Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

From National to Supranational Conception of Literature: The Case of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

From National to Supranational Conception of Literature: The Case of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Article excerpt

At the turn to the nineteenth century, prospects of American literature and programs for its development became the subject of intense national debate culminating, it is customary to assume, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar" (1837)--"our intellectual declaration of independence," to repeat Oliver Wendell Holmes's well known dictum. But, despite the exciting fertility of the 1840s and 50s, the end of the century was marked by growing emotional and intellectual alienation of writers such as Mark Twain and Henry Adams and by the expatriation of others, most conspicuously Henry James and a number of younger authors: Henry Harland, Harold Frederic, and Stephen Crane, who were followed by a still more powerful wave of American literary expatriates in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Thus, in the course of the nineteenth century the evolution of many American men of letters was towards the disappointing realization that the United States was not a country supportive of a serious concern with literature or arts in general. The assertive literary nationalism of the early years of the century was being replaced by a conception of literary art as supranational and cosmopolitan in both inspiration and aspiration.

The career of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, certainly the most visible American author of the nineteenth century and still the most popular American poet ever, provides an illustrative, though infrequently discussed example of the ebbing energy of the nationalist impulse accompanied by a growing tendency to literary cosmopolitism. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Longfellow remained a symbolic cultural presence, a popular embodiment of American literary achievement, cultural openness, and civilized sophistication. It was in him rather than in Walt Whitman that the public saw the long awaited incarnation of the native bard who at last gave America the sense and measure of her literary potential and glory. Moreover, the incredible sales figures for most of his volumes following Voices of the Night and the fact that by 1854 he felt financially secure enough to resign his professorship at Harvard make Longfellow the first American writer to demonstrate that a poetic career in America could be materially rewarding. (1) Also today, the inevitable revaluation of his work notwithstanding, critics continue to recognize the centrality of Longfellow's contribution to the birth of American cultural self-sufficiency. (2) For example, introducing a selection of Longfellow's poems in the Atlantic Monthly of 14 October 2000, David Barber writes:

   If Walt Whitman, his younger contemporary by a dozen years, is
   enshrined as the founding father of modern American poetry,
   Longfellow deserves no less than to be remembered as the native
   bard who gave mythic dimension to the country's historical
   imagination, a national poet of epic sweep and solemn feeling who
   came along right at the moment when the emerging nation had the
   most need for one. The forest primeval, the village smithy under
   the spreading chestnut tree, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the
   Indian princeling Hiawatha in his birch canoe--such were the
   iconic images Longfellow forged out of the American collective
   consciousness in volume after lionized volume.

In January 1840, having completed "The Wreck of Hesperus," Longfellow revealed his plans in a letter to George W. Greene, a future member of The Dante Club:

   I have broken ground in a new field; namely, ballads; beginning
   with the "Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus" on the reef of Norman's
   Woe, in the great storm of a fortnight ago. I shall send it to
   some newspaper. I think I shall write more. The national ballad is
   a virgin soil here in New England; and there are great materials.
   Besides, I have a great notion of working upon the people's
   feelings. I am going to have it printed on a sheet, with a coarse
   picture on it. … 
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