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Currents of Change, Art and Life Along the Mississippi, 1850-1861
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Currents of Change

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Currents of Change
Father of Waters
Commerce and Culture
Mississippi Panorama
Handsomely Furnished
In the French Taste
Collectors and Exhibitions
Longfellow and the Mississippi
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America's most beloved 19th-century poet, celebrated the Mississippi River in two epic narrative poems inspired by this country's past-- Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855).

In Evangeline , Longfellow explored the Lower Mississippi from St. Louis to the bayous of Louisiana, and in The Song of Hiawatha, the Upper Mississippi, especially the vicinities of Lake Pepin and Minnehaha Falls. As was his custom, Longfellow relied on secondary sources to pique his imagination and never actually visited the Mississippi. For Evangeline, he gathered information on the fauna and flora of the Lower Mississippi from viewing John Banvard's Mississippi Panorama in Boston in December of 1846, noting in his journal, "The river comes to me instead of my going to the river." In The Song of Hiawatha, Minnehaha Falls emerged as a setting for Longfellow's poem after he saw a daguerreotype of the falls taken around 1851 by the Illinois photographer Alexander Hesler.

With thirty thousand copies sold during its initial two years in print, Evangeline became Longfellow's first "best-seller." The Song of Hiawatha quickly surpassed it, to become America's most widely read poem of the 19th century. Performing and visual artists contributed to Longfellow's popularity while capitalizing on it. Dramatic readings and musical arrangements were quickly followed by paintings and sculptures that transformed Evangeline, Hiawatha, and Minnehaha into universal symbols of love lost. Along the Mississippi, the sites associated with them became tourist meccas. As Longfellow's friend Bayard Taylor observed in the New York Tribune in 1871:

Minnehaha is the luckiest waterfall in the world; it has achieved more renown on a smaller capital of performance than any other I ever saw. Norway has a thousand nameless falls of greater height and beauty; Ithaca, New-York, has two-score only locally known; but this pretty, unpretending tumble of less than one hundred feet [actually only 40 feet] is celebrated all over the world.