Author explores life of Longfellow brother

Posted Oct. 10, 2010, at 8:51 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — You could call Richard Shain Cohen a man on a mission.

The Maine author, whose latest book will be on store shelves this month, is hoping this biography sheds some light on a man whose intelligence and contributions to society have been largely shrouded in darkness.

“The Forgotten Longfellow: Man in the Shadows — the Saga of Alexander Longfellow, Sr.” is Cohen’s fifth book and, he admits, perhaps the most fascinating subject he has written about.

“It was a labor of love, and it was also a labor of curiosity because the more I read of his letters and the more I found out about them, he became just fascinating to me,” said the retired English professor and former University of Maine at Presque Isle vice president of academic affairs. “I really hope this sheds some light on a man who deserves more notice.”

Cohen has another thought he’d like to leave with readers of his book.

“This man was probably one of the most unusual men in the Longfellow family, second only to Henry, and he was one of eight children,” said Cohen. “He could’ve done anything, but often used the word ‘worthless’ to describe himself.

“He just never realized his own brilliance,” he said.

Cohen came to the Bangor Public Library on Saturday afternoon for a presentation on his book before a small crowd.

The Boston native and Cape Elizabeth resident first became aware of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lesser-known brother almost by accident.

“Bill Forbes, a biologist and friend of mine on campus, came across Alexander Longfellow’s log when they were wrecking his South Street home in Portland and asked if I wanted it,” Cohen recalled. “It had maps and letters and pressed plants. … It was very intriguing.”

Cohen’s 260-page book includes vintage color maps, charcoal drawings by Longfellow, photographs and notes as well as reprinted letters from Longfellow he culled from the log and various letters and material provided by the Longfellow family and Maine Historical Society in Portland, the Craigie House and Harvard Univer-sity.

“I like his sense of humor because I love satire,” said Cohen. “And his letters were like reading really good literature. He wrote like he thought, and it just flowed out of him.”

The more Cohen discovered about the man who explored the North American wilderness, met with Western Indians, voyaged around Cape Horn, knew all of society’s who’s who in Washington, D.C., and visited the ruins of the post-Civil War South, the more questions Cohen had about him.

“The big unanswered question in my mind, and I don’t know that I’ll ever answer it, but why the people of his time did not know everything that this man did and how much he contributed to this state and the country,” Cohen said.

Cohen also was editor of the Husson Review journal and is professor emeritus at UMPI. He has written four other books: “Be Still, My Soul,” “Petal on a Black Bough,” “Monday: End of the Week” and “Only God Can Make a Tree.”

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