Longfellow, pop icon from 19th century, in national spotlight

Email|Print| Text size + By Milva DiDomizio
February 21, 2008

D ana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a big fan of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "He's one of the great poets of the American tradition," said Gioia, who is scheduled to speak Wednesday in Sudbury to kick off Longfellow Big Read festivities.

Launched in 2006 by the independent federal agency, the Big Read program creates monthlong festivals centered on particular books or authors. "The purpose of the Big Read is to restore serious reading to American cultural life," Gioia said.

The Longfellow event marks the first to focus on poetry. "We thought about it and said, 'We're doing all these novels more or less on a national basis,' " Gioia said. "Why not take poetry and link it to these specific institutions?"

In citing "Tales of a Wayside Inn" as one of Longfellow's masterpieces, Gioia said, "It may have been the first expression of American multiculturalism." The work relates the stories of travelers from various parts of the world converging at the Sudbury landmark. "What Longfellow was saying is that the story of America will be made up by people of different traditions, each bringing their own experiences into the national fabric."

He said Longfellow was so popular in his day that he's more comparable to contemporary songwriters than poets. "What Longfellow did in the 19th centu ry poets no longer do in America," Gioia said, noting his ability to convey the experience of the common person. "If you wanted the equivalent of Longfellow in the 20th century, you'd have to go to Paul McCartney or Johnny Mercer."

To appeal to a wide base, the program will feature a diverse selection of activities, starting with Gioia's talk next week on Longfellow's birthday and ending on the original Patriots Day, April 19, including author talks, discussion groups, a reading of the "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and a concert by the Longfellow Chamber Chorus. "We're hoping to do a variety of events that make Longfellow's poetry engaging and accessible to people," Gioia said.

Equally important, according to Gioia, is promoting locales such as the Wayside Inn. "Towns like Sudbury, which have preserved an institution like the Wayside Inn and have kept it a vital part of local cultural life, really do deserve the NEA's support."

Gioia said he hopes the Big Read will foster reading across all segments of the population, but especially among younger people.

"We know that reading is not only culturally important but it's also civically important," he said, noting that people who read are more likely to do volunteer work and become involved in their communities. "Good readers are good citizens."

Longfellow Big Read lecture by Dana Gioia, 5:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Wayside Inn's Martha-Mary Chapel, off Boston Post Road (Route 20), Sudbury. Free; call to reserve a spot. Other Big Read events through April 19. 978-443-1776,

STAGED READING: A new play, "The Oil Thief" by Newton playwright Joyce Van Dyke, is about a petroleum geologist. To some, that may sound like a dull, academic career. Van Dyke insists it's not. "Somebody I talked to compared it to making a movie and being in the movie business," Van Dyke said. "It's a very intense and exciting experience and so much is at risk."

The play will receive a staged reading Monday as part of the New Voices @ New Rep series, which introduces audiences to emerging playwrights. Now in its third year, it has served as discovery grounds for plays that went on to mainstage performances at the theater, including Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow" and "A House With No Walls" by Thomas Gibbons.

Van Dyke has had a work featured on the New Rep's stage before. In 2003, her play "A Girl's War" was premiered to critical and audience acclaim. When the company offered a staged reading of "The Oil Thief," Van Dyke was delighted. "It's about a woman who's trying to free herself, and about time and mortality and oil and love," she said. The subject of petroleum attracted her partly because of her family history: "It's kind of been on my horizon for a long time because my father worked in the oil industry."

As she conducted research for the play, Van Dyke discovered the allure of geology. "I remember seeing somewhere that geologists have the highest job satisfaction of any professional group," she said. "After I started reading all this stuff, it seemed completely believable."

Van Dyke's female petroleum geologist, played by Rachel Harker, is flanked by two characters - her actor boyfriend (Peter Haydu) and a man (Jason Bowen) to whom he introduces her. A triangle ensues, serving as the basis for multifaceted thematic explorations.

According to Van Dyke, a staged reading allows audiences the unique opportunity to view a work in progress, "kind of like going backstage, or seeing a painter in his studio." It's also a chance to see what actors can do with little rehearsal. "If you have good actors, which I do," she said, "they can almost make you forget you're seeing a staged reading. You almost forget they're just sitting down and reading the script because of the way they can animate what they're doing."

After teaching literature for years and raising two children, Van Dyke has put aside other pursuits to focus more intently on her passion. Being a full-time playwright has its rewards. "When it's working, it's just incredibly exciting and satisfying and absorbing," she said, "and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing."

Part of the excitement comes from the interaction between the writing and its dramatization. As Van Dyke put it: "You're bringing it together and crystallizing it in what you hope is life happening on stage, in that one moment, in the presence of other human beings."

"The Oil Thief" reading at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Donations. 617-923-8487,

DANCING TO THEIR OWN BEAT: Stepping is a form of percussive dance that blossomed in 20th-century African-American fraternities and sororities. On Saturday night, Dean College will present a free showcase featuring groups from Dean and other area schools.

James Runner, community service and recreation coordinator at the two-year college in Franklin, organized the event as part of its celebration of Black History Month. Runner facilitates two stepping groups on campus, Brothahood and Zuri. Both will perform on Saturday, along with dancers from Fontbonne Academy, Suf folk University, and Fitchburg State College.

The event promises a unique display of skills, Runner said. "Basically, stepping is using your entire body, whether it be through your mouth, your hand claps, slapping your body, or stomping your beat," Runner said. "It's about how creative you can be."

No music is provided. Team members create their own soundtrack. "You have to maintain the rhythm the whole time," said Runner, who said the effects are achieved without the use of special footwear such as taps. "It's just regular sneakers you buy in the store."

Runner hopes a large audience comes to experience the driving vitality of the dance form. He thinks they won't be disappointed. "They can expect a lot of energy and creativity; definitely a good performance."

Stepping Showcase, doors open at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dean College's Campus Center multipurpose room, 135 Emmons St., Franklin. Free. 508-541-1668,

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