Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Besides working to establish the study of modern languages and comparative literature in the United States, Longfellow became the most popular of all living poets during his time.
The second of Stephen and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow’s eight children, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, while Maine was still a part of Massachusetts. As a member of a loving, prosperous, and distinguished Unitarian family, the future poet seems to have had a happy childhood that included the scenes he would describe in “My Lost Youth.” He was a gentle, precocious boy who started school when he was three. At the age of six, he enrolled in the Portland Academy, where he was still a student when, on November 17, 1820, “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond,” his first published poem, appeared in the Portland Gazette with merely “Henry” given as the author’s name. His work did not receive unanimous acclaim: That evening, he heard a family friend disparage the poem.
In 1821 Longfellow passed the entrance examination for Bowdoin College; however, maybe because of his age, he remained at the Portland Academy another school year while working for college credit. It was not until the fall of 1822 that Longfellow, with his older brother, left home to study on the campus in Brunswick, Maine. While at Bowdoin, he studied hard, read avidly, joined a college literary club known as the Peucinian Society, had poems published in several off-campus periodicals, and, in 1825, graduated fourth in a class of thirty-eight.
As graduation approached, Longfellow feared that he would have to follow his practical-minded father’s wish and study law instead of pursuing a literary career, but the Bowdoin trustees offered him the new professorship of modern languages, provided that he study in Europe at his own expense to prepare himself for the job. Having accepted the opportunity gladly, Longfellow sailed from New York on May 15, 1826, at the age of nineteen.
When his ship docked in France one month later, Longfellow began acquiring a knowledge of modern European languages and literature that would serve him well as a widely read author and translator. Although his intellect was hardly provincial before the voyage, his long, early visit to Europe made him a literary man of the world. His method of study was mainly one of informal immersion in the ordinary life of the countries he visited: France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England.
Beginning his duties at Bowdoin in the fall of 1829, Longfellow became one of the first professors of modern languages in any U.S. college, since the traditional emphasis in languages had been on Latin and ancient Greek. As an innovative, enthusiastic teacher who could not find suitable materials, he had to translate or edit textbooks for his classes, trying to make modern European literature interesting for his students. During this period at Bowdoin, Longfellow put aside his ambition for fame as a creative writer and devoted himself more to scholarly articles than to poems and prose stories. His interest turned also to courtship, and on September 14, 1831, he married Mary Potter, an educated, intelligent, nineteen-year-old girl from his hometown.
Even before his wedding, Longfellow had grown dissatisfied with teaching at Bowdoin. By 1832 he was applying for other jobs, including ones outside the field of higher education. Then Longfellow, talented as he was, again had the sort of good luck that had let him avoid life as a lawyer: George Ticknor, who taught modern languages at Harvard, resigned his position and recommended Longfellow as his replacement. The Harvard administration accepted Ticknor’s recommendation, with the inclusion of their own recommendation that Longfellow travel again to Europe, this time to enrich his knowledge of German. Having resigned from Bowdoin, Longfellow, with his wife and two of her friends, sailed across the Atlantic and docked in England on May 8, 1835.
After a stay in London, where Longfellow arranged for the British publication of Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1833-1834), his new prose collection based on the journal he had kept during his first European tour, he and his party sailed for northern Germany, from which they traveled through Denmark to Sweden, where he studied the Swedish and Finnish languages. In the fall, they went to the Netherlands, where, in Amsterdam, Mary, who had been enduring a difficult pregnancy, suffered a miscarriage. After awhile, when her health seemed better, they traveled to Rotterdam, forty miles away; there, on November 29, 1835, Mary died.
In his grief, Longfellow still believed he should continue his European studies and decided not to return to the United States with his wife’s body but to study in Heidelberg, Germany. In the summer of 1836, while on a vacation in the Alps,...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born into a well-to-do family in Portland, Maine, in 1807, a mere thirty years after the American Revolutionary War began. He entered Bowdoin College in Maine at the age of fourteen, and he studied the usual classical curriculum taken from British universities. He graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, having made such an impression upon the faculty there that he was given a fellowship to go to Europe to study the modern languages to prepare himself for an appointment as a professor at Bowdoin. In 1829, he was appointed a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin and remained there for seven years. He was a successful and industrious teacher; he provided materials for his classes because there were no texts in the modern languages at the time. In 1831, Longfellow married Mary Potter, a fellow native of Portland. His success was marred by Mary’s death in 1835. The sunny poems of Longfellow, in fact, often mask private tragedies.
Longfellow’s success at Bowdoin led to an appointment as professor of modern languages at Harvard College, which he began in 1835. Longfellow was writing poems at the same time. There was an obvious conflict between his duties as a professor and the demands of a career as a poet. He published Ballads, and Other Poems in 1841; the first important poem by Longfellow was...
(The entire section is 564 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Longfellow contributed much to American poetry. He showed that Americans had a marvelous and important history. He makes early America into a mythic land: The Indians, the Pilgrims, and the exiles from Nova Scotia are all given a treatment that had previously been reserved for Greek or Roman myth. Longfellow also opened American poetry to a variety of poetic meters and structures. Certain themes recur; Longfellow generally portrays women as submissive and passive. He also suggests that there is progress in the world; the disaster of Evangeline or the dislocation of the Indians cannot drive out the optimism that things are getting better and humankind is becoming more civilized.
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the second of eight children, was born into an old and distinguished New England family. Stephen Longfellow, his father, was a prominent lawyer who had served as a representative in Congress and who could count among his ancestors New England patriarchs such as Samuel Sewell. His mother, Zilpah, could trace the Wadsworth name back through a Revolutionary War general to seventeenth century Plymouth Puritans such as John Alden. Schooled at the Portland Academy and Bowdoin College, Longfellow finished his formal education in 1825, graduating in a class that included Nathaniel Hawthorne. From the beginning, he had been expected to carry on the traditions of his two family groups: “You must adopt a...
(The entire section is 784 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s father was an influential lawyer, and his mother’s family went back to Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, passengers on the Mayflower. A talented, bookish lad, Longfellow at the age of fifteen entered Bowdoin College, where one of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his graduation he was offered Bowdoin’s newly established professorship of modern languages. Because European study was a preliminary requirement, Longfellow in 1826 began that long and loving dalliance with the treasures of the Old World that was to color all his experience and influence his writing. In 1829 he returned from the first of his four excursions to Europe and began teaching at his alma mater.
(The entire section is 531 words.)