By Ruth Nourse
Published March 1, 1989
Writers of history select and document occurrences which they see as significant. Most of us who studied history or literature in the public school never stopped to ask, “Is this the whole story? … Are these really the people, the decisions, and events that have had the greatest influence on Americans?” We simply studied history and literature as it was taught.
In this column, the reader will notice the names of many literary critics, philosophers, and writers who consciously determined the direction of American education, as well as American values, generations before we were born. Some of those most influential in setting this course were not Americans at all, but Europeans who had nothing in common with our founding fathers. Unfortunately, ordinary Americans know little, and are probably concerned less, about the kind of people that have altered our course.
Twenty five years ago I awoke with a start to the significance of what literary critics were saying – and a whole new world opened up before me as I saw how our nation has been shaped by writers and educators. These people have been tampering with our future, but they are not strangers; their names are well known to us from literature, history, and political science courses. And part of the story has been omitted from our textbooks.
Most of us assume that the good purpose of our founding fathers, the U.S. Constitution, and the promises of elected officials will guarantee our continued freedom. Because we respect differing religious and political views, we suppose that our own views will be respected in the same way. Governed by this view, our founders allowed a small segment of their countrymen a century ago to change the direction of education and thereby the course of American tradition and history. Dazzled by teachers and books which offered a “superior view” of man and the world, 19th century activists imported ideas from abroad and used public money and public schools to spread them among us.
Regarded at first by their contemporaries as radical and eccentric, these promoters of a new age held to their unorthodox ideas with determination until they finally worked their way into positions of influence and power. Their purpose was nothing less than revolution. Their method was a form of warfare I have called “the war of the poets.”
The right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been enjoyed in our times with little reference to what principles or conditions may underlie all “rights.” The upheavals of the 1960s seem to have awakened a new national concern. Some of us have undertaken to examine personal and national roots, and have found the study of history profitable for the light it casts on today’s trends and events. Why did America remain for nearly 400 years a land of promise to pilgrims and hardy immigrants? And why now are we producing hordes of our own homeless, hungry, despairing or violent people? We can gain the answers to these questions by consulting history.
The “Longfellow War”
Before my quest for historical answers began, I made most of the usual assumptions about history and entertained the usual prejudices. “Who needs to bother with the dates of wars, elections, panics and depressions?” I thought. Then, suddenly, I grasped an important thread in this tapestry, and it began to unravel. That thread of history was found in a biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet. It was my first introduction into an episode in history called “The Longfellow War.”
I had read several biographies of Longfellow and knew something of his poetry. Granted, his view of life was through a window of optimism and faith. He shared with his readers many reasons for hope. Longfellow was once loved as no other American poet. He was an all-around great man – husband, father, teacher, neighbor. Schoolchildren across the nation celebrated his birthday.
James Russell Lowell, U.S. ambassador to England, said this at the unveiling of Longfellow’s bust in the Poets’ Corner at Westminister Abbey: “Never was a private character more answerable to public performance than that of Longfellow. Never have I known a more beautiful character.” But in spite of world renown during his lifetime, Longfellow is by no means considered a loved friend in our generation. Is it because he lived so long ago that he is no longer honored?
Biographies and works of Edgar Allan Poe are still in great demand by students assigned to American literature. Walt Whitman, who was Longfellow’s younger contemporary, is not neglected. But why is Longfellow now all but forgotten in the public school? I asked myself, “If Longfellow is no longer great, who has taken his place and what is American literature now?” Since the research for this book began in 1961, I have spent many hours looking at American authors of the 19th and early 20th century. This led to excursions into history as well, and to the headwaters of political and social movements with which we are all familiar. There has indeed been a revolution – a “bloodless coup” affecting all of American education.
What I discovered, particularly from reading Herbert Gorman’s biography of Longfellow – A Victorian American – is that a certain band of intellectual elite deliberately came against Longfellow’s Christian worldview. “It is possible,” said Gorman, “that the world sees in [Longfellow] a personification of those gentle virtues of living that are so agreeable to contemplate and so dull to put in practice.” Margaret Fuller, another outspoken literary critic, called Longfellow a “clever magpie” who should not be allowed to teach others to write.
From our earliest beginnings, the Christian faith has been woven into the warp and woof of national life, and, to a great extent, is needed to explain America. How has it come about, in a nation boasting individual freedom, that the faith of our fathers still burning brightly in the hearts of many of her citizens, young and old, must now be excluded from the mainstream of knowledge?
Next month, we will examine in detail just how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Christian ideas were carefully and deliberately edited from our textbooks and concealed from our children.
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