Renato!

Renato! by Eugene Mirabelli, McPherson & Company, $20, 577 pages.

“The gods are immortal and we are not, and no, we are not free to live like gods. We die. We don’t want to be dispersed or dissolved into the void, we don’t want to lose each other.”

Appearing in the waning pages of Eugene Mirabelli’s masterful multi-generational literary opera, Renato!, these musings on the meaning of mortality capture humankind’s zest for love and life, at least, through the eyes of the titular protagonist, Renato Stillamare, a Boston-based painter and descendant of the prolific Sicilian-American Cavallus. Renato! is, on the surface, an autobiography of an aging artist forced to witness his own reputation erased with each passing year, and not for lack of talent, which he has in spades, but an unavoidable outcome of outliving his patrons. In a cruel twist of fate, his work improves with each year that he falls further away from the limelight. Securing an exhibition for his paintings in a tony Newberry Street gallery while also reconciling his tumultuous personal life consumes his days.

But this novel is more than an artist’s fight against mortality. The first half of Renato! offers a joyful genealogical history of the Cavallu family, populated by prostitutes, scientists, bankers, engineers, revolutionaries, and goddesses. (The latter is no laughing matter; some aristocratic Italian families do trace their heritage to interminglings between gods and mortals.) In this case, the family patriarch, Angelo Cavallu, is part stallion, with “equine hindquarters, those powerful flanks and long shins,” and Ava is his stunning bride. Those qualities make their way down the family tree–lusty, industrious men, beautiful, magical women–rendering this 150-year chronicle at once wholly believable and enchanting. The Cavallu family leaps through time and history, with appearances by General Giuseppe Garibaldi, finance con artist Charles Ponzi, and French pilot Louis Paulhan rooting these characters firmly in a convincing reality.

The three books between these covers were previously published separately in different forms but stitched together here seamlessly by Mirabelli. The tone shifts noticeably in the second and third books, where Renato is no longer the jubilant raconteur of wild ancestral anecdotes; rather, after a tumultuous youth, he is now seventy years old, living separately from his wife and mistress, wondering whether he will ever see his paintings grace a gallery wall again. Pushing up against barriers tests the spirit, and Renato is forced to explore the various facets of life and his relationships with those he loves. Another dramatic shift comes in the chapters following the death of Alba, Renato’s wife and guiding light, bringing with it an honest and raw assessment of grief.

Beautiful, hot-blooded, Renato! (which, it should be noted, comes from the Latin word for reborn), is a reminder that though the world may change as well as our respective places in it, love will ground us, should we choose to embrace it.

Like his protagonist, at age ninety, Mr. Mirabelli has persevered through the years and the publication of this book is nothing less than what appears to be the culmination of a lifetime spent burnishing words to smooth perfection. The Rockefeller grant recipient and professor emeritus at SUNY Albany has written ten novels that have been translated into French, Hebrew, Polish, and Sicilian, and in October, he will be recognized by the Albany Public Library system at its annual gala as this year’s Literary Legend.

Photo courtesy of McPherson & Company

Embrace Mr. Mirabelli’s captivating work and prepare to be richly rewarded.

“Too Small Tola” A Major Literary Treat

One of the most original children’s books to cross our desk so far this year is Too Small Tola ($15.99, 96 pages, ages 6-9) by Nigerian-born storyteller Atinuke, with delightful illustrations by Onyinye Iwu. Three short stories follow Tola, a girl living in an apartment in Lagos, as she navigates the hustle and flow of the bustling megacity. On marketing day, she and Grandmommy walk to the other side of Lagos and back with baskets overflowing with groceries for her family and neighbors–even when it seems like she’s just too small to be much help at all. When the electricity goes out, Tola heads down to the municipal pump to draw water from the well, despite the possibility of being late for school if everything doesn’t go according to plan. Tola demonstrates kindness and determination to help Mr. Abdul the tailor when he’s sidelined by an accident and needs help taking customers’ measurements. Atinuke’s writing is rich and evocative yet accessible to emerging readers, and deftly incorporates universal themes such as family relationships, bravery, and bullying. Tola’s Lagos is at once startlingly different (for most American readers) yet doesn’t feel overwhelming, which will no doubt inspire further inquiry.

The welcoming and detailed line art throughout are rendered in black-and-white, while the cover–a standout riot of color–would suggest more of the same within, but Iwu’s illustrations captivate and delight, revealing subtle details of Tola’s world waiting to be explored.

Courtesy of Candlewick

Too Small Tola is too great to miss.

A Perceptive Review of “Cross of Snow” in The Times Literary Supplement

The lead book review in today’s number of the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) is a lengthy, perceptive consideration of “Cross of Snow,” written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, professor of Classics and English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, and author of numerous monographs on nineteenth-century literature. Please take a look here!

A Troubling Account of Ethiopia’s Democracy Revolution

Ethiopia’s civil war continues to spiral into a political and humanitarian crisis and is the latest in a series of internal conflicts. The civil war of 1974 to 1991 saw the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) pitted against the military-led dictatorship known as the Derg. At the helm of the TPLF was Meles Zenawi (1955-2012), a strategist and skillful tactician who eventually served as the country’s prime minister from 1995 until his death. Maintaining that power involved corruption, violence, and Western leaders willing to ignore Zenawi’s unsavory enforcement methods in exchange for greater regional stability. Though harrowing and heartbreaking, Ethiopia’s battles are, perhaps, ignored by many Americans, only making headlines when truly atrocious acts trump the everyday horrors we’ve sadly become accustomed to seeing.

David Steinman’s novel, Money, Blood, and Conscience (Free Planet, 256 pages, $26.95) attempts to shake Western readers out of their stupor by offering a look at the formative years of the man who unapologetically consolidated Ethiopia’s power and influence. Steinman’s Virgil leading us through this inferno is the blissfully oblivious Buddy Schwartz, a Hollywood producer who, in 1986 and on the heels of yet another television success, grows a conscience after watching an ad raising funds for hungry African children. Thus inspired, Buddy launches his own star-studded initiative (think “Live Aid”), which becomes wildly successful. This endeavor puts Buddy in close and regular contact with Zenawi, then the leader of the still-struggling TPLF. Each of Buddy’s visits to Ethiopia reveal fresh acts of violence perpetrated by Zenawi in the name of deposing the Derg, and though Buddy protests weakly, he ultimately continues to provide food and aid to Zenawi in the hopes that those who need help will actually get it–an “ends justify the means” sort of excuse.

To say that the contents of this book are disturbing is an understatement. Steinman is clearly drawing from a deep well of information, having served as a senior foreign advisor to Ethiopia’s democracy movement for over two decades, which leaves this reader wondering if the goal of this effort–to illuminate the unending plight of Ethiopia and the willful ignorance of Western governments–would have been better served if it were a work of nonfiction. To take his Afterword and turn that into a fulsome piece of nonfiction might have been more effective than the narrative devices employed in Money, Blood, and Conscience. Given the severity of the human rights abuses continuing to play out in Ethiopia, there is still time to share those stories and have an effect on those Steinman hopes to influence.

Bronx Resident Bringing Mobile Bookstore to Borough

Lifelong Bronx resident Latanya Devaughn is on a mission to bring a bookstore on wheels to her borough. Now, after two years of soliciting donations for books and funds, Devaughn recently announced the acquisition of the bus that will bring her passion project closer to reality. We spoke earlier this week about her bibliophilic endeavor, the challenges posed by the pandemic, and what she hopes a mobile bookstore will do for the residents of the Bronx.

“My lifelong dream has been to open a bookstore. I’ve had other jobs but owning a bookstore has never left my heart.” Devaughn explained. Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to buy books since there were few such shops in her neighborhood. “I’m used to traveling outside of the borough to get to the bookstore. Even when we had one in Bay Plaza, I still had to travel very far to just purchase a book.” A bookstore on wheels would alleviate some of those transportation issues for fellow Bronx bibliophiles.

Like many New York bookworms, Devaughn credits the stacks at the Strand for sustaining her reading habit without breaking the bank. “I read a lot as a kid. My fondest memories growing up included going to The Strand. I spent hours there and came home with more books than I could carry.  The Strand left a huge impression on me because the books were affordable.”

Providing access to affordable books in a bid to increase literacy rates is sorely needed in the Bronx, where 70 percent of third grade students in the South Bronx cannot read at grade level, just over half of high school graduates are adequately prepared for college, and 41% of all Bronx residents lack basic prose literacy skills. Breaking this cycle is essential, and Bronx Bound Books will join a number of similar initiatives.

Raised by her grandmother, a public school teacher at PS 5 Mort Morris, Devaughn recalled witnessing firsthand how illiteracy holds people back. “I remember seeing my grandmother reading to her friends who couldn’t read for themselves. Her friends trusted her to read their leases, prescriptions, bills, and letters. I saw that as a huge responsibility.” Providing opportunities for people to become self-sustained readers is an important step towards social and economic independence.

A grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (underwritten by Lowe’s Home Improvement) helped put Devaughn’s fundraising efforts over the top. Now, Devaughn can’t wait to get on the road, but the bookmobile needs some TLC first. “I hired an amazing interior designer. She’s helping me bring the vision to life. Bronx Bound Books will look comfy and cozy–think Tiny House meets Tiny Bookstore.” Devaughn hopes the renovations will be complete by April in time for National Poetry Month and Indie Bookstore Day, held on the last Saturday of the month. No matter what day she launches, “We’ll have a full selection of books,” plus “‘pre-loved’ (pre-owned) and new books.” Devaughn plans to incorporate a lending library into the bookmobile as well. 

It wasn’t easy getting to this point: with the pandemic throwing Devaughn’s plans into chaos, she, like many Americans, spent the early days of 2020 just trying to make sense of the situation. “I was totally unmotivated for weeks. All the plans and partnerships were put on hold. I was really gearing up for a very active year. We made huge strides in 2019. I hoped to carry that momentum forward.” Soon, Devaughn realized that keeping the dream alive meant evolving, and so pivoted by hosting virtual story times and author talks. “The response and viewership was incredible–way more than I expected.” The intrepid bookseller has even set up shop at local farmers markets in recent weeks. “I could not ask for a better welcoming response from the community. We have so many weekly supporters, and they also tell their friends. Now, we’re getting more requests from other parts of the Bronx.”

Devaughn is counting down the days until the official launch of Bronx Bound Books, and so are fellow Bronx residents. “So many people I meet share those memories [of the bookmobile]. They tell me how happy they felt when they saw the bookmobile every week. I hope to continue that joy.”

Devaughn is still raising funds so that she can hire a local artist to create a mural that would grace the exterior of the bus. “I love my community and strive to always hire within my community. We have so many talented and creative people living in The Bronx. It brings me great joy to showcase this.”

To donate or to learn more, visit the Bronx Bound Books website.

Jack Gets Zapped: The Latest from Mac Barnett and Greg Pizzoli

Courtesy of Viking Books

At this point in the pandemic, many of us living the WFH life may feel as though we’ve been sucked right into our computer screens. But we’re adults, supposedly capable of adjusting–just imagine how the millions of elementary schoolchildren are handling remote learning. Maybe you don’t have to imagine because you’ve got kids you’re helping navigate this strange, pixelated world. Now, there’s a book to help. Enter: Jack Gets Zapped! by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Greg Pizzoli (Viking: $9.99, 40 pages, ages 4-8) which shows kids they’re not alone in this strange new world, that reading can be fun, and that video games are not necessarily evil.

Courtesy of Viking Books

In this latest Jack caper, the titular protagonist is having, as in all these books, a bit of an existential crisis: he is “a good guy” but “can also be bad.” And here, on a rainy day tailor-made for curling up with a good book, Jack is playing video games instead. Which is fine, until he gets sucked into the television set, only to be saved from oblivion by an unlikely heroine. This, like all the books in the series, follows a predictable methodology ideal for coaxing reluctant readers out of their shells: limited and repetitive vocabulary coupled with simple sentence structures, bold art, and a lightly comedic touch make for a welcoming and accessible format. From font size and style, sentence structure, even the physical layout of the Jack series recall those in Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie lineup, and for good reason: both excel at reeling in readers most like to recoil from the activity. It’s a format that works, so why mess with a good thing.

Courtesy Viking Books

The Captain’s Boy

As America grapples with a battered democracy, it’s worth considering why these ideals are worth saving from rioters who would violently attempt to subvert them. Children certainly ought to have more than a superficial understanding of the tenets that hold this country together, but there’s no reason why that endeavor has to be purely didactic. Don Callaway’s recently published adventure, The Captain’s Boy ($19.95, 268 pages) takes middle-grade readers to the Pennsylvania frontier as the American war of independence is just getting underway. There, we meet fourteen-year-old Isaiah Brewster and his father Joshua, who join the cause after Hessian mercenaries pillage the family farm and murder the Brewster matriarch alongside her young children. Initially, the desire to fight is purely motivated by revenge, but a seek-and-destroy mission endorsed by none other than general George Washington himself challenges Isaiah’s priorities in this most gripping of coming-of-age novels.

Former middle-school teacher turned first-time novelist Don Callaway structured this tale to appeal to all readers, but especially to those for whom reading can be a struggle. “The reluctant readers in my classes avoided books in all genres and would only read under duress,” Callaway said. But when they did read, Callaway noticed common themes. “Boys would read war and hunting stories–as long as the reading level wasn’t too demanding.” With that in mind, “I wrote my book for a fourth-grade reading level to make it accessible.” Callaway cleverly walks the fine line between age-appropriate content and readability–in other words, there’s plenty of fighting here to keep readers glued to every page.

Callaway cited Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain as inspiration for The Captain’s Boy, and hopes his effort will spur a renewed interest in YA novels focused on the American Revolution. Further, he said that “there’s a shortage on books for boys about this topic.  I wrote to fill what I saw as a gap [in the market]” while also reaching underserved readers.”

The problem of boys not reading is, sadly, all too widespread: A 2011 essay appearing in The New York Times explored why boys don’t seem to read as much as girls–even though there’s no shortage of books catering to them. And among the reasons offered, one stood out: yes, there’s books aplenty, but they’re not engaging. Too many, according to Y.A. author Robert Lypsite, read like space-age video game manuals with flip narrative plotlines. And boys aren’t always encouraged to indulge their literary impulses because they may veer towards difficult topics: Lypsite’s novel, Raider’s Night (2006) explored the drug-fueled underbelly of high school football, but says it was frequently banned by male high school principals. He recalls meeting with a group of “reluctant” readers who were provided copies on the sly by the school’s (female) librarian, and their discussion touched on the myriad feelings and emotions conjured up by this book. “This was hard-core boy talk, but it was also book talk — the fictional characters we were discussing allowed us the freedom to express feelings the way girls do,” Lypsite writes. Callaway’s The Captain’s Boy is sure to fire up similar emotions as well.

Digging Things

For paleontologists, the year 2020 was a big one: a nearly complete skeleton of Stan the T. rex sold at Christie’s for $31.8 million in October, and just last month the Brazilian Society of Paleontology announced a non-avian dinosaur specimen acquired in 1995 by a museum in southwestern Germany appears to be one of a kind and may have also been illegally exported. In short, there’s some exciting developments taking place in the world of fossil studies.

To further pique the interests of the next generation of paleontologists is a recently released book by Dan R. Lynch entitled, fittingly, Fossils for Kids: An Introduction to Paleontology (Adventure Publications, $12.95, 188 pages, ages 6-10). Pocket-sized for ease of transportation, this fully-illustrated volume is an ideal primer for budding scientists and leaves no stone left unturned: scientific terminology such as “extinction event,” “species” and “fossils” stand out in blue text, while Lynch makes a compelling case for studying fossils–that these remains can both tell us about what life was like on earth millions of years ago and how creatures evolved over time. Straight-forward, no-nonsense prose makes what could easily be an overwhelming or dusty topic into a manageable and enjoyable one. A glossary, list of fossil sites studding the American landscape, and suggestions for further reading round out this thoroughly engaging book.

Finally, a gentle word of warning for parents with perfectly manicured backyard greenery: After discussing the various types of fossils, Lynch encourages kids to get into the dirt, a siren call that will be hard to resist, especially since the second half of the book is devoted to discovering fossils in the real world. By dangling the temptation that fossils are everywhere, prepare for some intense outdoor excavation.

Some Few Books to Be Chewed and Digested

Below we offer a rundown of three titles to share with loved ones, and, given the givens of 2020, not a one deals with sleigh bells or other traditional trappings of the season. Yet each is a reminder that hope remains a powerful antidote to overwhelming despair. Hang in there folks, and stay safe.

For young adult fans of historical fiction: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party, by Allan Wolf, Candlewick Press, 416 pages, $21.99.

From the author whose previous books explore, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic and a teenage murderer, you may be wondering how on earth this title makes an appropriate holiday gift. Trust me when I tell you that this chillingly poetic account of the ill-fated 19th-century Donner Party expedition is perhaps one of the most intriguing and expertly crafted stories to appear between hard covers this year. With the voice of Hunger serving as a sort of Greek chorus interspersed among multiple narrators, there’s more to this tale than mere hunger pangs–it is a bone-chilling examination of love, ambition, and blind faith in manifest destiny, all based on Wolf’s near-obsessive research on the subject, as evidenced through the accompanying historical notes, biographies, and further resources. No detail is spared, while middle-grade readers will finish the book pleasantly surprised that they devoured a novel written almost entirely in verse.

For adult offspring: Offerings: A Novel, by Michael ByungJu Kim, Arcade Books, 288 pages, $24.99.

Michael Kim’s debut novel draws heavily from his thirty years of experience in the world of international finance wherein a brilliantly woven narrative explores the simultaneous pull of family loyalty versus duty to one’s profession. Here, during the throes of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Korean-American immigrant and now genius investment banker Dae Joon–known as Shane to his American compatriots–is summoned to his birthplace in a bid to save the country from financial ruin. As the family jangnam, or first-born son, Dae Joon was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ranks of academia, but the siren song of Wall Street proved irresistible. While Dae Joon toils relentlessly to save the Korean economy from collapse–and, as it turns out, unravel a sordid tale of financial corruption–a mysterious illness threatens the life of his father. Throw in a mysterious romantic interest, and there’s plenty competing for Dae Joon’s time and attention, each creating a cohesive story that’s all but impossible to put down. Offerings has–dare I say it?–a cinematic quality to it, no easy feat for a writer. Here’s hoping there’s a second offering in the works.

Courtesy of the Folio Society

For lovers of the great outdoors: The Complete Flower Fairies, by Cicely Mary Barker, forward by Roy Vickery, Folio Society, $149.95. Orders for Christmas delivery must be made by December 10 and 17 for standard and express delivery, respectively.

Struck with epilepsy as a child, South London native Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) was homeschooled and honed her artistic talents via correspondence courses. By 1911, her watercolors and drawings were gracing postcards, and in 1923 the first book in a series illustrating seasonal flora appeared as Flower Fairies of the Spring. The internationally bestselling Flower Fairies eventually encompassed eight charming volumes that, nearly a century after their first appearance, are now being offered as a limited-edition set by Folio Society. Botanist and Honorary Secretary of the Folklore Society Roy Vickery provides a nuanced explanation of why this collection extolling the virtues of the great outdoors remains a perennial favorite, even among cooped-up urbanites worldwide.

A Beautiful Ending: Death and Heaven in the Time of Longfellow

From TB to typhus, 19th-century Americans faced death on a near-daily basis. Nick Basbanes explores how our forebears dealt with that “ever present existential threat” in the Summer issue of Humanities (aka, the pandemic issue), reproduced with permission below.

Originally published as “A Beautiful Ending” in the Summer 2020 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dealing with the specter of contagion and death was a constant source of anxiety in nineteenth-century America, a facet of everyday life made especially immediate by the grim reality of the numbers. By the early 1900s, one out of every seven deaths in the United States and Europe was caused by tuberculosis, according to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the very randomness of its reach made it especially onerous. Commonly known for centuries as consumption, the highly infectious disease played no favorites when choosing its victims, striking across all segments of society, rich and poor, young and old, men and women of all races and ethnic groups—an ever-present existential threat, in today’s parlance, if ever there was one.

For most of the 1800s, consumption was thought to be a hereditary, constitutional sickness of nonspecific origin, and not communicable. It wasn’t until 1882 that the German scientist Robert Koch identified the tuberculosis bacillus, helping convince medical and public health officials that it was indeed contagious; he would win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1905 in recognition of his efforts. An immediate consequence was the increased observance of precautionary measures known more immediately to millions of people around the world in recent months as “social distancing.” To the constant fear of that scourge were added visitations of cholera, smallpox, typhus, and yellow fever, each also accounting for thousands of deaths. During the Civil War, camp fever, a term used for a variety of contagious illnesses endemic to the close-quartered military encampments of the period, most severely typhoid fever, took the lives of more soldiers, along with diarrhea and dysentery, than injuries inflicted in combat. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that vaccines came into widespread use, with antibiotic drugs following in the twentieth.

One of the more compelling backstories I encountered while researching my recently published book, Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was how the principals of my study responded to uncertainties particular to the times, most tellingly life-and-death situations they frequently faced, over which they had no control. “Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb,” Longfellow wrote matter-of-factly to George Washington Greene, one of his closest friends, on May 21, 1837, 45 years before he finally would occupy the freshly dug plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?”

The thirty-year-old poet had recently returned to the United States from an extended trip abroad to assume duties as the newly installed Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College. Among tasks that awaited his attention was the burial of Mary Storer Potter Longfellow, his first wife, who had died 18 months earlier in Rotterdam at the age of twenty-three, the victim of what modern physicians surmise to have been an “infected incomplete miscarriage,” a complication that would be routinely diagnosed and treated today. Although emotionally shattered by the loss of her, Longfellow had chosen to remain in Europe and continue learning the languages he would be required to teach at Harvard: Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Old Icelandic, and German, to go along with the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese he had mastered a decade earlier in preparation for a similar position at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After arranging for the shipment of Mary’s remains, he resumed the task at hand.Painting of a young woman on her deathbed with mourners nearby.Photo caption: Many young mothers, such as Longfellow’s first wife, succumbed to complications and infections relating to child birth. Mary Storer Potter Long-
fellow died of “infected incomplete miscarriage,” a malady readily treated today. 

Young Woman on Her Deathbed, Gabriel Cornelius von Max, 1876, oil on canvas, 95. 5 X 125.5 cm / Neue Galerie, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel, Germany / bpk Bildagentur / Art Resource, NY

Among those urging Longfellow to continue with his studies in Europe was George Ticknor, the professor who handpicked him as his successor for the Harvard job. The independently wealthy scion of a prominent Beacon Hill family, Ticknor had decided to step back from teaching at the age of forty-three, following the death of a five-year-old son, the cause a “very obscure” heart infection later determined to have been pericarditis. In the years ahead, Ticknor would channel his energies into a variety of worthy pursuits, including the writing of History of Spanish Literature, a mammoth work in three volumes considered definitive from the time it first appeared in print in 1849, and leading the effort to establish in 1852 the Boston Public Library, the first major free municipal library in the United States. “While my little boy lived, I looked only to the future, and considered him only as a bright hope, that was growing brighter every day,” he had written to a close friend in Maine, Charles Daveis, explaining his reasons for retiring. “But now that he is gone I look at the past and present, and, yielding all the future, in a spirit of resignation, to God, I feel the immediate loss, the pressing want of something that was so dear to me, and that was associated, without my knowing it, to everything around and within me.”

In a follow-up letter to Daveis, Ticknor further clarified his feelings in a way that echoes other responses to loss and grieving we see in the letters and journals of the period. “Sorrow still dwells among us, and must for a season,” he began in tones that evoke a kind of benediction. “The melancholy which is impressed on the heart by severe suffering, as you well know from experience, seems to come up afresh long afterwards, from depths you knew not of at the time, just as the passing bell continues to give up its deep and heavy tones long after it has ceased to be struck. But this, too, will pass away, under the healing influence of time and those higher principles of our nature which, with the help of religion, are able to control all the rest.”

Writing to Longfellow immediately upon hearing the “dreadful news” of Mary’s death, Ticknor firmly counseled his young colleague to “pray give yourself to constant and interesting intellectual labor,” a form of inner healing, he stressed, “that will go further than any other remedy, at least such is my experience.” Heeding Ticknor’s advice, Longfellow hunkered down in Heidelberg for the winter and “buried himself in books, in old, dusty books,” all the while admitting to his father in Maine that his “bereavement” was “deep and unutterable,” and that “it required a great deal of effort to discipline my thoughts to regular study.” For six months he soldiered on, but “the monotonous every day life” had him declaring in his journal finally that “I cannot study: and therefore think I better go home.” In the very next sentence, he had another idea: “Perhaps the air of the Fatherland will do me good.” With that, he set out on a summer tour of the Rhineland that took him eventually into Switzerland, and the serendipitous meeting at an Interlaken inn with Frances Elizabeth Appleton, an eighteen-year-old Boston socialite everyone called Fanny, then traveling through Europe with her family on a trip that had also been undertaken as a form of therapy for shared grief.Portrait of Henry Wadsowrth Longfellow.

Photo caption: Longfellow, 1850.

—Gift of I. N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937, 10.8 X 8.3 cm / Metropolitan Museum of Art

Three weeks before the Appletons set sail for France in November 1835, Fanny’s twenty-year-old brother, Charles Sedgwick Appleton, had died of consumption, a devastating blow to his three siblings and their father, each of whom was confronted with the agony of what had suddenly become a double loss. Two and a half years earlier, the family matriarch, Maria Theresa Gold Appleton, died of the same sickness at the age of forty-six. Nathan Appleton was serving out a term as a member of Congress in Washington, D.C., as his wife lay dying in Boston at the time, and had never forgiven himself for failing to be at her bedside, his frantic efforts to get home by teams of post-horses hired along the route proving futile by a matter of hours. Maria Theresa had struggled mightily to retain consciousness, refusing any medications that might have put her to sleep, according to a journal kept by her daughters. “She kept her eyes anxiously fixed on the clock, to watch for the hour of [our] Father’s arrival, whom she expected to see, until the last moment,” they wrote. “This evening Father arrived, having heard that all was over, just before arriving in town. He was much agitated, and aggrieved, after traveling day and night.”

Nathan Appleton’s immediate response then was to take his children on a two-month tour of upstate New York, traveling by steamboat, railroad, and stagecoach to Niagara Falls and Canada, then meandering back home through Vermont and New Hampshire. For part of the journey they traveled on the Erie Canal, which had opened the western interior of the region to more expeditious travel just a few years earlier. The bonding experiment was such a success that when Charley Appleton died on October 26, 1835, Nathan Appleton decided an even grander adventure was in order, one normally reserved for affluent young men of the period, not women, but these were particularly anxious times, and he moved quickly. “We are now so desolate, with nothing to anticipate, and one loss making the few left more anxious for each other than ever, that Father has actually sent to N[ew] York to engage our passage to sail for Europe in a fortnight,” Fanny wrote Robert Apthorp, a close family friend from childhood, just three days after Charley died. “The slightest thought of it staggers and bewilders me so that I dare not yield to the excitement—and the indifference with which it now is viewed would have seemed last year incredible.”

Striking in every respect, Fanny Appleton was no typical young woman. At a time when higher education was the exclusive province of men, she had been impeccably taught by private tutors from early childhood, the pioneering educators Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and George Barrell Emerson, the art instructor Francis Graeter, and the expatriate writer and political theorist Francis Lieber, notable among her personal teachers and mentors. A voracious reader in several languages, Fanny was driven to embrace intellectual achievement on a variety of stimulating levels, as her rich body of correspondence, journals, and sketches persuasively demonstrate. For this two-year grand tour of the continent, she brought along a portable lap desk and an ample inventory of paper, art supplies, and writing instruments.

Joining the group were two of her cousins, one of them, the consumptive William “Willy” Sullivan Appleton, brought along by Fanny’s father with the faint hope of restoring his failing health, travel then considered a palliative to the disease. Their leisurely travels through France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany were aboard two elegant coaches purchased in Paris and made with comfort and style in mind. As winter turned to spring and spring to summer, concern began to grow about Willy’s deteriorating condition and the pressing need to get him to higher, cooler ground. Departing Florence in June 1836, they headed for Bologna by way of the Apennines, providing Willy with some temporary relief. Word of a cholera epidemic in Venice persuaded them to head directly to Modena; from there they proceeded to Verona, and then on to Milan. Arriving in Switzerland toward the end of July, they took rooms in a “dashing new hotel” overlooking Lake Thun.Portrait of Fanny Appleton.

Photo caption: Fanny Appleton was an eighteen-year-old socialite from Boston when Longfellow met her on tour with her family in Europe. 

—Courtesy of the National Park Service, Longfellow House / Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, catalog number, LONG 4807, 27 ¾” (70.5 cm) x 24 ½” (62.2 cm)

On the day Fanny learned that Longfellow sent up his card to her father with the hope of making the acquaintance of some fellow New Englanders he had learned were passing through, she was fresh from sketching a succession of breathtaking attractions in the countryside. “Hope the venerable gentleman won’t pop in on us,” she added, “tho’ I did like his Outre-Mer,” an acknowledgment, at least, that she had some sense of who he was, and that she had read his first book, a travelogue published a few years earlier. That he wasn’t “venerable” at all—he was twenty-nine years old at the time—became apparent several days later when the two finally did meet at an inn in Interlaken. Invited by Nathan Appleton to travel with them for a fortnight, Henry eagerly joined the entourage, riding in one of the carriages with Fanny, Mary, and Willy.

There is nothing in either of the journals Henry and Fanny kept at this time to indicate any kind of a spark that might ignite a lasting relationship. What both did record of their interactions, however, suggests an appreciation each had for the other’s mind, a key consideration since they both valued intellectual engagement above all other qualities. Not lost on Fanny either was the kindness and attention Henry paid to her cousin Willy, whose condition had taken an alarming turn for the worse.

Henry’s offer in Lucerne to stay with Willy while the others went out for a bit of sightseeing was greatly appreciated by Fanny. “He is a most gentle spirit,” Henry wrote in his journal, “resigned and uncomplaining, as one who has already commenced ‘his conversation in heaven,’” his reference to a famous homily by John Tillotson, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694. To pass the time during the long rides, Henry and Fanny read aloud from uplifting sermons such as these for Willy’s benefit, and selections from William Hazlitt’s essay “The Fear of Death” (1822), notable for its opening line, “Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end.” Willy found especially pleasing two “soul-thrilling” sermons of the Unitarian minister Orville Dewey, particularly that “touching one on the ‘Voices of the Dead.’”

Rowing on Lake Zurich with Henry, Mary, and her older brother Tom, who had joined the traveling party, did little to improve Fanny’s spirits. “How can I think of myself while he is growing so feeble daily, so patiently relinquishing the active habits he delights in and breaking our hearts with his self-forgetting thoughtfulness of all about him?” A physician brought in for an examination grimly reported that Willy was not likely to survive a voyage home; even a journey into Paris “would be too much” for him. “Oh God—but how will the poor child bear this terrible disappointment!” Fanny lamented. “He seems calm tho’ it is his death-knell, but he cannot get up stairs without aid.” An evening walk with Henry left Fanny contemplating the “dead, blank winter” to come, “but what is that to the pall the mind can weave for itself now.”

In Schaffhausen, Fanny and Henry walked into town to replenish their reading supply for the road ahead, and enjoyed a “long talk” in a park before heading back to the hotel. When they returned, Willy was organizing “all the little presents he has collected for his family” back home, Fanny marveled, and talked “with the utmost cheerfulness about the dispersal of them,” knowing “they can never be given by his own hand and will when received be sad legacies” of his passing. For Mary and Fanny, there were brooches acquired in Geneva to remember him by. Henry was greatly impressed by the young man’s courage, which he lauded that night in his journal. “It seems impossible that he should live many days. He is himself conscious of this, and is making his little gifts to friends with a calmness which is beautiful. How heavenly it is to die thus.”

On August 17, Henry received word that Clara Crowninshield, a dear friend of his late wife who had accompanied the couple on their European trip, was anxious to leave Heidelberg, where he had left her in the care of friends while he went off on his own, and return to the United States. Though Fanny had little to say one way or the other in her journal about whatever feelings she may have developed for Henry, she did concede two days later, with a paucity of words, that she did “miss Mr. L. considerably.” Some brisk fall air had “invigorated” Willy somewhat, but her general mood was otherwise gloomy. On August 24, a week after Henry’s departure, he died, peacefully, in his bed.

Henry received word of Willy’s death from Tom Appleton. “He desired me to remember him to all of his friends and for me to thank those who had been kind in service to him in his illness, among whom he felt that you were warmly included.” Grief-stricken at this loss, Fanny wrote nothing in her journal for several weeks, though she did open up a bit several months later in a letter to Robert Apthorp, sharing her impressions of the European trip thus far. Most of what she had experienced—the cultures, the art museums, the ballets, the theater, the Old World landmarks, the scenery—had been a revelation. “But over all this magic, anxiety, decay and death have thrown a tinge of sadness and there is a green corner by the blue Rhine where many aching hearts have bound the circle of their thoughts. I meant to write much to you about my sweet cousin William for the unsullied purity of his character and gentle sweetness of his disposition so ennobled his decay, shed such an atmosphere of heavenly hope and cheerful resignation around his last moments.”

Fanny admitted to some uneasy “presentiments” when she left home the previous year, but she had no idea that what she feared then would involve anyone other than herself. “I mention this only because it is the sole bit of superstition I ever indulged in. And I was again called to breathe comfort and hope to a gentle spirit hovering between two worlds,” the memories of her brother Charley and her adored mother, Maria Theresa, still fresh. In the end, she found William’s acceptance of his fate nothing less than inspirational. “From first to last he saw and felt his danger and met it with a Christian fortitude which was truly astonishing.”

Although not evident in his correspondence or diary of those first days he spent in her company, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was dazzled by Fanny’s mind, artistic sensibility, and razor-sharp wit—that, and her willingness to engage intellectually, her zest for life, her deep and abiding compassion for others. He described her in a letter to George Washington Greene several months later as nothing less than a “genius,” and confessed to being hopelessly in love.A marble bust of Fanny Appleton.

Photo caption: Fanny (here, in an 1836 marble bust by Lorenzo Bartolini) and Henry admired each other’s minds, and she was indisputably his intellectual equal, but the poet’s work Hyperion, written expressly in an attempt to win her heart, missed its mark. 

—Courtesy of the National Park Service, Longfellow House / Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site / catalog number LONG 4426

The “courtship” of Fanny Appleton, if it can be called that, was a drama played out over the next seven years, and is a central component of Cross of Snow. Marked predominantly not by ups—but by anguished downs—Henry’s strategy to win her hand included the writing of Hyperion, an ill-advised “romance” that featured as a subtext the unsuccessful wooing of a charismatic young woman—Mary Ashburton—by a grief-stricken suitor, Paul Flemming, the true identities of the principals no mystery to many people on Beacon Hill or at Harvard in Cambridge. When they finally did resolve their issues and become husband and wife on July 13, 1843, it represented, in Henry’s words, a “Vita Nuova of happiness!” and ushered in eighteen prolific years of creative output that included the writing of the book-length narrative poems Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858),and numerous stand-alone classics such as “The Building of the Ship” (1849), “The Children’s Hour” (1860), and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1861). Once together, moreover, the couple was inseparable. “It is part of our theory of life,” Henry would write to an admirer in Europe, “never to be separated.”

They lived in a magnificent Georgian mansion on Brattle Street in Cambridge overlooking the Charles River, a structure so imposing that George Washington chose it for his command headquarters and official residence for nine months during the Siege of Boston (1775–76); it is owned today by the National Park Service and known as Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. The couple had two sons in short order, Charles and Ernest. The arrival of their third child on April 7, 1847, a girl named Fanny for her mother, made medical history by being the first birth in North America assisted by ether as an obstetric anesthetic.A portrait of the Longfellow family with sons Charles and Ernest.Photo caption: The Longfellows posed for this family portrait in Portland, Maine, in 1847 with sons Charles and Ernest. In all likelihood, it was about this image that Henry later wrote, “Had a daguerreotype of Fanny and myself taken with the children, the two latter very charming, the two former not perfectly satisfactory.” 

—Courtesy of the National Park Service, Longfellow House / Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, catalog number LONG 4437

Introduced just five months earlier by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, its use at that time was limited to general surgery and dentistry, the fear in childbirth being that ether could threaten the health of the mother or be unsafe for the baby. When Fanny learned that a woman in Scotland with a severely deformed pelvis had painlessly delivered a healthy child after being given the vapor, she lobbied Henry to investigate on her behalf. Finding no physicians willing to take the risk, and with time growing short, he turned to Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep, founding dean of the Harvard Dental School, who administered the miraculous compound to Fanny during labor while a midwife monitored the delivery. Fanny took great pride in the accomplishment, despite opposition from both branches of the family. “I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether,” she wrote to one of Henry’s sisters, but was mindful nonetheless of what she had accomplished. “I feel proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor weak womankind. This is certainly the greatest blessing of this age and I am glad to have lived at the time of its coming and in the country which gives it to the world, but it is sad that one’s gratitude cannot be bestowed on worthier men than the first discoverers, that is men above quarreling over such a gift of God.”

Although the years of their marriage were overwhelmingly idyllic, the death of Little Fanny, as the child was called, from a vaguely diagnosed “congestion on the brain” 18 months later left both parents devastated, prompting Henry to write the poignant poem of loss and grief “Resignation” (1850). Fanny expressed her feelings privately in a chronicle she kept of her children’s daily activities. “My courage is almost broken,” she confided, and described how watching her daughter slowly “sinking, sinking, away from us” was a period of “agony unutterable.” She told of holding the child and hearing “the breathing shorten, then cease without a flutter,” whereupon she “cut a few locks” of hair from the child’s “holy head” and had her placed in the library “with unopened roses about her, one in her hand, that little hand which always grasped them so lovingly.” Henry recalled the loss with equal tenderness: “For a long time, I sat by her alone in the darkened library. The twilight fell softly on her placid face and the white flowers she held in her little hands. In the deep silence, the bird sang from the hall, a sad strain, a melancholy requiem. It touched and soothed me.”Painting of a mother holding her sick child.

Photo caption: “My courage is almost broken,” Fanny wrote after having watched her eighteen-month-old daughter slip away from this world.

The Sick Child, (Madame Eugène Carrière and Son Léon), 1885, oil on canvas, 101 X 82 cm, Eugène Carrière, RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Everyone, at some point, must contend with the loss of loved ones from natural causes, and Fanny and Henry were no exception, their response to these sad events unfailingly expressed with grace and dignity. Nothing in their experience, however, could have prepared them for what transpired on July 9, 1861, a hot summer day when the family normally would have been enjoying the sea breezes at their summer retreat in Nahant, but were home so Fanny could be close to her dying father in Boston. After returning from a morning by Nathan Appleton’s bedside, she decided to cut some locks of hair from her seven-year-old daughter, Edith. While sealing a snippet in an envelope with wax from a lighted candle, her hooped muslin dress caught fire, setting her ablaze in an instant. Trying desperately to snuff out the flames with a small rug, Henry suffered burns on his hands and face, leaving scars that he would hide in the years ahead with the long white beard that became so familiar to his millions of admirers. Fanny survived the night, her horrible pain at length lessened by the arrival of some ether, but the injuries were too severe, and nothing further could be done. Her demeanor in these final hours was described by those in attendance as “perfectly calm, patient and gentle, all the lovely sweetness and elevation of her character showing itself in her looks and words.”

Henry was inconsolable at first, but there were several young children who needed him now more than ever. “I have never seen any one who bore a great sorrow in a more simple and noble way,” the Boston author John Lothrop Motley reported in a letter to his wife. “I hope he may find happiness in his children.” Describing his state of mind to the writer George William Curtis, who had written a moving letter of condolence, Longfellow apologized for being unable to write a fuller response. “I am too utterly wretched and overwhelmed,—to the eyes of others, outwardly calm; but inwardly bleeding to death.”A portrait of Longfellow towards the end of his life, with beard.

Photo caption: After Fanny died, Longfellow (here, c. 1861) worked through his grief by translating all three canticles of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first American to do so. 

—Courtesy of the National Park Service, Longfellow House / Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site / catalog number LONG 35854

Over time, Henry would be productive in numerous ways, a singular achievement being his translation into English of all three canticles of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first American to do so, and to this day greatly admired for its accuracy and fidelity to the original text. On the eighteenth anniversary of Fanny’s death, he wrote a sonnet he called “The Cross of Snow,” an extraordinary poem of loss and grief that remained unpublished during his lifetime, and gave me the title for the book I wrote about his life and his work. His death in 1882 was mourned everywhere his poems were read. He was buried in the family plot on Indian Ridge Path in Mount Auburn Cemetery, alongside his two beloved wives and his toddler daughter. His younger brother and first biographer, Samuel Longfellow, would inform a friend that the casket was decorated simply, with two palm branches and a spray of passion flowers, the symbolism of the two chosen mindfully: “He had known both the suffering and the victory.”About the author

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of A Gentle MadnessOn Paper, and several other well-regarded books on print culture. 

Funding information

For the writing of his biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Cross of Snow, Nicholas A. Basbanes received a Public Scholars grant. NEH has funded diverse projects over the decades on Longfellow, including a Preservation and Access grant in 2017 for $10,000 to Friends of the Mount Auburn Cemetery to digitize documents relating to the poet’s final resting place, and three grants, totaling $409,861, to Helen Vendler to lead seminars for educators on poetry and form, during which, visits to the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made up an important part of the experience. Angus Stewart Fletcher first received a $20,000 Research Programs fellowship in 1979 to work on Longfellow: A Critical Essay and another in 2007, in the amount of $40,000, to complete a book on American poems and the environment, in which he developed and elucidated the role Longfellow played in a method of creating poetry called the coherence theory of truth. In 2006 the Maine Historical Society received $5,000 to perform an environmental monitoring study of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine.