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This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

Inside cover Portrait: Henry Wadsworth Longellow (David C. Ward)

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Julia Margaret Cameron
Albumen silver print, 1868
34.2cm x 26.8cm (13 7/16" x 10 9/16"), Image National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution NPG.82.61

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-2) has suffered the fate of many writers who are popular in their day: a voice of its time frequently lacks staying power. Longfellow, whose sensibility was that of a mild Romantic, has been eclipsed in reputation by 'darker' literary contemporaries such as Poe, Hawthorne or Herman Melville. (Yet Longfellow suffered the indescribable tragedy of losing his wife to a horrific accident with fire. He grew a beard to hide the burn scars inflicted when he tried to rescue her. The scars never appear in his poetry.) His reputation especially suffers because it can be directly contrasted with Walt Whitman's. Longfellow's internationally popular 'The Song of Hiawatha' was published in 1855, the year Whitman's little noticed Leaves of Grass appeared. American poetry still reverberates with Whitman's modernism while 'Hiawatha' is one of the most parodied poems of all time.

Yet Longfellow deserves posterity's respect as the first American poet who could be spoken of in the same breath as English counterparts such as Tennyson; indeed, Longfellow was as popular in Britain as in the United States. Eschewing jingoism and boosterism, he laid the foundations for a distinctive American poetry, one rooted in the history and folkways of the emerging nation. His professionalism as a writer - his mastery of his craft and his devotion to literature as poet and teacher - must be respected and admired. This portrait photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron shows him as more Romantic than he was in word and life, but her picture captures Longfellow almost as an aspect of the landscape: the first poet in the American grain.

This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

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