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Longfellow’s 200th Birthday Anniversay: A Reflection

February 27, 2007

In my development as a professional historian repressing other interests has become second nature. Despite the interdisciplinary nature of the field, especially intense in some of my particular subdisciplines (intellectual and cultural history), you just can’t explore every topic. One of those topics that has fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily for me, is poetry.

Of course I’m theoretically free to write an analysis of the intellectual and cultural significance of someone like Longfellow, or Robert Frost, or even Mark Strand. Heck, even Mortimer J. Adler wrote poetry before becoming a philosopher. Other projects, however, always seem to get in the way. Plus the historicist nature of literary studies these days (verified by my friends in the field) means that I’d be competing with all of the literature folks to write something on a poet. Right now I can’t be bothered with sorting out that mess.

As a temporary reprieve of my roadblocks and repressions, however, today I offer you a look back at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The LOC’s Today In History site focuses on Longfellow, but I want to draw your eyes to an AP article I first saw in yesterday’s Boston Globe. Here are some excerpts from the piece written by Jerry Harkavy:

– “Remembrances of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would have turned 200 on Tuesday, are hard to escape in his native Portland, the place he described in ‘My Lost Youth’ as ‘the beautiful town that is seated by the sea.’ In the heart of the downtown sits Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the three-story brick building where the poet lived as a youth. It’s a few blocks east of Longfellow Square and even closer to Longfellow Books. Some of the city’s elementary school pupils attend Longfellow School. Older folks can, in season, order a locally brewed Longfellow Winter Ale in a nearby bar or restaurant.”
– “Longfellow, arguably the most beloved literary figure in 19th century America, has left his mark in the city where he was born on Feb. 27, 1807. Because of that connection, the Maine Historical Society is hosting a 200th birthday celebration Tuesday that kicks off a year of bicentennial activities.”
– “Best-known for such familiar poems as ‘Evangeline,’ ‘The Children’s Hour,’ ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ and ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ Longfellow achieved fame during his lifetime comparable to that of today’s leading pop culture figures. ‘People don’t realize what a huge celebrity he was,’ said Steve Bromage, assistant director of the Maine Historical Society. . . . ‘He was an international celebrity of rock star status who was recognized around the world.’ “
– “Even those with little knowledge of Longfellow or his poetry can’t escape his influence. Phrases from his work that have become part of the language include ‘the patter of little feet,’ ‘ships that pass in the night’ and ‘into each life some rain must fall.’ ”
– “With the rise of modernism toward the middle of the 20th century, Longfellow lost much of his luster. “
– ” ‘It was a general reaction against all things Victorian. Victorians were seen as stuffy, sexually repressed, patriarchal, a lot of dead white males,’ said Charles C. Calhoun, author of Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. ‘He was dismissed as being either mawkishly sentimental or simply a children’s poet.’ ”
– “There have been signs of a reversal over the past decade or two amid renewed respect for his poetry and a focus on other aspects of his life, including his trans-Atlantic visits that heightened interest in American literature among Europeans and vice versa. ‘He’s still a very neglected figure in academic departments,’ Calhoun said, ‘but people are finally realizing that he was a major figure in Victorian America. Whether you like his poetry or not, he was a defining figure in that culture.’ ”
– ” Within a few weeks, anyone who mails a letter will be able to share in the Longfellow celebration. On March 15, the Postal Service will issue a Longfellow commemorative stamp. The 39-cent stamp, part of the the Literary Arts series, features a portrait of the poet with a scene of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ in the background.”

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For those familiar with cultural history it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the Longfellow’s demise in popularity came at the turn of the twentieth century. I don’t recall reading about him in Henry F. May’s End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Time, 1912-1917 (1959, now surprisingly available in paperback), but there’s no doubt that Longfellow was a part of that “innocence” described by May. I must admit that my only encounters with Longfellow occurred in primary and secondary school.

Who knows, maybe in the end I’ll be able to work on a history of one of my favorite poets? But in spite of today’s Longfellow reprieve I doubt I’ll write about him. – TL

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