Celebrating Longfellow Days Through Film

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The annual Longfellow Days celebration is underway in honor of one of America’s most celebrated poets. Among the College’s most illustrious alumni, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow graduated in 1825.

A series of events, including poetry readings, lectures, and a chapel service, will be held in the Brunswick area throughout February—all free and open to the public.

As part of Longfellow Days, there will be a screening of the 1939 John Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda, at 11 a.m., Saturday, February 11, 2017, in Smith Auditorium, Sills Hall.

Professor of Cinema Studies Tricia Welsch on the film and its selection as a suitable medium to celebrate the life of a nineteenth-century poet:

Dozens of Longfellow-themed films were made in America, beginning as early as 1897’s The Village Blacksmith. However, 75-to-90 percent of all silent films, and a hefty percentage of those made well into the 1940s, are considered lost. So it is easier to read about adaptations of Longfellow’s work on the screen than it is to see the films themselves.

Tricia Welsch

That said, the folks who organize Longfellow Days are really a creative bunch, willing to think outside the box in order to offer a varied and lively series of events.

Since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Abraham Lincoln were contemporaries, born just two years apart, a film about Lincoln’s early manhood brings us closer to Longfellow’s America.

Furthermore, Young Mr. Lincoln is a treat in its own right. Directed by John Ford in 1939 and starring Henry Fonda, it shows a young man who is not certain of his path in life. He loves to read and has a fascination with the law, but doesn’t know if that is enough to go on.

Writer and Longfellow Days Organizer Amy Waterman ’76 on Longfellow and Lincoln

Henry Fonda in John Ford’s ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’ (1939)

Lincoln and Longfellow were great admirers of one another. I’m not sure if they ever met, but Longfellow supported Lincoln, and when he won the election, he wrote in his diary: “It is the redemption of the country … Freedom is triumphant.”

It was also reported that when Lincoln heard a reading of Longfellow’s poem The Building of the Ship” during the Civil War, he wept over the lines, “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! / Sail, on, O Union, strong and great!” And said, “It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that.”


He is gangly and awkward, but also a natural diplomat who can talk a lynch mob into dispersing quietly. Fonda’s Lincoln is physically strong and not averse to knocking a few heads together to accomplish rough justice if need be.

He uses country knowledge to help him understand the law and relies on his sure judgment of people. He is an absolutely fascinating character.

Lincoln has appeared in more American films than any other figure in history—he shows up in some 200 pictures—and since February 12 would be his 217th birthday, it seemed appropriate to bring him into the Longfellow picture.

John Ford, of course, was a Portland, Maine, native with Bowdoin connections; he received an honorary degree from the College in 1947.

Young Mr. Lincoln was the first time he worked with Fonda; they would collaborate on eight more films, the most famous of which was The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940, the year after YML.

Ford chronicled more of American history than any other single filmmaker (though Steven Spielberg is breathing down his neck). He made films about all our major wars, about the immigrant experience, about the Dust Bowl.

He made westerns celebrating the settling of the West, and others exploring racism in the US cavalry and the bitter losses Native Americans experienced on the Trail of Tears.

Ford was not afraid to change his mind, and that dynamism is reflected in his work. I teach a seminar on his films and find Ford the most significant American director: compelling, frustrating, rewarding, and never, ever dull.

 

 

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