Longfellow’s Community

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.

One thought on “Longfellow’s Community

  1. G. K. Chesterton on Dickens:

    Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. . . . Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it……
    The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. . . . The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like deity and poured out his riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonized to produce it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were enjoying the best he could do. . . . His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. . . . In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens

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