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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.

"Nicholas Basbanes’s superbly sympathetic Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 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)

"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

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