In the nineteenth century, American families would gather around the fireside to listen as a family member read. Among the works selected were the poems of several American poets who had gained critical respectability and popularity that rivaled that of their British counterparts. The poems of these New England poets—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Cullen Bryant—were included in textbooks, and their portraits often adorned schoolroom walls. Therefore, this group is called Fireside or Schoolroom poets.
The Fireside poets shared several characteristics. From youth they displayed language skills. Although their families envisioned legal careers for them, they chose to become magazine editors and contributors, preachers, or college professors. Their interests were literature and education, which for them were closely related. Most wrote about American politics and New England landscapes. They publicly opposed slavery. Some, such as Longfellow, presented Native Americans sympathetically. Generally their poems were highly didactic, emphasizing conventional nineteenth century values: duty, honor, personal responsibility, and hard work. A staple of textbooks, these poems were memorized by generations of schoolchildren.
Several Fireside poets translated the classics, providing many students an introduction to classical mythology and Renaissance literature. These poets used conventional meter and primarily end-rhyme. Most eventually developed friendships with contemporary English poets. Modern critics fault the Fireside poets for their failure to experiment with innovative metrical forms, their conventional ideas, and their excessive sentimentality, but the Fireside poets regarded themselves as the voice of the average American. Literary historians have examined the Fireside poets primarily as nineteenth century cultural icons.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The most consistently popular Fireside poet is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), the only American poet with a bust in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. On his final visit to England (1868-1869), he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities; he was also received by Queen Victoria and the prince of Wales.
In the early 1800’s, when Longfellow was born, few people believed that an American writer could be successful, because neither English nor American critics and readers respected American writers. Stephen Longfellow wanted his son to follow his example and become a successful lawyer; however, Longfellow’s mother, Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, herself a writer, encouraged her son’s sensitive side.
Reluctant to study law, Longfellow explored other careers. His first choice was writing; he published several poems in local gazettes but quickly realized that an academic career offered financial security unavailable to poets or journalists. After his graduation from Bowdoin College in 1829, the trustees offered him a professorship of modern languages—provided he travel to Europe and become fluent in Romance languages. Longfellow decided to add proficiency in German.
At Bowdoin, Longfellow modernized foreign language instruction, replacing rote exercises with conversational approaches. Not completely happy there, he eagerly accepted an offer to become Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University in 1837, first traveling to Europe, this time to acquaint himself with Scandinavian languages and literature, for which he discovered a real affinity. On each trip, Longfellow developed personal friendships with writers.
Longfellow had a gift for intellectual friendships. After retirement from Harvard in 1854, he maintained contact with his academic colleagues and fellow poets. In 1855, a group of American writers calling themselves the Saturday Club began meeting monthly. In 1857, Longfellow joined other Atlantic Monthly contributors in founding the Atlantic Club.
Longfellow’s popularity was established with the 1847 publication of Evangeline, a long poem in dactylic hexameter. Although it seems excessively sentimental to most twenty-first century readers, this narrative poem about the separation of lovers when the Acadians were exiled to Louisiana immediately appealed to readers in the United States and Europe and retained its popularity well into the twentieth century. Almost as popular was The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which Longfellow intended as the Native American equivalent of Scandinavian epics. Portrayed as honorable and noble, Hiawatha was doomed to defeat by manifest destiny. Longfellow focused on New England history in The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems (1858), source of the familiar admonition that John Alden speak for himself. In Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), Longfellow imitated the narrative structure of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620). Several poems dealt with New England subjects, but most reflected his European travels. In The New England Tragedies (1968), Longfellow compared the careers of rebellious colonial figures John Endicott and Giles Corey. Longfellow’s The Divine Tragedy (1971), his meditation on the passion of Christ, confused some readers, and his later volumes did not sell as well as earlier ones had. Nevertheless, Longfellow remained the quintessentially American poet, respected by fellow poets such as Walt Whitman and critics such as Edgar Allan Poe.
Although Longfellow experienced his share of personal tragedy, his poems generally dealt with historical events or sentimental portraits of family life (as in the popular “The Children’s Hour”) and were almost never confessional; one exception is the posthumously published “The Cross of Snow,” which chronicled his grief at the death of his second wife, Frances Appleton. Longfellow’s solace was his work. When his first wife, Mary Potter, suffered a miscarriage and died, he immersed himself in the study of German literature. When his second wife died in a fire, he turned to his blank-verse translation of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). While translating this epic, Longfellow met weekly with the Dante Club, other poets working on their own translations. Again, Longfellow’s metrical and linguistic skills served him well; his translation of Dante is still considered one of the best.
Longfellow and his second wife, Frances, were the parents of six children (Charles, Ernest, Fanny, Alice, Edith, and Anne Allegra), and when Longfellow died of phlebitis a few days after his seventy-fifth birthday, he left them an estate of $356,320—a remarkable sum for a nineteenth century writer. His poems had been translated into twenty-four languages, and he had proven one could become a successful American writer.
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) never achieved the general popularity of his friend Longfellow; Lowell is remembered less for his poetry than for his essays, his diplomatic service, and his founding editorship of The Atlantic Monthly.
Lowell was the son of the Reverend Charles Russell Lowell and Harriet Brackett Spence, both descendants of prominent New England families. Lowell graduated from Harvard College in 1838 and Harvard Law School in 1840, but quickly...
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