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Nicholas A. Basbanes – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Author of numerous highly acclaimed books including:


Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

A World of Letters

Every Book its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World,

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World

Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century, New York: Henry Holt & Co., (2002).

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Related Readings:

The Long fellows and Their Books

A Beautiful Ending
Five Best: Nicholas A. Basbanes on the American Renaissance Poets​

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Episode #1

Q: Nicholas Basbanes – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Intro


  • Wrote 9 books on cultural history

  • Longfellow – 10th book, first biography

  • Had fallen (undeservedly) out of fashion

  • New Englander like Longfellow

  • No one had written about influence of second wife

Episode #2

Q: What early influences shaped Longfellow?


  • Raised in prominent New England / Maine family

  • Father wanted him to be a lawyer

  • Longfellow had a passion to write

  • Graduated Bowdoin College at 18

  • Offered full professorship in Modern European Languages

Episode #3

Q:    How did Longfellow spend three years in Europe?


  • Time in Europe was an awakening

  • Soaked in literature of Europe

  • Mastered 12-15 Languages

  • Washington Irving in Spain became a mentor

  • Later translated all of Dante into English

  • Also wrote a book on Poetry of Europe

  • Became familiar with Sephardic Jewish traditions

Episode #4

Q:  When did Longfellow start writing poetry?


  • Submitted first poem to Portland newspaper at age 13

  • Published poetry while studying at Bowdoin College

  • Seven years at Bowdoin & 18 at Harvard devoted to scholarship

  • First writings were prose

  • 1839 Published 1st collection Voices of the Night

  • Psalm of Life was breakthrough poem

Episode #5

Q: What was Longfellow’s personality?


  • Decidedly decent person

  • Honest, strong moral character

  • Well-liked by all & accessible

  • Impressive figure; excellent listener

  • Discreet and extremely loyal friend

Episode #6

Q: What is your favorite Longfellow poem?


  • Approximately 440 published poems

  • Cross of Snow

  • Written on 18th anniversary of wife Fanny’s death

  • Sonnet of 14 lines

  • Deeply personal

Episode #7

Q: Who did Longfellow marry?


  • First wife Mary, families were friends

  • Died tragically during miscarriage in Europe

  • Poem, Footsteps of Angels, written in her memory

  • Met wealthy Appleton family & daughter Fanny

  • Courted Fanny for 7 years

  • Found a brilliant, highly educated wife / partner

  • Marriage was Longfellow’s most productive years

  • Fanny tragically dies in home fire

Episode #8

Q: What were Longfellow’s views on slavery?


  •  Ardent abolitionist

  • Close friend of leading abolitionist Charles Sumner

  • 1842 Published 9 poems on slavery

  • Slavery poems predated Uncle Tom’s Cabin by 10 years

  • Gave money to underground railroad movement

  • But did not take a “public” stand

Episode #9

Q: What is Longfellow’s, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”?


  • Summer 1852, Longfellows vacationing in Newport Rhode Island

  • Comes across a cemetery with strange writing on tombstones

  • Second oldest Jewish cemetery in America

  • Sympathetic, well-meaning towards Jewish people

  • “How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves”

  • “And the dead nations never rise again”

Episode #10

Q: 2021: Why Longfellow?


  • Much too good a writer to forget & neglect

  • Important poet of 18th century

  • Iconic writing

  • Speaks to people, resonates across all ages

  • Deep values, melodious poetry

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Full Interview -  Nicholas A. Basbanes

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