Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

July 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm (History, Poetry)

In my youth, when my parents were still very much alive and very ardent fans of the opera, especially the productions of the Metropolitan Opera, I recall how when they got home from a performance, they were filled with exultation – such art! such beauty!

This seems like as good a time and place as any to insert one of my favorite pictures of my parents. The place is Bayreuth, Germany, home of the world famous Bayreuth Festival. They are standing beside the Festspeilhaus, the hall purpose built for performance of the operas of Richard Wagner. Mother and Dad loved this music. At the time this was taken, mid-twentieth century, they were in their glamorous heyday, as this photo will attest:

So, as I said, they’d come from the opera, almost always exultant at the memory of what they’d seen and heard. And then they’d read the review in the New York Times. More often than not, the opera they’d just seen had received a review more or less in the ‘meh’ range. My father would thunder to anyone within range, “Did this idiot see to the same opera we did?!”

So, there are times when I read a review of a book I’ve just read and highly esteemed, when I am genuinely perplexed, not to say dismayed, by the reviewer’s take on that same work. For instance, Charles McGrath’s review of the new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared  last month in the New York Times. Here’s part of it:

Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, “Cross of Snow,” he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day.

Wait just a second…”a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder…”? Yes, Basbanes writes about the issue of Longfellow’s reputation, but he does not, at least in my view, belabor the subject.

But wait – there’s more:

…by the time of Longfellow’s centennial, in 1907, he was already beginning to be dismissed as old-fashioned, and nowadays, if he’s remembered at all, it’s mostly as the author of lines almost laughable in their badness: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water”; “I shot an arrow into the air, /It fell to earth, I knew not where”; “Thy fate is the common fate of all, /Into each life some rain must fall.”

“Laughable in their badness?” Okay, dated, quaint, I’ll grant you. But ludicrous? Just plain bad? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

It’s true that some of Longfellow’s poetry has not worn well. It can be sentimental, and his insistence on rhyme imbues some of the poems with a childish quality. But others have a timeless essence that I for one find appealing; plus the language can be quite beautiful.

One of my favorites is called “Resignation.” I did not know this poem before I encountered it in The Escher Twist, a mystery by Jane Langton:

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.

Toward the conclusion of The Escher Twist, Eloise Winthrop, a widow who has daily visited her husband’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, suddenly finds herself welcomed to a tea party given by none other than Isabella Stewart Gardner!

It was so exciting! There was the little stone bridge across Auburn Lake, and there was Mrs. Gardner herself on the other side, her long skirt trailing on the grass. She was holding out both hands.

“Welcome, my dear,” called Mrs. Gardner, laughing. “Welcome to the other side.”

Overjoyed, Eloise hurried across the bridge. The party was in her honor! Gently Mrs. Gardner took her arm and introduced her to the other guests. “Mrs. Winthrop, have you met Mr. Longfellow? Do you know Mrs. Farmer? Oh, Fanny, dear, your triangular sandwiches are so delicious.”

This is one of my favorite scenes in all of crime fiction – in all of fiction, for that matter.

(Fanny Farmer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all three buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Longfellow mentions the place very particularly in a letter:

Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?)

Jane Langton (1922-2018) never made it into  the top tier of famous mystery authors, but I’ve long considered her to be one of the best. Her mixture of inventive storytelling, wit, mercurial characters, and perhaps a soupçon of the supernatural I find captivating.

Anyway, back to Longfellow:

Charles McGrath obviously is no fan of either Nicholas Basbanes or Longfellow, but he does offer this grudging admission:

…whatever you think of Longfellow the writer, Longfellow the person is hard to dislike.

What an understatement. Longfellow was kind, empathetic, generous to a fault, and endlessly patient.  For most of his adult life, he mixed readily with the great and the good of this country and Europe, but throughout, he retained the modesty and forthrightness that characterized his interactions with others.

More things I learned about Longfellow from this book:

The house in which he and his family lived had, some sixty years before they moved into it,  been inhabited by George Washington as he planned a strategy for dealing with the Siege of Boston.

The National Park Service now administers The Longfellow House –  Washington’s Headquarters National Site. They have made a lovely welcoming video:

Longfellow was a scholar of languages, able to read at least fifteen different ones, and to speak almost as many. In his position as a professor at Harvard, he taught literature in many languages. He did a great deal of translating, often aided in these endeavors by his brilliant wife Fanny; in some cases they were the first to introduce works in various foreign tongues to American readers.

Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The late, great critic Harold Bloom has high praise for it:

[Longfellow’s] “translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” In an interview for this book, Bloom went further, saying that he preferred the Longfellow translation to “all the current versions.” His reason: the “fidelity” it shows to Dante’s original Italian.

Although we associate Longfellow with the constellation of worthies who inhabited the Boston-Cambridge area in the early to mid nineteenth century, he was actually born and raised in Maine. Moreover, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, the same year as his classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bowdoin has an impressive list of alumni.)  Longfellow taught for a time at Bowdoin before moving on to Harvard.

There’s much more in this lively biography.  Longfellow’s personal life receives welcome attention. He was married twice. His first wife Mary died at the age of 24, following a miscarriage. He later wed Frances “Fanny” Appleton, after an arduous courtship of several years. Once she finally accepted  him, though, theirs proved to be a marriage of true minds, if there ever was one. They shared a deep love of literature and the arts, and together they had six children, losing one, a daughter, not long past infancy.

Longfellow, Fanny, and their two eldest sons, Charley – a real handful, apparently – and Ernest

(Many years ago, I visited the Longfellow home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I came away with a vivid memory of the story, told by a docent, of the terrible accident which cost Fanny her life. It took place in the house. She was 44 years old at  the time. I confess I read a large part of this book with mounting dread, as I was not sure at what point I would encounter this story.)

The book’s title refers to both a photo and a painting of a site in the Rocky Mountains where  a cross made of snow lingered on the mountain’s face the year round.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, by Thomas Moran, 1890

 

Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1873

Here is Longfellow’s poem, “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

 

1 Comment

  1. kdwisni said,

    Triangular sandwiches–presumably with the crusts trimmed off!
    Thanks for this, Roberta. My personal hope is to meet Julia Child on “the other side.”

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