“Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” is a wonderfully informative biography by Nicolas Basbanes. Basbanes is a renowned cultural historian whose works often pique the interest of book lovers. In “Cross of Snow,” he has chosen to write about the well-known poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow is known as the “fireside poet” and “the poet for the people.” His poems have been studied and memorized around the world by people of all ages and social classes. “Cross of Snow” is full of Longfellow family photographs and notes that encapsulate the author’s visits to various Longfellow museums and library collections across the United States.
Basbanes depicts Longfellow’s life in detail in this 379-page work. While lengthy, it is neither dry nor dull. Longfellow grew up in Portland, Maine. From a young age, it was apparent that the boy was intelligent, ambitious, and kind—characteristics that would last throughout his life and lead him into friendships with Charles Dickens, Sam Ward, and many others.
While “Cross of Snow” is about Longfellow, his second wife, Fanny, had a powerful influence on the poet’s life and works, even after her death. Fanny was just as intellectual as her husband and journaled often.
Basbanes details the events and circumstances leading up to Longfellow and Fanny’s friendship, as well as their tragic love story. Longfellow’s first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died after only a few years of marriage during a miscarriage. In his grief, Longfellow swore he would never marry again. Over time, however, Longfellow became smitten with Fanny, who, at first, didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Basbanes notes that Longfellow’s novel, “Hyperion,” was representative of this unrequited love.
Basbanes balances the study of Longfellow’s writing career with Longfellow’s dedication to winning Fanny over. In 1843, the two were wed and went on to have six children.
Less than two decades later, Fanny passed away from severe burns after her dress caught fire while wax-sealing an envelope containing a lock of hair cut from one of her children. Longfellow tried to extinguish the flames with his own body, but was unsuccessful. Fanny was buried on July 13, 1861, the date that would have marked the couple’s eighteenth wedding anniversary. Longfellow was unable to attend the funeral due to physical and emotional wounds. Eighteen years after Fanny's death in 1879, Longfellow expressed his grief through his poem "The Cross of Snow," which Basbanes' book is named after. Longfellow died three years later.
Basbanes is a gifted author. He is able to convey the heart and spirit of Longfellow. Readers will feel as if they are reading the words of someone who truly knew the late poet. By including Longfellow’s personal correspondence and journals, Basbanes provides insight into not only Longfellow’s genius as an artist, but also into the nature of the man himself.
Jessica Moore teaches English at Shippensburg University and Wilson College in Chambersburg.