Anna Bultrowicz, author
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was buried at Cambridge in March 1882 (Candido 103), he was one of the most influential poets of the 19th century both in the United States and across the Atlantic. Longfellow had achieved an unprecedented proto-celebrity status as a poet, responding to as many as twenty letters a day until four months before his death from admirers he personified as the “perfect stranger” (Irmscher 34). However, despite his unparalleled popularity lingering for nearly a generation after his death, Longfellow’s literary standing has since been sullied by a slew of 20th-century modernist critics. “Such excessive literary inflation,” reasoned Newton Arvin, “could not possibly have any stability, and nothing could have been more foreseeable[…] than that Longfellow’s overblown reputation was due for a peculiarly complete collapse” (318-19). Cast aside as simplistic and superficial by distinguished American critics such as Van Wyck Brooks, George Santayana, and Ludwig Lewisohn, a reappraisal of the validity of the criticism Longfellow received and an analysis of the universality of his themes, particularly in The Song of Hiawatha, has been long overdue—not to mention the topical significance of his poetry and whether or not this merits modern analysis. Largely overlooked in contemporary studies as a result of his thorough erasure from literary prominence at the dawn of the 20th century, when scrutinized alongside other monumental transcendentalist poets of the age Longfellow’s poetry exhibits concepts and themes akin to Whitman’s avant-garde universal unity. However, the accessibility of his writing, one of the central reasons for its dismissal, serves the dual-function of conveying complex universal themes in lay terms comparable to Whitman’s and acting as a medicinal mode of escapism for America as she was experiencing the precession of what would be one of her greatest moments of dissension and instability: the Civil War.
“Longfellow is to poetry what the barrel-organ is to music,” condemned Brooks in 1915 (Arvin 320)—essentially, as Lewis Mumford later concurred, insignificant (321). Despite his ascent into literary stardom, Longfellow’s reputation has since been ravaged by an onslaught of scathing reviews by influential critics such as Brooks, Santayana, and Lewisohn. Brooks, who contended that American literature was divided between “meaningless realism and a meaningless idealism” (Hoopes 100) with seldom gray area in between, grouped Longfellow into the former category, failing to recognize any “artistic instinct” in his poetry (100). As the 20th century commenced, the fledgling generation of critics and writers subscribed to Brooks’s assessment: “To young writers who were deeply troubled about the aridity, the sterility, the spiritual uncreativeness of American generally, and who were turning to the American past in the hopes of discovering moral and intellectual ancestors there[…] Longfellow inevitably seemed to hold out an empty hand” (Arvin 320). Particularly in the shadow of literary goliaths such as Emerson and Whitman, Longfellow’s poetry seemed to lack the philosophy to direct his “social instinct” (Hoopes 100). His descent into obscurity was marked by Santayana and Brooks’s deliberate exclusion of Longfellow from an American canon centered on Emerson and Whitman, a successful attempt to break the trend of genteel tradition that dominated the 19th century and of which Longfellow in particular personified (Willis 629). As Arvin described, Longfellow was no “poète maudit”; he was born in idyllic Portland, Maine, and raised under a well-
established, respected surname (1-6). Longfellow was denounced as “detached from contemporary America” (321), a sentiment generally echoed by the 20th-century writers and critics to come. As Lewisohn had said, “Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow?” (Arvin 321).
Yet his appeal to the nation’s “wretched schoolchildren” is precisely what allowed to Longfellow to thrive and achieve the status of one of the nation’s most beloved poets. Melodic rhyme schemes and clear themes characterized Longfellow’s poetry with an accessibility that the literary giants that shared his day had not offered—“It was in him rather than in Walt Whitman that the public saw the long-awaited incarnation of the native bard who at last gave America the sense and measure of her literary potential and glory” (Salska 611). While Brooks perceived the simplicity of Longfellow’s poetry as superficiality and a lack of artistic depth (Hoopes 100), letters from Longfellow to his father in which he wrote, “Nothing can be advantageous to a person’s writing, which has a tendency to injure his style, and to bring him into a superficial way of thinking” (Longfellow 128), reveal an aversion to rigid structure and the insubstantiality that it yields. Rather, Longfellow utilized a simplistic style to develop a pattern of inviting accessibility that emerges throughout his poetry: in The Song of Hiawatha (“Stay and read this rude inscription,/Read this Song of Hiawatha!” [Longfellow 5]), and in The Day Is Done (“Read from some humbler poet,/Whose songs gushed from his heart” [Longfellow 25-6]). This repetitive assurance serves to engage who Lewisohn and Herbert Gorman would refer to as the American “semi-literate” or “subliterary” (Irmscher 34) in the controversial and, in its complexity, intimidating concept of a universal unity of mankind, particularly in The Song of Hiawatha. Appealing to both “university professors and servant girls alike” (3) allowed Longfellow to extend his influence over a sizably wider and more inclusive audience than singularly more complicated poets such as Whitman; Longfellow introduced poetry as “a public idiom in the United States and abroad” (Irmscher 3). In short, Longfellow’s mass appeal resulted from the accessibility and ease of his poetry; he was a people’s poet.
However, he was a people’s poet not only in the sense that his writing was easily accessible to a broad audience, but that he advocated a universal unity in the United States that overlooked entrenched societal dividers such as race and ethnicity. Longfellow’s poetry encouraged American society to experience feelings of kinsmanship and unity, in particular with the long abused Native American population. While Longfellow did not present the concept that all men and women are innately one as Whitman does, he puts forth the idea that all men and women share a certain quality in the fact that they are all human—an approach to unity more grounded in the concrete than Whitman’s abstract one. This concept is depicted in The Song of Hiawatha, where Longfellow writes, “Every human heart is human,/That even in savage bosoms/There are longings, yearnings, strivings/For the good they comprehend them with a unique history and culture of their own not” (Longfellow 4). The Song of Hiawatha was Longfellow’s attempt to introduce Native American mythology and folklore into white American society, a method of humanizing the Native American people by portraying them with historical past and culture engaging to white readers. However, Longfellow’s poetry also sympathizes with the Jewish people and African American slaves, as shown in The Jewish Cemetery at Newport and The Slave Singing at Midnight. In the former, Longfellow writes, “How came they here? What burst of Christian hate;/What persecution, merciless, and blind,/Drove o’er the sea,—that desert, desolate—/These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind” (Longfellow 29-32), controversially showing favor for the Jewish people at the expense of depicting Christians in a positive moral light. Finally, Longfellow bemoaned the plight of African American slaves in The Slave Singing at Midnight—however, noticeably in sympathizing with the slaves Longfellow repeatedly references the Hebrew religion, writing, “Loud he sang the psalm of David!/He, a Negro and enslaved,/Sang of Israel’s victory,/Sang of Zion, bright and free” (Longfellow 1-4). Longfellow’s connecting the discrimination of the Jewish people to the discrimination of the African American slaves acted to associate seemingly wholly different and diverse ethnic groups by exposing common factors within them—in this case their shared oppression. In this approach, Longfellow recognized that the greatness of the nation lay in her inclusiveness.
That said, dismissing the topical facet of Longfellow’s poetry as irrelevant in contemporary literary studies carelessly overlooks the significance of authorial intent in American literature. Topical poetry offers primary insight into the past passions and dreads of American society, allowing a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of the society from which today’s gradually emerged, and therefore granting greater insight into present and future America. Longfellow’s works served to soothe a fledgling nation rapidly disintegrating into the eruption of the Civil War in 1861, extending an offer of escapism and comfortability in stanzas such as, “Come, read to me some poem,/Some simple and heartfelt lay,/That shall soothe this restless feeling, and banish the thoughts of day” (Longfellow 13-16). While Longfellow’s poetry put forth cosmopolitan themes of a unity of mankind that transcended superficial attributes such as ethnicity, it simultaneously allowed for the relaxed and optimistic interpretation that marked him as one of the five fireside poets. Lines such as “And the night shall be filled with music,/and the cares, that infest the day,/Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,/and as silently steal away” (Longfellow 41-4) encourage the optimistic escape of America’s amassing struggles with slavery and political dissension in the early to mid-1800s. The versatility of Longfellow’s poetry, the juxtaposition of its universality against an embracing accessibility, permits it to express simultaneously artistic and societal depth and operate as an undemanding, medicinal mode of escapism.
In conclusion, dismissing Longfellow’s poetry as insignificant in its simplicity demonstrates a superficial analysis that fails to examine authorial intent in the writing. The reason his work is so often denounced as superficial, its accessibility, is precisely the reason Longfellow was capable of expressing concepts as complex as Whitman’s while still reaching an audience that extended beyond universities and the well-educated, becoming one of the most popular poets of the 19th century and achieving a literary eminence and admiration in his time rarely rivaled. Despite experiencing a slight revival, Longfellow is oft overlooked in contemporary study, seemingly resonating the sentiment that Arvin expressed: “Certainly Longfellow will never again ‘enjoy’ the excessive popularity he enjoyed in his own time and for some years afterward, and this is as it should be” (324). Perhaps, however, the time has come to begin reexamining the significant role that Longfellow played in 19th-century literature and what universality can be scrutinized in his poetry under the lens of contemporary studies in American literature.
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—. “Introduction.” The Song of Hiawatha. New York: Bounty, 1968. 3-4. Print.
—. “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.” (Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B) New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 602-04. Print.
—. “The Slave Singing at Midnight.” (Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B) New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 599-600. Print.
—. “To Stephen Longfellow.” The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ed. Andrew Hilen. Vol. 1. Massachusetts: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1966. 128-29. Print.
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