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3 Reasons To Love Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Updated: Feb 27

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave us some of the most beloved poems in the American literary landscape, but it is the character of his life and the values that he promoted with his pen that make him worth knowing.


I recently perused several modern American literature textbooks and, to my great disappointment, I noticed that a discussion of Longfellow was missing from some of them. I've heard high-brow literary scholars scorn Longfellow's prolific use of rhyme and meter because they consider it primitive. Others regard his narratives to be overly sentimental and shallow. Still others, those modern rewriters of history, accuse him of cultural appropriation or simply despise his patriotism. So it does not surprise me that they would not include him in their texts.


However, anyone who takes an honest look at his work, will see a man of conviction who used his writing to promote faith, family, and freedom. His works were not meant to merely entertain, but rather, they were purposeful tools of persuasion intended to rouse his audience to action.


As parents and teachers, I hope you will teach your children about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His life and works can show them how:

  1. To value faith and family

  2. To fight for freedom

  3. To champion the downtrodden and oppressed

Longfellow did all of those things and he did them well. Some of the people who lived during his lifetime recognized it and loved him for it. Some hated him. Throughout history, his legacy has often been maligned by people who either despised his writing style or despised his message. But Longfellow is worth knowing, and I encourage you to make sure your kids meet him as they study through history.

 

1. Longfellow was a man who valued faith and family.

Perhaps one of the reasons Longfellow cherished his family so much was because he suffered great heartache before he finally got a family of his own. His first wife, Mary Potter, sadly died from complications of a miscarriage. In a letter to Mary's sister, Eliza, nearly a year later, Longfellow wrote of his sorrow, "There are wounds which are never entirely healed. . . . Hardly a day passes, that some face, or familiar object, or some passage in the book I am reading does not call up the image of my beloved wife so vividly, that I pause and burst into tears,—and sometimes cannot rally again for hours." His letters and journals reveal a man who loved and grieved deeply.


Longfellow eventually found the courage to love again, but alas, his crush did not love him back! For seven long years he tried to woo and charm the lovely Fanny Appleton. She rebuffed him every time. He eventually wrote a book called Hyperion. In it, the protagonist suffers greatly when the woman he loves refuses him. Fanny recognized that Longfellow was writing about her in the pages of his novel, but it would take another four years until in 1843 she finally agreed to marry him.


They had a happy and productive marriage. Together they had six children, and with Fanny by his side, Longfellow became an even more famous and influential writer. But even in their happiness, they knew and understood the grief of losing a child. Their third child, daughter Fanny, died from illness when she was only about 18 months old. Longfellow wrote the poem "Resignation"as he mourned her death. In a later diary entry, he wrote,“I feel very sad to-day. I miss very much my dear little Fanny. An inappeasable longing to see her comes over me at times, which I can hardly control.”


He clearly adored his wife and children and it is difficult to read his poem, "The Children's Hour" and not see just how deeply committed Longfellow was to his family. I think this is one reason I love his work so much. He cherished what we cherish. His values were ours. My girls recognized in their daddy, the same qualities that little Alice, Allegra, and Edith (Longfellow's remaining three daughters immortalized in the poem) recognized in theirs. My girls’ favorite thing to do when they were little was to “tussle with daddy.” And my girls grew up knowing that their daddy also kept them fast in the fortress of his heart (just like the dad in the poem). "The Children's Hour" was one of the first poems my girls and I memorized together when they were little. Make sure you click the link above and read through it. You will not regret it.


2. Longfellow was an American patriot who used his pen to inspire his audience to fight for freedom.


In the same way that Longfellow used the fictional character of Hiawatha to intentionally preserve the ideals of multiple Native American legends, he used "Paul Revere's Ride" (and the persona of Paul Revere) to represent all of the patriots who sacrificed for the birth of our American nation. He emphasizes this overarching patriotic ideal in lines like:


"For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,

Through all our history, to the last,

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere."


Obviously, it was based on actual, historic events, but he never intended for it to be an exact reenactment of the event. Instead, just like he did with "The Song of Hiawatha," Longfellow used his poetic license to combine people and events into a memorable retelling for a much bigger purpose. Longfellow was a patriot and America was facing a national crisis. The war between the states was looming, and Longfellow wanted to encourage a new generation of young people to stand and be ready to fight. He wanted them to join the American patriots before them, and he wanted to spur them to action. He used "Paul Revere's Ride" as a patriotic call to action. It was his way of waking them up out of their comfortable slumber to "cry the alarm . . . to every farm."


So powerful is his patriotic call to action in the poem, that leaders today still use it. In 1967, for example, just over 100 years after Longfellow penned the poem, Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked its message to a crowd at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. King said,

"We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a man who fought for the downtrodden and oppressed.


Longfellow was a passionate abolitionist. If you've never read his "Poems on Slavery" then I strongly encourage you to click the link and do so. Longfellow's poems are so powerful that it is difficult to read his images of the barbarity of slavery without your soul being moved to the very core. Longfellow knew when he wrote the poems that it could cost him his livelihood, his reputation, and his influence.


When the poems were released, he did receive a great deal of criticism for them. In fact, some places refused to publish them. In response to a critic named George Lunt, a fellow poet, Longfellow wrote:


“I am sorry you find so much to gainsay in my Poems on Slavery. I shall not argue the point with you, however, but will simply state to you my belief.
“1. I believe slavery to be an unrighteous institution, based on the false maxim that Might makes Right.
“2. I have great faith in doing what is righteous, and fear no evil consequences."

The cause of emancipation was a lifelong passion for Longfellow. He wrote when he was only 17 years old that he wanted to perhaps write a drama, “that thus I may do something in my humble way for the great cause of negro emancipation.” Early in his life, Longfellow recognized the power of his pen. Long before he wrote "The Song of Hiawatha" or "Paul Revere's Ride," Longfellow wrote his Poems on Slavery. This issue was of paramount importance to him.


In his poem "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp," Longfellow describes a fugitive slave. He once wrote of the Fugitive Slave Act, "If anybody wants to break a law, let him break the Fugitive-slave Law . . .That is all it is fit for.”


Excerpt from "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp"

His purpose for writing was not just to paint a picture of slavery, but it was to persuade his audience to rise up and end it. And, he didn't just offer his pen to help end slavery, but he also offered more tangible aid. He was a true ally to those oppressed by the unrighteous barbarism of slavery.


His journals record that he used the profits from his poems to buy slaves their freedom and support fugitive slaves. He also supported black churches and schools. And, he didn't just do it once or twice, but there are literally dozens and dozens of entries recording the sums of money he gave. For years, he recorded month by month the money he paid to "free a slave" or to "ransom a slave" or support a black church, school or newspaper.

 

I understand that some people may not prefer his literary style, and still others despise his messages of freedom and hope, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a man whose life and legacy deserve to be honored for, in his own words, "doing what is righteous" without fearing "evil consequences."


 







 

A resource I found very helpful in writing this post is The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edited by Andrew Hilen. This several volume set is hard to find, but I was able to view them on the internet archive website. If you've never visited that website before, I think you'll find it a fantastic library for free hard-to-find resources.


The Maine Historical Society also has a great collection of poems and information on his life. https://www.hwlongfellow.org/

Another great resource is The Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edited by his younger brother, Samuel Longfellow. It is full of personal insight as well as diary entries and letters.


PS: If you haven't checked out my little curiosity shop lately check out some of our bestsellers below.


 

Books You'll Enjoy about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow





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