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, Longfellow met Frances “Fanny” Appleton, who, still in her late teens, was a smart, pretty, and charming woman from a rich Boston family. A mutual attraction soon developed. However, the time that Longfellow had available for his second visit to Europe had almost expired, and in October he sailed for the United States.
Settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow began his official duties as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, delivering his first lecture on May 23, 1837. In effect, he chaired a small academic department, besides teaching in the same attention-getting way he had taught at Bowdoin. He also wrote, but, unlike his writing during his stay at the smaller college, his writing at Harvard was more imaginative and autobiographical than scholarly. His loosely built novel Hyperion, published in the summer of 1839, tells in only slight disguise of his courtship of Appleton, who had rejected his marriage proposal in 1837. Still romantically interested in her, he sent her a copy of the book, apparently not realizing that she would object to having the courtship made so nearly public. It was not until 1843 that she encouraged Longfellow’s attention, and on July 13 of that year they married, receiving as a gift from the bride’s father Craigie House, the historic Cambridge mansion where Longfellow had been renting rooms.
Meanwhile, a few months after Hyperion, Longfellow’s first volume of poetry, Voices of the Night (1839), was published; it contained “The Psalm of Life,” which became one of his best-known poems, and marked the beginning of his immense popularity with critics and ordinary readers. In 1841 Longfellow published Ballads and Other Poems, which included “The Skeleton in Armor,” “The Village Blacksmith,” and “Excelsior.” The next year, while sailing home after a stay in Germany, he wrote eight short abolitionist poems published as Poems on Slavery (1842). After Longfellow married Frances in 1843, his literary productivity continued. Although he published one more novel, Kavanagh (1849), his big success came in poetry, not only in such short poems as “The Arsenal at Springfield” and “The Building of the Ship” but also in long narrative poems, especially Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). In 1854, when Longfellow resigned his position at Harvard to give his full professional attention to writing, the president, accepting the resignation with regret, praised Longfellow for the fame he had brought the college.
No famous writer has ever had a happier marriage. Tragedy, however, struck suddenly on July 9, 1861. While Frances was heating wax to seal locks of her daughters’ hair, her dress caught fire. She raced to her husband in a nearby room, but he could not put out the flames in time, and she died the next day. Longfellow, badly burned on his hands and face, never fully recovered from her death. His sonnet “The Cross of Snow,” written in 1879, suggests the emotional scar, and, with shaving difficult because of his facial scars, he grew the white beard that his admirers came to associate with him.
When Longfellow eventually resumed writing after his second wife’s death, he produced the long collections of related poems Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), which included “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and Christus: A Mystery (1872). He also wrote such separate long poems as Aftermath (1873), The Hanging of the Crane (1874) and Morituri Salutamus (1875). Furthermore, from 1867 to 1869, he added Dante’s monumental fourteenth century Italian poem Divina Commedia (1321; The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri) to his impressive list of translations. Working almost until the end of his life, Longfellow added a last stanza to his own poem “The Bells of San Blas” on March 15, 1882. On March 24, having been sick only a short time, he died at Craigie House, forty-five days after an admiring nation had celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday.
As Longfellow’s friend George Washington Greene said, no poet ever received such acclaim while he was living. In North America and in Europe, Longfellow triumphed both popularly and critically. In 1868, while he was on his last visit to England, Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle. That in itself was a high honor, but even more indicative of Longfellow’s fame was that some of the Queen’s servants, ordinarily nonchalant about seeing the powerful and the celebrated, hid in the halls to watch Longfellow as he walked by.
Amid all the praise, Longfellow lived like a gentleman, not merely in the sense that, with his second wife’s fortune and the money from his books, he could keep an ample store of wine at Craigie House, but also in the sense that he gave himself graciously. Reserved though he normally was, his many friends loved him, and they included such well-known men as the English novelist Charles Dickens, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (who had been one of Longfellow’s Bowdoin classmates), and the abolitionist senator of Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. Having become an institution, Longfellow found himself besieged at Craigie House by uninvited strangers and by unknown letter writers; yet he remained polite, even when the visitors and correspondents were boorish.
Almost inevitably, such a high reputation had to fall. Although some readers voiced objections to his poetry during his lifetime and shortly after his death, the outcry arose with the general anti-Victorianism that began during World War I. Among other features of his poems, critics targeted his notion of propriety in diction and subjects, his sentimentality, and his overt didacticism. Yet a cry of protest against the harshest of the criticism eventually arose as well, and by the end of the twentieth century the mainstream critical opinion was that besides his contribution as an innovative professor in a new discipline, Longfellow enriched American literature. While his rank among nineteenth century American poets is lower than that of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and he belonged to what hostile sociological critics denounce as a privileged class, he remains important not only for what his contemporaries thought of him but also for what he wrote.
Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1963. Seeing Longfellow as a significant minor poet, Arvin is most helpful when he critically examines many of the works and explains why Longfellow’s reputation fell.
Hirsh, Edward L. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers 35. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964. This booklet contains ten pages of biography, thirty pages of well-balanced criticism of Longfellow’s poetry and prose, one page about his reputation, and a three-page selected bibliography without annotation.
Longfellow, Samuel, ed. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknor, 1886. This biography, prepared by a younger brother, withholds some information but has proved indispensable to all subsequent authors of full-scale biographies. For the most part, the author allows Henry Longfellow to speak for himself. Includes illustrations and an index.
Longfellow, Samuel, ed. Final Memorials of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Ticknor, 1887. Printed in 1891 as the third volume of Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this book provides letters and journal entries to supplement the 1886 biography, especially for the poet’s last fifteen years.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. After a short narrative biography, Wagenknecht presents Longfellow topically as a Christian humanist, analyzing the man rather than his writings.
Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 68. New York: Twayne, 1964. After a chronology and a chapter on Longfellow’s “Image and Actuality,” Williams devotes four chapters to biography, three to a sympathetic study of the works, and one to “Longfellow in Literary History and in Literature.” The selected bibliography is annotated.