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As Far From Heaven as Possible

How Henry Wadsworth Longfellow interpreted Reconstruction by translating Dante.

Longfellow is often seen as a writer once fit for children and now nobody. His reputational defenestration after dying in 1882 seems an equal and opposite reaction to the popularity he enjoyed while alive; critic Michael Schmidt wrote in 1998 that in the nineteenth century “American poetry was Longfellow.” He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807—when it was still part of Massachusetts—and educated at Bowdoin College, where he taught and gained fluency in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German before migrating to Harvard. Longfellow was the most widely read and feted American poet in the world, so popular that he was able to retire from Harvard in 1854 after eighteen years of teaching modern languages and focus on his writing, with epics like The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie going through multiple printings.

Artistic popularity can be fleeting, however, and easily forgotten or even mocked when new trends supplant past conventions. Walt Whitman dismissed Longfellow after the latter’s passing as a “poet of melody, courtesy, deference,” a figure who is “not revolutionary, brings nothing offensive or new, does not deal hard blows.” Later generations familiar with only Longfellow’s most ubiquitous works followed the poet’s lead, dismissing the best-selling writer as a fireside versifier of anodyne lyrics and patriotic pablum.

This disparagement is not just unfair but a little cruel. Longfellow’s verse may have been formal, but his politics were radical—and decent. A committed abolitionist, he penned the collection Poems on Slavery in 1842 and donated his royalties to freeing enslaved people. Longfellow wasn’t as vocal in his commitments as his close friend Charles Sumner—the Massachusetts senator who was almost caned to death on the U.S. Senate floor by South Carolina representative Preston Brooks after giving a speech on the “slave oligarchy”—but he was no less passionate. Historian William H. Goetzmann writes in Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism that “popularity disguised his subtlety,” leaving critics to decree that Longfellow’s work possessed “no metaphysics, no hidden symbols to unearth.” Historian Jill Lepore convincingly argued in 2010 that even Longfellow’s most cloying verse, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” is anything but timid. Inspired by the 1859 martyrdom of the radical abolitionist John Brown—whose execution marked the “date of a new revolution quite as much needed as the old one,” Longfellow wrote in his diary—the poem was published in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1860, the same month that South Carolina seceded. Lepore explains that the poem was universally “read as a rallying cry for the Union.” Longfellow’s exhortation that in the “hour of darkness and peril and need, / The people will waken and listen to hear” refers not to approaching Red Coats but to Confederates. The symbolism would have been obvious to contemporaneous readers.