During his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was one of America’s most highly regarded poets, a phenomenally successful bestselling writer both here and abroad. An author of stories and essays, a translator of Dante and an editor of a multivolume anthology of poetry from around the world, he played a major role in shaping middle-class culture during the 1800s. As the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, he brought a cosmopolitan vision to his writing and was influential in bringing European culture to the U.S. and dramatizing American themes overseas. (He is still the only American to have a bust of his likeness in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.) His many literary friends included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe and Charles Dickens.
Longfellow and his times are brought vividly to life by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his authoritative and wonderfully readable Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He traces the poet’s life from Maine, where Longfellow knew early on that he wanted to be a professional writer, to becoming a major literary presence. Basbanes draws on a rich abundance of correspondence, diaries, journals and notebooks and gives readers generous excerpts from Longfellow and many others.
At the heart of the book is the relationship between Longfellow and his second wife, Frances Appleton Longfellow. Fanny, as she was called, was educated, multilingual and skilled as an artist. She was remarkably well read and wrote very well herself, and her relationship with Longfellow thrived on intellect as much as romance. Describing their relationship, a friend once remarked, “Of all happy homes theirs was in many ways the happiest.”
Longfellow usually preferred not to be involved in controversial issues but was a noted antislavery advocate who decried war and violence of any kind. His best friend was Charles Sumner, a noted abolitionist who almost lost his life for the cause of abolition when he was attacked in the U.S. Senate. Long before that incident, Longfellow published Poems on Slavery at Sumner’s request.
Basbanes uses his sources well, transporting readers beautifully to the world of a poet who is often overlooked. If you enjoy literary biography, this is a book to savor.