Feb. 27, 2009

The Cross of Snow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

"The Cross of Snow" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Kiowa novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday, (books by this author) born in Lawton, Oklahoma (1934). His parents were teachers, so the family followed teaching jobs from one reservation to the next. Momaday felt like an outsider on all of them. He went to the University of Virginia to study law, but then he met William Faulkner, and he decided to study literature instead. He started writing, and he was working on a project about the sacred Sun Dance doll of the Kiowa tribe. It hadn't been displayed since 1888, but Momaday got a chance to see it, and it made a big impression on him. He said, "I became more keenly aware of myself as someone who had walked through time and in whose blood there is something inestimably old and undying." He tried to write a book of poems based on the experience, but a teacher suggested he turn the poems into fiction, and that became his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of John Steinbeck, (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). In the late 1930s, Steinbeck was sent by a newspaper to report on the situation of migrant farmers, so he got an old bakery truck and drove around California's Central Valley. He found people starving, thousands of them crowded in miserable shelters, sick with typhus and the flu. He wrote everything down in his journal, and he decided that he had enough material to write a novel. In less than six months, he had a 200,000-word manuscript. He finished on October 26, 1938, when he wrote in his journal: "Finished this day — and I hope to God it's good." He wrote by longhand, and his wife, Carol, typed up the manuscript. She also suggested a title: The Grapes of Wrath, from the song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, sold half a million copies in its first year, and won a Pulitzer Prize.

It was on this day in 1812 that Lord Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords. The economy and work force of Britain was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and skilled workers were being replaced by machines. Some of these workers protested by destroying machines, and the British government proposed the Frame Breaking Act, which said that anyone guilty of breaking a machine would either be sentenced to death or sent to the penal colony of Australia.

After Byron traveled through rural England and observed the uprisings, he argued against the Frame Breaking Act in his speech in the House of Lords. But it was passed anyway. In 1816, Lord Byron wrote "Song for the Luddites."

It's the birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (books by this author) born in Portland, Maine (1807). He went to Bowdoin College and became a scholar of literature and modern languages. In 1826, he traveled to Europe to study German, French, Spanish, and Italian. He got married, and in 1835 he returned to Europe to learn Scandinavian languages, but his wife came with him, and she had a miscarriage and died in the Netherlands. He fell in love again, with a young woman named Fanny Appleton, but she rejected his marriage proposal. So grieving for his first wife, despairing over Fanny's refusal, he threw himself into his work and became a popular American poet.

In 1843, Fanny agreed to marry Henry after all. They were very happy, they had six children, and Fanny helped her husband with his work. Longfellow wrote incredibly successful book-length poems, like Evangeline (1847), about separated lovers in Nova Scotia, and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), about an Ojibwe leader. Whenever he published a book of poetry, it would sell out almost immediately.

But in 1861, Fanny Longfellow was using sealing wax and her dress caught on fire. Longfellow rushed in from the next room and tried to smother the fire by throwing his arms around his wife. But Fanny died the next day, and Longfellow was heartbroken. He wrote "The Cross of Snow" in her memory.

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