The Woman Behind the Man is Literally on Fire

“Mrs. Longfellow Burns” by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker


Yes, Mrs. Longfellow burns. But before we get to that, there is the matter of Mr. Longfellow, the national poet, the “maker of culture.” Zsófia Bán’s sentences set off a low constant thrum under the floorboards, lest (as Henry would say) you forget: “the girls — the girls were absent, the girls were excused, the girls that day, as always, were convalescing.” Something large and resonant heaves in a slow but meticulous ostinato. One of these pages will lower the boom.

Until then, there are other things. There are always other things. Mrs. Longfellow, the one who comes second, or last, or not at all (the girls, today, are excused), has the privilege of commenting on the whole buzzing, blooming confusion, sometimes through words, sometimes actions. But usually, in Bán, through both. In “Mrs. Longfellow Burns,” one of the stories collected in her collection fashioned as mock-textbook, Night School: A Reader for Grown-Ups, the Hungarian writer is turning her culturally forged perspective onto America’s Protestant achievements, and Protestant responsibilities, and returning a verdict that is half loving tenderness, half ruthless objectivity.

Now, as anyone can tell you, you can’t make a living off of poetry. This truth will ultimately burn up Mrs. L., since it is no picnic being the monkey wrench in an evolving national culture. Longfellow (the man’s) place in this culture is laid out for our perusal here, yet for Bán there are always other things, too. Time moves on, and no matter the sacrifice–or self-sacrifice–the nation shall have its poetry. But now, we know, the girl has been excused, and now we can’t forget it.

– Jim Tucker
Translator, Night School 

The Woman Behind the Man is Literally on Fire

Mrs. Longfellow Burns

by Zsófia Bán

[. . .] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with his golden hair, his golden hair,

tall and of a port in air, with azure eyes,

in tawny gloves, he took dominion everywhere.

Henry, the national poet, writes verse like a bird sings. From Henry, the national poet, rhyme flows like the trots — oh Mother of God, here’s another one — splat! It hits Henry hard that people think just anyone can write poems. Him, for example. Tell me not in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream! / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem. So it goes. Well, yes. Henry, the national poet, is making culture before the nation has even invented it. “Well, well,” says America, “Henry, what is this?” It turns it this way and that, examines the sparkling object, yet still does not understand. “That?” says Henry with his winning smile, “That is the flowering of New England, do you see it not?” In the background nod the members of the New England team, the Patriots: Nathaniel nods, Ralph Waldo nods, Henry David nods, Oliver nods, Herman nods. (The girls do not nod; today the girls are convalescing and have been excused.) Henry sings to himself and plays the flute like some mythological creature. Henry never goes anywhere without his flute. Henry, the national poet, even flutes his way across Europe, stopping at every charming little inn, rustic little hut, and crumbling little bungalow, conversing with peasants, artisans, and traders, with the silver flute — a passport to friendship — right there in his pocket. Henry at a bullfight in Spain. Henry in Italy, in front of the Coliseum. Henry in Germany, on the Alexanderplatz. Henry in England at a soccer game. He’s a fine-looking boy, is Henry, easy to photograph. A ray of hope warms the heart of America, the stumbling babe: it shall have its culture, its photogenic betrothed, its fine-looking bards, its ballsy sages. At 22, Henry was a university professor, a professor at 22, ha-ho. The hearts of his lady students beat wildly for him — oh, pardon, he has no girl students, as they are excused. Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime / And, departing, leave behind us / Footsteps in the sand of time. (Video clip here: “Footsteps in the Sand of Time,” Henry singing).

The first Longfellow arrives in America in the bleak winter of 1676 from Yorkshire, England. For he’s a jolly good Longfellow, that nobody can deny. Henry’s pedigree is pristine. His grandfather had been a general in the War of Independence, his father a lawyer. Henry was a young gentleman from a fine house, America’s incorrigible sweetheart. He loves his neighbors and baseball. In his free time, he is optimism personified. Not enjoyment and not sorrow, / Is our destin’d end or way; / But to act, that each to-morrow, / Find us farther than today. Onward, and with dispatch. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, son of Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, is born on February 27, 1807, a gray and inhospitable day, in Portland, Maine. Portland is a harbor, and those born there have a more profound understanding of the world than the inhabitants of other, more backwater New England towns. Nothing obstructs his view. The waves may be crashing and the cold going to the bone and people blowing into their hands, but the view is great. Buena vista. Whales and shipwrecks and what have you. Fresh air you can practically take a bite out of. The fascinating people buzzing around the harbor, and the buzz of fascinating people stir the interest of the young fellow toward experiences beyond his own, resulting in Henry’s attending school at three (see child abuse). At six, Henry’s teacher writes the following on Henry’s report card: “Master Henry Longfellow is one of the finest pupils in our school. His reading and writing are excellent. Furthermore, he can also add and multiply. His behavior in the last quarter has been exemplary and agreeable.” Signed, Mrs. Helen. A gentleman is a gentleman, even in elementary school. This is elementary. None of that “whined all through class” or “shot spitballs at his schoolmates” or “tried to poke out the eye of his desk-mate with a compass,” or “tugged at the girls’ ponytails.” (The girls — the girls were absent, the girls were excused, the girls that day, as always, were convalescing. Oh, sweet sweet girls of the harbor.)

At bedtime, Henry’s mother Zilpah (yes, there really is such a name), would read to him and his siblings of Ossian, the legendary Gallic hero. This always gave rise to a miniature rebellion, as the children aspired to become Ossian rather than sleep — even the girls, though that would actually be impossible. Then Zilpah would have a hard time restoring order, and always regretted reading Ossian, the legendary Gallic hero, aloud to them when she clearly knew this would incite a rebellion, but there was nothing for it, as the children’s hour was sacrosanct, and this is what they demanded, while their Papa was unavailable at the moment. “Every reader has a first book,” Henry would later write, as the poet of the nation. “In other words there is one book among all that first takes hold of his imagination, that simultaneously excites and satisfies the desires of his mind.” [Can you guess what book this was for Henry? (Hint: his father Dr. Stephen Longfellow used to give him a good thrashing for it with his belt, although, as Henry recalls with a big grin, it was still worth it, because without this, he would probably have had no idea how to father a child. See also: the role of know-how in American culture.)] Time moved on, and the nineteen-year-old Henry found himself a senior at Bowdoin College when that institution decided to establish a Department of Modern Languages. But at the committee meeting, a stick-in-the-mud elder colleague pointed out that, alas, no one at that institution spoke modern languages. Therefore, after some consultation, they decided to ask Henry to be the department’s first professor, but before that, they would send him off to Europe for a little polishing up. Henry agreed under the condition that, in return, they destroy his file, from which it might later come to light that he regularly reported on his classmates. In the blossoming May of 1826, the flaxen-maned young man set out to see the world with those sparkling azure eyes of his, and meanwhile make himself a scholar and professor. As above: flute playing, etc. In the bleak winter of 1829 Henry returns to his uncultured homeland where, ha-ho, he embarks upon his beautiful career. But there was something else: the day after his return, in church, he spotted Mary Storer Potter, who back in the day had attended the girls’ class of the same year (when not convalescing, that is) as a fairly homely, freckled, pigtailed, shovel- toothed little girl, but by this time she had developed into such a breathtaking beauty (I mean really) that Henry could, as one might logically expect, hardly catch his breath. His feet were rooted to the spot, and (oh, Lord!) they almost had to call an ambulance. The voice of the nightingale of the nation caught in his throat for the first (and last) time. He silently accompanied the girl home and, in the shivery winter of 1831, took her to wife. Time, the great organizer, moved on.

In the foggy autumn of 1834, Henry wins the prize for Most Handsome Professor of the Year, ending up on the cover of Life magazine. For this, he receives an appointment at Harvard, but first he is sent off to Europe again for a little more polishing up, as far as humanly possible. In the world’s broad field of battle, / In the bivouac of Life, / Be not like dumb, driven cattle! / Be a hero in the strife! Henry takes with him the lovely Mary, who, after a miscarriage, dies a hasty death on the trip. Mary, Mary, quite contrary! Henry, in the bivouac of Life, decides not to cut short his voyage, bound as he is by the New Deal he had made with Harvard, as well as his gentleman’s agreement. Even before his return he makes the acquaintance of Fanny Appleton, a wealthy Boston heiress, Fanny (Be Tender with my Love) who will later (time moves on — much later) become his second wife. There’s no denying that Fanny at first (i.e., for years) had no desire to reciprocate Henry’s feelings, as she thought him a conceited, puffed-up windbag, and besides, Henry vexed her to no end in 1839 when he dribbled out the circumstances of their meeting in his prose romance Hyperion, which the entire East Coast had set to devouring. Still, they were married unexpectedly in 1843 (Fanny, what were you thinking?) and from that point on, their life became a vexing idyll. The couple had set up an outrageously elegant home, provoking the ire even of the normally unctuous Emerson, who lived in considerable comfort himself: “If Socrates were here, we could go & talk with him; but Longfellow we cannot go & talk with; there is a palace, & servants, & a row of bottles of different colored wines, & wine glasses, & fine coats,” writes the seething Ralph Waldo.

With his tumbling hair, tawny gloves, and trade- mark flowery waistcoats, Henry becomes a well-known and romantic fixture of Cambridge life. Girls and ladies all sighed in unison at the sight of him, while the gentlemen tipped their hats respectfully and the youths of the town swarmed constantly about his house to play with his children — five in number, two boys and three girls, grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair. In the insufferably beautiful spring of 1854, Henry has had it up to here with teaching and the interminable department meetings he personally directed. He resigns from Harvard and invents freelance poetry, which Fanny (alas!) cannot get too worked up about. Furthermore, in the same period Henry begins to meet up with an Ojibway tribal leader and to write a bit about Indians which is, let’s face it, a fairly suspicious development. Fanny does not see that this was a national culture in the making, does not see that Old Shatterhand and leather chaps will someday come of this; all she sees is that her husband is never home for dinner because he’s down at the old corner public house (i.e., speakeasy) again drinking whiskey with his chubby tribal chief. Time moves on: his oeuvre accumulates nicely while the family reserves dwindle. I will allow that there are many things Fanny does not see, but she certainly does see that you can’t make a living off of poetry. After the publication of Hiawatha, Henry’s Indian best-seller, his entire income from poetry in the glorious years of 1855 and 1856 amounts to $3400 and $7400, plus touring gigs, but otherwise his average annual income barely tops the meager pay he had received at Harvard ($1500). Fanny has to scrimp and scrape to put together money for food, as well as for the two pairs of new tawny gloves and fresh flowery vest they purchase for Henry each month.

Time, the great equalizer, moves on and in 1861 Fanny, known to the public as Mrs. Longfellow, realizes one fine day that her food money has dwindled to nothing, and it was only the middle of the month. Poor Mrs. Longfellow sinks into sorrow, all the while thinking how she might save tomorrow. She must do this by the following day, since if Henry realizes the food money has run out, he will get all worked up and his verse-milk will dry up, and then it won’t just be a matter of the children going hungry (grave Alice and laughing Allegra, etc.), but to top it all off she, Mrs. Longfellow, will go down in history as the one who threw a wrench into the development of a national culture, which, let’s face it, is a bit much. A solution must be found. Meanwhile, the girls, grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair, are upstairs playing with the dollhouse they got from their Papa, when they come over all hungry and run down to the kitchen to make themselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches à l’américaine. There they encounter their mother slouched over the kitchen table, despondent of her miserable situation. At the children’s arrival, Mrs. Longfellow raises her sorrowful Anglo-Saxon horseface to see the wheat-gold waves of her little girls’ hair, at which her mind fills with illumination. Not far from the Longfellow home is a Jewish wig-maker, whose workshop Mrs. Longfellow passes nearly every day. In the shop window is a sign: I buy hair for good money. These words thrum in Mrs. Longfellow’s head like bees in an upset hive. For good money. No time to waste in thought; a minute’s hesitation will scuttle her plans. “Edith, Allegra, Alice, come here, my little ones!” cries Mrs. Longfellow in a trembling voice, extracting the large, tonsorial scissors from the bureau drawer. Now the hour of the children has truly arrived. The Children’s Hour.

After the girls have dashed, shrieking and tearful, from the house, Mrs. Longfellow carefully assembles their flaxen locks and folds them into three identical little packages. She prepares to seal the simple brown wrapping paper with wax, as is her wont. But as she heats the wax, it abruptly sparks such a great flame that the packages catch fire, as do Mrs. Longfellow’s hair and clothing. Mrs. Longfellow supposes this to be the Lord’s punishment. Having accepted the will of the aforementioned individual she does nothing to extinguish the fire, allowing the flames gently, unhurriedly to lick at her all around. Several hours later, when Henry arrives home, he finds a sizable pile of ashes still aglow in the middle of the carbonized kitchen. Henry digs around a bit with the poker to determine the nature of the kitchen apocalypse that has left these remains. He finds, at the bottom of the pile, a sooty lock of blond hair and, on the kitchen table, a letter addressed to him in Mrs. Longfellow’s hand. “Henry my dear, forgive me, but I have quite burned through all my cash. The blame is all mine; please do not scold the girls. F.”

Here Henry Wadsworth Longfellow thinks: First the Civil War, now this. To soothe his rattled nerves, he sets to translating Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. His work proceeds quite swiftly. Years later, Queen Victoria will grant him a private audience. It is unknown what words were exchanged between them, but those who stood at the door thought they heard the words G-spot and unmentionables.

ANALYZE the following expressions:

“Ars longa, vita brevis.”

“A pain in the ars.”

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