“Longfellow.” Whether one has read his works or not, practically everyone knows it is the name of a poet. This is not only true in his native state of Maine but resonating differently around the globe and with each generation. Both the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, where the poet grew up, and Longfellow House-Washington’s National Headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived most of his adult life, are visited by thousands of tourists and scholars each year.

As a junior high student in the 1950s, my classmates and I were obliged to recite large passages of his epic poem “Evangeline,” the last class required I believe, but the lines still resonate. By the time college rolled around, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and his poetry, once the most popular in the English-speaking world, were completely devalued, except among the most hidebound of scholars. The Reader’s Encyclopedia of 1965 noted: “His poetry and values have been subject to great critical reversals. Never profound or powerfully original, he did have a sound lyric sense and an effective understanding of European culture.” Indeed, he was then considered a rhymer of scant content, almost a poetaster among the now vaunted ranks of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

“Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” By Nicholas A. Basbanes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 461 pages. $37.50. Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

The wheels of criticism and taste began to turn, almost imperceptibly, at first but soon more rapidly. I recall a blurry Saturday morning in 1977 when I turned on the TV to watch William F. Buckley making light of Longfellow on “Firing Line.” Suddenly Buckley was given a polite, devastating rebuttal by the blind and aged Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who beautifully recited large parts of “Evangeline” and extolled the wonderful sound of the words. Buckley backed down. The times were changing and Nicholas A. Basbanes’ critical biography, “Cross of Snow,” is the point of critical restoration we are at now.

Basbanes, a well-known New England journalist and author of nine books, is not the first to re-evaluate Longfellow, and he aptly credits Charles C. Calhoun’s “Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life” (2004), Christopher Irmscher’s “Longfellow Redux” (2006) and the collection of scholarly essays brought out by Fairleigh Dickinson Press and Roman & Littlefield (2014). Basbanes traces the phoenix-like rise of Longfellow’s reputation, which “a dozen years earlier would have been inconceivable, let alone green-lighted by a reputable publishing house.” Quoting biographer Irmscher, we are told, “He is back in the anthologies; dissertations are being written about him … Younger scholars have especially embraced the poet’s documented love of foreign languages, his lifelong interest in translation, and the work he did to establish what we now call comparative literature in the universities.”

A sound and entertaining writer, Basbanes carries things further in 18 chapters while covering familiar ground. In keeping with previous biographers, he shows a life fraught with personal tragedy but always met with a strange buoyant positivity. The loss of two wives under dreadful circumstances did not lead to a spiral of gloom or despair, the path of so many of his contemporaries. This is an enigma most observers have had difficulty dealing with.

The death by fire of his second wife, Fanny Appleton (1817-1861), and the maiming of the poet’s face and hands were especially ghastly, but as Basbanes so deftly shows, Longfellow was able to somehow, while never forgetting Fanny, focus on the love and care of their children, reconnect with friends, work on fresh poems and translate Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

Of the latter, Yale scholar Harold Bloom stated in 1994 “that Longfellow is a superb lyric poet (which) compares favorably with the current versions.” Bloom later told Basbanes he preferred it to “all current versions.” High praise indeed.

One of the major assertions in “Cross of Snow” is the importance paid to the passionate 18-year marriage of Henry and Fanny, especially in the chapters “At the Summit,” “Pericles and Aspasia” and “Balance and Harmony.” Basbanes carefully sifts through the letters of Henry and Fanny and other sources that suggest Fanny was something more than an amanuensis. He makes a fair to good case for collaboration, but that I suppose is up to the reader to unravel. This reviewer’s wife reads all his manuscripts, frequently suggests changes, but given today’s standards we sign as co-authors when appropriate. In the poem, “Cross of Snow,” not published until after his death, Longfellow referred to a mountain in the distant west:

“Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

 Such a cross I wear upon my breast.

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

 and seasons, changeless since the day she died.”

This poem is now one of his most admired, and the book of the same name the most enlightening biography to date.

William David Barry was co-curator along with Elizabeth S. Hamill of Longfellow’s Portland, an exhibition at Maine Historical Society in 1985. He is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is currently writing a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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