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Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life Paperback – June 15, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) was the most popular English-language poet. Well into the twentieth century, his lyrics were popular recitation pieces, and his long narratives The Courtship of Miles Standish and Evangeline remained junior-high staples beyond mid-century. But now he needs the recent revival of interest of which Calhoun's wonderfully readable, sympathetic biography is one expression. As Calhoun grants, rehabilitating Longfellow's former literary reputation is almost certainly a lost cause. Yet much else about him merits greater attention. Having repaired to Europe in 1826 to prepare to teach modern languages at fitfully innovative Bowdoin College, his alma mater, Longfellow pioneered comparative literary studies there and later at Harvard. He favored female protagonists of great intelligence and strength of character in his narrative poems, and his biggest success, The Song of Hiawatha, was a milestone in developing interest in Native American culture. Unitarian, antislavery, genuinely interested in and friendly toward other cultures, he lacked bad habits and was a good family man--in short, the very best kind of Victorian liberal. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A sprightly, long-needed biography of 19th-century America's most famous, myth-making poet . . . An enormously sympathetic portrait of a universally admired gentleman [that] could well encourage a new generation to read Longfellow."--Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Masterful . . . warm and vivid . . . and solid in placing [Longfellow] in the context of [his] times."--Michael Kenney, Boston Sunday Globe

"Calhoun's biography is commendable. . . His defense of Longfellow's poetry is all the more forceful for never being overstated."--Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer

"[A] sympathetic and welcome biography. . . Calhoun has written a fine book."--Patrick J. Walsh, Christian Science Monitor

"[A] readable, informative biography. . . Longfellow became for his day an international icon of literature and civility."--Tony Lewis, Providence Sunday Journal

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (June 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807070394
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807070390
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #973,420 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Jane Austin on March 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This biography of Longfellow which I 'had' to read, pleasantly surprised me. It provides an entertaining, detailed description of the period, including the development of romance language studies in the United States (sigh, yes, Harvard) as well as the society, culture, attitudes of the period. The book deals somewhat with Longfellow's poetry, but its focus is as much on Longfellow the husband, father, son, friend, citizen etc, very much a gentleman of the period, his class, the US and Boston. I am not an expert, but the portrayal of the man seems realistic rather than deified. I especially liked the opening description of Oscar Wilde's 'pilgrimage' to Craige House to see the poet. The biography is filled with entertaining nuggets.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dark Romantic on April 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this long-awaited biography, Calhoun tries to reclaim Longfellow as a cultural icon, indicative of his times, based on the expectations of his reading audience, and how he served a greater purpose than the lyric poetry he is mostly remembered (forgotten?) for today.

The book is very accessible, written as a series of strung-together anecdotes. Calhoun adds just enough of his own critical readings of Longfellow and his work without being overly opinionated (or, perhaps significant considering the subject matter) without elevating Longfellow to a higher role than he deserves. It is certainly not in-depth; the book jumps from the death of the poet's second wife (1861) to Longfellow's own death in 1882 in short order, for example. The final chapter examines what happened next, how the world embraced Longfellow as a major figure, before dissecting the reasons why he was knocked off his pillar by Modernists (and Calhoun argues provocatively how none of their arguments against Longfellow are valid).

Calhoun is challenged by the lack of personal detail in Longfellow's first-hand accounts. HWL was aware that his letters, journals, etc. would be pawed through after his death and, as such, was a careful self-editor. As a result, little of Longfellow's true self (personality quirks, political leanings, religious feelings) comes through, leaving scholars frustrated to find out more. That challenge is reflected in this biography.

This book is a good, short read, and encourages further study of Longfellow and his works. Perhaps another will be inspired to write something more in-depth from this intro.
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16 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Robert Kalabus on April 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is disappointing because it doesn't reveal Longfellow's personality or tell you enough about the intimate details of his life. When you read a biography it should take you out of your own life temporarily and put you into the skin of someone else. The main problem is that the book is too short; it should have been at least twice as long. What does Longfellow think about Poe, Hawthorne, Tennyson, Thoreau, Dickens, and other 19th century writers? You never find out. Hawthorne is called Longfellow's close friend, but other than in the chapter about "Evangeline" he is hardly mentioned. The book describes how Poe attacked Longfellow's reputation, but did this color his judgment of Poe's works? Nothing is said. You do learn that Longfellow later helped out Poe's mother-in-law financially -- which I guess shows his magnanimity. But there are too few interesting details like this and they are stuck clumsily into the narrative where they sit like undigested lumps. At the very end of the chapter where Longfellow dies, Emerson, "mentally enfeebled," is described as being unable to remember Longfellow's name. Maybe this is intended to be ironic and indicative of the coming ruin of Longfellow's poetic reputation, but to me it wrecks the tone of that part of the biography which should be moving and sad. One of the photos in the book is of Longfellow's son Charles' carp tattoo that covers his back. Annoyingly, nothing is said about this in the book. It's too bad that this "first biography of Longfellow in almost fifty years" isn't better than it is.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By J. Clark on August 20, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A pleasant surprise. I bought this biography as a gift but read it myself first. I don't generally admire Longfellow's poetry, except for "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," but I appreciate his translations from Danish to English and I love his house in Cambridge. So I agree with this book's thesis: that Longfellow is important not so much for his poetry as for his transmission, even creation, of popular American culture in the 1800s. The book is written with style and held my interest except for some of the details of Longfellow's travels in Europe. Highly recommended.
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