1847: Longfellow celebrates Cajuns with ‘Evangeline’
In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “Evangeline,” a relentlessly sad but fictitious tale of Evangeline Bellefontaine’s search for her fiancé, Gabriel Lajeunesse, from whom she was separated during the British expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia, which started in 1755. Longfellow, one of America’s most popular poets, got the inspiration for his opus from his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who told him about the Acadians’ banishment. According to Cecil B. Williams’ biography of the poet, the book version of “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” was a huge success, selling nearly 36,000 copies by 1857. By that time, it had been translated into 12 languages.
Even though Evangeline existed only in Longfellow’s imagination, and even though her quest ends in Philadelphia instead of Louisiana, she has become not only a central figure of Cajun culture — a poignant symbol of exiled Acadians — but also a mighty force for attracting tourists to Cajun country.
- Longfellow never set foot in any of the sites in his poem, relying instead on a massive amount of reading about the Acadians and their expulsion, according to Williams’ biography.
- Evangeline Parish, which was named after the poem, was created in 1910 from part of St. Landry Parish. It covers 680 square miles. Ville Platte is the parish seat.
- Even though Longfellow claimed to have invented the characters of Evangeline and Gabriel, Judge Felix Voorhies of St. Martinville said there was a real inspiration for Longfellow’s tale, and he told the story in 1907 in “Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline.”
- Voorhies said he based his story on what his grandmother had told him about her adoptive daughter, Emmeline Labiche, who reunited with her lover — Louis Arceneaux, not Gabriel Lajeunesse — under an oak tree in St. Martinville.
- The tree, known as the Evangeline Oak, is a major tourist attraction, even though it is the third such oak to bear that designation.
- Also in St. Martinville is a statue of Evangeline sitting atop a grave bearing the names Evangeline and Emmeline Labiche. But the grave is empty, and the statue depicts Dolores del Rio, the movie star who portrayed Evangeline in a 1929 movie by that name that was filmed in the area. The sculpture was a gift from the cast and crew to the people of St. Martinville.
- The story of Evangeline, or Emmeline, may make a fine tale but Carl Brasseaux, who has researched the subject extensively, said neither person ever existed. Instead, Brasseaux, director of the Center of Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said Evangeline is a composite character.
“Evangeline” struck a chord because it provided a different frame of reference from the British history of Nova Scotia, which had been unchallenged as the definitive story of that part of Canada. In “A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Americans From Their American Homeland,” John Mack Farragher of Yale University said it helped trigger a cultural and political renaissance among descendants of those French Canadians, who had been made to feel marginalized. To them, he said, the legend is an accurate assessment of the Acadian people’s ability to endure an exile that had been designed to erase them as a cohesive group.