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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

“A very pleasant dinner”: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and friends

Guest blog post by Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of the recently published biography, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

I collect rare books and manuscripts. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that I would like to collect rare books and manuscripts. I make my living as a college professor, which means that there are strict limits to what I can (or ought to) buy. A few years ago, I acquired, for not very much money, a letter written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Louis Agassiz, sent from Longfellow’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., to Agassiz’s house on Quincy Street, also in Cambridge, on June 17, 1867. The letter covers only one sheet, one half of a bifold with the other half (neatly) torn off. In the upper left corner, there is the embossed seal of “Delarue & Co.,” a London stationer and printer that had been in business since 1821. The letter is written in ink, in Longfellow’s characteristic handwriting—so straight and capable, leaning neither much to the left nor much to the right, that William Dean Howells felt compelled to compare it to Longfellow’s poetry: even-handed, safe, not given to extremes of feeling, aiming for the comfortable middle-ground where author and reader meet in mutual recognition.

My little letter didn’t have to travel far to reach its recipient, and what it says is so unremarkable that you might well wonder why I decided to buy it in the first place:

My dear Agassiz,
     It will give me great pleasure, as ever, to dine with you on Tuesday.
          Always Yours
          Henry W. Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to
Louis Agassiz, 17 June 1867,
Collection of Christoph Irmscher.
[Click to enlarge]
The letter presents no problems to the transcriber, with the exception perhaps of the European-looking “1” in “17,” which differs from the “1” in “1867” (it was not unusual, however, for Longfellow to write it both ways). June 17, 1867, the day he wrote the note, was a Monday. Longfellow’s unpublished journal gives us the barest indication of what else he did that day: as happened so frequently, an unbidden visitor showed up at his house, a young lawyer named Budd, carrying a letter of introduction from the well-known Philadelphia editor Samuel Allibone. Mr. Budd, with the sense of cheerful entitlement that seemed to come naturally to many of Longfellow’s uninvited guests, stayed on for dinner. The next day, Tuesday, June 18, the British publisher George Routledge dropped by (“much talk about books”). The weather was lovely, so Longfellow later in the afternoon would have walked to dinner at Agassiz’s house, past Appleton Chapel, across the leafy grounds of Harvard College.

Despite the considerable dents Darwin and his friends had made into his reputation, Agassiz, professor of natural history in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, was still one of the world’s most famous scientists. A staunch anti-evolutionist and believer in the separate creation of all things living and dead, including the human races, Agassiz had returned just the year before from a massive specimen-collecting expedition along the Amazon River and had quickly become a kind of self-declared expert on Brazilian–American relations. He now served as the spiritual godfather for a host of emigrants who, disgusted with Reconstruction, turned their backs on the newly reunited United States to seek their luck in the more reliably retrograde racial climate of the Brazilian empire. That afternoon at Agassiz’s house (among the Boston Brahmin, what we call “dinner” and they regarded as “supper” usually took place later in the evening), the departing Brazilian ambassador, Joaquim Maria Nascentes de Azambuja, had joined the party, as had Longfellow’s closest friend, the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner. “A very pleasant dinner,” Longfellow noted in his journal, with the characteristic refusal to share salient details that is a hallmark of his journal-writing.

A very pleasant dinner? How could it have been so, given that the conversation, with the ambassador in attendance, would very likely have turned to race? Slavery in Brazil was not officially ended before 1888, and Emerson and others report in their journals that Agassiz would inevitably broach the topic of race relations—and the allegedly detrimental effects of racial mixing—whenever someone as much as breathed the word “Brazil.” Awkwardly, Longfellow, whose account books show that he gave a considerable part of his income to ex-slaves and their supporters, vehemently disagreed with Agassiz on racial matters, as did Sumner (who actually felt that interbreeding would improve the impoverished genetic stock of whites).

What Longfellow’s letters and journals do not reveal, his poetry often barely hints at, but when it does so, it is hard to forget. After Agassiz died in December 1873, his powerful body holding on for days after his mind had already crumbled, Longfellow wrote an untitled sonnet commemorating his friend, without ever mentioning him by name. Imagining himself alone on the beach at Nahant, where Agassiz had maintained a seaside laboratory, Longfellow hears the ocean bemoan his dead friend’s absence, even as the rest of nature, from the rocks to the trees to the weeds at the bottom of the sea, acknowledges that Longfellow is still there.

I stand again on the familiar shore,
          And hear the waves of the distracted sea
          Piteously calling and lamenting thee,
          And waiting restless at thy cottage door.
The rocks, the sea-weed on the ocean floor,
          The willows in the meadow, and the free
          Wild winds of the Atlantic welcome me;
          Then why shouldst thou be dead, and come no more?
This is the point where, in the traditional Italian sonnet, the volta (literally, a “jump”) would mark a turning point, a new beginning. But the finality of Agassiz’s death makes such a dramatic shift impossible, and so the sestet picks up simply where the octet left off, with Longfellow’s lines twice spilling over into the next one:
Ah, why shouldst thou be dead, when common men
          Are busy with their trivial affairs,
          Having and holding? Why, when thou hadst read
Nature’s mysterious manuscript, and then
          Wast ready to reveal the truth it bears,
          Why art thou silent? Why shouldst thou be dead?
Louis Agassiz at the blackboard,
Carte-de-visite, ca. 1862.
Austin Augustus Turner, photographer.
Autographed by Louis Agassiz.
Collection of Christoph Irmscher
The agonizing refrain, an outburst really, “Why shouldst thou be dead?” is repeated three times in the crowded space of the sonnet, a moving testimony to the bereft poet’s helplessness in the face of death. But the intensity of this question, fanned by the wild winds of the Atlantic, also throws into bold relief Agassiz’s brazen confidence that science (practiced the way he thought proper) would allow him to uncover, once and for all, the meaning of the Book of Nature. Now it turns out that nature is doing fine without Agassiz there to inform us what it all means. Louis Agassiz, the great would-be decipherer of nature’s mysteries, was gone, forever gone. Yet men’s trivial affairs—the eating of meals, the visiting of friends, the writing of letters—continued, hour after hour, and day after day, the whole dreary business of living in a world where we “have and hold,” where we cling to our possessions as if none of this could ever end: a world Longfellow knew all about, a world that had produced that little note I bought, a world that, even when someone has died, at first gently, then relentlessly, tugs us back into ordinariness. What if there was no great secret to reveal, no final truth to tell?

We don’t know what, if anything, Longfellow, seated next to the Brazilian ambassador, said or felt on that warm summer afternoon at Agassiz’s Quincy Street house. But we do know that, a week later, on June 26, his translation of Dante’s Paradiso appeared in the bookstores, a tribute to the living light, “ever changing as I changed.”

* * *

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Rebecca Stott praised Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, noting that although men like Agassiz are often difficult to like, “irreconcilable contradictions make for interesting biographies. . . . Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the complexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures.” Professor Irmscher also edited John James Audubon: Writings & Drawings for The Library of America. You can read more about Agassiz’s life and influence at Irmscher’s blog.

Related posts from Reader’s Almanac
Christoph Irmscher on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his beloved wife, Fanny

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Christoph Irmscher and Longfellow for this - a beautiful reminder that bereavement is bitter-sweet, preparing us live better, more thoughfully, in our remaining years.


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