On March 26, 1882, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to a funeral. As the elderly writer stared into the open casket, he grew perplexed. He could not identify the body. He seemed to know that the man had been a friend—indeed, he felt sad that the bearded stranger in the casket had predeceased him—but Emerson had no idea who he was. “Who is the sleeper?” he finally asked his daughter. The answer was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Emerson was in the throes of dementia. Even so, the story seems like a small allegory of Longfellow’s disappearance from American culture. He was, in his heyday, the most famous poet in the English-speaking world. Perhaps T. S. Eliot, in his sports-arena-filling prime, would be a comparable figure. But Eliot was lionized by many people who didn’t read his poetry, whereas Longfellow’s books were devoured not only by the literati but by ordinary readers. When Longfellow was received by Queen Victoria, in 1868, she noticed the servants scuffling to get a glimpse of him. To her amazement, they all knew his poetry. No other visitor had provoked “so peculiar an interest,” she noted. “Such poets wear a crown that is imperishable.”
Yet Longfellow’s fame proved to be more perishable than expected. How did he reach the summit, and what explains the century-old collapse of his literary reputation, which now shows some flickering signs of revival? Nicholas Basbanes tells the tale with diligence, affection, and an occasional note of special pleading in “Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” (Knopf).