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Culture & Arts

Nicholas Basbanes on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

February 5, 2022

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of those esteemed poets everyone has read in school at some point, but beyond his most famous works, most people know very little about him and his place in American literature, culture, and history. Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicholas A. Basbanes is an impressive reassessment of the poet for the 21st century. Well-written and meticulously researched, the book is a pleasure to read, just like all of Basbanes’ works.

A major literary biography of America’s best-loved 19th century poet, the first in more than fifty years, highlights the life of the writer whose stature and celebrity were unparalleled in his time, whose work helped to explain America’s new world not only to Americans but to Europe and beyond. The book is a must read for anyone interested in Longfellow, literature, and cultural history.

In Cross of Snow, the result of more than 12 years of research, including access to never-before-examined letters, diaries, journals, notes, Basbanes reveals the life and times, the work and soul of the man who shaped the literature of a new nation with his countless poems, sonnets, stories, essays, translations, and whose renown was so wide-reaching that his deep friendships included Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, and Oscar Wilde.

Basbanes writes of the shaping of Longfellow’s character and his huge body of work that included translations of numerous foreign works, among them, the first rendering into a complete edition by an American of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Longfellow’s two marriages, both happy and contented, each cut short by tragedy, are also featured in the book. His first to Mary Storer Potter ended with her death in the aftermath of a miscarriage, leaving Longfellow devastated. His second marriage to the brilliant Boston socialite Fanny Appleton, after a three-year pursuit by Longfellow (his “fiery crucible,” he called it), is also recounted along with his emergence as a literary force and a man of letters.

The son of two first generation Greek-Americans, Basbanes was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and graduated from Lowell High School in 1961. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 1965. Following a year of graduate study at Pennsylvania State University, Basbanes did research for his master’s thesis in Washington, DC, then entered U. S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. He attended the Defense Information School in the spring of 1968 and earned his master’s degree in journalism in 1969 while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34) during the first of two combat deployments he made to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.

Following his discharge from active duty in 1971, Basbanes began his career in investigative journalism at The Evening Gazette in Worcester, MA. In 1978, he was appointed books editor for the Worcester Sunday Telegram. In 1990, the books section was removed and Basbanes left the newspaper in 1991 to finish his first book. He continued his books column and distributed it through Literary Features Syndicate, an agency he formed that placed it in more than thirty publications nationwide.

Basbanes is the author of 10 critically-acclaimed works of cultural history with a particular emphasis on various aspects of books and book culture. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, his first book, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1995, and was a New York Times Notable Book. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History (2013, Knopf) was one of three finalists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and was named a best book of the year by seven major publications.

In 2016, he was awarded a Public Scholar research fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), his second NEH grant, for work on Cross of Snow, published by Knopf in 2020. He also writes the “Gently Mad” column for Fine Books & Collections magazine, lectures widely on book related subjects, and is a frequent contributor to Humanities magazine and other publications. He and his wife Constance live in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicholas A. Basbanes is available online and in bookstores.

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