Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the shelf at Boneshaker Books!

By Bart Berlin

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the shelf at Boneshaker Books! The poet who wrote in rhyme and meter and christianized Hiawatha! He is an odd choice for these shelves. He fell off the elementary school shelves years ago. In the early sixties I was memorizing Paul Revere in third grade (parts of it anyway). When I taught third grade twenty years later he wasn’t even a mention. And still wasn’t when I retired thirty years later.

But he deserves a space on any shelf. He wrote so the working person could have something simple and pleasing to read after a day’s work. He wrote a beautiful poem, The Birds of Killingworth, that could be the manifesto for climate change activism. He wrote for the support of abolition and for the support of teaching other languages at a time when both were unpopular.

Then there is Paul Revere’s Ride. Intentionally historically inaccurate, he published it in The Atlantic Monthly (a magazine that he helped start) just as South Carolina began its attack starting the Civil War (which is still a controversial term in parts of the South). But Longfellow meant his poem as a call to action for Northern abolitionists.

Jill Lepore, writing in The American Scholar (2011), has a lengthy and meaningful article on what the poem actually meant. The article is available on-line and is well worth reading. I learned something about Boston that is chilling. Longfellow refers to a graveyard beneath the North Church. Lepore tells us that it was the graveyard for Boston’s slaves and was Longfellow’s way of referring to a slave who been hung for the crime of poisoning his master and left hanging for twenty-five years. Would it have been too hard for one white person, in a quarter of a century, to have had a little compassion. Would I have been brave enough to say enough?

Longfellow is still worth reading though still criticized for many crimes of poetry: too juvenile, too tame, too mundane. But try reading him aloud. The rhyme and meter can bring a sense of calm and safety to the day. Sometimes a little balance to all the jarring chatter around us can be what is needed. His Children’s Hour poem shows where his true priorities lie. And it also shows his grief after a life of tragic loss.

(Many of his poems will be challenging to read as what was culturally acceptable then is not now: Arabs folding their tents and stealing away in his Day is Done is problematic; his Song of Hiawatha is one that could be skipped entirely. He intentionally took a real person of native descent and christenized his story. Look up the real Hiawatha from 500 years ago. Fascinating.)

Recently, two people with local connections have written articles asking readers what authors or books we have challenges with reading. Laurie Hertzle from the Star Tribune and James from Fox Den Books in Wisconsin (former owner of Sixth Chamber Books in St. Paul). I wonder what would be on Boneshaker lists. Mine include Margaret Mitchell, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

A note on the term “Civil War:” Parts of South Carolina still insists on using the term War of Northern Aggression just as other parts of the South still insists on using The War Between the States as the terms deflect the emphasis on slavery being the cause of the war. There are tourist signs in Savannah that just say The War. The highway signs in Georgia that remind drivers to use seat belts look quite similar to the Confederate battle flag. You don’t order grits in the South. You just get them. The War isn’t over. Soon the only thing that can save us will be poetry. And grits. I do like grits. With lots of butter.