From our nation’s beginnings, the Christian faith has been interwoven with American philosophy. Over a century ago, however, an intellectual elite arose with the purpose of deleting Christian ideals from American education. In this column we will examine in detail just how Christian thought has been concealed from students of American literature. This “war of the poets” can be documented by contrasting the lives of two men: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a man who pursued happiness in the traditional American way. He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, and became the best known, best loved American poet at home and abroad. His father was a Harvard graduate and attorney who would later be elected to the Massachusetts legislature and then to congress. The piety and patriotism of his mother, Zilpah, did honor to six Mayflower pilgrims named among her ancestors. Puritan and pilgrim faith merged in the shaping of the poet’s character and world view.
Longfellow attended private schools where, in addition to the usual studies, he received instruction in French and lessons on the flute. By age fourteen he was ready to enter Bowdoin College. By the time he finished fourth in his college class of 38, Henry had received some recognition as a poet, having written 17 poems, most of them published, by the time he was 19. Years later, he selected five of these for publication in his complete works.1
After graduation in the spring of 1825, a grant had been received to establish a new professorship in modern languages at Bowdoin, and the school’s administrators were reminded of their gifted graduate. Young Longfellow was invited to take the position, which would be held open for him while he, at his own expense, traveled to Europe for three years’ study of European literature and language. In 1826 he sailed to Europe with his parent’s blessing, although his mother had misgivings that her son might come under the sinister influences of a European university. These fears were unfounded. Her son found no thrill in anything of value in the ideas of the German philosophers admired by Ralph Waldo Emerson.2
Longfellow’s poetry is strengthened by threads of truth from the King James Bible. Frequent notations and commentaries on Sunday sermons are sprinkled through all the years of his letters and journals. They reflect his lifelong pursuit of reality in the practice of the Christian faith and his reflections on the myriad of religious philosophies found in Europe.
Longfellow became professor of modern languages at Bowdoin with the added duties of librarian. In his inaugural address, given at age 22, the new professor set forth his view about the purpose of literature: “It is this religious feeling, this changing of the finite for the infinite – this grasping after the invisible things of another and a higher world – which marks the spirit of modern literature.”
Longfellow continued as professor of modern languages at Bowdoin for five years and then at Harvard for twenty. He later became world renowned for short novels, such as Hyperion, and classic works of poetry, Hiawatha, Tales of a Wayside Inn, and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Any reader familiar with the King James Bible, or who has been exposed to Chaucer or Shakespeare, will find Longfellow’s poems delightfully “modern.” Although time has changed our language and manner of speech, man’s nature remains basically the same. Joy, sorrow, happiness, triumph, loneliness, failure, strength, weakness, family, love, death – the human heart responds to these in every century. Longfellow’s work is timeless in this sense. His readers acknowledged and appreciated their poet’s dedication to truth and purity.
Enter the Biased Editors
Longfellow was freely enjoyed by American school children for the next 50 years. But the decision had already been made by those in charge of what school children were expected to read. This poet’s work would be replaced by literature with sympathy for neither the faith nor sentiment of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His passing signalled a “new age” in America. Critics made their opinions clear while the poet lived and while his works were everywhere applauded. They declared, although few at the time were listening, that America’s literature must be filled more with passion and less with sentiment.
Hostile criticism came primarily from literary reviews by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s articles appeared in the several magazines he wrote for or edited between 1835 and 1845. Longfellow’s attitude toward Poe was kindly even when he stooped to actual defamation of character and slander. Calling Longfellow an imitator, Poe accused him of plagiarism and likened him to a pickpocket.3
Poe was quoted as saying, “I love fame: I dote on it: I idolize it.“4 And in another place, “My whole nature utterly revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the universe superior to myself!“5 One biographer believed egoism became the basis for Poe’s criticism of fellow writers: “He seemed to regard the fame of contemporary authors as a personal rebuke and insult to himself, wondering at the presumption and ignorance of a rushing world that could admire anything but the central sun of American Literature.”
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1809. His father studied law but later chose an acting career. His mother, an actress, soon after died of tuberculosis and left him in the care of a Richmond tobacco merchant. The bright and attractive little boy recited poetry and danced, possibly for the stage. He was enrolled in a good school in England, doing well as a student, but his writings reveal unhappiness and a sardonic view of discipline. Poe entered Jefferson University in 1826, where he combined as much pleasure as possible with the requirements for a liberal education. He was a good student but he and his friends drank with such abandon that the sheriff was called to bring order to the campus. Most biographers tell us that he accumulated more than $2000 in gambling debts.6
Poe went to Boston in 1827, with the purpose of publishing a book of poems. From 1835 through 1845, Poe was the editor of at least five publications in four cities. He demonstrated an unusual ability to attract readership and usually became editor-in-chief in a short time. Soon after this Poe married his cousin, Virginia, and moved to Richmond. One may guess the circumstances that prompted the following letter from his employer: “You have fine talents, Edgar, – and you ought to have them respected as well as yourself. Learn to respect yourself, and you will very soon find that you are respected. Separate yourself from the bottle, and bottle companions, forever! No man is safe who drinks before breakfast! No man can do so, and attend to business properly …” – (Signed) T.W. White.7
The poet’s mental and emotional state was displayed in several drunken sallies to New York. One who knew him wrote: “He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he professed that he felt already damned), but for the happiness of those who were at the moment the object of his idolatry.“8 More short stories and poems issued from his pen, but by this time opium had been added to an already deadly abuse of alcohol.
After Virginia’s death in 1847, Poe continued on an even more erratic course. An abnormal need for emotional support drove him to pursue both married and single women with whom he had become enamored over the years. After parting with one of these women, Poe disappeared for five days and was picked up by a doctor at a tavern in Baltimore. The poet’s death followed after many hours of horror. According to one account, he lingered between a dream and a screaming nightmare until he was unable to speak above a whisper. Just before he died, witnesses said, “He moved his head, gently whispering, ‘Lord help my soul.’“9 When he asked if there was hope, a Bible was brought to his deathbed. No other book spoke of matters that concerned him then. However, the textbook record has not been adjusted to reflect Poe’s change of heart.
Those who select great literature to be studied by American students feel no responsibility to present literary role models who have been successful in life, as well as in letters. While making a point of eliminating Poe’s more repulsive works, textbook editors fail to mention that he repented in the end.
Next month we continue to investigate the exclusion of Longfellow’s poetry from American Literature classes. Two more detractors to Longfellow’s popularity will be examined: Sarah Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.