Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life

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The term ‘rediscovery’ takes on special relevance in relation to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet who represented the romantic spirit in American literature as well as any writer. By ignoring Longfellow, or by mystifying or satirizing his poetry when we do not ignore it, we refuse to look nineteenth-century America full in the face. Longfellow’s critical twilight is at root historical avoidance.

Charles C. Calhoun

Reviewed by Joe Lockard


The term ‘rediscovery’ takes on special relevance in relation to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet who represented the romantic spirit in American literature as well as any writer. Longfellow rests in a twilight zone of historical reputation, too large and continuously present to forget, yet remembered only through the lens of literary stereotype. US society no longer names primary schools after Longfellow, but there are many schools named three generations ago that still bear the poet’s name. He does not have a city named after him, as Whittier, and critics do not cite him as a progenitor of modernism, like Dickinson and Whitman. Longfellow is remembered by a few keynote poems – "Song of Hiawatha," "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," "A Psalm of Life," and "The Village Blacksmith." It serves as a measure of Longfellow's esteem in the early twentieth century to realize that early in his career, John Ford made a silent film in 1922 based on "The Village Blacksmith."

Despite his tumble out of the canon, Longfellow remains a marvel of American literature, a figure who resists reduction to student-memorized poetic passages. He provided the first major impetus towards public recognition of the multicultural nature of US literature; few figures among American writers, then or since, match his cosmopolitan qualities; and comparative literature studies in the United States begin with Longfellow. It was in recognition of that multicultural cast of his work and translations that Harvard established the Longfellow Institute for the study of multilingual American literature, under the aegis of Marc Shell and Werner Sollors. However, instead of this form of recognition, too often appreciation of Longfellow has been abandoned to right-wing critics such as Dana Gioia – better known as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts – whose appreciation of Longfellow is caught up with a return to supposed ‘traditional’ aesthetic values. Yet there was little traditional about Longfellow’s work and its transatlantic hybridity, and the quietly insistent political radicalism of his Poems of Slavery gets ignored in such appreciations.

For Gioia, to read Longfellow’s poetry is to immerse oneself in the safety of well-worn, comfortable national narrative. It represents a retreat from a construed (or rather, misconstrued) modernist antagonism towards narrative in preference to the lyric. In Longfellow and his kin, according to Gioia, the classic function of poetry as a narrative conveyance reached its height in American poetry. His essay “"On ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’” elaborates such an understanding of this Longfellow standard as one of those poems by which America’s citizens gained the “words, images, myths, and heroes by which they explained America to one another and themselves.” This is a cultural reading that confuses nationalist appropriations with both that facts of American revolutionary history and the poem’s actual content.

Longfellow published this in the Tales of a Wayside Inn collection in 1863 when, as Gioia mentions, the fate of the federal union still lay in doubt. “Paul Revere’s Ride” echoes with the role of Northern intellectuals in raising the call to fight for the Union and against slavery. As the rural hinterlands once rose against the British for freedom, goes the then-easily recognizable rhetorical comparison, so too the call now goes out to volunteer in the fight for a nation founded upon its original ideals of freedom. However, readings in the generations following the Civil War downplayed this comparison to the point where it nearly disappeared. The cultural and racial supremacism that Longfellow despised seized upon the poem as an exemplary incarnation of the Nation forewarned and forearmed, the sort of puling patriotism that worships the flag and misreads the Second Amendment.

More careful and less sacral reading will emphasize that the poem is by no means an unqualified nationalist call to arms. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is littered with images of horror at social violence past, present, and prospective. A man in the North Church belfry looks down over a city that seems little more than an extended graveyard; the figure of Revere riding “through the gloom and the light” is equally a deaths-head spreading the spirit of the grave; and spiritual values of peace have been betrayed – “…the meeting-house windows, blank and bare, / Gaze at him with a spectral glare, / As if they already stood aghast / At the bloody work they would look upon.” The tone is mournful and elegiac, not celebratory; the poem remembers the Concord townsman asleep in his bed who “that day would be lying dead, / Pierced by a British musket-ball.” The poet avoids close description of the ensuing scenes of violence: “You know the rest. In the books you have read, / How the British Regulars fired and fled…” Such triumph as appears remains one of historical spirit more than of the literal battlefield.

Those who do not understand Longfellow’s habitual horror of violence likely have never read or do not remember “The Arsenal at Springfield,” written some seventeen years earlier during his honeymoon trip, a poem filled with his abhorrence of the role of violence in human history. Longfellow was no naïve: “Paul Revere’s Ride” implicitly recognizes that a time for violence has arrived but Longfellow cannot bring himself to celebrate its arrival, instead choosing to emphasize the call of popular revolt and a spirit of freedom. When his son Charley volunteered for the Union Army, Longfellow protested against his enlistment but accommodated his son and cared for him after a serious wound. But as much as Longfellow supported the war effort and allied himself with abolitionist figures such as Charles Sumner, violence remained for him an exhibition of evil rather than heroism. Throughout his poetry, the state remains identified with death rather than life: in “John Endicott” state religious persecution proceeds through violence and death, and in “The Courtship of Miles Standish” only the death of the Puritan warrior-captain and Indian-killer can enable expression of the love between Priscilla and John Alden.

For Gioia, however, this poem is “a legacy – one of the traditional tales that defines both the audience and the speaker’s identity.” In his celebratory nationalist reading, the poem transmits real history, failing to mention that there is little historical evidence that Revere’s ride was responsible for mobilizing local militias or that it even took place. Indeed, Gioia’s essay denigrates in passing those carping historians who complain about absent historicity, for in his estimate they miss the larger point of patriotic myth. But while such mythification is perhaps appropriate for a senior cultural official in an administration still convinced of the truth of the political yarn that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Longfellow’s narrative project in this and other poems ultimately has little to do with providing sanction to nationalist mythology. Contrary to Gioia’s false claim on Longfellow for shaping a message of a nation’s messianic salvation through the spirit of Paul Revere and those citizen-soldiers who can recall Revere’s heroism, Longfellow has a salutary counter-message: empires fall despite “the measured tread of the grenadiers” and nation-states rise amid ghastly blood-spilling. There is no leader here, only a messenger determined to warn of impending events. Revere is not a mythic hero; he is a harbinger no different from those village sleepers he arouses. If there is no negating or denying violent revolutionary histories, whether of the War of Independence or the Civil War, then as readers we are left to imagine and ruminate upon such imagination. Like the townspeople of Medford, Lexington, and Concord, the poem’s stampeding lyrics awaken us in a world where change is imminent and arriving in force.

All this is a profoundly different reading of “the midnight message of Paul Revere” than the re-warmed McGuffey’s pottage that vapid cultural apparatchniks like Dana Gioia proffer. So Longfellow is not ‘safe’ any more than other good poets. No, he does not defiantly challenge social orthodoxies like the early British romantics; rather, he frames rebellions and social injustices in narrative poems that enable readers to sympathize and understand that they belong to a tradition built upon these conflicts. "Evangeline" voices a sentimental protest from the ethnic cleansing – ‘le Grand Dérangement’ for the Arcadians – that moved nineteenth-century America and retains a power to do the same today for readers who overcome cultural prejudices against long poems. In writing “Giles Corey,” a dramatic poem protesting religious intolerance, he shared Nathaniel Hawthorne’s antagonism towards Puritanism and religious law. Given that Longfellow’s native Massachusetts was entirely governed by nativist Know Nothings during the mid-1840s when he wrote “Evangeline,” his choice of heroic Roman Catholic protagonists flew in the face of prevailing social prejudice and xenophobia. It was a display of human openness that clearly endeared the poet to Jenny Franchot in her lengthy section on “Evangeline” in Roads to Rome, one of the most insightful recent critical readings of Longfellow.

To look through his choices as an anthology editor for the 32-volume Poems of Places series on world poetry is to realize, even if such an anthology project seems antiquated or impossible by contemporary standards, that Longfellow was intellectually and professionally committed to cultural education in the broadest, most inclusive sense. He was guided by social tolerance, cultural liberalism, and a quiet populism that compared well with some American modernists – specifically Pound and Eliot – who were later to dismiss Longfellow’s generation as part of Victorian literary history that needed resolute burial. Longfellow was a profoundly public poet, one whose aesthetic remained committed to accessibility through reworking form and meter to brilliant technical effect. With a poem like “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” Longfellow adapted an English ballad form to local New England seafaring culture and achieved a pounding, insistent effect on his reading public. He wrote of that poem “I have a great notion of working upon people’s feelings…I desire a new sensation, and a new set of critics.”

His public never disappeared, although the terms of his public reception changed from head-of-the-canon to lapsed canon. Or perhaps worse than being entirely forgotten, the middle-brow sentiments of “A Psalm of Life” were reduced to innumerable office decorations, inspirational posters, and coffee mug quotations. Yet it remains a poor comment on US educational culture that students have nearly no acquaintance with Longfellow as a major nineteenth-century poet; the equivalent ignorance of, for example, Lamartine, would be unthinkable in France. Charles Calhoun’s new biography enters a relative dearth of Longfellow scholarship. The number of first-class, insightful treatments of Longfellow can be numbered on one hand; the situation is even worse for Whittier and Bryant, let alone fascinating, once well-recognized figures such as Bayard Taylor who receive almost no attention. This situation represents the cumulative effect of critical ideologies that look towards the American nineteenth century with modernist and post-modern preoccupations, or that bracket out selected figures of interest for what they potentially contribute to contemporary discussions of race, gender, and sexuality (John Hallock‘s The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck, as one instance).

Calhoun, who is not a working academic, understands these debates but does not let them interfere with producing a cleanly-written, highly informative, and deeply researched biography. To write about Longfellow presents a different task than for other popular poets of his period, since his reputation needs rescuing from the patriotic drum-beaters with negligible knowledge of the poet and an insatiable appetite for kitsch. Like some other outstanding poets – Langston Hughes rises to mind immediately – Longfellow produced copious kitsch alongside his best work. Lawrence Buell could not bring himself to include the once-popular “Excelsior” in his 1988 selected edition of Longfellow poems, for example, likely because it is precisely the sort of odious stuff that caused the poet’s dismissal for so long. Calhoun writes in both appreciative and critical modes, with an eye towards understanding why what was once popular reads differently today.

The portrait of Longfellow that emerges from this biography is warm and generous, like the poet himself. Calhoun’s description of the Dante Club meetings of the 1860s, whose meetings in Longfellow’s home accompanied his translation of The Divine Comedy and brought together figures like William Dean Howell (then a close neighbor in Cambridge), James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, is rich with detail and texture. Occasionally some biographical detail appears to have disappeared with editing, such as reduced Longfellow’s decades-long and close relationship with the radical German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath to a single brief mention.

Unlike the case with most other nineteenth-century American poets, treatments of Longfellow tend to be plagued with critical worries over the poet’s place in contemporary culture and the literary canon. Among nineteenth-century American poets, readers in the US and internationally have been attracted largely to those poets whose work superceded or violated the sensibilities of that century, Dickinson and Whitman. Calhoun largely avoids that unproductive preoccupation, and well so since it sheds no light on the actual life of Longfellow. As a result, the biographical focus remains where it should be, on the poet. This is the best-yet biography of Longfellow, one for which we should be grateful to have for its work of rediscovery.

The profound depths of American Victorian poetry, stretching from the strangely twisting metaphysical verse of Jones Very to the once-popular work of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, have become almost as if they never happened. Yet Longfellow hovers perpetually in the twilight, impossible to forget and impossible to re-canonize. It is a critical twilight ironically paralleling and conducive to understanding the apparitional figures that surge through “Paul Revere’s Ride,” where disquieting ghostliness speaks to the unresolved conflicts between social violence and its historical acceptance. In Longfellow’s work we re-visit such unresolved conflicts, ones frequently laying immediately beneath the surface of his poetic narrative. It is far easier to mock the meter and primitive tropes of “Song of Hiawatha” than to address the representational terms of its conscience-ridden struggle over European conquest of Native Americans. With Longfellow, idealism and culpability are continual antagonists. By ignoring Longfellow, or by mystifying or satirizing his poetry when we do not ignore it, we refuse to look nineteenth-century America full in the face. Longfellow’s critical twilight is at root historical avoidance.

Given that twenty-first century US society is in the midst of repeating some of the most unpalatable ideologies and politics of nineteenth-century America, we are far closer to the worst of Longfellow’s world than we care to admit.

Published by Beacon Press.

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of early American literature at Arizona State University.

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
 

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