Author Nicholas Basbanes on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow & the Spirit of American Poetry

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This week on “The Learning Curve,” co-hosts Gerard Robinson and Cara Candal talk with Nicholas Basbanes, author of the 2020 literary biography, Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He shares why poetry – from the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer to Dante, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes – may well be the most influential, enduring form of written human expression. He then provides brief highlights of Longfellow’s life, and why he was often regarded as the most popular and recognizable “fireside poet” New England has ever produced. They discuss the tragic death of his second wife Frances Appleton in 1861, and his lasting importance as among our nation’s most celebrated poets, literary figures, and translators of Dante. They review Longfellow’s well-known poems, including “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recited by countless generations of schoolchildren, and their wider cultural impact on interest in poetry in American schools. They also discuss Longfellow’s 1842 anti-slavery work, Poems on Slavery, and his close friendship with abolitionists such as U.S. Senator Charles Sumner; as well as other notable works such as “Evangeline,” and “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” that celebrate religious liberty and inclusiveness. Basbanes concludes with a reading from his Longfellow biography.

Stories of the Week: Many state education officials are seeking guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how to meet the accountability requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act after COVID-related testing disruptions. In Utah, student achievement on state assessments has declined across all grades, subject areas, and student groups in 2021 compared to 2019 (tests were not administered during 2020).


Nicholas Basbanes is the author of ten critically acclaimed works of cultural history, with a particular emphasis on various aspects of books and book culture. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, his first book, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1995, and was a New York Times Notable Book. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History (2013) was one of three finalists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and was named a best book of the year by seven major publications. In 2016, he was awarded a Public Scholar research fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities, his second NEH grant, for work on Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (2020). As Christoph Irmscher wrote in his The Wall Street Journal review, it’s “Inspired … superbly sympathetic… Longfellow is the perfect poet for our current moment… Basbanes writes about him with generosity, gentleness, and grace.”

The next episode will air on Wednesday, December 1st with guest, Matthew Chingos, who directs the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute.

Tweet of the Week:

News Links:

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect student performance? Utah data is ‘sobering and concerning’

States Look to Ed Department for Guidance on Restarting Testing and Accountability After Two Years of Pandemic-Related Interruptions

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Please excuse typos.

Cara: Dear listeners. Welcome to another episode of the learning curve with me, Cara Candal, and the fabulous Gerard Robinson, who I have to say, I recently got to see live in person, which is just absolutely amazing to see so many people live and in person, but especially you, my good friend, Gerard, how are you doing today?

[00:00:19] Gerard Robinson: Doing well. It was good to finally see you not on a screen and I barely see you. But it was good to break bread and talk shop. Yes. No, but I’m just

[00:00:29] Cara: like now, you know what I look like, because the last time we saw each other in person before this was years and years ago, so you know how the pandemic has aged me, but George don’t laugh.

[00:00:46] Listen, we’re coming up on Thanksgiving. Obviously. This is we’re recording this. We’re about to. Sit down. Our listeners may be, can listen to a little learning curve with their Turkey this week. I just picked up my Turkey and I was thinking of you on the way home, [00:01:00] because, knowing that , you’ve changed your diet very recently.

[00:01:03] I’m wondering like , what’s on the Robinson table this year. Is it a tofurkey or is it like something that would utterly offend my father’s sensibilities? I would have to say with that, I would probably eat what’s your specialty.

[00:01:14] GR: So for me, I’m going to have plant-based sausage. And so it would totally offend your father’s taste buds, my wife and the girls.

[00:01:24] So last year I made gumbo and this year I was going to make Kubia, which is a appealed fish dish, , and they all said, Nope, we want something that you’ve only made for us once in our life. And guess what? That is. Drum roll fry.

[00:01:41] Cara: Oh, I was going to say vegetarian sausage.

[00:01:45] GR: actually eat a Turkey and chicken stuff, but they’ve only had fried chicken at least made this house once. And so I’m going to make it for them along with some other goodies. So while that may be a normal meal in many households across America, [00:02:00] It is one that we don’t often have. they love chicken, but it’s often baked.

[00:02:03] So,

[00:02:05] Cara: you know, try to have to say, I rarely eat bread chicken, although it is delicious, absolutely scared to death of trying to prepare it. I’ve never eaten. I disclosed this to a friend the other day who we were, uh, looking at a menu, never had chicken. Just something that kind of, I know, it’s that weird.

[00:02:22] Like I made it all through college in the Midwest without a single chicken wing who knows how that happened, but it did. , so it’s interesting. Well, I’m glad to see that you can sort of like mix up the Thanksgiving table. I’m pretty excited. I’m going to be hosting a group of family, friends this year, nothing big at the Candal household.

[00:02:43] We , attempting to make a Turkey for said friends, my father, on the other hand, you know, speaking of offending his sensibilities, I should share with our listeners that this is a man who is so averse to a plant-based diet. for years and years, I’ve been asking him to please get on board, even just like, you know, you can still eat meat and be generally [00:03:00] plant-based the man.

[00:03:00] It’s just not, in his DNA. , but he is known for making a turducken Gerard. Have you ever had your duck and I’m assuming now? No. Yeah, the Turkey stuffed with like a duck stuff. Cause like, Wow. It’s an actual thing. It’s disgusting. Love you, dad. It’s disgusting. Like just, I don’t know, to all of our listeners out there, if you’ve ever had a good thing, a good term docket and let me know, but it is actually a thing.

[00:03:25] will not be, with my parents is Thanksgiving. We will be zooming, but I’m eager to know what’s going to be on the table there. So I know that so many of us this week are finding a little bit of time to. Relax, enjoy family in the middle of what is certain to be a very hectic season. So wishing everybody just a wonderful, relaxing holiday and hopefully this one better than last year when so many of us so saw.

[00:03:52] So few of us. but you know, we are here Gerard to. what’s going on in education this week now you, and I [00:04:00] think we can say that we were at the national summit on education hosted by selling the ed last week. It was, , I have to say, I give props to, as, our listeners know, Excel, net is my, is, uh, something that I do during the day, a job that I love very much.

[00:04:14] And I think it was just a really wonderful. Display of, thought leadership on so many levels. some really great speakers. and one of the things, one of the panels that we, one of the things we confronted them, one of our strategy sessions at the national summit , on education, was accountable.

[00:04:30] Was accountability and testing and what the heck is going on. And that relates to my story of the week, Gerard, which is from the 74 by Linda Jacobson. And the title is states. Look to ed department for guidance on restarting testing and accountability after two years. Of pandemic related interruptions.

[00:04:50] So we’ve talked about testing on this show. We’ve talked about accountability. We haven’t talked a whole heck of a lot about what’s going to happen now that most schools are reopen , and [00:05:00] most kids are back to some new version of normal and what this article is discussing. Is the fact that while most schools are testing and many did last year, too many schools and districts tested last year, we know that by and large, there’s just two years of lost test score data.

[00:05:16] And, in the department of education, the federal department of education, In the first year, obviously in 2020, some waivers from testing and accountability from ESSA, we’re the, every student succeeds act, which is the accountability system under which, states are accountable under, federal law.

[00:05:33] So meaning that’s how they get their title $1. But, , We know that states were granted waivers. Now this education department, secretary Cordona has, sent a pretty strong signal that tests are going to happen, and we’re not going to be granting a lot more waivers. So that leaves a question in everybody’s mind, we can get the test and we can get results of the test, but we don’t know how to hold schools and districts accountable for growth.

[00:05:58] If we don’t have, if we’re missing two years of [00:06:00] data, because we need to see what’s happening year over year. And as we also know to further complicate issues, Lots of kids are missing. So just a whole host of issues that states are facing right now. And not a lot of answers. States are really waiting to find out what is going to happen next.

[00:06:19] So, , we interesting to watch, , testing season is going to be honest before we know it. And certainly we need to get back to. And norm where, , accountability systems, that the thing that they do best is they shine a light on pockets of underperformance. So I’m really curious, right. As a former commissioner, as a former secretary of education, what kind of accountability system, , what kind of guidance would you like to see from the feds going forward on this

[00:06:45] GR: issue?

[00:06:46] I appreciate the fact that the fed for a couple of years, Said we’re going to hold harmless. I think that was the right decision. , I do understand why the secretary says, listen, we’ve got to do something and we have to do it kind of smartly [00:07:00] the benefit that he has today, that let’s say a decade ago. , we did not.

[00:07:05] Is, you have a number of think tanks, a number of nonprofit organizations and universities and research one schools, and also at HBC use who have professors who wake up and go to sleep every night, thinking about assessment. And if you troll the internet, you’ll see some of those professors aren’t waiting for peer review journals to give them the okay to publish their work.

[00:07:28] They’re actually putting out their ideas on how to address. For what tests could have been if all students were a test at the same time and they’ve come up with different economic, , social and academic based models for assessment. So I’m really, I really can’t weigh into this one because testing someone right now, And the pandemic is just radically different.

[00:07:51] But I would say, look to scholars at schools who are starting to put this out. So that’s part one, part two at the state [00:08:00] level, they have a lot automatic. one of the things you and I and chance to do while we were there were talked to people who are at the school level at the state level. And they were saying across the board, we have so much money.

[00:08:11] We don’t know what to do. And I can tell you in American education, that’s not usually sentence that you hear. It’s usually we don’t have enough. And then ever something else will follow. So with all of this money, there are people, again, you can invest in under the guise of COVID relief to make sure we stay in line with the parameters of the funding.

[00:08:32] There are people out there who’ve really, really thought about this. And I would say you have a number of retired teachers and principals, , who be equally interested. So I’d say use local.

[00:08:42] Cara: I love it. Also a great opportunity with this relief money to rethink assessment. I mean, it’s like one of the primary things that.

[00:08:50] school districts and school teachers and parents across the country love to hate as important as accountability systems are. But this is I think, a really grand opportunity to figure out [00:09:00] how do we get more innovative in our assessments? A close friend of mine likes to say fewer better assessments, right?

[00:09:06] So that we can still have those sort of summited data that as I say, help us understand what’s going on under the hood in school districts to make school, make sure that all children are being served without sort of. Having to continue to adhere to this testing regimen that causes anxiety. And quite frankly, sometimes perverse incentives for teachers to do things like teach to the test, which of course isn’t what we wanted in the first place.

[00:09:30] So I would be really excited to see if some of those local stakeholders that you mentioned can offer up ideas for not only how we hold schools accountable, but how we do so using. Different more innovative assessments designed for the future. So I know you’ve got a story this week. I think about a state Utah that is actually doing some really cool stuff in terms of, online learning, innovative assessments, all of the other things.

[00:09:56] What are you thinking about in that crazy?

[00:09:58] GR: Well, speaking of Utah, I had a [00:10:00] chance, , in addition to speaking to, , ESA leaders, , at the session you held, I also had an opportunity to moderate a panel focused on assessments, opportunity and personalized learning. And one of the three speakers was Dr.

[00:10:12] Carrie camp. who’s the director of K-12. Virtual learning for the Utah department of education. As many of you know, Julie Young has been a guest on our show. She was also my panel, but those two have partnered, uh, so that they can actually work to use technology as a way of trying to close the learning gap.

[00:10:32] And I should also say, we had, Denise forte, who is the interim CEO at education trust on the panel. So my story is all about. Data, but when you read what Margie Cortez had to say, she put in quotes, sobering and concerning. And that’s actually a phrase that was mentioned by representative Lowry, snow.

[00:10:52] Who’s a Republican from Santa Clara and co-chair of the Utah legislatures education interim committee. So [00:11:00] Utah is a high-performing state. They had a lot of great things, but they also have a number of socioeconomic challenges. Well, will you talk about the pandemic? It really impacted people across the board.

[00:11:11] Now, Utah was a state where a number of students were in person. And so the state said, let’s just assess exactly where we are and then figure out who took tests, who did not, and what happened? Well, when the representative said sobering and concerning, she was really clear. So for example, amongst high school juniors, 70% fewer.

[00:11:34] Took the sat college exam in 2021 compared to 2019. And if you look at the state average composite score declined, by 0.29, points, which is comparable to about one month of lost instruction. So then we talk about the Utah aspire plus tests, and this is administered to students in grades nine and 10.

[00:11:55] It had the sharpest decline in participation with 10% fewer. Students taking the [00:12:00] test in 2021 compared to 2029, but that’s not really the horrible, outcomes. Listen to this girl, mathematics performance dropped 46%, 10 and 37% in grade nine. English language arts performance worsened by 14% in both grades.

[00:12:19] And so in the state, they have something called rise assessments, and that’s short for readiness improvement, success, empowerment, and they’re administered to students in grades three to eight. They also unfortunately saw a sharp decline with 57. decline in sixth grade math and a 45% drop in fifth grade math.

[00:12:40] So the state is trying to figure out well, now that. This is the case. What do we do well to take things a step further, the Utah board of education and the national center for the improvement of educational assessment. They said, well, guess what folks it’s likely that the figures you’re discussing underestimates the true pandemic [00:13:00] effect, because it’s only based upon students who took the test in 20, 20, 20, 21.

[00:13:05] So when we’re speaking about how to look at learning loss, we have to find a new way of trying to assess it. So there is a professor at Harvard university named Andrew Holt, and he said, listen, let’s try to apply my method to the rise tests and to Utah. So according to hole, he suggested two metrics once you to include quote, a fair trend adjustment.

[00:13:32] And this is the account for changes in the testing population. And the second is an equity check and the goal here is an attempt to estimate. To the best way possible, a best case academic performance scenario for students who did not take the 2021 tests because he believes by doing so, you’re going to provide a gauge for the impact of missing students on the overall academic outcomes.

[00:13:57] And so, as the report goes, wherever the [00:14:00] story goes further, it just says that the state’s got to really think differently about how to do things. So there are three takeaways for me. Number one, holds assessment is one example that I remember. In response to you without mentioning his name of looking at university-based scholars who are trying to provide, One way of working with this number two, they also identify that even those students in Utah for the most part were in school more often than not a number of the students who filled out the survey identify that, , they sometimes were quarantine and had their education interrupted.

[00:14:35] And we dig further into the story. It said that the highest achievement occurred amongst students . Who were in-person but also had fewer interruptions, therefore being in place in school made a difference. The third is while no one is saying this in the article in Cortez definitely is not. I’m really wondering, are we trying to somehow say maybe we shouldn’t assess these students one more year [00:15:00] because things are still tight.

[00:15:02] I agree, but I want to make sure that at some point we don’t use the pandemic as a reason to maybe to go to your three, without holding some level of accountability and some level of, Assessment in place. So, you know, we’ll see, , last part is, you know, they did in by saying quote, the learning acceleration necessary cannot be left to teachers and principals alone, school leaders, educators, local communities will need support and resources to sustain a necessary intervention will be on the time of.

[00:15:32] And we’re actually funds run out a lot of money there. The smartest thing to do is just re-imagine what you would do, because I’m not sure we’re going to have so much money at one time point into schools. And so if we’re going to think about assessments and we’re looking at Utah, let’s just make sure that as we’re moving forward with this money, we’re not putting the pause too long.

[00:15:54] Accountability.

[00:15:56] Cara: couldn’t agree more Gerard and actually I think that there is an [00:16:00] enormous risk. I think that there are some vested interests that would like to see a commonality go away all together. Let’s just swing that pendulum right back to like the late 1970s early 1980s would failed and failed attempt at accountability until.

[00:16:13] Wasn’t really until 2001 on the heels of some states like Texas and Massachusetts and others implementing these systems. Right. It wasn’t until no child left behind that, we really had information about schools. And I think that’s the huge danger here. We might also have to rethink the different ways of holding schools accountable, because absolutely we want to know about student performance, but, , in this particular.

[00:16:37] If schools aren’t even trying, if they aren’t even trying to understand or to share their data or to demonstrate that they’re doing something for kids. And I think we all need to be a little bit skeptical about what’s going on and figure out how to hold schools accountable in myriad ways, both quantitative and qualitative, , without of course Focusing so much on accountability that we pose additional burdens.

[00:16:59] [00:17:00] we want to do it in a way that lifts burdens per students and teachers where tests and accountability can become a tool for future learning. So, well, I know we could talk about this forever Gerard, because it’s fascinating and it’s going to be, it’s going to be just. Turkey day conversation.

[00:17:14] It’s so many homes. I know that’s, everybody’s going to have accountability on the mind. , Gerard, we have got a very new England guests coming up after this. if any of you are, I know even those of you who live in warmer climates often, , what’s the song I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

[00:17:31] If you listen to this kind of music around the holiday season. So for those of us up here in new England, it’s. It’s dark and we’re going to be, , huddled around, the Thanksgiving table, looking for some warmth and today’s author he’s written about, for example, Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow, great new England poet.

[00:17:48] Many of us know his work without knowing we even know his work. We’re going to be speaking with Nicholas Basbanes coming up right now.[00:18:00]

[00:18:21] Learning curve listeners. Welcome back. And today we are with Nicholas Basbanes. He’s the author of 10 critically acclaimed works of cultural history with a particular emphasis on various aspects of books and book culture. I just love it. A gentle madness, bibliophiles biblio mains in the eternal passionate.

[00:18:40] His first book was a finalist for the national book critics circle award for non-fiction in 1995 and was a New York times notable. On paper, the everything of its 2000 year history was one of three finalists for the Andrew Carnegie metal for excellence in non-fiction and was named best book of the year by seven major publications.

[00:18:59] , in [00:19:00] 2016, he was awarded a public scholar research fellowship by the national endowment for the humanities. His second NEH grant for work on cross of snow. A life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published in 2020 as Kristoff erasure wrote in the wall street journal review. Inspired superbly. Longfellow is the perfect poet for our current moment.

[00:19:21] Basbanes writes about him with generosity, gentleness and grace, Nicholas. Basbanes welcome to the show.

[00:19:28] Nicholas: Thank you for that wonderful introduction.

[00:19:30] Cara: Yeah, we’re really happy to have you. I think, especially, I mean, I sit up here in new England. My co-host is not, he gets to talk about his home state of Virginia quite a bit, but Longfellow especially feels very new England and inappropriate for this.

[00:19:44] Cultural moment, but this time of year, so we’re really excited to have you now. I don’t know if I can call myself a bibliophile, but boy, do I love to read? And the history of books is a fascinating topic. You’ve written several books about the history of books, [00:20:00] so share for our listeners. and the educators and students that we have, who listen to this show from the epic of Gilgamesh and Homer to Dante Shakespeare, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes poetry might be the most influential.

[00:20:17] Enduring form of written human expression. Explain that what’s

[00:20:20] Nicholas: well, I, think you hit the nail on the head there, when you talk about influential and enduring, I think, you know, enduring would begin with that. You mentioned Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic. Well, that, that is a, an oral originally and an oral tradition.

[00:20:36] An epic poem, which we call an epic poem and was composed 5,000 years ago, which is at the Dawn of, writing. , it was an existence about 2000 BC and we have our first recorded. writing of it and which have been preserved on baked clay tablets from the Sumerian era dating to 1000 BC.

[00:20:56] , that was written over a thousand years before Homer wrote the [00:21:00] Iliad and the Odyssey, which again, they’re all. Poems designed to be read aloud or to be sung as songs and then re and then recorded down, documented, on a variety of a recording surfaces. We use paper today, but we’ve used all sorts of recording, and and we talk about holler , , and the Odyssey and the Iliad. We have the, uh, the indeed by virtual the opening line. As I sing, I sing to you of arms and the man that when you think of any number of. National epics. I mean, you talk about, mentioned Virgil’s at need. You have Dante and writing in the vernacular in the 14th century, the divine comedy, you know, the song of Roland, the song of Roland, again, very important 11th century France, the poem of the Cid in Spain.

[00:21:42] So when you think of national poems that celebrate a national identity, it is invariably through poetry and beginning going back, as we said, thousands of. And the oral tradition. And let’s just, just think who was the national poet of England? Well, he’s the Dramatists, the playwright, [00:22:00] William Shakespeare, but fundamentally he was a poet writing, a blank verse.

[00:22:05] I ethic pentameter, all of his great speeches and all of the great plays are inverse. And of course we call them the great Bard of Avon. So this is the tradition from which Henry. Longfellow Springs. he was determined to write a great American, epic, drawing on distinctively, uniquely American traditions and customs.

[00:22:27] And he attempted this. And I think he succeeded in a number of instances, beginning with Evangelina and, the first, of his long narrative poems and He follows that with, , Hiawatha , and he follows that with. the courtship of miles Standish, each one of these, a distinctively American theme drawing in American traditions and speaking to the American people of, of their shared cultural identity.

[00:22:51] So I guess that’s a long roundabout way of answering your question, but answer it in the.

[00:22:57] Cara: Yeah, no, but, and you’re also bringing me back to [00:23:00] my, I don’t want to say how long ago, but days of course, as an English major in some of these works that you’ve listed as being, you know, songs. , certainly, really, if you’ve ever sat with the.

[00:23:11] And you’ve sat with the texts, especially in a group of other people, you realize that they of course lend themselves to being read aloud and one can understand and feel so much more of it. I also listening to you. And since we do have some educators who are out there in our audience, I want to put in a plug for something that my kids wonderful school does.

[00:23:29] And that is poem in your pocket day. And the ground rules are simply that you have to have a poem in your pocket and anybody can stop you at any time. You to read that poem. So going back to that great oral tradition. Now I’ve already asked you a little bit about Longfellow, but we want to talk a lot more about him.

[00:23:46] so your biography of Longfellow is considered definitive. and I think that many would say he is regarded as perhaps America’s most recognizable fireside poet, of course, from new England. Talk to us [00:24:00] a little bit about Longfellow. Life. he had the tragic death of his second wife. And, what is it that made him such a celebrated literary figure in our.

[00:24:11] Nicholas: Well, I think he is. Yes, he is. He was easily the most celebrated. That’s a good, that’s a very important word. Do you celebrated poet of the 19th century? He was more than a poet. He was a public figure. And I think in that regard, he goes, he transcends poetry. He was read, he was appreciated. He was beloved by every demographic and by people of all ages.

[00:24:34] Children. He wrote most accessibly and invitingly. But when you think of, people of lawyers, professionals, uh, president Lincoln, going into the 1860s was brought to tears. When he was read, the building of the ship and that wonderful line in there saying sail on or union strong and great. You know, we talk about president Lincoln.

[00:24:55] We talk about it in England, queen Victoria. So Longfellow was [00:25:00] an American poet, but beloved not only in the United States as a cultural figure, but throughout the world, his poems were translated and read and no fewer than 30 languages, throughout the world. When he visited England in 1868, he was received by queen Victoria, who might.

[00:25:17] And how the servants, the domestic staff and the Windsor castle were hiding behind curtains to get a vantage point, to see the great American poet. And she asked them later, how do you know this poet? Well, they all knew his poetry and they all loved his poetry. , and that had a lot to do with his.

[00:25:35] who he was, he was a man of extraordinary decency. he was a very moral person. He was born in 1807. He graduated from Boden college in Maine at the age of 18. He graduated at the age of 18. He was a. Uh, class at one of his classmates and B and later in life, one of his great, great friends was Nathaniel Hawthorne.

[00:25:56] That was quite a class credit graduating class at Bowman. And there were other [00:26:00] great achievers on his graduation day. Uh, prior to graduation day, he gave an address because he graduated with honors and the topic of his address was, are native writers. Even at the age of 18, he was calling for the creation and the development and the evolution of a distinctively American literature.

[00:26:22] We were still in the early years of the 19th century, you know, when America was still in the very earlier in the infancy of developing and national literary tradition and he was mindful of. And he wanted from these earliest days, from the earliest stages that we have records of him. He wanted to be a writer and a professional writer, and he didn’t, he came from a very distinguished fan.

[00:26:44] but he was not from a family of great wealth and his father who was a lawyer in Portland, Maine, you know, insisted you can’t make a living doing this. He wanted him to be like himself, a lawyer, a young Henry. , I didn’t argue with them because, but he respected his father, but , they reached a consensus.

[00:26:59] [00:27:00] Well, you’ll come study in the, in, in my lawyer office. And meanwhile, maybe you can , take some graduate studies at Harvard and you can study literature. Commencement date on the graduation date and he’s 18 years old. The trustees, , at Bowdoin college vote to establish a professor. And modern European languages and bell let, there were only three other colleges in the United States at that time that had such a program, Harvard, William, and Mary, and the university of Virginia.

[00:27:28] They had received a bequest and lo and behold, they recommended that young Henry Longfellow age 18, a B. Be appointed to that position. He had already distinguished himself and translating, , some odes , , from the Latin, , Horace in particular. , and he had impressed everyone , , and they thought he would be perfect for the job, but there was a catch.

[00:27:49] He would have to go to Europe. He’s 18 years old, 1825 at his own expense. And to learn the languages, he would be expected to take. And because he was a very [00:28:00] decent, moral, trustworthy young man. I mean, consider sending your child abroad at the age of 18 and 1825 and spending what turned out to be three and a half years in Europe, traveling through multiple countries, spending time in Spain and Italy and Germany and England and France and everywhere he goes.

[00:28:19] He not only learns these language. And so he can come back and teach them and he will learn six. He will learn six fluently this time around and he will do this again. 10 years later, before he takes over a similar position at Harvard, he ultimately will know 12 languages read them fluently. And his library at Longfellow was in Cambridge.

[00:28:41] So there are over 10,000 books in 45 different dialects in a dozen or so languages, all of which he could read fluently and speak fluently. , , he came back. , he taught these languages, , , at Boden for a seven, years or so. He’s began to introduce to American readers. This is important [00:29:00] because not only did he want to develop an American literary tradition, he was determined to adapt.

[00:29:06] Borrow not to, I don’t, I don’t mean borrow in the sense of plagiarize or poach material, but traditions forms of, , , a poetic form and meter. And he learned them and he, would absorb these and he was determined to absorb all of these different traditions. He hoped to create one that would be distinctively American.

[00:29:25] And I think to a great extent, he succeeded at that, but at the same time, and we can argue, and I do in the book that he is arguably, I think our first, , long before that this phrase enters the language, uh, multiculturalist, because he believes he wrote to his sisters from Europe. He said the moral language is a man who.

[00:29:45] Of course you could say, man or woman, the more languages a person knows the more he or she as a man or a woman. , the more languages that you learn, , the more you are a human being and not only languages, but literature is what he meant. [00:30:00] Washington Irving and Spain, Washington Irvin gave him great advice.

[00:30:04] Young men don’t just learn the languages, but learn the literature. So this, I think this trip to Europe at the age of 18, he comes back at the age of 22. He’s a full professor at Boden college and he so distinguishes himself. , he is credited with introducing to American readers, , the works of no fewer than 25 German authors, including Guetta and Schiller.

[00:30:26] He, is credited with introducing so many different Spanish writers and traditions to American readers. There were no textbooks available while he was at Boden in the seven years, he taught them. He translated his own, his own books. The very first books he publishes are his own translations from these various languages as premise.

[00:30:45] So he can pass among his students. And then you can still find them in antiquarian circles. I mean, they’re very important books. So this is how he begins to go back when he arrived in the Bowden campus. And he started that he was a freshmen at the age of 15 or [00:31:00] 14 or so he was already a published poet, even though his father discouraged.

[00:31:05] From being a writer, he wrote poetry. He submitted these poems to various newspapers. And at the age of 13, his first poem was published in the Portland newspaper. So we start with this young man, he then, and then after seven or eight, Lo and behold, he w he’s eager to leave. He loves me and he’s from Maine, but he feels after having traveled and visited all these world capitals, he wants to perform on a larger stage.

[00:31:31] And, , he got out of the woodwork quite literally. He is offered a similar position at Harvard to succeed the great George techno and the Smith professorship. And now he is required to go to. Again, and to learn more languages quite specifically, to become more proficient than the Germany and the. He travels.

[00:31:50] And he takes with him, his young wife, , his first wife, Mary store, a Potter, a long fellow, a young, lovely woman, a neighbor of his and [00:32:00] Maine and tragically. She dies. And we really, because they are very reticent people, we know very little about her pregnancy, whether even she was pregnant when they set sail, but six months after they arrived in Europe, she had a miscarriage and she died.

[00:32:15] Horribly, , 54 or so days later, and Henry was totally distraught and he sold it on. He continued his work, , hoping to try to make a long story short here, but he’s traveling to take a break before returning to teach at Harvard. He meets this young woman. And, , in Switzerland, Francis Appleton, Longfellow traveling with her family.

[00:32:36] She’s a beacon hill, a young woman, , from a very, very prominent, , a wealthy, new England family and Henry falls for her , in the biggest way, uh, because she is a brilliant young woman. I mean, , she, herself has been tough. Bye magnificent private tutors. She speaks multiple languages.

[00:32:54] She translates as well with him, some poem from the German, and we couldn’t be more [00:33:00] impressed. There’s a courtship. Well, we call it a courtship. It was only one way. It took seven years for these two to get together. , I spent a good bill, did a bit of time. , I’m very proud of the fact that we won’t probably get to the, to this and the time we are talking here, but I regard this as much a, biography of Fanny Appleton, Longfellow as much as it is of Henry and that we don’t, we won’t have time also to get deeply into the choice of the title cross of snow.

[00:33:27] But this is a tribute. He writes to her 18 years after her horrible death. After 18 years of marriage. , in which, which also coincide with the 18, most productive years of his life, it was, it w it was 18 years of extraordinary product. They, I I’ve just written finished, , an essay, which I hope to be published in a major literary journal.

[00:33:51] I expect it will be, but I call it meeting of the minds, the intellectual partnership, if Henry was with Longfellow and [00:34:00] Francis Appleton Longfellow, because she was, I won’t say she was his collaborator, but she read everything. That he wrote, she commented on it. She advised him in several instances.

[00:34:11] She even proposed poems that he wrote one of which, the arsenal of Springfield. She was quite the Abbott. She was a abolitionist. she was , fiercely against arms and warfare of, , any form. And, uh, and all of these, all of these factors had a great impact on Henry. She died tragically and in a, horrible way, their life.

[00:34:33] I have a chapter in the book. I called chem a lot on the Charles. I mean, life couldn’t have been any better than he is at the top of his game. Uh, oh, the three narrative poems. I mentioned they’re all written and published during this period. So many other of his most famous works, Paul Revere’s right.

[00:34:47] The building of the ship, these all, these are all written and published during the year, these years. In July of 1861, just a few months after the outbreak of the civil war, they have now five children, three [00:35:00] daughters, , two sons, and on a hot July day , this was a custom and these days she is sealing, sealing.

[00:35:09] A little snippets of golden here from one of her daughters, her daughter, Edith Edith with golden hair. And she is attempting to seal , these locks of, , , , blonde hair, into small envelopes with a candle. And somehow because only the girls were witnessed to this, the young. Uh, some, some dripping wax fell on her dress.

[00:35:29] This crinoline dress, these dresses, which were terribly flammable in an instant, she burst into flames. I ran a shrieking to the study and long thoughts were Henry was taking an afternoon nap. Try and furiously to put out the flames. All he had was a little throw rug. He’s severely burned, and , she just very tragically, , passes away the next morning.

[00:35:53] And in an instant you talk about a night Delek life being turned upside down. Uh, This was [00:36:00] now the second loss , of a woman that he loved dearly. He loved his first wife dearly. And now this woman with his bride of 18, when he married Fanny, he wrote in his journal, it was a Vita Nova, a new life of happiness.

[00:36:15] And now all of a sudden that was good. But he never, lost his faith or his courage or , what he had to do. He was now a single father with a young five young children. He wrote to a very close friend. He said to the, out to the world, outside outwardly, I am kind of. But inwardly, I am bleeding to death.

[00:36:34] And so now he turns to other things for the short run, he turns to translation returns to translation because , he’s translated many other works and it becomes the first American to translate the whole of Dante into English. And if he did nothing else, if he didn’t ever write a single poem of his own, his significance as a literary.

[00:36:57] For that alone, , would elevate him [00:37:00] to us to a statute where we would have to pay attention to him. I interviewed a number of people for this book, and I can’t tell you, including Harold bloom, the great Harold bloom, the late Harold bloom, , Dean of American critics who felt that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of Dante and his view was the best because of his accuracy and his fidelity to what Dante was trying to say.

[00:37:23] To his readers, not just what the translator thought his readers were trying to, pass on to the, to the readers. Henry lives for another 22 or 23 is after the death of Fanny, but those years are so central. And on the 18th anniversary of her death, they were married for 18 years.

[00:37:41] And numbers were very important to him one night and his, and the sadness in his bedroom. He writes out this sonnet, the cross of snow from which I derive there, the title of my book, and it’s attributed to his wife. And it’s a, classic sonnet of 14 lines. And he’s contemplating [00:38:00] two paintings, one that hangs in the second floor bedroom of his well.

[00:38:05] It’s across from his bed and only he sees this painting. I mean, it’s a very personal, private part, a painting. That’s the first eight lines of the poem and the final six lines as, a contemplation of a painting known to millions of people, re of the recently discovered mountain in the Colorado Rockies, which somehow displays on its side.

[00:38:25] the figure of a cross and snow, and it’s visible all year round and they’re caused a sensation. So it was this contemplation of these two pictures and what he says in the long sleepless watches of the night, a gentle face, the face of one long dead looks at me from the wall, went round its head, the night lamp casts, a halo of pale light here in this room.

[00:38:45] She died. It never sold more white, never threw monitor demo for. What has led to which repose or Ken and books be read the legend of a life more better day. He switches to the mountain and the distant west. He said there is a mountain in the distant [00:39:00] west that sun defying and its deep ravines displays across the snow upon its side.

[00:39:06] Such as the cross I, where upon my breasts, these 18 years through all the changing scenes and seasons changeless, that’s the day she died. It’s just an amazing poem. When he finished it was so personal. He folded it, put it in an envelope, left it with his personal papers. It was discovered after his death and published posthumously.

[00:39:27] And I thought, not only is this an extraordinary exceptional. To this woman who is such a partner to him, but also one of the finest songs ever written by an American. And I say this, , just, I really challenge anyone to tell me, , an American poet who writes a better sonnet that Henry was with Longfellow.

[00:39:47] he is an absolute master of the sonnet form. Well, speaking

[00:39:51] GR: of Paul’s. My co-host Kara mentioned that she lives in the Boston area. I’ve had a chance to visit and on one visit, I had an opportunity to see [00:40:00] the black soldiers monument in the city. And it was just amazing to think about what, , mainly those.

[00:40:07] formerly enslaved Africans with some of those free man decided to do, to fight against the civil war. And speaking of that in 1842, Longfellow wrote poems on slavery, uh, call them attention to the institution amongst his closest friends was the abolitionists us Senator of Massachusetts Charles summer, who many would know in 1856 was nearly beaten to death on the floor of the Senate because of.

[00:40:32] Anti-slavery speech. Would you talk to us about what teachers, students, even families should know about? Longfellow’s poems on slavery? , his literary, connection with Senator Sumner and his friendship with new England abolitionists

[00:40:48] Nicholas: and. Okay. That’s a great question. And I think I’m really pleased that you asked it because I’ve been asked before by some people why, how can I explain Longfellow’s and this [00:41:00] was an actual question is with, on the matter of slavery, because some people feel that he could have been more, more.

[00:41:08] We’re active in this and the poetry that he wrote in his career, , like Whittier, for instance, more fiery. Well, those poems that you just mentioned, the poems on slavery, seven poems were published in 1842. Now this is 10 years before 10 years before Harriet Beecher stows, uncle Tom’s cabin. And he wrote, about slavery as a horrific institution.

[00:41:29] And there was seven great one called a slave. Dismal swamp in which he hunted me row. That was the words that he used on the run and Ferman lane from repeated beatings lies, crunched in the rank and tangle grass, like a wild. And the layer, he writes another one called the slaves dream and the central image, there is the drivers whip that maintains Otter among the oppressed.

[00:41:52] Another one, he calls the quadroon girl about a young woman who’s taken from her family and brought to, the United States for any number of [00:42:00] different, unspeakable purposes. And my, very favorite of them all as the witnesses. Which describes a sunken ship, half buried in the sands in which lies, skeletons and chains with shackled feet and hands.

[00:42:14] These are the bones of slaves. He writes, they gleaned from the abyss. They cry from the yawning waves. We other witnesses. Now, some people might’ve felt that those weren’t powerful pumps. I think they’re pretty powerful poems and they used imagery and they were powerful enough that one of his publishers refuse to include them in a collection of his works.

[00:42:33] He did stimulate discussion and he was the first American poet to do that. The first American writer of consequence to do that, w they were so, far-reaching and influential that, Whittier his friend and other fireside. Asks him to run for Congress and the Liberty and the under the banner of the Liberty party, which is newly formed, but it was a very, very clear abolitionist party, Longfellow declines.

[00:42:59] [00:43:00] He says, I do not fly under any political banner, his feelings, his convictions were very well-known. Now you ask about Charles Sumner, literary connector it’s beyond literary connection. There was his closest dearest. They were absolutely soulmates. And when, when and Sumner knew Fanny Appleton, they both lived in beacon hill.

[00:43:21] And so he knew the family, but, and as much as he loved her and became very friendly and was as devoted to her as Henry, was he despaired when Henry, when they married, because he was losing, , not losing, he thought he might be losing his closest friend, but Sumner said something to writing a letter to Francis.

[00:43:39] Labor said, do not expect war owes from Longfellow. That is not what Longfellow does. He said, Longfellow speaks to the people on common ground and he speaks for all of them and, and, and all of their convictions, you know, later he writes, , Paul Revere’s ride well, purportedly that. The revolutionary war, [00:44:00] but it’s more than that.

[00:44:00] This is published on the Eve of this, literally on the Eve of the civil war. South Carolina has just has to see seated , from the union and the final six lines of that poem. He says for a born on the night, wind up the past to all our history, to the last, in the hour of darkness and peril in need, the people will waken.

[00:44:20] We’ll wait. Future

[00:44:22] GR: tense and listen, to

[00:44:24] Nicholas: hear the hurrying of beats out of that steep and the midnight message of Paul Revere. He’s talking about preserving the union and the preservation of the union is so important to him and part and parcel of that. Of course. Is there a connection. That people, , human beings are not chattel.

[00:44:41] They are not property. And I just find that, , those poems on slavery, I really underappreciated and undervalued for what they did and for what they performed. And I’m delighted that you asked that question. You mentioned the psycho down a relief up on beacon hill. That’s the 54th Massachusetts regiment.[00:45:00]

[00:45:00] You know, only in Boston, I think that you have had something like this happen, where you have , these free blacks, , being encouraged to sign up and to serve. And they March off on beacon hill, Henry was there. He was at his father-in-law’s house and he watched the press. He watched the procession, he cheered them as they marched off to their here.

[00:45:20] , Phaeton and proven to everyone that, , , black people not only could fight, but they could fight honorably and decisively and with great credit. And it was an, extraordinary situation and Henry was fully in support of that, but Sumner was very, very, very important individual in his life.

[00:45:38] And also of course, as we know in the abolition, cause

[00:45:42] GR: not only did Longfellow write about slavery and his child. He also wrote poems that helped people then and now think about religious Liberty, whether it was, events, Dylan, about a Catholic Acadian girl in her search for a lost love. , during the time of the expulsion of the [00:46:00] Acadians to Louisiana fact, my family’s from Louisiana or his 1854 log the Jewish cemetery at Newport.

[00:46:09] Same similar theme, you know, what should we, as educators and students, as families is just people think about these poems and the broader ideas of America and religious.

[00:46:21] Nicholas: Well, thanks. about, what you just asked me, both of these questions. Again, both of these poems deal with Paul American situations.

[00:46:29] Evangelina is this, and this is the first of the three long narrative poems. But think about it. It’s about a Catholic woman, a woman who is now the heroine of an epic poem. This is almost unprecedented, isn’t it? And, and we’re talking about Catholics and, and, and British. What was, you know, at the time.

[00:46:49] Expulsion of the Acadians, you know, British north America. , and of course at the, premise of the story, is that on their wedding? This couple , is separated. He has sent off and [00:47:00] she spends the rest of her life searching for him. Henry heard about that by the way, from his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne at dinner, and the author gave him the idea for that story and he ran with it.

[00:47:10] And, , we had this magnificent Pullman Longfellow did do with, by the way, in a very interesting meter, a meter of, , dactylic, examiners, which was, the meter , of the class. , the epic poems, the Greek poems, because he wanted to kind of have an impact. It’s this classical epic theme, but this is, this was a poem, a celebration of religious freedom, but also gender.

[00:47:33] , we’re talking about a woman who was, who triumphs in the end, and she’s a very, she never loses her faith or our hope. The Jewish cemetery at Newport is also a very interesting poem. , Discovered this cemetery and Newport Rhode Island in 1850, when he was in Newport with his family for the summer.

[00:47:51] And he went out for a walk and he records this in his diary and he comes across. If it’s still there, if you ever have a chance to get down to Newport this, uh, this Jewish [00:48:00] cemetery, which is established in 1657, I think it was just, uh, not the cemetery, but the synagogue, which remains the oldest standing synagogue.

[00:48:09] And north America. So this, this group of, of a Portuguese Sephardic Jews came to Rhode Island in 1650s, fleeing religious oppression and Europe. And they were welcome in Rhode Island because we’re an island, as you know, was founded by Roger Williams as a Haven, as a place for people of all faiths to assemble and to live.

[00:48:32] And Henry is walking and he sees. Walking down and, uh, and downtown Newport. And he sees this cemetery behind locked gates. By this time, by the way, the Jewish settlement , has scattered. They’re no longer in Newport. This is a consequence of the American revolution. , Newport was a thriving Seaport and after revolution, it wasn’t.

[00:48:50] And so the very, the Jewish merchants , and families went to other cities. So the Jewish community was no longer there, but the synagogue was still there and it is now [00:49:00] active again. But there was this grave rat and he sees. And he sees these inscriptions and he was locked in. There’s a caretaker and the caretaker takes him in and he tells him about some of the names and the descriptions, of course, being a very, um, very knowledgeable, so many different languages and dialects, Henry Henry tells the story of, of these wandering Jewish tribes.

[00:49:22] , and of course there was so much antisemitism, but you won’t find any of that in his poem. It’s exceedingly simple. He writes, with great sensitivity , about the migration of, , not only the Jewish people, but all sorts of, , people that were with, , various faiths and convictions, , escaping and finding Haven, , a Haven in the new world and particularly here.

[00:49:42] So it’s a remarkable poem and a remarkable, very, very, very remarkably sensitive poem. And it written again by ever remarkable sensitive man.

[00:49:56] GR: Well, what else we’d love for you to do is just to read a passage of your choice. [00:50:00]

[00:50:01] Nicholas: Okay. Well, I’ve chosen a little segment, which I think is really appropriate for the season that we’re in.

[00:50:10] It doesn’t really need much of a backstory. It just that it is 1863. it’s during the civil war two weeks after two years after the death of his wife. , and he’s taken care of his children. In the meantime, his oldest son, Charlie has run away and joined the union army and he’s in Virginia, but Henry has also turned off to, to, , doing the tales of a wayside in and his Dante.

[00:50:36] Here we go. 15,000 copies, Henry wrote in his notebook for November 25th, 1863. Marking with those three words, the publication of tales of a wayside in adding that the publishers had dined with him that night to celebrate joining Henry the next day for Thanksgiving dinner with Tom Appleton and Harriet Appleton, who son [00:51:00] Nathan Appleton, Jr.

[00:51:01] Jr. Like Charlie was a junior officer serving on the front line. We drank the health of all the lieutenants in the army of the Potomac Henry road. Charlie having recently returned to duty after a suffering about of camp fever, a term used for a variety of contagious illnesses and demic to the close quarter, military encampments of the period, most severely typhoid fever, which took the lives of more soldiers during the civil war than injuries inflicted.

[00:51:30] Charlotte had fallen grievously ill with one of these elements, not long after receiving his commission word, reaching Henry and Portland on June 11th, where he was visiting with his sister and setting off immediately for Washington. He arrived within a day of hearing the news. Charlie was assigned to a bed and the home of a Unitarian minister.

[00:51:49] Taking a hotel room for himself and me spent the next few weeks by Charlie’s bedside visiting occasionally with Sumner and host of government officials eager to meet him [00:52:00] yesterday. Sunday, I heard the distant Cantonese. Mingling in with the sound of the church bells and the chanting of the choir and the church close by.

[00:52:10] He wrote on June 22nd, a paradox. He would recall six months later when inspired to write Christmas bells adapted many times in the years ahead to say Yuletide tide song most famously by Johnny Marks in 1956. As I heard the bells on Christmas day and recorded that year by Bing Crosby, the opening stands on the song is the same as in Henry’s poem.

[00:52:33] I heard the bells on Christmas day. They’re old familiar carols play and wild and sweet. The words. Repeat of peace on earth. Goodwill to men to stands is typically left out of the Carol speak directly to the horrors of the civil. Then from each black, , Chris at both the cannon thundered in the south and with the sound that Carol’s drowned of peace on earth, Goodwill to men, [00:53:00] it was as if an earthquake rent the Hearthstones of a continent and made for Lauren the households born of peace on earth, Goodwill to men picking up at the next stanza, the song and the poem conclude with hope.

[00:53:15] And in despair, right? Bowed my head. There is no peace on earth. I said for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, Goodwill to men, then peel the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead nor Duffy sleep that wrong shall fail the right prevail with peace on earth, Goodwill to men. Thank you.

[00:53:40] , I love that poem , and like so many other poems that he wrote, it resonates to this day. You know, when you think of the building of the ship, which is from the 1840s. And he writes that that verse of sail on are union strong and great brings Abraham Lincoln to tears. Franklin Roosevelt is so [00:54:00] moved during world war II, who the darker steps of world war II.

[00:54:02] He writes it out from memory at longhand and sends it to Winston Churchill who reads it before the house of commons prior to the battle of Britain. And you just, so people say, does Longfellow not resonated. Oh, it’s the power of the poet in the 20th century and the 21st century. I don’t think so, but, , that’s just one person’s opinion.

[00:54:41] Cara: And before we leave you all listeners, of course, we have to leave you with a tweet of the week. It is a new report alert. Our friend Patrick Wolf was tweeting about this, which is how it came to our attention. The quote is study of public school funding and spending for fiscal year [00:55:00] 2018 and 19 is out average per pupil.

[00:55:03] Funding continued its steady increase to $14,347 per pupil. Funding is still significantly lower for charter schools than district run schools. And that is a national center for education statistics report, not shocking, , $14,347. Now I know we are in a moment of inflation. But that sounds like pretty big leap from where we were even just 10 years ago.

[00:55:28] And let’s not forget folks that those numbers are way higher in a lot of school districts across the state. And of course they’re lower in some as well. So, those inequities run deep, especially when it comes to charters. Which often suffer from, for example, a lack of facilities funding. we should really be thinking about adjusting for greater equity in our funding, formulas folks.

[00:55:50] Just another thought to leave you with at the Thanksgiving table and Gerard, as you know, next week, we are going to be joined by Matt Chingos of the UrbanInstitute. [00:56:00] Gerard, I hope that you are vegan. Sausage is absolutely delicious. And if you will, my friend, please send a photo of that Friday. I definitely will.

[00:56:09] All right, everybody, listen, I wish you and yours all the best hope you have a wonderful long weekend and eat at least lots of like vegan apple pie. I hope.

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