Arts & Culture

The many lives of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

8 min read

Houghton Library celebrates newly appreciated poet’s 200th birthday with exhibition

Most of us only get one life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – whose 200th birthday bicentennial is this month – has had four.

In the first, he arrived in Cambridge in 1837, fresh from a six-year professorship at Bowdoin College. Longfellow, sporting long hair, yellow gloves, and flowered waistcoats, cut quite a romantic, European-style figure in what was then a provincial village of 6,000.

At Harvard, as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages, he soon earned a reputation as an earnest and well-liked teacher who didn’t just walk the foreign walk, but talked the talk as well: He was eventually fluent in eight languages and a competent reader in eight others.

Longfellow’s second life began in 1854, when – tired of teaching and bolstered by some publishing successes – he took up the life of a full-time writer, the first American to make a living as a poet. Before long, Longfellow was the American literary darling of the world, an iconic figure whose fame stretched across the planet. He’s still part of today’s cultural memory, as the man who wrote “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and a battery of other rhythmic and readable poems that won him fame (and invited parody).

Some of his fans made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in scholarship. One admirer arrived in Cambridge, knocked on Longfellow’s door, and asked if Shakespeare lived nearby. Between 1821 and 1882, Longfellow received 20,000 letters – many of them from fans – and was said to have answered every one. A month before he died, a missionary from the Dakota Territory wrote, “Are you not the friend of us all?”

Then came Longfellow’s third life, of sorts – not long after his death in 1882. His reputation as a poet, which had taken some critical sniping in his own day, faded fast, then faced a hundred-year barrage of scorn.

Some of it came from fellow poets, whose emerging modernist sensibilities demanded that poems be inward and difficult. (Ezra Pound, a grandnephew of Longfellow, was said to be embarrassed by the family connection.)

Scorn also came from a new generation of university scholars eager to establish a canon of American literature grounded in idiosyncratic voices (Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson). They moved aside, like old furniture, popular “fireside poets” like Longfellow (whose widely memorized poems, however, continued to hold sway in generations of grammar schools).

Longfellow’s literary “sins” included an emphasis on narrative plot over experimental wordplay, along with a singsong archaic rhyming overlaid by a sunny national optimism.

“There are hollow little ditties we wish we could forget,” said Lawrence Buell, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard. “But he was not the shallow sentimentalist who was the cartoon version of Longfellow we lived with for a long time.”

In the past two decades, the work of Buell and others have given Longfellow his fourth life, the one in which he lives on as an American writer worthy of renewed attention – both a competent poet and, said Buell, “a point of reference” in a golden age of New England literary life.

In critical terms, 1855 was Longfellow’s unluckiest year. “The Song of Hiawatha” (pronounced “hee-a-WA-tha,” by the way) was published. But so was Whitman’s groundbreaking “Leaves of Grass,” which prefigured the deep complexity of modernist American poetry. Said Buell, “Longfellow loses when you put him head-to-head” with Whitman.

“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Selected Poems,” a 1988 Penguin edition edited by Buell and still in print, celebrates a “readable and popular” literary figure, he writes, whose reputation for years unjustly rested on “old chestnuts.”

Everyone can recite a few wooden lines from “The Song of Hiawatha,” and would recognize the hollow but widely anthologized “A Psalm of Life.” But how many readers know Longfellow’s moving elegies to his wife or to Hawthorne, or a complex and compact poem like “The Fire of Driftwood”? These are examples of what Buell calls “the haunting, densely packed achievements” of Longfellow’s later life.

And “Evangeline,” Longfellow’s 1847 narrative poem of displacement, said Buell, has taken on new life as an evocation of tragic diaspora.

Critical revival is the ur-theme in “Longfellow Redux” (University of Illinois Press, 2006), a biography by onetime Harvard research fellow Christoph Irmscher, who is now a professor of English at Indiana University.

“For me [Longfellow] was a kind of revelation,” said the German-born Irmscher, who arrived at Harvard a modernist (his dissertation, in part, was on Ezra Pound) but left with a new admiration for Longfellow. “The more I learn about him, the more admirable he is.”

Longfellow didn’t see poetry as a medium for protest or intimacy, but as a craft that promoted civic dialogue, celebrated history, and championed the arts. His poetry caused “people to come together,” said Irmscher. “It’s not poetry that’s surrounded by the mystique of being poetry.”

Scholars also now see Longfellow as the hub of a New England literary circle that drew writers and artists from all over the world, and which was in part a sign of Longfellow’s genius for friendship.

Visitors to Craigie House on Brattle Street – Longfellow’s home for 46 years, and now a National Historic Site – can walk through the same dining room where the poet entertained Charles Dickens; or the library where he chatted with French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. They can see the study where the Dante Club met and where – a month before his final illness – Longfellow received his last literary visitor, Oscar Wilde.

“He was like a pop star – he was world famous,” said Jim Shea, National Park Service site director for the Longfellow House, a Colonial-era structure where George Washington lived in the early days of the American Revolution.

But the image that outlived Longfellow did not include some realities of Longfellow’s life – including his sense of humor, his pacifism, or his espousal of unpopular causes. He regularly gave money to ex-slaves and to black churches, but disliked speaking out except through his writing. “He was good friends with a lot of radical people,” said Shea. “But he didn’t like being a political figure.”

Literary life was an aspiration Longfellow embraced early on, while still a child in Portland, Maine, where he was born on Feb. 27, 1807. He was a teenager at Bowdoin College (he graduated at age 19) when he wrote to his doubting father Stephen, a Harvard College graduate who practiced small-town law: “I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature,” wrote Longfellow, “my whole soul burns most ardently for it. …”

This year, a series of celebrations throughout New England will burn ardently for Longfellow, including concerts, art exhibits, lectures, and tours.

At Harvard’s Houghton Museum, through April 21, is “Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200,” an eclectic exhibition of manuscripts, letters, pictures, and documents. It’s curated by Irmscher, who wrote a book-length catalog to go with it. The message: Longfellow was more than his image. (For a distillation of that image, see Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1868 photograph of Longfellow. With a flowing white beard and piercing eyes, he looks like a biblical God.)

“Most people associate Longfellow with his old age,” said Leslie A. Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library. “In this exhibit, you get a better sense of the man rather than the icon.”

Each glass case has a theme: early life (including an 1817 Portland report card), travel (look for Longfellow’s sketch of himself as a dandy on horseback), family, friends, public poetry, readers, translation work (he was the first American to translate “The Divine Comedy”), and “Weltliteratur,” the concept of world literature that Longfellow borrowed from Goethe.

The exhibit hints at surprises. For one, Longfellow was an accomplished sketch artist – a skill he practiced while traveling, and in a series of Edward Lear-like literary creations just for his children, including the illustrated tales of Peter Piper, a dapper traveler with a penchant for disaster.

Longfellow, who in his early travels in Europe imagined himself a Byron-like wanderer, loved wine, opera, fine clothes, and the charms of the opposite sex. (In one journal entry, Longfellow is at an Emerson lecture, but lets his attention stray so he can admire ladies’ dresses.)

Behind a critical revival of Longfellow among scholars and readers is also the sense that he uncannily prefigured a series of very modern views. He admired, encouraged, and collaborated with the female writers, artists, and sculptors of his day.

Longfellow was a multiculturalist before the term was even invented. He believed in the educational efficacy of foreign travel, and thought American literature was best understood by way of its multiple European roots. At Harvard, Longfellow started the first comparative literature program in the country, and introduced the idea that modern languages should be taught by native speakers.

“Inside the head of this guy who is conventionally thought to be pious in a somewhat deferential way,” said Buell, “there was an independent-minded resister of orthodoxy in all its forms.”

But despite Longfellow’s prescient modernity, the bicentennial of his birth is unlikely to cause the waves that Emerson’s did in 2003 or Hawthorne’s the following year.

“He won’t ever be seen as the giant he was in the nineteenth century,” said Buell. “But I suspect Longfellow is back to stay.”