In generations past, what child did not memorize “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” and other stirring lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 19th -entury America’s most beloved poet?
And that’s the problem, according to historian and cultural critic Jill Lepore. As she wrote in The American Scholar, for a poem to be so treasured by kids guarantees “the sweet, sloppy kiss of death.” Literary tastemakers abhor such accessibility, such sentiment, such ability to sell gazillions of copies. Out from the canon you go. By the early 20th century, Whitman and Dickinson were in, Longfellow was exiled.
Nicholas Basbanes wants to reverse that evaluation. Author of numerous volumes on books and book collecting, including “A Gentle Madness,” he has now written “Cross of Snow,” a lengthy biography that, while partly rehab campaign, is most engaging in its examination of the poet’s personal life. In the process, Henry’s second wife, Fanny Appleton, emerges as its captivating tragic heroine.
Even while an undergraduate at Bowdoin, Longfellow confessed to his father his ambition to “future eminence in literature.” In the meantime, after three years of study abroad, the college snapped up the young man as a professor of European literature. He self-identified as a “cosmopolite” comfortable in many cultures and languages, while his poems began appearing in magazines. A few years later, his star rose even farther when Harvard lured him away to replace the great scholar George Ticknor. He would remain on its faculty for 25 years.
While teaching at Bowdoin, Henry married Mary Potter, the daughter of a judge. Yet just five years later, in 1836, while the couple was traveling in Holland, Mary miscarried and died. (Setting sail for Europe, they had not known she was pregnant.) After grieving and immersing himself in German literature in Heidelberg, Henry moved on later that year to Switzerland, where a mutual friend introduced him to Fanny and her family. He was 29, she only 18.
Daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer in Lowell, Fanny had been educated at Elizabeth Peabody’s rigorous school for girls in Boston. Intelligent, curious, and spirited, she kept journals that showcased an artistic sensibility and intellectual acumen well beyond her years. In the company of Fanny, Henry sensed a kindred spirit. But Mary’s death was still fresh in his heart.
Back at Harvard, he would encounter Fanny now and then in their elite social circles. But she kept her distance and rebuffed any attempt at courtship. Then, in 1839, Henry made what Basbanes considers “one of the worst decisions of his life.” He published “Hyperion,” a book that encompassed travelogue, literary criticism, and fiction. The story featured a charming young woman modeled on Fanny and her besotted suitor, a clone of Henry. She was not amused to be so publicly exposed, and refused to have anything to do with him for 4½ years.
Finally, after nudging from her confidante, novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Fanny finally relented. By all accounts, the marriage was a splendid match. The pair doted on each other, and produced five surviving children. Why she resisted so long isn’t clear. It wasn’t that she longed to be single, but she did hold up high standards in beaux and found most unsuitable. And “Hyperion” only lengthened Henry’s period of exile.
Although the book offers little insight into Longfellow’s craft and steers clear of literary analysis, Basbanes does make the case that Fanny acted as “more than muse … an essential nutrient to his creative impulse.” She informed one of Henry’s sisters that “he always takes my suggestions,” then modestly added that they “may not improve the poem.” In any event, Henry appreciated her careful perusal of his manuscripts.
Much of Basbanes’s writing is absorbing, much is tedious. His research has been prodigious. His probing of Fanny’s papers has proved especially revealing, and given her new stature. Yet he’s the sort of writer who refuses to omit. The resulting heap of detail becomes mind-numbing. Our eyes glaze from reading lengthy accounts of European travels. And many scholarly references should have been relegated to endnotes: “That notebook [of Fanny’s father], along with numerous other Appleton family papers, is preserved in the Massachusetts Historical Society.”
Unaccountably, one question left unanswered is why Longfellow, unlike so many Bostonians in his circle, refrained from vocal opposition to slavery, especially since he and Fanny deeply admired their friend Charles Sumner, Massachusetts’ abolitionist US senator. After Longfellow’s “Poems on Slavery” appeared in 1842, his voice of outrage went silent.
In 1861, Henry’s great love was grievously snuffed out when Fanny died in a household fire. “I loved her so entirely,” he wrote to her sister. Heartbroken, he lived 21 more years.
During the 20th century, Longfellow had only a handful of advocates, including Robert Frost, but by late in the century a mini-revival of interest had begun. More recently, David Lehman, editor of “The Oxford Book of American Poetry,” deemed him “underrated.” That may not seem strong praise, but it’s something. And the esteemed Library of America has issued a volume of Longfellow’s poetry. Does that mean he’s back in the canon?
Let’s leave the last word to Harold Bloom, that exacting gatekeeper to Olympus. He anointed Longfellow “a superb lyric poet.”
CROSS OF SNOW: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
By Nicholas Basbanes
Knopf, 480 pp., $37.50
Dan Cryer is the author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church” and “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues From the Heartland.”