Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the greatest poets to grace the sunrise of American literature in the mid-nineteenth century, had more than a passing interest in Catholic themes. Study travels to the European countrysides, which were granted him by Maine’s Bowdoin College, in preparation for his assuming the chair of modern languages, gave him a taste for Catholic culture. One of his most endearing poems was Santa
Filomena. It was published in the very first issue of The Atlantic Magazine in 1857. There is also his greatest masterpiece, the epic poem, Evangeline, published in 1847, which, employing fictional characters, was loosely based on the inhuman expulsion and dispersal of French Catholic Acadians by the British of Nova Scotia. Too, Longfellow, a master linguist, was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. He did this work in order to keep his mind occupied in the hopes that, by means of this endeavor, he might find some inner solace after the tragic death of his wife Frances.
Evangeline, which is also is the name of the poem’s heroine, took on an almost mythological status in Cajun Louisiana. No other work, in English, so arrested the hearts — and indignation — of Americans as to the injustice of the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia (known as Le Grand Dérangement). The poem recounted the travails of the displaced and dispersed Acadians not only from their homeland, but from their very families. This deliberate dérangement of French families was carried out in odium catholicae fidei (in hatred of the Catholic Faith) by English Protestants bent on thoroughly demoralizing the original European settlers of Canada. The poem recounts the arrival of some of those Acadians in southern Louisiana, and their desperate efforts to find loved ones from whom they were separated. Longfellow weaves his dolorous epic around the tragic figure of an Acadian maiden named Evangeline Bellefontaine, who is torn from her lover, Gabriel Lajeunesse, on their wedding day. With a group of fellow exiles, she travels to Louisiana via the Mississippi River — a route no actual Acadian exiles are known to have taken. Once in Louisiana, Evangeline learns that Gabriel already had arrived there, but had since departed for the Ozarks. She leaves to search for him, finding Gabriel by chance years later, on his deathbed, in a Philadelphia almshouse. Gabriel dies as they embrace, and Evangeline follows him in death soon after. They are buried together in nameless graves in the heart of Philadelphia. Despite claims to the contrary, I say again that the story’s characters are entirely fictitious. In fact, Longfellow based his dirge-like verses on a vague account of the expulsion told to him by a clergyman from Maine, Rev. H. L. Connolly. Longfellow had invited famed American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to a dinner party on May 2, 1844 and the latter had brought Connolly with him as his guest. (Editor: I have not been able to find out whether Reverend Connolly was a priest or an Anglican minister.) In creating Evangeline, Longfellow combined Connolly’s story with historical data found in nonfiction sources like Thomas C. Haliburton’s highly inaccurate An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829). The completed poem became an American classic, and for decades school children throughout the United States were required to read Evangeline.