Evangeline is one of Longfellow’s most famous works, and with The Song of Hiawatha, one of his longest. Critics designate this poem as the one that secured his literary preeminence.
The provenance of the poem is an interesting one. On April 5th, 1840, Longfellow invited his close friend Nathanial Hawthorne over for dinner, and Hawthorne brought the Reverend Horace Conolly with him. Conolly related a tale he’d heard from a French-Canadian woman about a young couple separated during the British expulsion of the Acadians. Conolly had hoped Hawthorne would turn it into a short story or novel, but Hawthorne was not interested. Longfellow, however, was—he famously called the story “the best illustration of faithfulness and the constancy of woman that I have ever heard of read"—and asked for Hawthorne’s blessing to turn it into a poem.
Longfellow began writing in November of 1845. It was first called “Gabriel” until he changed the name to “Evangeline.” Many scholars have attempted to identify the various sources for and influences on the poem. The short list includes the history of the Acadians as told by historians Abbé Raynal, Diderot, and Holbach, among others; Thomas Chandler Haliburton's An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia; Fremont’s Expedition to the Rocky Mountains; Sealsfield’s Life in the New World; and Kip’s Early Jesuit Missions in North America.
The poem was finished on February 27th, 1847 and published in Boston by Ticknor on October 20th of that year. It was phenomenally popular at the outset, going through six printings in the first six months; within the first 100 years it went through over 270 editions and over 130 translations. It was often read and memorized by schoolchildren in the 19th century and had a deep impact on the literary and publishing world as well, evidenced by the number of travel and history books on Acadia that began to pop up after the poem’s publication.
Hawthorne wrote a glowing review, stating, “the story is told with the utmost simplicity—with the simplicity of high and exquisite art” and “the author has done himself justice, and has regard to his well-earned fame; and, by this work of his maturity—a poem founded on American history, and embodying itself in American life and manners—he has placed himself on an eminence higher than he had yet attained, and beyond the reach of envy.”
The Acadians (former inhabitants of French Canada, expelled during the French and Indian War) had a complicated relationship with the text. Even though it was not entirely factual, it gave them the opportunity to develop a sense of collective identity, and, as historian John Mack Farragher says, it “struck a spark igniting a cultural and political renaissance among the small Acadian middle class that began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century.”
There have been two film adaptations of the poem, one in 1922 and the other in 1929, as well as many songs and musical adaptations. The also poem lent itself to the tourism industry in Louisiana; the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site depicts the life of Acadian settlers, who created the creole community. In Acadia itself—now Nova Scotia—there is an Evangeline Trail running from the Bay of Fundy to Yarmount to Grand-Pré.
The poem’s popularity has languished in the last several decades, but it is still occasionally read by students and scholars.