In This Article Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Longfellow and His Family
  • Longfellow and Friendship
  • Longfellow as Cultural Icon
  • Longfellow and Sentimentality
  • Influences
  • Hyperion (1839)
  • Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847)
  • The Song of Hiawatha (1855)
  • Tales of a Wayside in (1863; 1870; 1873)
  • Individual Poems
  • Longfellow and Translation

American Literature Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
by
Christoph Irmscher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0029

Introduction

It is not an exaggeration to say that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (b. 1807–d. 1882) was one of the world’s most popular and widely read poets. However, in a spectacular turn of events, he lost much of his reputation and influence during the early half of the 20th century. This was partly due to the modernists’ insistence on complexity and their injunction to “make it new” (Ezra Pound), which did not sit well with Longfellow’s documented conviction that all writing was essentially rewriting. Longfellow’s anti-Romantic poetics, which insisted on a strict separation of personal experience and poetic performance, never comfortably fit customary definitions of “lyrical” poetry. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, into a family deeply skeptical of his literary ambitions, Longfellow worked diligently on his career until he made enough money to resign from his position as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University. Although outwardly successful, he experienced considerable tragedy in his private life, notably, the death of his first wife, Mary Potter, from a miscarriage in Rotterdam in 1835, and the death, in a fire, of his second wife, Frances (“Fanny”) Elizabeth Appleton, in 1861. Longfellow’s popularity waned faster than anyone could have imagined at the time of his death in 1882. Charges of plagiarism, leveled against him most prominently by his poetic adversary Edgar Allan Poe, had dogged him even in his lifetime, but under the influence of a new generation of poets who considered popularity with the reading public as the writer’s mark of Cain, they gained new traction. The vicissitudes of Longfellow’s popular reputation are reflected, with some delay, in the shifting history of Longfellow scholarship. The early adulatory biographies paved the way for the first phase of serious Longfellow criticism, in which critics engaged mostly in assiduous source hunting, confirming the poet’s stupendous erudition and, sometimes inadvertently, his alleged lack of literary originality. During the second half of the 20th century, the few scholars who wrote about Longfellow repeated earlier modernist clichés of the bedraggled plagiarist. But in 2004, Charles Calhoun’s biography catalyzed a startling revival within and beyond the walls of academe, challenging many of the critical stereotypes (Calhoun 2004, cited under Biographies). Reviewing Irmscher’s Longfellow Redux (Irmscher, 2006) in January 2007, the Times Literary Supplement declared: “Longfellow lives again!” Since then, in many contributions written mostly by younger scholars, a new Longfellow has emerged: a multiculturalist, a speaker and a reader of many languages, a bold experimenter with poetic form, and an innovative translator. In the view of recent critics, Longfellow embraced a cosmopolitan conception of American literature that offered a serious alternative to the nationalist model defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his followers. Longfellow is back roaming the halls of academe, even if his presence still calls forth the occasional attempt at sheepish justification. The rich archival resources related to Longfellow and his family (especially at Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site) remain underused.

General Overviews

General assessments of Longfellow’s relevance for American literature, and to a lesser degree world literature, revolve around a fairly limited list of topics, ranging from debates about his Americanness (Higginson 1902) to reflections on his relentless accessibility to readers, vigorously applauded by Derbyshire 2000, to, finally, questions about his literary originality, or lack thereof, as posed by Ljungquist 1997. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, Nemerov 1959, Aaron 1988, Fletcher 1991, Gioia 1993, and Burt 2009 have demonstrated that accounts of American literary history cannot afford to do without the Cambridge poet. One of the most promising new developments in Longfellow scholarship is Willis’ 2011 attempt to recover the poet as an ecocritical writer.

  • Aaron, Daniel. “The Legacy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Maine Historical Society Quarterly 27.4 (Spring 1988): 42–66.

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    Wide-ranging, witty reflection, in luminous prose, on the decline of Longfellow’s reputation. However outmoded Longfellow’s “line of goods” might seem to some today, his “continued neglect amounts to a national loss. American literature isn’t all that rich and various that we can afford to discredit or forget so good a poet” (p. 65). Aaron paves the way for a strand in current critical thinking about Longfellow as an audience-oriented, antiromantic, proudly middlebrow poet.

  • Burt, Stephen. “Poetry Crosses the Ocean.” In A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, 187–192. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.

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    Short but important essay which juxtaposes Longfellow’s passion for transatlantic literary exchange (Burt calls Evangeline a “hybridized Swedish-American-Canadian” poem) with William Carlos Williams’s desire to create a “distinctively American poetry . . . by looking beyond national and linguistic divisions” (p. 189). Like Longfellow, Williams emphasized the importance of craftsmanship, and like him he was fascinated by oceans and the Spanish-speaking world.

  • Derbyshire, John. “Longfellow and the Fate of Modern Poetry.” New Criterion 19.4 (December 2000): 12–20.

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    The author thinks that the entire modernist movement, along with communism, was a bad mistake and finds solace in Longfellow’s narrative poetry. Longfellow attained a breadth and durability of appeal that modern poets, for all their writer-in-residence sinecures and Pulitzer Prizes, can only dream of. That said, the author dislikes Longfellow’s prose, specifically, the novella Kavanagh: A Tale, which he deems unreadable, a “sorry piece” (p. 20).

  • Fletcher, Angus. “Longfellow and Whitman: Two Types of the American Poet.” Raritan 10.4 (Spring 1991): 97–113.

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    Claims that Longfellow’s interest in meter shows the typically American passion for engineering things in a new way. Walt Whitman invented one all-powerful metrical, identifiable voice, whereas Longfellow, in his desire to reinvent Europe for the New World, created dozens of different, competing voices (hence the accusation of “plagiarism”). These poets thus complement each other. American literary history needs them both.

  • Gioia, Dana. “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry. Edited by Jay Parini, 64–96. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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    The essay most pivotal to the current revival of critical interest in Longfellow. The author, a practicing poet as well as a former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, laments the “simplified version of nineteenth-century American poetry” (p. 80) that the modernists have passed on to us and excoriates the devaluation of narrative poetry that he sees as the main reason for Longfellow’s exclusion from the canon.

  • Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902.

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    The best older book-length introduction to Longfellow. Unlike many biographers, Higginson does take time to comment on Longfellow’s work, in a chapter-length meditation on “Longfellow as a Poet.” Interesting, though critical, chapter on Longfellow’s Dante translations, in which the author expresses a marked preference for Longfellow’s earlier attempts, arguing that they are fresher and more vivid.

  • Ljungquist, Kent P. “The ‘Little War’ and Longfellow’s Dilemma: New Documents in the Plagiarism Controversy of 1845.” Resources for American Literary Study 23.1 (1997): 28–59.

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    A nuanced look at the accusations of plagiarism that followed Longfellow even before Poe launched his full-scale attack on him in January 1845. Contrary to critical consensus, Longfellow was deeply engaged in the controversy, which touched the core of his poetics.

  • Nemerov, Howard, intro. Longfellow: The Laurel Poetry Series. New York: Dell, 1959.

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    See pp. 7–27. Although Nemerov, himself an important poet, professes skepticism about Longfellow’s overall talent, he finds an “unyielding perception of reality” in Longfellow’s work that is the hallmark of “good poetry wherever and whenever written” (p. 26). He makes a special case for the importance of Longfellow’s late fragment Michael Angelo, “the equal of the best in nineteenth century poetry” (p. 25).

  • Willis, Lloyd. Environmental Evasion: The Literary, Critical, and Cultural Politics of ‘Nature’s Nation.’ Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

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    An innovative, lucidly written study that assigns a central place to Longfellow in a list of environmentally inclined American writers ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston (b. 1891–d. 1960). Keen on creating a transnational American literature that would base its claims for exceptionality on the uniqueness of the American environment, Longfellow, in Evangeline and Hiawatha, opposed nativist patriotism or definitions of Americanness based on vague abstractions about the American character.

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