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Longfellow’s radical politics

By Harriet Staff

We haven’t blogged about Longfellow for awhile, have we? Well, it’s about time. Luckily, Jill Lepore has written an article for The American Scholar that argues for Longfellow’s continued relevance, or at least for a re-evaluation of his work. She claims that a century of beating-up on Longfellow’s perceived slightness and lack of complexity have allowed contemporary readers to all but ignore his work:

Feeble is a word you often see, describing Longfellow’s poetic gifts. Where was the ambiguity, the paradox, the difficulty, the anxiety, the obscurity? What good was a poem that was easy? Longfellow was soft. And, although feminist critics have subjected all things squishy and sentimental to close inspection, arguing for the elevation of writers like Susan Warner and Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe to canonical status, Longfellow hasn’t warranted recovery, or even, really, a reading, presumably because he was a man, and the canon had enough of those already.

But, Lepore says, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which seems to be “a piece of 19th-century romantic nationalism,” is actually a cry against slavery. She makes this argument slowly and carefully, relying on the biographical and social context that colors the poem:

During the weeks Longfellow was writing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the plight of slaves was very much on his mind. He was attending lectures by Frederick Douglass. He was listening to George Sumner condemn the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott. He was fervently reading speeches given by Charles Sumner. He was casting his vote for Lincoln. He was sympathizing with John Brown. Fearful of politics, Longfellow was, nevertheless, wishing he could do his part, quietly, gently, poetically.


Posted in Poetry News on Friday, March 18th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.