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Abstract: Longfellow's portrayal of the American Adam is set apart in that he does not praise this character as a role model for others. The concept of the American Adam is seen in a different light through the depiction of Basil in the narrative poem Evangeline.
R.W.B. Lewis explores the quest of the writers of the American Renaissance to
create a literature that is uniquely American in his 1955 text, The American
Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. This is
accomplished through the image of "the authentic American as a figure of heroic
innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history" (Lewis
1). David S. Reynolds explains that these writers are working under the
influence of "classic themes and devices" and producing "truly American texts"
(5). Lewis convincingly argues "that the new hero" is "most easily identified
with Adam before the Fall" (5). Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Nathaniel
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the works of several others of the period
are tied to the creation of this new Adam, but the contribution of Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow is largely neglected. Longfellow's portrayal of the
American Adam is set apart in that he does not praise this character as a role
model for others. The concept of the American Adam is seen in a different light
through the depiction of Basil in the narrative poem Evangeline.
Evangeline is the tale of an Acadian woman's journey to find her lost lover
after her people are exiled from their native Nova Scotia. Longfellow describes
the state of the Acadians after this exile early in the second part of the poem:
Far asunder, on separate coasts, the Acadians landed;
Scattered were they, like flakes of snow, when the wind from the northeast
Strikes aslant though the fogs that darken the Banks of Newfoundland.
Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city [. . .].
These lines reveal that the Acadians represent a people forced to start their
lives anew in a land that is completely foreign to them.
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back to because the soldiers that enforced their removal have burned the
village. This sets the scene for a depiction of Basil as the American Adam in
that "life and history" are "just beginning" for him (Lewis 5). The coastal
Louisiana region is mostly unclaimed and uncultivated when he arrives there,
giving him a blank slate upon which to project the life of his dreams. He must
"confront" this new world "with the aid of his own unique and inherent
resources" (Lewis 5).
Another important characteristic in defining the American Adam is that of his
innocence. The changing religious views of the period in which these highly
regarded literary figures were writing prompted an evolution in the portrayal of
Adam (Reynolds 15). Those striving to create this new hero discard the notion of
the world's first man as burdened with original sin (Lewis 28). Basil's
character is not banished to an unknown land as a result of some sin he has
committed or carried from the beginning of time. It is rather the result of a
British invasion of his beloved homeland. When it is announced that the Acadians
are to leave Grand Pre immediately, Basil responds irrationally as the other
villagers are scattering:
Flushed was his face and distorted with passion; and wildly he shouted,
"Down with the tyrants of England! We never have sworn them allegiance!
Death to these foreign soldiers, who seize on our homes and our harvests!"
Shortly after this announcement, he is beaten by one of the soldiers. He does
not consider that there may be consequences to his actions. Basil's behavior in
this situation is rather childlike and, as such, is representative of his
innocent point of view.
The primary task of the new Adam is to create a world in which to live (Lewis
50). He must draw on whatever resources are available to accomplish this task.
Basil's success in establishing a home and securing a comfortable living is seen
when he appears for the first time after the exile. His visitors are "marveled
to see the wealth of the cidevant blacksmith, / All his domains and his herds,
and his patriarchal demeanor" (Longfellow 54). Basil arrives in this world with
nothing and manages to build a life "that is better perchance than the old one"
(Longfellow 55). His son, Gabriel, "has left him alone" with "his herds and" his
"horses" (Longfellow 53). The only remaining member of Basil's family is now
also removed from his life leaving him completely isolated from his past. This
is a testament to his being a "solitary" and "forward-thrusting" person; two
qualities that Lewis believes are central to the "portrayal of the new world's
representative man as a new, American Adam" (28).
The next concern of the new Adam is to populate the world that he has created
(Lewis 52). This is not accomplished by actual procreation but is instead a
mission to bring others to his new world and help them to also be successful in
establishing a life there. Basil does this by telling his guests of the wonders
of the Louisiana prairies:
Here no stony ground provokes the wrath of the farmer.
Smoothly the ploughshare runs through the soil, as a keel through the water.
All the year round the orange-groves are in blossom; and grass grows
More in a single night than a whole Canadian summer.
Here, too, numberless herds run wild and unclaimed in the prairies;
Here, too, lands may be had for the asking, and forests of timber
With a few blows of the axe are hewn and framed into houses. (Longfellow 55)
Basil is stating his case that all should want to live in this magnificent place
he has found. He makes it clear that they will all be able to become successful
farmers and build comfortable homes for themselves in this world of opportunity.
He is also quite willing to offer his assistance to help them in doing so. His
generosity is illustrated in the introduction of Michael:
Borne aloft on his comrades' arms, came Michael the fiddler.
Long under Basil's roof had he lived like a god on Olympus,
Having no other care than dispensing music to mortals. (Longfellow 54)
Basil takes Michael into his home and provides for him as though he were a
family member. The treatment of Michael is even likened to that of a god. This
is representative of the lengths to which Basil will go to help a friend or
potential neighbor. He takes an active role in bringing others into his world to
share in the possibilities that it holds.
The importance of the man "poised at the start of a new history" becomes
increasingly clear when seen in relation to the life of the poem's protagonist
(Lewis 1). Longfellow presents Evangeline as an individual continually
attempting to return to a world that no longer exists:
Sometimes she lingered in towns, till, urged by the fever within her,
Urged by a restless longing, the hunger and thirst of the spirit,
She would commence again her endless search and endeavor [. . .]. (40)
She devotes her life to searching for her lost lover and, in doing so, loses any
chance of building a life of her own. Evangeline is unsuccessful in acquiring
material wealth because she refuses to relinquish the past. She is successful in
a different sense, however. Her immense faith allows her to continue on her
mission even when all hope appears to be lost. The poem concludes with the
reunion of Evangeline and her lover as he is on his deathbed. Although this
reunion is short and tragic, Evangeline does accomplish the goal of finding him.
Longfellow paints a picture of Evangeline as an ideal to which all should
aspire. Throughout the poem she is referred to as "fair," "the pride of the
village," and the like (Longfellow 6). The description of Basil does not make it
clear that he is unsuccessful spiritually, but Longfellow's constant praise of
Evangeline serves to trivialize Basil's success. The manner in which the two
characters are presented implies that Longfellow does not see Basil as superior
to Evangeline or even as her equal.
Basil is a man beginning his life in a world that is entirely new to him without
the mistakes of the past to hinder his progress. He makes this world into a
place worthy of a new civilization and takes it upon himself to bring that
civilization into existence. His rather minor role in the poem in relation to
the praise devoted to Evangeline reveals that Longfellow places a higher value
on spiritual wealth than material wealth. Longfellow's Basil embodies all that
is characteristic of the unique American hero and is thus truly representative
of the new American Adam.
Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the
Nineteenth Century. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Evangeline." Selected Poems. Ed. Lawrence Buell.
New York: Penguin Classic, 1988. 3-76.
Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination
in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.