cover image Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nicholas A. Basbanes. Knopf, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-1-101-87514-8

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was far more than the old-fashioned and “white-bearded Fireside Poet” of popular memory, writes cultural historian Basbanes (On Paper) in this illuminating biography. Basbanes follows Longfellow from his childhood in Portland, Maine, to his teenage travels in Europe and early career as a Bowdoin language and literature professor with an impressive facility for foreign languages. Yearning to write full time and create a “form of literary expression distinctive to his time and place,” he became one of the 19th century’s most successful authors. In addition to Longfellow’s poetry, such as the classroom staple “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Basbanes explores Longfellow’s friendship with powerful U.S. senator Charles Sumner and his involvement with Sumner’s signature cause of abolitionism, which led to a series of antislavery poems. The book also emphasizes Longfellow’s relationships with smart, intellectual women, as exemplified by his brilliant and cosmopolitan second wife, Fanny. The devastating deaths of both his wives—Mary, his first, from miscarriage, and Fanny in a horrific fire—lead to striking portraits of grief. Basbanes notes that Longfellow’s reputation, demolished by early-20th-century literary modernists, has only recently begun to recover. This volume is an excellent addition to that worthy cause and is a captivating tale of a “life lived well and lived in full.” (June)