Richard Shain Cohen, a retired English professor and president of academic affairs at the University of Maine, has set out to rescue Alexander Longfellow Sr. (1814-1901).

A younger sibling of poet Henry Wadsworth, this Longfellow, in Cohen’s words, “provided an important addition to the history, environment and geography of the east end of Maine.”

In a neatly designed and well-illustrated volume, the author, a resident of Cape Elizabeth, does indeed rescue Alexander from the shadows of his brother’s fantastic career and historian’s obsessions with American expansion west of the Mississippi.

During the past decade, interest in the talented and edgy Longfellow family has begun to attract researchers — and it is about time, for the bard did not emerge as a singular talent.

His grandfather commanded the Eastern Frontier during the Revolutionary War, his father attended the infamous Hartford Convention during the War of 1812, and brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, nephews and nieces all led colorful and/or eventful lives. There were writers, ministers, travelers, a drug addict, a bigamist and a silent movie actress.

One of the great joys of the family was their internal communication, which often included visual or musical material along with letters. They were remarkably compassionate toward each others’ flaws and failings, trying not to leave anyone in the lurch. (Though a couple proved almost impossible to assist.)

One of the great things about “The Forgotten Longfellow” is how Cohen has combined Alexander’s log for the U.S. Coast Survey and Portland Society of Natural History with maps and other images.

The author notes that his man’s relegation to the shadows wasn’t simply the case of having a more famous sibling, but Alexander’s career choice as a government surveyor-topographer on the East Coast (including Maine’s North East Boundary and coast). Indeed, some of the participants on the Maine boundary survey had already worked at Yellow- stone, and the interest of most Americans, then and later, looked to the west. Maine was a late, somewhat of a dead-end, frontier.

The only real issue I have with “The Forgotten Longfellow” is one of style, and it may be this reader’s personal bugaboo. The 10 chapters are a tad disorganized.

There is great information and wonderful word pictures by Alexander, but they are held together by Cohen’s prose, which is intended to be active — and here is my bugaboo. The author’s didactic prose seems to be a drag on the book. To wit:

“Alone, he attunes himself to his surroundings, is more incisive, and sometimes ambivalent. He does, however, afford insights into Alexander W. Longfellow as a person of substance. Continually observant studies what he espies and either writes about or artistically illustrates the experience. It is a lifetime characteristic through which one gains a record of many nineteenth-century habits and events. Aboard the Fairfield (1834 voyage with Commodore Alexander Scammel Wadsworth to West Coast of South America) he is the secretary, a sailor, a scientist.”

This is in Chapter One, after an 1835 trip to Europe, and we are referred to Chapter Five for the earlier South American voyage. It was a baffling disruption at first read. The constant back and forth between Longfellow’s words and the opinions of Cohen chafe. I would have preferred a more linear and somehow less arrangement between author and speaking subject. I never felt at ease.

However, Cohen did achieve what he set out to do, and that is to move Alexander into the limelight. “The Forgotten Longfellow” not only speaks in Longfellow’s own words but shows his amusing and serious visual talents — talents that contributed to the actual shaping of our state and nation.

So put my criticism in the quibble category. We have been given a work, which if not perfect in style, is generously substantive. Brother Alex returns a man in full and a man in the context of his times. 

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored five books, including “Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mast Trade” and the novel “Pyrrhus Venture.” He lives in Portland.


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