Longfellow invites us to question the assumptions that still underlie most accounts of how literature develops and changes. In 1846, he happened to be reading somewhere that the age was „still looking for its Poet,“ apparently someone who “should be hailed by acclamation as the Seer of this nineteenth century” (February 11, 1846). What did people want? he wondered. That the advent of such a genius be “heralded by signs and wonder”? For Longfellow, literature was nothing “major” or “minor,” nothing “old” or “new.” In the course of his long career, he began to see himself less and less as an “original” creator than as the competent redistributor of common cultural goods, whose relationship with his audience was based on a system of exchange, both monetary and emotional, governed by civility and respect. (…) Longfellow’s relentlessly accessible texts dispute the notion that aesthetic experience is limited to “high cultural” works. In their own time, they empowered his readers to think of themselves as poets too[.] “Every province” has a poet, declared Longfellow in “Vox populi” (3:77), but the community that his poetry built was neither local nor global. Each of its members was allowed a separate identity and privacy, just as the poet was allowed to hold on to his innermost thoughts.
from Christoph Irmscher’s marvelous study of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Longfellow Redux, which I highly, highly recommend if you’ve got an interest in American poetry. I will review it within the next weeks, but I’ll say this: it’s readable, brilliant, original and highly insightful. Irmscher is that wonderful species of critics: he is a philologist and an archivar, living offf words and documents and at the same time, he is a wonderful writer.