A major literary biography of America's best-loved nineteenth-century poet, the first in more than fifty years, and a much-needed reassessment for the twenty-first century of a 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.
Nicholas Basbanes’s superbly sympathetic Cross of Snow is not, as his publisher claims, the first major Longfellow biography to appear in 50 years...But it is, perhaps, the biography Longfellow himself would have most liked to read. Absorbing the underlying message of Longfellow’s poetry, Mr. Basbanes writes about him the way a friend would, with generosity, gentleness and grace ... Mr. Basbanes never pummels his sources into revealing more than they will yield ... Buoyed by Mr. Basbane’s palpable enthusiasm over his discoveries, the reader feels warmly invited to enter the author’s charmed circle of friendship ... [focuses] much of his book on Longfellow’s far less buttoned-up second wife, the brilliant Fanny Appleton, daughter of one of the richest men in New England ... Mr. Basbanes’s singular achievement in Cross of Snow is to bring this remarkable woman back to life. He writes about her the way Longfellow would have, with respect, admiration and, yes, a lover’s eye. But he is also happy to let Fanny speak for herself ... Mr. Basbanes’s book, marvelously rich in biographical detail, has only limited space for the poetry. But much remains to be discovered there
Basbanes’s Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then, is well timed, though it will chiefly interest three classes of reader ... First of all, it will appeal to those fascinated by 19th-century 'Boston Brahmin' culture and the interconnections among prominent New England families ... Second, the book is the portrait of a marriage, devoting considerable attention to Longfellow’s second wife, Fanny (his first died young) ... Third, Cross of Snow will attract those who like capacious biographies that emphasize primary materials ... Given the richness of Cross of Snow, it may seem churlish to point out what the book doesn’t do. To start with, it isn’t a “critical” biography: Basbanes pretty much ignores the poetry as poetry and provides no guidance to it. Rather he simply presents Longfellow as a man, husband, friend and cultural monument of 19th-century America ... Like any newspaperman, Basbanes helpfully identifies the many, often fascinating people mentioned in his text ... In the end, if you’re already interested in Longfellow’s life and milieu, Basbanes is definitely your man.
Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, Cross of Snow, he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day ... Basbanes, who began as a newspaper reporter, is a painstaking researcher, the kind who turns every page, as Robert Caro would say, and he has benefited from access to lots of material previously unavailable. He is also the kind of researcher who, having discovered something, can’t bear not to cram it in ... At times it feels overstuffed and disproportionate ... And for all his effort Basbanes hasn’t discovered anything that seems likely to change our current estimation of Longfellow as someone who matters historically but is at best a minor writer.