According to Oscar Wilde’s account of his 1882 visit to Craigie House, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s longtime residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wilde’s American host admitted sometimes waking up in the night. His thoughts would go back to when he met Queen Victoria thirteen years earlier: “Oh, I assure you, Mr. Longfellow, you are very well known”, the Widow at Windsor apparently told him, “All my servants read you.” He could apparently never tell whether or not this was a slight.[1]

But the Queen was on to something. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most widely read poet in the English-speaking world of his day, starting with the wildly successful publication of his first collection of poetry in 1839 until his death in 1882. He is usually credited with outselling Tennyson on both sides of the Atlantic, created myriad figures of American mythology (and was financially secure from it), and was an out-and-out literary celebrity. He was also a Harvard professor and a man of letters whose intellectual legacy continues to impress the American cultural and lexicographic imagination to this day.

Nevertheless, the canonical weight afforded his contemporaries passes over Longfellow both inside the academe and out, with much having been made of his supposed plagiarism. Most literary criticism of Longfellow in the twentieth century, in fact, focused on the supposed literary theft of his work. However, one of the first significant commentators—to put it lightly—on this aspect of Longfellow’s poetic practice was Edgar Allen Poe, who let loose accusations of plagiarism in a strange series of literary exchanges as early as 1845. This public rallying became known as the “Longfellow War”, and has dogged Longfellow, and Longfellow Studies, ever since.

Poe first reviewed and attacked a poetry collection Longfellow had edited for charges of, among other things, leaving out his poetic rivals. This was, besides, ironic, since Longfellow so “imitated” them himself in his own poetry.[2] Soon after Poe was to give a lecture on American poetry at the New York Society Library, which the Mirror hyped up as being potentially “Epicurean”;[3] according to newspaper accounts of the event, their prediction was spot on. Poe dedicated much of the lecture to criticising Longfellow’s so-called imitations, and some observers even claimed that Poe accused Longfellow of nothing less than wholesale plagiarism.[4]

However, on 1st March 1845 “Outis” came to Longfellow’s aid in the New York Weekly Mirror. Claiming to be a friend of Longfellow’s, somebody using this oft-used pseudonym defended the poet against Poe’s onslaught, even stressing the similarity of “The Raven” (1845) with an anonymous poem called “The Bird of the Dream”.[5] Spurred by this counter, Poe published five long replies: he lambasted Outis’s arguments, dismissed the charges of plagiarism against his iconic poem, and purportedly exposed Longfellow’s stealing from Sidney, Milton, Tennyson, William Cullen Bryant, and more.[6] Longfellow was even accused of lifting from one of Poe’s own plays, even though, in Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman’s words, the two passages quoted were “plainly unlike each other”.[7]

Humourously, Silverman is relatively sure that it was Poe who was Outis to begin with. For one, he often engaged in these anonymous conversations with himself, and not only did Longfellow claim to not actually know who Outis was, but the assault was suspiciously enthusiastic about Poe’s own poetic faculties.[8] Nevertheless, Poe continued: he thereafter anonymously reviewed four of Longfellow’s volumes, one-by-one desecrating their poems for both lack of poetic worth and plagiarism, with Shakespeare, Pope, and Coleridge now alleged victims of Longfellow’s copycatting. A particular highlight is Poe’s pithy insult: “one of the most palpable plagiarisms ever perpetrated”.[9]

The bizarre thing is that Poe actually very much admired Longfellow, and the following year he even named him the “principal” American poet.[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning suggested that this bipolar reviewing style was just a symptom of Poe’s personal “crisis”,[11] and in pointing to Poe’s own genuine plagiarism, Silverman concludes that the whole affair had little to do with Longfellow and more to do with jealousy.[12] Later, Longfellow himself also kindly suggested this.[13] Indeed, our aggressor was drinking heavily during this period, and by that summer “badly depressed”.[14] Taking a line more sympathetic to Poe, Longfellow’s most recent biographer suggests it might have just been a marketing ploy, or his (somewhat justified) response to the clique of New England intellectuals to which Longfellow belonged.[15]

Nonetheless, despite the hyperbole of Poe’s onslaught, it was an opinion that others at the time shared. James Russell Lowell and William Gilmore Simms agreed that Longfellow was a derivative poet,[16] even if it did not affect his astonishing sales figures. And it wasn’t just Longfellow’s imitation that apparently wasn’t up to scratch: Margaret Fuller contrarily praised Longfellow’s “great imitative power”, but upset Longfellow by suggesting the massive praise he received was underserved.[17] Her opinion was, to my mind, spot on. Still, this Longfellow War and Fuller’s critique took place in the mid-1840s, and couldn’t have taken into account Longfellow’s more obvious theft later in his career: his heavy reliance on Finnish epic the Kalevala in The Song of Hiawatha (1855) is the preeminent example. In other words, Poe was no doubt exaggerating, but Longfellow was certainly not an original poet in the modern sense of the word, and in his lifetime was often not considered one either.

Rather than simply throwing away our Longfellows, though, and thinking both him and Poe equally wrong in different ways, the Longfellow War gives us an insight into a very different conception of composition than our own. Longfellow was, in fact, a prolific translator from myriad languages and literary traditions, from Lope de Vega to the medieval French Jean Froissart, to even Michelangelo. In his biggest foreign undertaking, he actually published the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1867. Longfellow’s poetic project, as he reiterated over his career both implicitly inside verse and explicitly outside it, was predicated on a vision of United States literature that paradoxically borrowed from international sources so as to assert its own Americanness. Poe’s attacks, though not sound criticism in and of themselves, are nevertheless charged with the challenges of American literary nationalism that would continue to haunt Longfellow’s own dismissal from reading lists in the twentieth century. As I mentioned at the start, he soon was derided by Modernists and New Critics; for them, unlike the likes of Walt Whitman, Longfellow was just not American enough.

Following Poe’s death, his aunt and mother-in-law wrote to Longfellow requesting a copy of The Seaside and the Fireside (1850), his latest collection of verse, and in the years that followed Longfellow kept up correspondence with the latter. He sent her money, books, and completed other smaller favours on her behalf.[18] If there was ever was any animosity on Longfellow’s part, it probably soon dissolved; the allegations and their enduring literary history—not so much.

 

Portions of this paper were presented at the MSc USL 2017 conference at the University of Edinburgh on 8th June 2017 and are published here with permission.

 

[1] Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Beacon, 2004: 3

[2] Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. HarperCollins, 1991: 235

[3] Ibid. 236

[4] Ibid. 236-37

[5] Ibid. 250-51

[6] Ibid. 251-52

[7] 252

[8] Silverman 251

[9] Ibid. 253

[10] Ibid. 254-55

[11] Ibid. 255

[12] Ibid. 256-57

[13] Calhoun 162

[14] Silverman 257-58

[15] Calhoun 160

[16] Silverman 253

[17] Calhoun 162

[18] Ibid.