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Cross of Snow

A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Nicholas A. Basbanes (View Bio)
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

Cross of Snow

A major literary biography of America’s best-loved nineteenth-century poet, the first in more than fifty years, and a much-needed reassessment for the twenty-first century of a writer whose stature and celebrity were unparalleled in his time, whose work helped to explain America’s new world not only to Americans but to Europe and beyond. From the author of On Paper (“Buoyant”–The New Yorker; “Essential”–Publishers Weekly), Patience and Fortitude (“A wonderful hymn”–Simon Winchester), and A Gentle Madness (“A jewel”–David McCullough).

In Cross of Snow, the result of more than twelve years of research, including access to never-before-examined letters, diaries, journals, notes, Nicholas Basbanes reveals the life, the times, the work–the soul–of the man who shaped the literature of a new nation with his countless poems, sonnets, stories, essays, translations, and whose renown was so wide-reaching that his deep friendships included Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, and Oscar Wilde.

Basbanes writes of the shaping of Longfellow’s character, his huge body of work that included translations of numerous foreign works, among them, the first rendering into a complete edition by an American of Dante’s Divine Comedy. We see Longfellow’s two marriages, both happy and contented, each cut short by tragedy. His first to Mary Storer Potter that ended in the aftermath of a miscarriage, leaving Longfellow devastated. His second marriage to the brilliant Boston socialite–Fanny Appleton, after a three-year pursuit by Longfellow (his “fiery crucible,” he called it), and his emergence as a literary force and a man of letters.

A portrait of a bold artist, experimenter of poetic form and an innovative translator–the human being that he was, the times in which he lived, the people whose lives he touched, his monumental work and its place in his America and ours.

Winner of a National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar Award”
A "Best Nonfiction Book of the Year"—The Christian Science Monitor

"In my own case, I was steeped [as a schoolboy] in Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, reciting it obsessively as a child. Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicholas A. Basbanes provides an exhilarating account of this multifaceted man of letters who became a national institution." — Paul Muldoon, “Books of the Year 2020,” The Times Literary Supplement

"How Longfellow’s life and loves fashioned his writing is the theme of Nicholas Basbanes’s Cross of Snow, a new, deeply researched, and readable biography. Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Song of Hiawatha, and Longfellow’s account of Revere’s transformative ride were once memorized by everyone. They were part of America’s cultural vernacular. Few can recite the poems now, but Basbanes tells us that Longfellow is still, in our century, a gift that keeps giving. Basbanes does four new things, and he does them with clarity and verve. First, he establishes Longfellow as a crucial medium between Old and New Worlds. Longfellow and his friend Washington Irving were America’s first writers with an international perspective. Irving’s interest in other cultures was mostly confined to Spain’s. Longfellow in his curiosity about the abroad was voracious and omnivorous…. Second, Basbanes tells the story of Longfellow’s two marriages, each a remarkable romance…. Basbanes is a great biographer. He has the detective, forensic, semantic, and soothsayer skills to tease new meaning from the material…. Third, Basbanes, through his life of Longfellow and Fanny, presents the social world of Boston’s ruling class and, by extension, big chunks of the nation’s…. This leads us to the fourth reason to read the book. It’s not a literary history…that’s for specialists. Cross of Snow is a life story. Life’s dramas, its woes and delights, inform the work, but Basbanes doesn’t dive into literary analysis…. Cross of Snow is enlightening, perceptive, and moving. I hope it moves its readers to visit Longfellow’s poems, either anew or for the first time. They’re beautifully written, with characters and settings we can visualize, as we can those in Basbanes’s book. They’re magically transportive, too, and couldn’t we use a dose of magic today?" — Brian T. Allen, National Review  (Read the full review)

"Nicholas Basbanes’s superbly sympathetic Cross of Snow is, perhaps, the biography Longfellow himself would have most liked to read. Absorbing the underlying message of Longfellow’s poetry, Mr. Basbanes writes about him the way a friend would, with generosity, gentleness and grace. The author of several well-received books on collectors and collecting, Mr. Basbanes is the ideal biographer." — Christoph Irmscher, The Wall Street Journal  (Read the full review)

"A welcome new biography of the iconic 19th-century poet. For many Americans, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is fondly associated with ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ the ‘most memorized poem in American history.’ In this comprehensive, affectionate, and astute biography, the first in many years, Basbanes provides a valuable reassessment of the once-beloved poet who fell from grace in the literary establishment just years after his death. For Basbanes, Longfellow was ‘discreet, loyal, and principled to a fault.’ Drawing on previously unexplored primary source material, he focuses as much on the private man—especially the influential roles Longfellow’s two beloved wives, Mary and Fanny, had on his work—as he does on the public one. Their horrific deaths affected him greatly. One of eight children, young Henry was a ‘model of probity and purpose,’ publishing his first poem at 13. Success at Bowdoin College—where lifelong friend Nathaniel Hawthorne was a fellow classmate—earned him a European fellowship to study foreign languages. The trip, Basbanes writes, was ‘fundamental’ to everything he would become. Longfellow taught at Bowdoin but grew restless, yearning for the literary life. A position at Harvard included more language study abroad; ultimately, he was able to read 15 languages. By the age of 30, Longfellow had published numerous poems, essays, and translations. His first major work, Hyperion, received a favorable response but was trashed in print by Edgar Allan Poe. During the Civil War, Longfellow’s poem ‘The Building of the Ship,’ writes Basbanes, ‘brought tears to the eyes of Abraham Lincoln.’ The Song of Hiawatha sold 4,000 copies upon publication, 50,000 in the first two years in America. He was also popular in Britain, ‘outselling Robert Browning and Tennyson on their own turf.’ His translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy ‘alone is a singular achievement, and his sonnets compare with the best in English.’ A revelatory exploration of Longfellow’s life and art and how he became a ‘dominant force in American Letters.’ (with 76 photos)." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A masterpiece…. I have no hesitation in calling it ‘magisterial.’ It should spark a Longfellow revival, something long overdue…. This is a labor of love." — Al Southwick, Worcester Telegram  (Read the full review)

"Latest Biography of Longfellow is the Best Yet…. A sound and entertaining writer, Basbanes carries things further in 18 chapters while covering familiar ground. In keeping with previous biographers, he shows a life fraught with personal tragedy but always met with a strange buoyant positivity. The loss of two wives under dreadful circumstances did not lead to a spiral of gloom or despair, the path of so many of his contemporaries. This is an enigma most observers have had difficulty dealing with.... In the poem, ‘Cross of Snow,’ not published until after his death, Longfellow referred to a mountain in the distant west: ‘Displays a cross of snow upon its side./ Such a cross I wear upon my breast./ These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes/ and seasons, changeless since the day she died.’ This poem is now one of his most admired, and the book of the same name the most enlightening biography to date." — William David Barry, Portland Press Herald

"The book is not so much a literary history—Basbanes spends comparatively little time dissecting Longfellow’s work—as it is the story of an early American rock star, his impact on a nation still struggling to its feet, and his passion for two wives who both died tragically. Basbanes, a former journalist, dives into freshly unearthed letters and diaries to show that the poet’s private life was the springboard for much of his best work. During his lifetime and afterward, Longfellow was acclaimed America’s ‘poet of the people,’ giving colloquial voice to the legends that sustained the young nation. His poems resonated with Americans like few before; Lincoln wept when he heard the passage, ‘Sail on, O Ship of State!/ Sail on, O Union, strong and great.’… Basbanes clearly knows his man and makes a good case that he deserves the renown that prompted Fargo, Minneapolis and just about every American hamlet back in the day to name a school for him." — Kevin Duchschere, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Basbanes is a knowledgeable and sympathetic guide." — Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times Literary Supplement

"Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was far more than the old-fashioned and ‘white-bearded Fireside Poet’ of popular memory, writes cultural historian Basbanes in this illuminating biography. Basbanes follows Longfellow from his childhood in Portland, Maine, to his teenage travels in Europe and early career as a Bowdoin language and literature professor with an impressive facility for foreign languages. Yearning to write full time and create a ‘form of literary expression distinctive to his time and place,’ he became one of the 19th century’s most successful authors. In addition to Longfellow’s poetry, such as the classroom staple ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ Basbanes explores Longfellow’s friendship with powerful U.S. senator Charles Sumner and his involvement with Sumner’s signature cause of abolitionism, which led to a series of antislavery poems. The book also emphasizes Longfellow’s relationships with smart, intellectual women, as exemplified by his brilliant and cosmopolitan second wife, Fanny. The devastating deaths of both his wives—Mary, his first, from miscarriage, and Fanny in a horrific fire—lead to striking portraits of grief. Basbanes notes that Longfellow’s reputation, demolished by early-20th-century literary modernists, has only recently begun to recover. This volume is an excellent addition to that worthy cause and is a captivating tale of a ‘life lived well and lived in full.’" — Publishers Weekly

"Longfellow and his times are brought vividly to life by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his authoritative and wonderfully readable Cross of Snow…. Basbanes draws on a rich abundance of correspondence, diaries, journals and notebooks and gives readers generous excerpts from Longfellow and many others…. 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." — Roger Bishop, BookPage

"With the arrival of Cross of Snow, the fabled 19th-century poet has perhaps found his ideal biographer in Nicholas A. Basbanes." — Danny Heitman, Christian Science Monitor

"How could a best-selling, culture-influencing, nineteenth-century American poet, novelist, and translator fall out of favor, his work becoming a subject for ridicule? Critically acclaimed Basbanes spent 12 years working on this thoughtful, investigative biography, drawing upon previously untapped personal diaries, journals, and letters, including those of Fanny Appleton, Longfellow’s smart and talented second wife. Life experiences clearly guided Longfellow’s creative work. For instance, years living and studying in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany inclined Longfellow toward a romantic vision, while European folk stories and classical literature were sources of inspiration. The tragic, early deaths of his wives fueled Longfellow’s prolific writing since it was a way to deal with his profound grief. Although his work has been criticized for not demonstrating an American sensibility like that of Walt Whitman’s, Longfellow himself saw his writing as more imitative than imaginative. While chronicling the fact that Longfellow’s popularity in his lifetime didn't guarantee his work lasting literary importance, Basbanes’ biography reminds us of Longfellow’s substantial literary contributions: he was the first American translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he helped popularize poetry in America, and he proved that people can sustain profitable, lifelong writing careers. Basbanes’ fresh portrait should restore deserved respect for and interest in once-ubiquitous Longfellow." — Booklist (starred review)

"With this first major biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 50 years, Basbanes 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.’" — Library Journal (starred review)  (Read the full review)

"Longfellow practically single-handed, introduced America to European literature, Dante especially. Arguably his greatest achievement is…his translation of all three books of “The Divine Comedy,” highly regarded even today for its accuracy and fidelity.… Basbanes seems to know everything there is to know about Longfellow…[he] is a painstaking researcher, the kind who turns every page, as Robert Caro would say, and he has benefited from access to lots of material previously unavailable… What [Longfellow] wanted was to be popular, to be read and understood by everyone, and he achieved that more than any American writer before or since. He was exactly the poet he wanted to be." — Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review  (Read the full review)

"Basbanes is a seasoned writer on bookish subjects, a compassionate investigator, and Cross of Snow is a quietly superb Longfellow biography.... Cross of Snow is a fast-paced and eloquent account of a man whose beautiful, knowing poetry has been made to seem as outdated as crinoline or starched collars. Poetry itself enjoys barely a fraction of the popularity today that it had when Longfellow was an international celebrity, and that tiny readership largely ignores him. It’s doubtful that any book, even one by an author as beloved as Basbanes, will be able to change that - the tenacious strength of snobbery being what it is - but bless him for trying." — Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Review  (Read the full review)

"Basbanes explores the private griefs as well as the public acclaim that Longfellow experienced in his sensitive and absorbing biography." — Richard Duckett, Worcester Telegram

"Yet Longfellow’s fame proved to be more perishable than expected. How did he reach the summit, and what explains the century-old collapse of his literary reputation, which now shows some flickering signs of revival? Nicholas Basbanes tells the tale with diligence, affection, and an occasional note of special pleading in Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." — James Marcus, The New Yorker  (Read the full review)

"Most engaging in its examination of the poet’s personal life. In the process, Henry’s second wife, Fanny Appleton, emerges as its captivating tragic heroine…. Much of Basbanes’s writing is absorbing…. His research has been prodigious. His probing of Fanny’s papers has proved especially revealing, and given her new stature." — Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe  (Read the full review)

"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.... Richness." — Michael Dirda, The Washingrton Post  (Read the full review)

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