Most Modern Critics – A tribute to Longfellow

Information about the original silent film production of Evangeline is available at Northeast Historic Film at this site.

Evangeline with Dolores Del Rio

Evangeline was published by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847, and produced as a silent movie in 1919, starring Dolores Del Rio. (L’Heureux photograph)

Portland’s Longfellow Square prominent statue of our nation’s beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was adorned in his annual Christmas gift attire, tied with ribbon and holding a gift. The image reminded me about the important contribution made to the Acadian people when Longfellow published his epic poem “Evangeline”.  

Some modern critics have tended to label some of Longfellow’s writings as being too sentimental.  But, his contribution to the Acadian culture has preserved the plight of the displaced French who were brutally removed by the British from their homes, their families were separated and they were “scattered to the winds”.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow decorated for Christmas in Portland's Longfellow Square

This holiday decorated statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland’s Longfellow Square reminded me about his contribution to the Acadian culture, when he published the classic “Evangeline”.

This annual adornment of the Longfellow Square monument reminded me about the essay I published in the 2003 Goose River Press Anthology, about the legacy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Most Modern Critics  – By Juliana L’Heureux

Fresh appreciation is in order for a notable American writer whose prose has influenced history. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is popularly known as “A solid man of Boston,” even though he was born in Portland Maine, before the 23rd state was separated in 1820, from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

One of Longfellow’s accomplishments has less to do with his familiar prose than with the defining impact of his epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.

Written in 1847, the enormously well-liked love story describes, in poetic human emotions, the lasting impact of a tragic historic event; and even influenced modern history’s response to the terrible incident.

Aside from being a literature classic, Evangeline is synonymous with an event in North American French history known as “Le Grand Derangement.”  In French, the term specifically relates to the 1755, deportation of the Acadians from “Acadie”, the colonial name for Nova Scotia and all of the territories originally claimed by France, during the colonization of North America.

Le Grand Derangement was a brutal act by the British against the French colonists in Nova Scotia.

Much of our modern popular understanding about the Acadian deportation of 1755, was sensitively portrayed by Longfellow in Evangeline.  It’s a situation whereby the author’s re-creation defined the event for us today.  Moreover, the horrible historic happening might have been eclipsed, were it not for the 1847, publication of this popular rendition, told in the form of a love story.

In one of life’s interesting twists, Longfellow took the opportunity to write Evangeline from a suggestion made by his writing colleague Nathaniel Hawthorne, who recommended the story to him. It so happened, Hawthorne wrote in his journal on October 24, 1838, about meeting a clergyman named Reverend H. L. Conolly, of Boston.  During their visit, Reverend Conolly apparently told Hawthorne a story he heard from a French-Canadian about a young couple who lived in Acadie at the time of the expulsion. On their marriage day, all of the men in the area were summoned to assemble in the church in Grand Pre, near Port Royal, to hear a proclamation. after they were assembled, the men were seized and shipped off to ports around New England. Among them was the new bridegroom. His bride searched the port cities of New England throughout her lifetime for her lost love. She eventually discovered him on his deathbed, but the shocking experience also killed her.

Longfellow took the advice of his friend Hawthorne and wrote Evangeline.

Evangline book cover

Longfellow published the epic Evangeline in 1847.

Although fiction, Longfellow’s depiction of Evangeline searching for her love Gabriel, became a metaphor for the eternal longing of all Acadians to reclaim their homeland, in the beautiful Annapolis Valley area, on the west coast of Nova Scotia.

Acadians were French pioneers who settled Nova Scotia in the 17th and 18th centiries.  By all accounts, the Acadians lived prosperously in the fertile Anapolis Valley on the coast of the Bay of Fundy, for about 150 years before the British decided to oust them in one dragnet swoop.  Of course, the tragedy didn’t just happen out of the blue. An incendiary situation was brewing for some time before the actual order for the deportation was given.  Most of the controversy revolved around requiring the Acadian men to take a pledge to the King of England, an act they found too hostile because, among other things, it threatened to interfere with their practice of Roman Catholicism.

In September of 1755, British troops herded the Acadian men from the region into a church in Grand Pre, under a false premise, whereby they were cruelly separated from their families. As many of them as possible were put into various ships, where they were literally scattered to the winds. Most of the Acadian were deported on ships that left Port Royal on October 27, 1755, and another group were dispersed on December 8, 1755.

This brutal and pivotal event in French Acadian history was recently revived in 2003, when Queen Elizabeth II of England offered an apology for the tragedy and consequences of the deportation.

Longfellow’s fictional version of the deportation became a part of Acadian folklore. Evangeline’s love for Gabriel was strong enough to eventually transport one of history’s tragic events into folklore immortality, thus defining the event in human terms.

University of Louisiana historian Carl A. Brasseux[1] described the measurable impact of the deportation on the Acadian population.  About 6,000 Acadians were deported by the British, as recorded in the ship manifests.

By some accounts, Brasseaux reports, there were about 1,500,000 descendents of the deported Acadians who are living today.  If Le Grand Derangement had never happened, and the population of Acadie had grown at the normal rate of 100 percent every 22-25 years, over the next two centuries, the Acadian population in 1975 could actually have numbered approximately 7,680,000 people.

Likewise, the economy of Nova Scotia could have benefited from the related population growth, presuming a considerable proportion of the Acadian descendants remained in the area.  (As a footnote to this assumption, the economy of Louisiana has benefited from the state’s embrace of the “Cajun” culture. This conjunction of “Acadian” has become an extension of the traditions and language brought to the area by the deported Acadians, who went there to build a community.)

Unfortunately, Evangeline notwithstanding, Longfellow could use some prestigious recognition to diminish the unworthy postscript attached to his biographical accounts, from critics who described much of his poetry. Certainly, Longfellow is a popular American poet, but his epithet generally has included a regrettable afterthought, noting his want of more sophisticated talent.  In fact, Layne Longfellow, who is the poet’s modern day distant cousin, says his famous relative has actually experienced an unjustified and diminished reputation, in recent years. In other words, many modern critics are not among Longfellow’s fans.

Modern critics are not in accord with the high opinion the author received from his contemporaries during his lifetime.

Longfellow’s poems are criticized as being sentimental.  Although lots of popular applause is given, there are few awards. Alfred Nobel, the creator of the Nobel Prize,  was only 15 years old when Evangeline was published in 1847, the same year when Joseph Pulitzer was born. Moreover, posthumous awards are not popular.

Furthermore, most modern critics are not among the descendants of the French Acadians, whose families, even today, link their stories like crystal Rosary beads, connecting Le Grand Derangement with the genealogies, going back as many as 10 plus generations.

Evangeline continues to inspire the ancestors of the victims of the 1755 tragedy. For example, in Northern Maine’s St. John Valley, almost anyone will tell you about Evangeline and the Acadians because their families are connected to the historic deportation.  A updated edition of the poem was prominent on the desk of Editor Don Levesque, when he was the manager of the St. John Valley Times, in Madawaska.

Many of the St. John Valley residents are descendants of those Acadians who escaped and survived Le Grand Derangement.  Some of them can even tell their stories in their native French language, in laments, about the sad expulsion experiences.

Cultural preservation efforts through the Acadian heritage organizations are helping some of Northern Maine’s French-Acadians who want to retain their language and traditions.  Furthermore, Evangeline is extensively used by marketers to describe the history of the area.  Community leaders, teachers, historic events organizers and cultural tourism brochures, especially in Maine cities like Caribou, Fort Kent, Madawaska and Van Buren, will use Evangeline as a symbol for cultural identify and thereby create other opportunities for teaching Acadian history.

Evangeline also defines the Acadian culture in areas of Southern Louisiana, even though Longfellow never put his heartbroken heroine anywhere near Bayou Country.

In the archives of the University of Maine in Fort Kent, it is reported that Evangeline was an instant success in 1847, when it was published. Indeed, the poem was considered to be a major literary achievement.  Five editions of the 1,000 copies sold out during its first year in publication. During the next 100 years, the poem went through at least 270 editions and some 130 translations.

Critics at the time hailed Evangeline as the embodiment of what American literature should be.  Furthermore, generations of school children across the nation read the poem for many years after it was published.

In short, Evangeline became among North Americ’s best know and loved literary characters.  (In fact, Evangeline became such a powerful symbol of love and devotion that some New England parochial schools, especially where many of the students were Franco-Americans, learned that the heroine was a bona fide saint!)

As with most popular epics, Hollywood eventually grabbed Longfellow’s story to create a hit movie.  In 1929, the alluring movie actress Dolores Del Rio (1904-1983) was the star in the silent movie version of Evangeline. Beautiful Del Rio became the prototype for the sympathetic Evangleine.  In her starring role, she was supported by an impressive cast including Roland Drew (1900-1988) as her lost love and hero, Gabriel. The movie was directed by Edward (sometimes named Edwin) Carewe – an alias of John Jay Fox – (1883-1940).

Northeast Historic Film, located in Bucksport, Maine, eventually restored the original black and white film and has sold copies of the video in the museum shop.

Evangeline’s myths in literature, pop culture and film are significant reasons why Le Grand Derangement remains alive in the hearts of Acadians everywhere.

Moreover, the story’s lasting  impact was reaffirmed even 157 years after it was written, in August 2003, when Queen Elizabeth II of England finally offered her apology for the terrible 1755, expulsion.

It’s difficult to say if historic revisionism might have lessened the impact of the deportation, were not for the impact Evangeline had on the history.  A historian Roger Paradis of St. Agatha, Maine, composed an impressive collection about the expulsion in his “Papiers de Prudent L. Mercure”. In the lengthy report, Paradis described how the bleak exportation could likely have been avoided, with just a little intervention on behalf of the Acadians, from the British Crown.

An apology for Le Grand Derangement was sought by advocates for over a decade before Queen Elizabeth II made it official. Nevertheless, 300 years after the incident occurred, the Queen’s verbal reparation received a largely neutral response.  Maine’s Bangor Daily News published an opinion column by Jacqueline Chamberland Blesso, who asked if the apology really meant anything?

“If nothing else, the apology acknowledges that Le Grand Derangement took place on orders of the King of England.  But, the fact does not bring back the hundreds who died in the holds of ships during the dispersal, along with those who were left on the Eastern Seaboard ports of the American colonies or those who died from exposure in the woods, while escaping the deportation,” she wrote.

A handsome white stone bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is firmly situated on the manicured grounds of the museum located on the site of the Memorial Church of Grand Pre, in Nova Scotia.  It is particularly poignant because Longfellow, regrettably, was never able to visit the area that he immortalized in writing Evangeline.

Longfellow described the terrain where the poem begins, even though he never saw it:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks;

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic;

Stand like harpers hoar, with beards and rest on on their bosoms,

Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep voiced neighboring ocean

Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wall, of the forest…”

In a letter to a friend, Longfellow described himself as a man who would “….smoke a good deal…molest no one. Dine out frequently.”

Perhaps, he wrote a self portrait in New England Tragedies, when he described, “A solid man of Boston; a comfortable man with dividends….”. One wonders if most modern critics ever read Evangeline. Too bad, if they haven’t, because, Longfellow sounds like just the sort of man who most modern critics would enjoy knowing.

[1] Carl A. Brasseux, Scattered to the Wind: Dispersal and Wanderings of the Acadians, 1755- 1809, p.1

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.