy “future eminence in literature.” Sharply reminding his star-gazing son that “there is not wealth enough in this country to afford encouragement and patronage to merely literary men,” Stephen Longfellow, who was a trustee at Bowdoin, likely helped him secure a newly established professorship in modern languages there. The job stipulated that young Longfellow travel to Europe at his own expense (actually at his father’s expense) and learn the languages he was supposed to teach.

Longfellow’s early career was more of a struggle than the triumphalist march to fame that Basbanes suggests. Returning to Bowdoin in 1829 after a glorious three years abroad, ostensibly to study German in Göttingen—Basbanes minutely chronicles Longfellow’s apparent romances in Spain and Italy—he married Mary Potter, a childhood friend from Portland. But he was chafing under the faculty harness. “I have aimed higher than this,” he groused to his sister. Shrewdly capitalizing on the demand for language textbooks and grammars, he translated French poetry, wrote book reviews, and began lobbying for another position, at New York University or the University of Virginia, or perhaps an appointment as secretary to the American legation to Madrid. Maybe he would open a school for young women in New York or start a literary magazine. Nothing materialized.

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In 1834, when George Ticknor resigned his position as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, Longfellow got the job. To Basbanes, this was almost inevitable. He imagines Ticknor and Longfellow’s first meeting eight years earlier: “My sense is that Ticknor took to Henry instantly, his vibrant mind, his passionate ambition, the very cut of his jib—handsome, nicely dressed, respectful of his elders, articulate, courteous, excellent references.” But as Lawrance Thompson explains in his comprehensive Young Longfellow (1938), Longfellow had been canvassing well-placed friends like Ticknor, some of whom, such as his father’s Harvard classmate Justice Joseph Story, a Harvard overseer, were maneuvering on his behalf. “Life is opportunity,” Longfellow later told Whitman.

Fortunately for Longfellow, the position came with the suggestion that he again study German abroad—again at his own expense; Ticknor would stay at Harvard in the interim. Leaping at the chance, in the spring of 1835 he and his reluctant wife sailed to Europe. That fall, after suffering for several weeks the aftereffects of either a miscarriage or a stillborn child, Mary Longfellow died. Basbanes’s narrative then swerves to an explanation of how two portraits at the Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have come to be identified as her. One had been owned by Judge Lemuel Shaw’s great-granddaughter, who facilitated the publication of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, though there is no other connection made between Melville and Longfellow. Such asides, diverting as they may be, distance us from the poet, his grief, and his poetry.

Basbanes frequently interrupts his account of Longfellow’s life to catalog the furnishings in the Longfellow homestead. We learn that Albert Bierstadt presented Longfellow with his painting Departure of Hiawatha, “which today is a centerpiece in the Brattle Street dining room,” and that a portrait of Longfellow by G.P.A. Healy also hangs in the dining room, as do two Gilbert Stuart paintings. A crude shower contraption is still in the second-floor washroom, and a copy of Great Expectations can be found in the dining room “at eye level, on the middle shelf, to the left.” The plaster cast of Goethe that Longfellow purchased sits on top of his writing desk.

A bibliographer and antiquarian whose earlier books include On Paper (2013) and the exceptional A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (1995), Basbanes repeatedly draws attention to his research. He rummaged through the Longfellow House storage vaults and found a child’s pair of scuffed shoes, two portable traveling desks with folding tops, and a cast of the hand of the Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer. One of his eBay searches turned up signed autograph cards that Longfellow had given out, and he and his wife visited the childhood home of Longfellow’s second wife, which later housed the Boston Women’s Club and is now a private residence (and a National Historic Landmark) and was purchased for $15.3 million. We learn that Basbanes was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the grandson of Greek immigrants who worked in the textile mills.

There’s a certain charm to these numerous if distracting digressions. But the man who was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, apart from the cocoon of memorabilia and affection spun about him, remains something of a mystery. Surely his vaunted sweetness and serenity, much hailed by his friends, masked dogged ambition, a fear of failure (“I never am content,/But always see the labor of my hand/Fall short of my conception”), and an acute awareness of fame’s inconstancy: “Repeating/…old poetic legends to the wind.”

Clearly he also had a gift for friendship, as the bond between him and Sumner suggests; it was in many ways a striking partnership between the donnish poet and the outspoken politician who was beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor in 1856 by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks for his denunciation of slaveowners. Basbanes notes with approbation that Longfellow’s personal account books contain several “modest cash contributions” to such places as “colored school,” “negro school,” and “South Carolina negro school.”

Longfellow’s friendships with other contemporaries, like the Transcendentalist Emerson, were more complicated. After a dinner at Longfellow’s, Emerson confided to his journal:

If Socrates were here, we could go and talk with him, but Longfellow, we cannot go and talk with; there is a palace, and servants, and a row of bottles of different coloured wines, and wine glasses, and fine coats.

Basbanes describes the entry as catty, which Emerson seldom was. He may have been registering frustration at having to skate on the Longfellow surface and not, as was his wont, getting under it.

Borrowing from a great store of world literature, Longfellow was committed to creating an American idiom through it. In his novel Kavanagh, one of the characters, a writer, declares, “Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better.” From his early Washington Irving–derived sketchbook, Outre-Mer, to his long narrative poems such as Evangeline, with its unrhymed dactylic hexameters, Longfellow sought to fuse the old and new. The affecting refrain, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” in “My Lost Youth,” which influenced Robert Frost, comes from an old Lapland song. The Song of Hiawatha employs the trochaic tetrameter rhymes of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, and in Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow attempts an American Canterbury Tales and Decameron.

Through the years, one of his implicit subjects continued to be poetry, explicitly so in the lovely “Birds of Passage,” whose cry, anticipating Wallace Stevens, the speaker hears “Falling dreamily through the sky,/But their forms I cannot see.” Soon the forms appear as ghostly phantoms, something like inspiration, in “Haunted Houses”:

The stranger at my fireside cannot
   see
The forms I see, nor hear the
   sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while
   unto me
All that has been is visible and
   clear.

Although the phantoms visiting Longfellow were gentler than those that haunted Dickinson, the older poet suffered from mysterious eye problems, headaches, neuralgia, and insomnia as well as a ceaseless sense of his own laziness. He complained of “dismal lethargy” and “darkness [that] at times usurps the empire of my thoughts.” This was understandable after the death of Mary Longfellow, although while still abroad in the summer of 1836—not wanting to return home, he did not accompany her body back to America—in Interlaken he met Fanny Appleton, the brilliant young heiress he would marry seven years later.

Basbanes devotes two chapters exclusively to Fanny, whose often jejune journals, quoted at length, he likens to the fascicles of Dickinson. Another chapter mainly concerns the young George William Curtis’s crush on Fanny, which Basbanes claims he “can assert with confidence” (“praise be for paper trails,” he exclaims). Even without the paper trails, Fanny emerges as a witty, smart, cultivated woman.* Irritated by Longfellow’s thinly veiled portrait of their friendship in his fiction Hyperion: A Romance, which she described as “desultory, objectless, a thing of shreds and patches like the Author’s mind,” she initially rejected his suit. He was devastated. For unexplained reasons she relented in 1843, and the couple soon wed.

The marriage was extremely happy; they had six children, though one daughter, Frances, died before she turned two. With Fanny at his side, sheltered by the manse her father had purchased for them and confident in his professorship, Longfellow entered an enormously prolific period. In addition to his Poems on Slavery, he produced an anthology of favorite poems in 1844 and an anthology of European poetry, as well as his own collection The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems the next year. In 1847 he brought out Evangeline; in 1849 another collection, The Seaside and the Fireside, and Kavanagh; in 1851 the verse drama The Golden Legend. Having become quite prosperous in his own right, he was able to resign from Harvard in 1854 and began work on Hiawatha.

Then, on a hot day in July 1861, a lit match or a drop of burning wax fell onto Fanny’s light muslin dress, which whooshed into flame. She ran to Longfellow’s study, where he woke from his nap; throwing a rug over her, he held her close to try to put out the fire. She died the next day. Shortly after describing the calamitous event and the shock expressed by Longfellow’s friends, Basbanes takes us on an almost two-page detour about the frequency of such tragedies, given the flammability of muslin.

Bereft, Longfellow turned to Dante, a lifelong passion. Though occasionally ambivalent about his translations—they could seem “like an excuse for being lazy,—like leaning on another man’s shoulder”—he had included some that he had done from Purgatory in his early volume Voices of the Night. Now, resuming the work on Dante, “I enter here from day to day,” Longfellow writes, “And leave my burden at this minster gate.” As Basbanes perceptively suggests, Dante allowed Longfellow to articulate feelings that otherwise seemed too intimate or distressing and to calm them. “With me all deep feelings are silent ones,” he had once said. “Affliction makes us childish.”

In 1875 the aging poet traveled to Bowdoin for the fiftieth reunion of his class and read a poem, “Morituri Salutamus,” that is utterly honest, sad, touching, and in its own way heroic:

The night hath not yet come; we
   are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing
   light;…
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in
   another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades
   away,
The sky is filled with stars,
   invisible by day.

Like Gertrude Stein, with whom he shares nothing else, Longfellow wrote too much and at times too facilely. He was neither a vatic poet like Whitman nor a poet like Dickinson, who delved into “internal difference—/Where the Meanings, are.” But he did possess extraordinary range, composing fiction and nonfiction, travel sketches, verse drama and narrative poems, lyric verse and dramatic monologues, odes, ballads, sonnets, and elegies in voices urbane, scholarly, or homespun—all evidence of a man of surface calm restlessly in search of adequate form. Perhaps, then, in his case, it’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters, though arrive he often did.

  1. *

    The best evidence of her wit may be found in Mrs. Longfellow: Selected Letters and Journals of Fanny Appleton Longfellow, edited by Edmund Wagenknecht (Longmans Green, 1956).