There are no more chestnut trees, spreading or otherwise, for Longfellow's village smithy to stand under. All of them succumbed to blight at the turn of the twentieth century while blacksmiths perished from obsolescence. During these same years, Longfellow's literary reputation was withering, rooted as it was in the Victorian vineyard the modernists were trampling.
In 1902, W. D. Howells asked Thomas Bailey Aldrich if he had seen “that little new life … by a very nice young Columbia professor” who took the fashionable “new view of Longfellow which seems to be composed of his limitations.” Yes, the poet had surely been “overrated by the popular love,” and it was easy to find fault with him. But Howells defended “the beauty of his art, its refining simplicity without those bounds” (Selected Letters, 5:11).
The chestnuts are reviving now but not yet in New England. Blacksmiths may still be found at theme parks and in anvil duels on The History Channel. But Longfellow's standing has not much improved despite efforts over the decades—and especially recently—to rehabilitate him. As the canon of American literature inexorably diverges from his work and that of his contemporary “Fireside Poets,” it seems very doubtful that Longfellow will ever again rank any higher than he does now.
As early as Longfellow: His Life and Work (1963), Newton Arvin reluctantly concluded that Longfellow “may continue to seem minor.” Yet one “rebels against describing him as small. There is a certain largeness not only in his conception of his role but in his actual performance, which is inconsistent with the label of littleness, even of perfection in littleness.” Though his work sometimes “essayed to a larger kind of thing than his gifts warranted, the result often has the value of interesting failure, and sometimes a greater value than that.” In sum, Longfellow was “a lesser but not a little writer, a minor poet but not a poetaster” (326).
In conversation, R.W.B. Lewis once suggested a useful distinction between a writer's life and a literary biography. The former takes the writer's work into account as part of a factual and usually chronological narrative. It may illuminate the inspiration, composition, reception, and historical context of a given piece, but it does not engage in literary criticism. A literary biography, by contrast, follows a writer's imaginative development, interweaving life and work while seeking a reciprocal and causal relationship between them.
Cross of Snow, as its subtitle declares, is a writer's life. Nicholas A. Basbanes's exhaustively detailed—and sometimes exhaustingly digressive—biography is the most comprehensive ever written of Longfellow. It is founded upon heroic research, often in previously unearthed sources. It is “definitive” in the sense that it will be the book of record for a long time to come.
Basbanes traces Longfellow's life from his youth in Portland; to his years at Bowdoin College, where his literary vocation blossomed; to his wide European travels and immersion in several languages; to his distinguished academic career at Harvard; to his decades in Craigie House, his imposing Cambridge mansion; to his circle of boon companions; to his mysteriously prolonged courtship of Fanny Appleton, the mysteries of which are solved; to the growth of their children; to the resounding international success of his poetry, leading to fame so overwhelming as to be oppressive; to his still productive later years; to his death at age seventy-five in 1882.
Cross of Snow, a decade in the making, is a labor of love. With an unsettling effect, Basbanes inserts himself into the book as if he were Longfellow's Boswell. He also deviates from the convention of referring to a biographical subject by surname. Longfellow is Henry, as his wife is Fanny.
There is a point to this: Basbanes regards Cross of Snow as a dual narrative, the story of a marital partnership, in which the wife collaborated in her husband's work as well as creating her own. His and hers: Henry and Fanny. Thus, Basbanes devotes many pages to Fanny's letters and to her (less than scintillating) travel notebooks, presenting the case that she merits attention comparable to Henry's.
This idyll of gender equality is, alas, anachronistic. Although Mrs. Longfellow was certainly instrumental in Mr. Longfellow's success, she is better understood as an “underwriter”: a highly intelligent and perceptive reader/listener who counted as a co-author only soi-disant and only to a limited extent. Bound by Victorian conventions about gender roles, Fanny was primarily aide and helpmeet, whose indispensable but invisible domestic work undergirded and insured her husband's achievement. The same role was played by other male American authors’ wives in the nineteenth century.
Longfellow's son, Ernest, said that his father “hated excess or extremes,” believing always in the happy medium. Basbanes concurs that he was “not a rushing river, boiling and tumbling over rocks, but the placid stream flowing through quiet meadows” (185). This view accords with assessments of Longfellow by his contemporaries. In Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900), Howells asserted that he had never seen any fault in his goodness: “I do not mean to say that he had no faults, or that there were no better men”; rather that Longfellow lacked “meanness, or pettiness, or bitterness,” the man “had none, nor the suggestion of any” (175).
Longfellow did have a hidden darker side, if not quite a dark side, and his happiness was shadowed by tragedy. His first wife died young from complications of a miscarriage. The death of Fanny was horrific. In the presence of two young daughters, her muslin dress accidently ignited. She fled aflame to the adjacent study, where her husband helplessly tried to snuff the fire with an embrace. She died overnight. Her father died, coincidentally, the following day. Longfellow was too badly burned to attend either funeral. The scars on his face led to his growing the bardic beard that is so striking in later photographs.
Basbanes brings to bear a historical context that has heretofore passed notice. He has discovered that Fanny's fate was not rare among women during the age of muslin, the highly inflammable stuff of hooped skirts. Some of these deaths, which provoked public outcry, were even more gruesome than Fanny's.
His rendering of this event is the best chapter in Cross of Snow, the title of which derives from a sonnet, written eighteen years to the day after Fanny's death, which expressed the indelibility of Longfellow's grief. A fair copy of the poem was found among his papers and published posthumously. The controlling image is a natural anomaly: a mountainside in the Rockies where a ravine, in the shape of a cross, is so deep that the snow within it never melts.
As for Longfellow's literary standing, Basbanes posits a conspiracy of modernist writers and critics to yank Longfellow off his pedestal and smash him to smithereens. He was “the victim of an orchestrated dismissal that may well be unique in American literary history—widely revered in one century, methodically excommunicated from the ranks of the worthy in the next” (5).
This partisan melodrama overlooks that Longfellow was far from the only nineteenth-century writer to be laid low by what Joseph Wood Krutch termed The Modern Temper (1928). Howells, for one, had an even worse time of it, and so did others deemed guilty by association with “The Genteel Tradition.”
It should not go unremarked how extraordinarily well-made this volume is, in contrast to what passes for trade books these days: shabby, disposable “product,” with thin cardboard covers and paper so pulpy it is yellowing before you crack the glued “perfect binding,” as it is called without irony. Basbanes, a bibliophile, surely had a say in the high production values, which recall the early days of Alfred A. Knopf in the 1920s, when fine design allowed the upstart immigrant to lure such literary stars as Willa Cather away from their stodgy publishers.
Cross of Snow is wrapped in a thick paper jacket, designed by John Gall, the title and author's name embossed over Julia Margaret Cameron's stunning photograph of the later Longfellow. The book is also “profusely illustrated,” as they said in the nineteenth century, with more than seventy images. My favorite shows Longfellow's obstreperous older son, Charlie, bearing a tattoo of a Japanese carp that covers his entire back. He was evidently “inked” elsewhere too. (See Christine M. E. Guth, Longfellow's Tatoos, as reviewed by Hisayo Ogushi in NEQ, September 2005). The overall book design, by Cassandra J. Pappas, features grey paper covers as close to cloth as paper can get; a deckled outer edge; sewn gatherings of quality stock; two different pictorial pastedowns, the front one in color, the rear one in a green tint; and a colophon, which identifies the body type as Adobe Garamond, an electronic rendering of a very early face.
In this respect, it might be said, Cross of Snow is a tribute from the Electronic Age to the Gutenberg Age. The reverse may also be true: a tribute from the passing age to the ascendant one. Consider Longfellow's title of his poem for the fiftieth reunion of his Bowdoin class. “Morituri Salutamus”—the words pronounced by Roman gladiators before their fatal combat: We who are about to die salute you.