Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2007

Abstract

This paper examines fan mail written to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the 1840s and 1850s, as he made the transition from emerging poet to being one of the best-known and most influential American poets of his time. Longfellow’s admirers wrote him letters praising his poetry, but also making requests for tokens of his presence and esteem: handwritten lines of his poetry, pencils, portraits, locks of hair, and in one case, his daughter’s hand in marriage. Claiming to “know” Longfellow through his poetry, admirers often also identified themselves as being in “debt” to Longfellow for his beautiful poetry, and sought to put themselves further in his debt by attempting with their letters to create personal relationships with him; others sought to develop both personal and professional relationships with Longfellow by requesting that he read their original poetry and pronounce on its quality and worthiness for publication, and perhaps even introduce the letter-writer to other literary figures. The letters stand both as examples of reader response to Longfellow’s poetry, and as representations of the demands of the market on Longfellow. At the same time, the fact that Longfellow carefully saved and catalogued these letters (held by the Houghton Library at Harvard University) suggests that he benefited from receiving and retaining these letters. Representing the demands of readers for access to Longfellow, these letters were also evidence of the expansion and growth of his national reputation, with letters arriving from around the expanding nation. While Longfellow grumbled about the press of the mail and the frustration of being asked to read strangers’ poems for them, these letters also show his emerging status as master poet and cultural arbiter by constructing him as an expert capable of judging others’ contributions to American poetry. Reading Longfellow’s early fan mail provides insight into the complex blend of gift and commodity economies of antebellum American literary reputation, and the perceived desirability of the title of “poet” during this time period.

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