New Brunswick

An Acadian heroine in America: Evangeline at 170

November marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem "Evangeline," a piece of literature that's been a cultural touchstone for many Acadians in New Brunswick.

Longfellow's epic poem was published 170 years ago today

A statue of Evangeline stands at the Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia. (Dr Wilson/Wikipedia)

November marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of "Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie," the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that became a cultural touchstone for many Acadians in New Brunswick.

Deborah Robichaud, who has studied the poem and helped the Musée Acadien curate exhibits about it, says she loves "Evangeline," which she believes she first read in her 20s. 

"I thought it was a difficult poem to read because it's not a short poem ... it goes on for many, many chapters," said Robichaud.

"It's written in a style, in hexameter, that we're not used to in the 20th, 21st century."

The story (spoilers ahead)

In short, the poem tells the story of Evangeline Bellefontaine, who was separated from her true love, Gabriel Lajeunesse, because of the Acadian Expulsion that began in 1755.

Evangeline searches for Gabriel for years, finally meeting him again in Philadelphia, only for Gabriel to die in her arms.

For  Acadians , it was a legitimization of the suffering and the pain of the separation and the dispossession from their lands and the separation from families that they endured.- Deborah  Robichaud ,  Musée   Acadien

Longfellow was born in what is now Maine and never visited Acadia, but "Evangeline" was one of his most popular works.

That an outsider recognized the harm done by the expulsion has contributed to its popularity among Acadians, Robichaud said.

"For the Acadians, it meant somebody was actually ratifying the experience that they had," she said.

"For Acadians, it was a legitimization of the suffering and the pain of the separation and the dispossession from their lands and the separation from families that they endured."

Jennifer Andrews, an English professor at the University of New Brunswick, said Longfellow first heard about the deportation from a minister with some knowledge of the British expulsion of thousands of Acadians from what are now the Maritime provinces.

But Longfellow wasn't the first American writer to consider creating literature from this part of Acadian history.

"Originally, Nathaniel Hawthorne was supposed to write a story, a narrative, and instead Longfellow took the material," said Andrews. "It was given to him to write the poem."

A real tragedy, a non-existent heroine

Although many people believed that the story, or at least the characters, were true, Evangeline never existed.

"There never was a woman called Evangeline at the time of the deportation," Robichaud said.

"She sort of became adopted as this important symbol."

In fact, Evangeline didn't come into regular use until after the poem was published. After the poem's release, the name became popular.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published 'Evangeline' in 1847, and the poem became culturally important to Acadians. (Janet Crane/The Associated Press)

The belief that Evangeline was a real person was so common that many believed a church in Louisiana held her tomb, which caused some controversy.

"People thought Evangeline was buried there, and at one point there was talk in Canada about repatriating Evangeline's bones," Robichaud said.

"The commercial ventures in Louisiana said, 'Ooh no, you're not taking her away.'"

A quintessentially ... American story?

While the story has Acadian roots, Andrews has no doubts it's an American tale.

"It's this poem that ranges across the U.S. and kind of explores this urbanized, industrialized city and gives a kind of overview of it."

Not only is the poem set mostly in the U.S., in many ways Andrews said, Longfellow was speaking to an American audience.

"He's looking at, during the writing of this poem, things around the genocide of Indigenous people," Andrews said. "He's also looking at the Mexican-American Wars, he's looking at politics of the day and he's commenting on politics of the day."

 Andrews said Longfellow's choice of setting was partially based on a belief that Acadia was a simpler place, one that America could never be.

"Evangeline is this lovely, virginal, pure character, but ultimately she dies," Andews said. "And I think that's one of the messages that's being articulated by Longfellow."

Appropriation or appreciation

Cultural appropriation has been a hot-button issue in recent years and an argument could be made that Evangeline fits that narrative, but Robichaud doesn't see it that way.

"We can't overlay today's values on something from the past," she said.

Andrews does see the poem as a sort of cultural appropriation.

"'Evangeline' was a poem written by Longfellow, who was American, who was white, and who actually never visited the Maritimes, never saw the Acadian shores," she said.

But Andrews said it's more complicated than just a simple matter of cultural appropriation, especially considering the poem's adoption by Acadians.

"The different groups, who are represented in the poem, particularly the Acadians, they take up this poem and make it their own and recreate it or rework it in their own ways to create a kind of cultural heroism and cultural celebration," Andrews said.

Evangeline's future

Deborah Robichaud says Acadian culture will thrive, regardless of the popularity of 'Evangeline.'

After all these years, Robichaud said, she still has an affinity for the story of "Evangeline" but suspects the poem isn't as popular as it once was.

"I'm a little concerned that interest in the poem is waning from people outside the Acadian community," she said.

But Robichaud made it clear the character isn't done and neither is the culture.

"The culture doesn't rest on Evangeline," she said. "It rests in modern interpretations of how people want to express themselves.

"I think Evangeline has had her heyday, she's had several heydays ... you can't stop the evolution of something in history or culture."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jordan Gill

Reporter

Jordan Gill is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton. He can be reached at jordan.gill@cbc.ca.

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