As it happens, all these are by Longfellow — the subject of Nicholas Basbanes’s new biography “Cross of Snow”— and they share certain characteristics: They are narrative poems, patriotic in character and chockablock with memorable lines: “One, if by land, and two, if by sea,” “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?,” “Under a spreading chestnut-tree/ The village smithy stands,” “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” To Longfellow we owe dozens of striking phrases we still use: “footprints in the sands of time,” “forever and a day,” “ships that pass in the night,” “A banner with a strange device/ Excelsior!” Because they told stories in verse, his poems — others include “The Song of Hiawatha” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” — were popular recital pieces back in the day when dramatic declamation was a minor art. Even my father, who quit school at 16, would periodically quote Longfellow to one or other of my three sisters:
“There was a little girl, she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad, she was horrid.”
Sadly, America’s first world-famous poet fell from favor during the 20th century. Already in his lifetime — 1807 to 1882 — both Poe and Margaret Fuller had criticized, and criticized quite viciously, Longfellow’s early verse, but with the advent of modernism the whole body of his work began to be disdained as hokey and sentimental. Not that it was forgotten. Martin Gardner’s excellent anthology, “Best Remembered Poems,” reprints more work by Longfellow than by anyone else. What’s more, the once-disparaged “fireside poet” has recently attracted new champions, notably Dana Gioia, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Basbanes’s “Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” then, is well timed, though it will chiefly interest three classes of reader.
First of all, it will appeal to those fascinated by 19th-century “Boston Brahmin” culture and the interconnections among prominent New England families. Longfellow knew everyone and moved in elite circles all his life. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Bowdoin College classmate. Friends, neighbors and relations included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many other notables with three-barrel names.
Second, the book is the portrait of a marriage, devoting considerable attention to Longfellow’s second wife, Fanny (his first died young). A highly educated and much-traveled woman, Fanny initially refused the proposal of “Professor Longfellow” and only later — four years later — decided that he was, after all, worthy of becoming her husband. Basbanes argues that this power couple formed a true partnership of intellectual equals.
Third, “Cross of Snow” will attract those who like capacious biographies that emphasize primary materials. It is, in fact, constructed largely around passages drawn from the Longfellow circle’s journals, correspondence and other personalia. This document-driven approach probably reflects Basbanes’s background in journalism. His best known books, “A Gentle Madness” and “Patience and Fortitude,” assemble compelling portraits of antiquarian book dealers, bibliophiles, librarians and literary scholars. In them, he allowed his subjects to talk at length about their life and work. He does much the same in “Cross of Snow,” only this time, instead of relying on spoken interviews, he shapes his narrative around archival testimony.
Given the richness of “Cross of Snow,” it may seem churlish to point out what the book doesn’t do. To start with, it isn’t a “critical” biography: Basbanes pretty much ignores the poetry as poetry and provides no guidance to it. Rather he simply presents Longfellow as a man, husband, friend and cultural monument of 19th-century America. Many early pages chronicle the poet’s youthful Wanderjahre in Europe, but almost nothing is said about his 25 years as a Harvard professor of European languages and literatures. Instead we learn a lot about his oysters-and-champagne social life. What were his courses like? Are there no accounts of his teaching style by former students?
Like any newspaperman, Basbanes helpfully identifies the many, often fascinating people mentioned in his text. Still, this practice sometimes comes across as obsessive. While making a small point he refers to “the late Daniel Aaron, the founding president of the Library of America, and a distinguished historian of American literature at Harvard who was a champion of Longfellow’s work until the day of his death in 2016 at age 103.” Sometimes these identifications grow into actual brief biographies. Similarly, when Fanny dies horribly after her clothes accidentally catch fire, we are told at length about the dangers of crinoline in the age of candles. Such digressions, however informative or entertaining, sometimes seem out of proportion to their biographical importance. In 1849 businessman George Parkman was murdered by Harvard chemistry professor John Webster. Do we need the entire case — the subject of Paul Collins’s recent “Blood & Ivy” — retold to us simply because the Longfellows wrote about it in diaries and letters? Maybe. Maybe not.
In the end, if you’re already interested in Longfellow’s life and milieu, Basbanes is definitely your man. Just bear in mind that you shouldn’t expect an introduction to the poetry or any discussion of why we should still read it.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
CROSS OF SNOW: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
By Nicholas A. Basbanes
Knopf. 463 pp. $35