A sprightly, long-needed biography of 19th-century America's most famous, myth-making poet.
Shortly after his death at age 75 in 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow fell out of fashion. Though he had been wildly acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic and enriched by a lifelong dedication to writing poetry, he was an easy target for modernists, who disdained his work as sentimental, derivative of Europeans, preachy, unironic, and even racist in its Indian depictions. Calhoun, who previously wrote a history of Longfellow’s alma mater (A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin, 1993), notes there hasn’t been a competent biography of Longfellow since Newton Arvin’s critical study in 1962. Yet this descendant of Harvard-educated gentlemen farmers and lawyers blazed many a trail from his birthplace in Portland, Maine, to his longtime residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Longfellow was a pioneering professor of modern languages and literatures at Harvard, where he taught for 18 years. He drew on folk myths such as the Finnish Kalevala long before Ezra Pound made the practice fashionable. He was the first to address what we now call ethnic cleansing in such poems as “Evangeline,” which depicted the tragedy of the Acadians in Nova Scotia; the first to solidify an American identity from Native stories (“The Song of Hiawatha”) and emblematic colonial characters such as Priscilla Alden, Paul Revere, and Miles Standish; and the first to bring Dante to the general American public. Calhoun even asserts that Longfellow’s rural sketch “Kavanagh” portrays the first lesbian relationship in US fiction. Moreover, the author presents an enormously sympathetic portrait of a universally admired gentleman who shunned public speaking, avoided taking stands on divisive issues such as slavery (despite the urging of his best friend, Senator Charles Sumner), and was devoted to his family. Calhoun’s comprehensive bibliography makes this additionally valuable as a veritable primer of Victorian America.
Could well encourage a new generation to read Longfellow.