Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (1807–1882)
Author:
Rechel-White, Julie A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Author of "Evangeline" (1847) and "Hiawatha" (1855), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most well-received poets of his time, was publicly challenged by Walt Whitman for the title "excelsior" (more lofty; higher) poet of America.

On 12 October 1846, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman reviewed The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1846), in which Longfellow's poem "Excelsior" appeared. Whitman wrote, "this Handsome fifty cent edition" contained "beautiful thoughts in beautiful words," and equated Longfellow with the pinnacle of romantic poetry. However, Whitman's estimation of Longfellow plummeted in the 1860s; while Whitman was in Washington writing about the sacrificial deaths of American soldiers, Longfellow continued with sentimental verse, as found in "Excelsior." Longfellow's book Ballads and Other Poems, in which "Excelsior" appeared, had been reprinted nine times since 1842. Consequently, in 1867 Whitman invoked Longfellow's work by selecting "Excelsior" as the permanent title for one of his poems in Leaves of Grass.

Enraged by Longfellow's "beautiful words" that ignored the war, Whitman, with his new title "Excelsior," indicted Longfellow as the "him" in the following line which first appeared in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass and was not removed until 1882: "And who has projected beautiful words through the longest time? By God! I will outvie him! I will say such words, they shall stretch through longer time!" (1856 Leaves).

By 1876, Whitman's attitude toward Longfellow softened with their first recorded personal encounter. Although Whitman's reputation was growing, Longfellow was still publicly known as the greater of the two poets. Recognizing that the famous poet's visit was an important acknowledgment of his work, Whitman in turn publicly acknowledged Longfellow in "My Tribute to Four Poets," as well as documenting their second meeting, which took place on 16 April 1881. However, it was their third meeting, which Whitman speaks of in his letters to John Burroughs and Alma Calder Johnston (both 24 September 1881), that marked a complete reconciliation on the part of Whitman. After meeting with Longfellow for the third and final time, Whitman deleted from his "Excelsior" at the last moment—while the 1881 edition of Leaves was being plate-cast—the antagonistic line that indicted Longfellow and his "beautiful" words.

Whitman, who at first idolized Longfellow and then publicly swore to "outvie" his idol, later, in his maturation, reconciled with Longfellow and his work.

Bibliography

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.

Fletcher, Angus. "Whitman and Longfellow: Two Types of the American Poet." Raritan 10 (1991): 131–145.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Ballads and Other Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: J. Owen, 1842.

———. The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Harper, 1846.

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Rechel-White, Julie A. "Longfellow's Influence on Whitman's 'Rise' from Manhattan Island." ATQ 6 (1992): 121–129.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.

———. "The Literary World." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Oct. 1846.


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