readers digest longfellowOur book today is one of the improbable gems from the old Reader’s Digest “World’s Best Reading” series, the 1989 volume The Song of Hiawatha and Other Poems, here decked out with lavish illustrations (lovely textured pictures and spot illustrations of “The Song of Hiawatha” itself by Frederic Remington, for instance, and Howard Chandler Christy’s lovely flapper-era drawings for “The Courtship of Miles Standish”), a pretty gold-highlighted cover, and solid binding. This “World’s Best Reading” series produced quite a few of these gems – their Sherlock Holmes volumes, for instance, and their Moby-Dick … and their editions of Ben-Hur and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad are the best editions of those two books.

A similarly splendid job was done on this collection, which is one of the prettiest volumes of Longfellow ever produced in the United States, and it has a neatly concise and smart Afterword by the excellent but now-forgotten literary critic Edward Wagenknecht, who points out that once upon a time, the American literary landscape was almost entirely dominated by poets, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes … and towering over all of them, Longfellow, whose verses were memorized by schoolchildren, soldiers, statesmen, and ordinary citizens all over the country (indeed, all over the world – Longfellow was hugely popular in Queen Victoria’s England, for instance, and sold extremely robustly in France and the miles standishNetherlands).

Wagenknacht isn’t a blinkered academic; he isn’t under any illusions about the fallen star of his subject:

Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Longfellow’s fame survives intact today. Like many of his contemporaries, Longfellow has suffered from the decline of what came to be called “the genteel tradition.” Another factor is the virtual disappearance of narrative verse and, with it, of the vast poetry-reading public of the 19th century.

That’s a key point, that mention of the disappearance of narrative verse from public reading, the gradual transfer of its narrative energies into the realm of novels and short stories. The times changed right out from underneath great writers like Longfellow, and I’ve always thought, perhaps irrationally, that this sad fact should exempt them from the scorn of the present day. And yet, despite the fact that Wagenknacht thirty years ago could claim that “many of Longfellow’s poems continue to be cherished by readers and esteemed by critics,” this book’s contents are now the curios of a bygone era.

hiawatha art 1They shouldn’t be! Long-time followers of Stevereads will already know I think it shouldn’t be. I could make a doomed case for all of those once-titanic figures Wagenknacht lists, but I love none of them so much as I do Longfellow (my tastes across the Atlantic are equally quixotic, alas; I’m one of the only remaining fans of John Dryden outside of academia), a very generous selection of whose work is conveniently collected in this sturdy volume, from wonderful brooding shorter works like “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls”:

The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curfew calls;

Along the sea sands damp and brown

The traveller hastens toward the town,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on the roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;

The little waves, with their soft, white hands,

Efface the footprints in the sands,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveller to the shore,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

To the signature longer works like “Evangeline,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and, of course, Longfellow’s most powerful, most hypnotic, and most maligned (both in his own day and ever since – indeed, even when the thing was in handed-around drafts, his friends warned him to expect critical squawking), “The Song of lucy reading longfellow 1Hiawatha” with its deliberately stilted, sing-song rhythms, as in the segment called “Hiawatha’s Fishing”:

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,

On the shining big sea water,

With his fishing line of cedar,

Of the twisted bark of cedar,

Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,

Mishe-Nahma, king of fishes,

In his birch canoe exulting

All alone went Hiawatha.

Through the clear, transparent water

He could see the fishes swimming

Far down in the depths below him;

See the yellow perch, the Sahwa,

Like a sunbeam in the water,

See the Shawgashee, the crawfish,

Like a spider on the bottom,

On the white and sandy bottom …

On the white sand of the bottom

Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,

Lay the sturgeon, king of fishes;

Through his gills he breathed the water,

With his fins he fanned and winnowed,

With his tail he swept the sand floor.

That’s so typically Longfellow, that gorgeous visual evocation in every verse, the enormous sturgeon fanning the white sand on the river bottom. No poet in his day could match the sheer cinematic fecundity of Longfellow’s imagination, and the sheer unembarrassed power of it has undimmed power to work if readers drop their cynicism and let it. If you happen to see this pretty volume (at Niantic’s Book Barn, for instance, which I hear has a vast selection of out-of-print books), you might want to start here.

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