Academic journal article American Studies

When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry as a Fan Activity

Academic journal article American Studies

When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry as a Fan Activity

Article excerpt

Poetry Fans

In his autobiography Random Memories (1922), Ernest Longfellow recounted life with his famous father, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ernest was a painter of modest reputation, and he filled his memoir with stories about the overseas travels that had played such an important role in his art. But to most readers, the memoir's real appeal was its portrait of life inside Craigie House, the Cambridge mansion the Longfellow family had owned since 1843. Ernest devotes special attention to his father's acquaintances, treating readers to brief, at times amusing, sketches of his many prominent visitors. We learn about such steadfast family friends as Charles Sumner, Louis Agassiz, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. We learn about visits from the Prince of Wales, the Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, and the violinist Ole Bull. Ernest pays tribute to the actress Fanny Kemble and fondly recalls her compassion when as a boy he suffered from a stomachache.

Not all of the portraits are admiring. Anthony Trollope comes offas tedious, loud-mouthed, and boastful. The humorist Bret Harte seemed so lost and disoriented that Ernest had to guide him back to his hotel. Considered to be among the closest of Longfellow's friends, James Russell Lowell was capable of being extraordinarily gauche and inexplicably snubbed the family after Henry's death. Not only was the actress Sarah Bernhardt a guest, Ernest tells us, but she was rumored to have kissed his widowed father during her visit (E. Longfellow 20-47).

But whatever ambivalence the son felt about these celebrity friends, Ernest was far more impatient with the demands that public life made on his father. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced celebrity like no other American writer before Mark Twain. By 1857, he had sold a staggering 326,258 books, a figure that would grow dramatically in the next decades (Calhoun 198-99). Even more significantly, however, Longfellow's works were known among large segments of the population that traditionally would not have considered buying a book of verse. His poems were memorized, imitated, and parodied until they became part of the culture at large. The Hutchinson Family singers turned Longfellow's poem "Excelsior" into one of their most rousing and popular anthems. The circus performer Dan Rice named his trick horse after the poem in a bid to capture a middle-class audience (Carlyon 237-39). After the Civil War, "Excelsior" would become a staple of schoolroom recitations and appear in advertisements for everything from a New York insurance company to a Massachusetts clothing store (Sorby 1-34; Irmscher 61-66).1 There were beautiful, illustrated copies of Evangeline and touring theater groups that performed The Song of Hiawatha in native costume.

As Ernest reminds us, Longfellow was one of the United States' leading citizens, a poet whose reputation and accomplishments made him a favorite among other notables and celebrities. What particularly interests me, however, is the considerable power Longfellow's fame exerted over private individuals. Amid the visits from glittering actresses and princes, the poet inspired thousands of men and women who thought of him with such enthusiasm that they believed his fame granted them a kind of personal accessibility. By the end of his life, Longfellow had received letters from over 6,200 correspondents, a number that does not include the more than 1,300 requests for autographs (Irmscher 24). With a combination of responsibility and resignation, he shouldered this fame stoically. He seems to have written a personal response to every request that came to him, a generosity, one friend believed, that contributed to his death (Irmscher 24, 36).2 Longfellow was hardly an intimate poet, and on at least one occasion he withheld a poem from publication because he deemed it too revealing (Calhoun 230). And yet, thousands of people wanted to connect with Longfellow personally, as if his fame were less the stature granted to a gifted individual than the web of relationships he owed to his followers. …

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