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Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery at Newport

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Judah Touro's Memorial in the Cemetery

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Judah Touro's Memorial in the Cemetery / Maine Historical Society

<em>For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead. </em>

As a language professor at Harvard University (though not for much longer, since he retired from teaching in 1854 and thereafter relied upon his writing as his main career), Longfellow would have been familiar with the Hebrew language. Indeed, as a Semitic language, Hebrew is written from right to left, and texts advance from the "back" to front. However, the analogy between the language and the history and perspective of the Jews was a rather negative one. Enjoying his idyllic life at Craigie House in Cambridge, with his lovely family and good income, and with the rest of the country tending toward prosperity as well, the drive ahead for the "American Dream" was already well underway, and it probably seemed the natural way to Longfellow. Jewish reverence for the events and heroes of the far distant past was probably hard to fathom.


Item 11 of 13