I just finished a biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by a guy named Charles C. Calhoun. It was much better than you think a book about Longfellow would be. Calhoun is wrong about a few things critically. In my opinion, for example, trying to defend the poem Song of Hiawatha is like trying to defend the Holocaust (though, admittedly, on a smaller scale).
Still, I like Longfellow’s lyrics and narratives and I appreciate someone sticking up for the venerable old Victorian. With that said, I found the following passage in the book to be perfectly silly:
There was . . . more tragedy to come: Felton, who was in many ways the most dependable, and certainly the most high-spirited, of Longfellow’s close friends from the old days, had become president of wartime Harvard. He died of overwork in 1865.
Let me get this straight. You want me to believe that this Felton guy died of an overdose of college administration? If you’re going to make an absurd assertion like that you’d better back it up. Calhoun provides no autopsy report.
Of course, professors like to pretend that what they’re doing is brutal work worse than anything a Texas chain gang has ever been forced to suffer. College administrators would love to apply Yeats’ silly words on the difficulty of writing poetry to themselves:
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'
(See the complete poem here)
Only a guy who has never gotten down on his “marrow-bones” to scrub the kitchen floor or to break stones would think such a thing. Perhaps we should ask Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who has a great deal of experience with gulag work as well as mental heavy lifting, which type of labor is more difficult.
And, of course, Monty Python has ridiculed the idea that intellectual work is more difficult than hard labor. There is a hilarious sketch on an episode of the Flying Circus where Graham Chapman plays a London playwright who thinks that his coal mining son (Eric Idle) has an easy life and is beginning to put on airs.
I promise I’ll stop quoting poetry and Python some day.
For more of my thoughts on Hiawatha see my classic Post Modern novel, Incomplete Works, where the issue is addressed in an obscure footnote.