With the arrival of “Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” the fabled 19th-century poet has perhaps found his ideal biographer in Nicholas A. Basbanes.
Basbanes is best known for “A Gentle Madness,” his 1995 cultural history of bibliophilia. Longfellow (1807-82) endures in popular reputation as a poet for antiquarian tastes, and many would say that he is the kind of poet only a bookhound like Basbanes could enjoy.
But in “Cross of Snow,” Basbanes argues that the poet behind “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” should be regarded as more than an antique curiosity. Basbanes says a Longfellow revival is underway, and he quotes approvingly from scholar Christoph Irmscher’s observation that Longfellow is coming to be appreciated as a pioneering multiculturalist and “bold experimenter with poetic form.”
Basbanes’ sprawling and immersive biography is an exercise for true disciples: It leans like Longfellow toward the epic sweep.
Basbanes details Longfellow’s fame during his lifetime. “Total strangers wrote him letters by the hundreds ... and he answered as many as he could, always gracious, always thoughtful,” he writes. “When admirers arrived unannounced at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which they did by the droves, he was the person who opened the front door, occasionally inviting them inside, readily dispensing autographed cards kept nearby for just that purpose.”
Longfellow’s appeal crossed the Atlantic, too. “[He] is still the only American writer to have a bust of his likeness displayed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey,” Basbanes notes.
A fitting tribute, no doubt, since Longfellow was something of a bridge between the Old and New Worlds. Long poems like “The Song of Hiawatha,” which drew on Ojibwe and Iroquois cultural traditions, affirmed for Europeans the exotic appeal of the U.S. frontier. Longfellow was also a great interpreter of Europe for his fellow Americans and known for his translations of Dante.
Little wonder that Longfellow was a Dante fan, drawn as he was to poetry that embraced a long narrative arc. “Evangeline,” his poem about lovers separated by the expulsion of Acadians from Canada, is still revered in Louisiana, where many residents embrace its Cajun-themed premise, though largely a work of fiction, as historical fact. The same is true of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which freely indulges poetic license yet speaks to a number of Americans as the definitive account of a critical moment in the American Revolution.
Longfellow was most memorably a narrative poet, creating characters who can feel real, even when they were born primarily from his imagination. His gifts as a storyteller gave him the kind of stature that today we typically reserve for bestselling novelists.
He was also capable of creating effects on a smaller scale. “The Children’s Hour,” an 1860 poem in which he cheerfully resigns himself to being interrupted in his work by his young children, will resonate with any parent. The poem’s reference to the “patter of little feet” remains part of the national lexicon.
Despite its ostensibly benign tone, “The Children’s Hour” concludes with a glancing reference to ruin and decay, suggesting that happiness is precious precisely because it’s fleeting. Longfellow’s life was touched by family loss, a reality that shadows his poems.
It’s such complexity, “Cross of Snow” suggests, that makes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow worth revisiting.