Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The major problem in analyzing Longfellow as a poet in the early twenty-first century is disinterring what was once a great reputation. The values of Longfellow’s audience and time—metrical skill, the long narrative poem, and an abundance of sentiment—are not those of modern poets. By the moderns Longfellow was judged, perhaps, too harshly and too unhistorically. One can still recover some of Longfellow’s poetry, although what one sees in it today may not be what the nineteenth century valued.

Longfellow’s use of American myths and legends—and the way he altered them—remains important. There had been tales and novels in which American Indians appeared before those of Longfellow. Most prominently, there are the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; however, in those novels, the Indian is never the hero and never has a central position in the narrative. There is always a white man to lead or defeat the Indians, and the rites and ways of the Indian are seen as barbarous or passed over. Longfellow attempted to make the American Indian an epic hero on the scale of Achilles or Odysseus.

He is, perhaps, less successful in his attempt to make Evangeline into an epic heroine; she does not approach the heroes of Homer or Vergil. She is all too accepting of the fate that overcomes her. Finally, in The Courtship of Miles Standish, Longfellow attempted to make the Puritan past of New England into a charming world where repression and the inculcation of dogma become a marriage triangle in which (in the classical comic mode) an old man is forced to relinquish a young woman to one who is more fitting.

Longfellow’s social goals seem very similar to those of the British Victorian poets. Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” proclaims: “Life is real! Life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal.” This earnest striving to improve oneself and society is at the heart of many of his poems. Even Evangeline’s tragedy is blotted out by a submission to a beneficent God who is working to make things better. There is a firm belief in progress. In addition, Longfellow portrays women in a very Victorian manner. They are pure and virginal, and their primary goal is to follow their male leader.

Longfellow’s vision, in fact, was primarily domestic. The scenes between Evangeline and her father, Hiawatha and his mother, and Pilgrims Priscilla and John Alden all evoke the world of the parlor. Longfellow is not really interested in the wildness of the Indian or even the tyranny of the British in driving out the Acadians. One hears nothing of the dark worlds of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville—or even Henry David Thoreau.

In its place is the Angel of the House, the woman who is at the center of nearly all Longfellow’s works, who offers solace to all. One reason for his (once) nearly universal acceptance is his ability to present the sometimes violent American past as easily accessible and comforting. Rather than make the American past dark and mysterious, as other...

(The entire section is 3,839 words.)