Review: A new biography shows how Longfellow left his mark on the world

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For a guy who never made it to Minnesota, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sure left his mark here.

South Minneapolis is dotted with place names — roads, schools, lakes, parks, neighborhoods — taken from his book-length poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.” Go ahead, look up Mondamin Street.

So when I dug into Nicholas Basbanes’ new biography of Longfellow, “Cross of Snow,” which came out this summer, I was hoping for some insight into what made him such a hugely influential poet in the 19th century and worthy of being written about in the 21st. My first school in north Fargo was Longfellow, and I now live in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood. His face adorns a mural at my favorite local pub. I wanted to finally meet him.

And I did.

The book is not so much a literary history — Basbanes spends comparatively little time dissecting Longfellow’s work — as it is the story of an early American rock star, his impact on a nation still struggling to its feet, and his passion for two wives who both died tragically. Basbanes, a former journalist, dives into freshly unearthed letters and diaries to show that the poet’s private life was the springboard for much of his best work.

During his lifetime and afterward, Longfellow was acclaimed America’s “poet of the people,” giving colloquial voice to the legends that sustained the young nation. His poems resonated with Americans like few before; Lincoln wept when he heard the passage, “Sail on, O Ship of State!/ Sail on, O Union, strong and great,” and Henry Ford moved a 300-year-old Massachusetts tavern to his Dearborn village because it was said to have inspired Longfellow.

He coined phrases that remain in common usage: “The patter of little feet” and “Ships that pass in the night,” for instance, and “Things are not what they seem.” But he suffered a fall from grace in the 20th century, “an orchestrated dismissal” by modernists, Basbanes writes, who painted him as trite and utterly conventional. A University of California professor noted in 1982 that in the classroom, “Longfellow gets laughed at.”

This book is, in part, clearly intended to arrest the poet’s tumble. Basbanes writes that Longfellow is more relevant than ever because of his belief that the best literature, no matter where it’s from, has universal appeal — multicultural, if you will.

Longfellow was only 16 when he wrote his father, an attorney and former congressman, that he aspired not to become a lawyer or doctor but a writer. His extensive travels to Europe, which he undertook to prepare for teaching positions at Bowdoin and Harvard, were fundamental, Basbanes writes, to his ambition to be a citizen of the world.

But he was intent on giving the United States a literature of its own. In the mid-1850s he started weaving storied Native traditions into an American epic set on the Michigan shores of Lake Superior, about a mythical Ojibwe chief called Hiawatha.

Intending to echo the rhythms of Native chants, Longfellow mixed syllables and stresses in the manner of a Finnish folk epic. He took inspiration for the work from a small daguerreotype he had received of an obscure waterfall in Minnesota Territory called Minnehaha, and gave the name to the Dakota maiden whom Hiawatha loved.

Within two years the poem had sold 50,000 copies in the United States. Some made fun of the choppy meter, others lambasted Longfellow for glorifying Indians and Native culture. Today many blame him for fueling the “noble savage” stereotypes that even now persist. But at the time and for decades to come, “Hiawatha” captured the imagination of the reading public and artists alike. And the falls in the poem became the first attraction of renown in what would soon become Minneapolis.

The death of Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, days after suffering a miscarriage, left him stricken. But his subsequent happy marriage to Fanny Appleton, a dazzling Boston socialite who was his intellectual match, provided the bedrock on which he assembled some of his best-known work, including “Evangeline,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and “Hiawatha.”

When Fanny died after her dress caught fire while sealing an envelope with wax, Longfellow grew a full beard to hide the scars — psychic, one senses, as well as physical — carved on his face while trying to save her. His greatest work in his remaining years was arguably not his own poetry but that of Dante, whose “Divine Comedy” he translated in a version that’s still used. Longfellow never published the mournful sonnet he wrote about Fanny, “Cross of Snow,” which was found in his papers after he died.

To paraphrase Fanny Longfellow, there is much in this book that is readable but also plenty that is unnecessary. Basbanes goes on at length about the flammable properties of crinoline dresses and a murder involving a Harvard professor that engaged Longfellow’s attention but had nothing to do with him. He repeatedly injects himself into the narrative with first-person passages most biographers would relegate to the footnotes.

But no matter. Basbanes clearly knows his man and makes a good case that he deserves the renown that prompted Fargo, Minneapolis and just about every American hamlet back in the day to name a school for him. “If we know anything at all about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it was his conviction that life is precious and must be treasured,” Basbanes writes. That’s what I’ll remember next time I see Henry on the wall of the Longfellow Blue Door, and raise to him my mug of Day Tripper.


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