Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Knopf. Jun. 2020. 480p. ISBN 9781101875148. $35. LIT
With this first major biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82) in 50 years, Basbanes (On Paper) has done the great American poet a great service. Once among the most celebrated writers in the world, a figure comparable to Dickens, Longfellow experienced a sudden fall from literary grace within a generation of his death, and his extraordinary body of work (ballads, sonnets, epics, stories, translations—including the first American translation of Dante) was dismissed as little more than sentimental juvenilia. In a style that feels less formal than most scholarly studies, Basbanes makes a major step toward righting that wrong, bringing Longfellow out of the literary shadows and developing a persuasive case for his place in the pantheon of American, if not world literature. Beyond the moving story of the poet’s life, his two marriages (both of which ended tragically), his literary friendships (including an audience with Queen Victoria), we witness the poet’s intellectual curiosity, his endurance, the variety of his passions, and the humility of his character. Haunting the volume, however, is Longfellow’s quickly dismantled reputation, an issue Basbanes raises early on but never really grapples with—ignoring how the ascent of Walt Whitman altered the literary landscape, leaving Longfellow’s artistry and sentiment seeming somehow dated.
VERDICT Essential for biography and literary collections; a sheer joy to read for its portrayal of the amazing life of the first “poet of the people.” [See Prepub Alert, 12/9/19.]

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