Longfellow was born in 1807 in Portland, Maine. His family had been in New England since the Mayflower. After graduating from Maine's Bowdoin College, he served on the faculty of Harvard University. He is generally grouped with John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell as the "schoolroom" or "fireside" poets, so named because their works were deemed appropriate for classroom memorization and recitation around family hearths. Like the other fireside poets, Longfellow's work is aesthetically unchallenging and sentimental; but it should be pointed out that both Longfellow and, especially, Whittier wrote political poetry addressing one of the most deeply-troubling issues of their time, slavery. In fact, sentimental style and content was seen as a way to engage audiences in moral and political issues, as can be seen from the enormous impact of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Unlike Stowe and Whittier, however, Longfellow usually distanced himself from political and social issues, preferring to work out his moral positions in purely literary terms. But he was involved in the construction of an American secular mythology and was, in this sense, distinctly social. Additionally, he was one of a very few American writers of his day who were known and respected internationally; a bust commemorates him in England's prestigious Poet's Corner.
Margaret Fuller, a contemporary of Longfellow's and one of America's earliest important literary critics, sums up the poet and his work, and seems to predict his status as a figure of historical interest only in the twentieth century:
As a prosodist, Longfellow can be seen as either startlingly original
or bewilderingly inappropriate in his adaptation of form to content. Why,
for example, did he use a Scandinavian verse form in composing "The Song
of Hiawatha"? Evangeline itself, which Longfellow called "my idyll in hexameters"
(Seelye 23), is perhaps more appropriately composed. The prosody of the
poem is described below by Edward Hirsh:
Evangeline is one of several quasi-historical poems that Longfellow authored, others being "The Song of Hiawatha" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." These treatments reflect a growing nationalism among mid-nineteenth century American writers, stemming in part from the percieved need for a "storied" or "haunted" American history to compare to that of Europe, and from the American desire to shape a common social mythology.
The traditional account of how Evangeline came to be written concerns H. L. Conolly, a clergyman and Maine native who, in suggesting that his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne write the story of a star-crossed young couple in the Acadian diaspora, interested Longfellow instead. The tale follows Evangeline and Gabriel, elite young lovers whose engagement is broken off by the 1755 Acadian deportation, through an ordeal of separation and eventual tragic reunion. Beginning in Grand Pré, which is on the Minas Basin near present-day Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the story travels to Louisiana (although not following the route of most real Acadians) and ends in Philadelphia, as Evangeline follows leads and rumors concerning Gabriel's whereabouts. The highlight of Evangeline's search comes in a contrived but memorable "near miss" on the Atchafalaya, when Gabriel unknowingly drifts past Evangeline in a boat.
Despite the "forest primeval" of the first line, Evangeline begins in the settled farming region of Nova Scotia's Fundy coast, circa 1755. After decades of maintaining a politically explosive "neutrality" between the contending powers of France and England, the Acadians fell victim to the mistrust and land-hunger of the victorious English, who contrived a rationale to remove them from the area. Between 1755 and 1763, over 10,000 Acadians, 75% of the entire population, were deported, dispersed among the American colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia. Unwelcome in the colonies, many deportees struggled to return to Nova Scotia. Along with refugees who escaped deportation by fleeing Nova Scotia, many Acadian exiles spent decades in transit as "guests" or prisoners of British or French possessions in Europe and North America. Today, the five main concentrations of Acadian descendants are found in the Maritime provinces, Québec, New England, France, and Louisiana.
The ancestors of most of Louisiana's present-day Acadian population arrived in 1785 from France, where they had been living in exile. After some thirty years of unsuccessful efforts to reintegrate themselves into French society, 1600 Acadian exiles responded to an invitation from Spain, which had recently acquired Louisiana from France. The new "homeland" resulted in many changes in the lives of the Acadians; these changes are demonstrated, or perhaps burlesqued, in the remaking of Evangeline's village blacksmith, who appears in Louisiana transformed into a kind of cowboy. Thus the Louisiana Acadians recreated themselves as the "Cajuns."
The Acadians' diaspora is one of the great displacements that have characterized American history, and as such represents a recurrent motif, also evident in one form or another in the Puritan settlement in New England, the Trail of Tears displacement of the Cherokee, and the forced movement of Africans to the Americas, and the later migration of their descendants from the American South to the North. Though "westering" is often cited as the prime example of American movement, these other migrations are also significant, as willingly and unwillingly, Americans (and, I suppose, Canadians) of many backgrounds struggle with the promise and the hopeless distances of continental nations.
Acadia as Arcadia, and Evangeline as Myth
The poem follows Evangeline's search down the Mississippi. This is a route rarely, if ever, followed by the Acadians. By manipulating the setting, Longfellow is able to take advantage of the Western country that evokes both vast impersonal spaces and the opening possibility that the Acadians could find each other in an Arcadian edenic setting.
Longfellow, as Seelye says, combines the poem's historic setting with the romantic American West, so that Grand Pré's village blacksmith is recast "in his buckskins and sombrero" (37) in Louisiana. Evangeline herself gets as far west as the Ozarks, and there encounters a kind of Shawnee alter-ego. The conflating of the Acadian migrations and the Western travels of much later visitors such as Washington Irving and John C Frémont shows Longfellow's willingness to appropriate Acadian history to serve his own purposes, and also the enduring American conception that the proper place for an Acadia that is really an Arcadia is somewhere "out West." In combining the Acadian story with the myth of the West, Longfellow also "de-Canadianizes" his source, in order to make it part of his larger project of providing Americans a "storied past," a homely mythology for American families and schools.
In this mythology, Evangeline emerges as a heroine representing the traditional value of fidelity. Unlike Penelope, though, Evangeline pursues her destiny, although, as Seelye points out, she is rarely seen in action. Rather, she is transported, "as stationary as a plaster saint in some religious procession" (39). While Gabriel is allowed the full restlessness of the Western pioneer, Evangeline, as "moving statue," combines this American myth with New England notions of clergy-dominated "meek" French Catholicism, and with the mythical patience of Penelope. Like much in Longfellow, the characterizations are derivative and the total effect contrived, but Longfellow was not trying to be original in the Ezra Pound "make it new" sense. If not exactly deliberate, the obvious nature of the characterizations and events of Evangeline are consistent with Longfellow's intentions, and acceptable according to the literary conventions of the times. In 1847, Evangeline was largely considered a masterpiece.
Longfellow as Historian and Evangeline as History
Longfellow undertook Evangeline with virtually no knowledge of Acadian history or Louisiana geography. He consulted the scanty corroborative sources then available at Harvard, but since historians began to study the Acadians only after Evangeline's publication, his references were incomplete and flawed. Ultimately, however, Longfellow was far more interested in the drama and poetry he saw in the story than he was in achieving historical accuracy, and he freely blended available data with pure fabrication. Nevertheless, Evangeline has been taken as history. The "historical Evangeline" was identified by another writer, Felix Voorhies (perhaps originally intending only to use the convention of the "found story"), as one Emmeline Labiche. Ms. Labiche is also fictional, but for years residents of both Louisiana and Nova Scotia held that these two fictional characters represented the same historical personage (Emmeline Labiche).
In In Search of Evangeline, historian Carl Brasseaux follows the growth of the poem's heroine into a mythic representative of the Acadians, including the character's flirtation with becoming a real person (at one time Nova Scotia and Louisiana disputed the most suitable resting place for bones purported to be those of Emmeline Labiche). More recently, the Louisiana historical site known as the likely home of the "historical Evangeline" had to recast itself as a re-creation because of the dubious nature of its claim.
Evangeline and Acadian Identity
Despite her creation by a non-Acadian poet whose knowledge of Acadia was limited, Evangeline has proved a significant icon of Acadian identity ever since its publication in 1847. The poem's enormous popularity turned the attention of readers to the situation of the Acadians, which there is no evidence that Longfellow intended to do. Most significant was the effect on people of Acadian descent who found in Evangeline a classic tale of loss and eventual reestablishment of identity. For over a century, the image of Evangeline has been a standard presence in folk art, festivals, and other modes of ethnic expression. Recently, however, the poem and its role in Acadian ethnic culture have been called into question by some Acadian artists, writers, and scholars who, in addition to questioning the poem's literary significance, also object to it as a projection of an outsider who had little knowledge or lasting interest in the Acadians or their history. Guy Dubay, a historian in Madawaska, Maine, speaks for this critical viewpoint, saying "if you want to know what we think of Evangeline, ask the Iroquois what they think of Hiawatha." Still, as Brasseaux observes, the poem "has shaped the international image of the Acadians" since 1847, and has provided a starting point for artists, musicians, and dramatists both within and beyond the Acadian community. And the "anti-Evangeline" perspective itself has resulted in the production of a number of works, such as Antonine Maillet's Evangeline Deusse.
In Search of Evangeline. Thibodaux, LA: Blue Heron, 1988.
"American Literature." In The Woman and the Myth by Bell Gale Chevigny. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1976.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Univ. of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1964.
"Attic Shape: Dusting Off Evangeline." Virginia Quarterly Review 60 (1984): 21-44.
I would also like to acknowledge Lisa Ornstein of the Acadian Archives / Archives acadiennes, for her assistance with sources, for reviewing the text, and for providing insightful and substantial revisions.