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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November 28, 2012: American Winter, Part Three

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On the simple but undeniable comforts of America’s most popular poets.
It’s easy, and not entirely wrong, to be snooty about the Fireside Poets. Across the same eras in which James Russell Lowell was satirizing slavery and Walt Whitman creating a uniquely American poetic style, in which Emily Dickinson and Sarah Piatt were crafting dense and dialogic lyrics, in which Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was using poetry to give voice to slaves and other too-often-silenced African Americans, Fireside Poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote singsong rhymes that would be easily memorized by (and were even at times explicitly addressed to) children. Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and “Evangeline” and Whittier’s collection Voices of Freedom, among other works, demonstrate that these poets were more than capable of engaging with more complex American histories and topics; but still, compared to their contemporaries, it’s fair to say that the Fireside Poets tended toward the traditional.
Whittier’s most famous poem, in his own era and into our own, the epic Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll (1865), would seem to be a case in point. For more than a thousand rhyming lines, Whittier narrates the tale of a New England snowstorm and of the farm family who are pleasantly enclosed by its wintry power. The poem literally seems written precisely to be read at fireside, perhaps for a family to take turns reading aloud as the winter rages outside. It is accessible and readable, with plenty of personification and metaphor and other poetic devices but with nary a single moment that would force a mid-19th century reader to stop and try to figure out the syntax or meaning. And its popularity reflects those elements, as it sold more than 20,000 copies in its first year and remained second only to “Hiawatha” in sales into the 20th century. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with readability or popularity, of course—but if we compare this 1865 poem to (for example) those that Herman Melville would write about the Civil War a year later, it seems again that Whittier eschewed the era’s most vital themes in favor of this more universal and uncontroversial topic.
Yet we could just as easily, and with perhaps just as much justice, turn that idea on its head. With the nation reaching the end of its most divisive and destructive four years, it’s fair to say that Americans weren’t necessarily itching to read creative works detailing those divisions and destructions. Or, at the very least, it’s fair to say that there was even more of a place and role for fireside poetry in such a period, for poems that families could read and share and in which they could find solace from the moment’s worst sides. Moreover, we could even read Snow-Bound, in which a potentially destructive storm ends up creating even more communal closeness and unity, as a very subtle metaphor for precisely the possibility of a more positive present and future despite that horrific war. But even if you’re not willing to go that far, the fact remains that the kind of traditional comfort poetry offered by the Fireside Poets provides very definite emotional and communal effects and power; I wouldn’t want an American literary tradition without the Whitmans and Dickinsons, but I wouldn’t want it to miss the Longfellows and Whittiers either.
Next wintry post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/28 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Helen Magill White, the first American woman to receive a PhD and an important educator and advocate; and Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Records and one of the 20th century’s most significant cultural figures.


  1. I love your reading of "Snow-Bound" by putting it in the context of post-bellum America. It's also interesting to note how radical Whittier must have looked in his earlier period when he was using his poetry almost exclusively for the abolitionist cause (and he wrote some violently angry poetry for a Quaker). Longfellow, by far the superior poet, also wrote out against slavery before, as I say, using his poetry as a unifying force to create the American identity - to that end, he used history, calming imagery, etc. The reality was, of course, that it worked, which is reflected by his popularity.
    Further, I agree with your conclusion: I wouldn't take any of these folks out of our literary history.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rob!