IT WAS NOT until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife died in a fire that he stopped shaving and grew a beard. He was 54 when the tragedy happened in 1861. Until then his clean-lined New Englander’s face had been smooth-shaven, his eyes bright and beaming. The bearded Longfellow, captured in photographs a few years later, seems a different man. His head is surrounded by a mass of snowy, storm-tossed hair, his eyes are narrowed and staring into the distance with what seems like ominous insight.
Longfellow himself was seriously burned as he tried to save his wife, and though facial hair was surging into fashion in those years it has long been thought that he grew his beard to cover the scars on his face. The deeper wounds were likewise never displayed, but of course they were there, emerging in lines like these from a posthumously published sonnet called “The Cross of Snow”: “Here in this room she died; and soul more white / Never through martyrdom of fire was led / To its repose.”
“Here in this room she died”: The words take on eerie power as you stand in the library of Longfellow’s house, where Fanny Longfellow caught fire that dreadful July day, or in the bedroom where she died the next morning. The house is on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., where it overlooks Longfellow Park and—in earlier years, before the city began to crowd in—once had a sweeping view of the nearby Charles River through
its upper windows. From the outside, it’s a straightforward Georgian mansion, an enticing symmetrical box of pale yellow, with white pilasters and dual chimneys peeking through a rooftop balustrade.
It was once one of the most famous houses in the country, the home for 45 years of 19th-century America’s most celebrated author. It was in this house that Longfellow wrote “Evangeline” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” Beloved poems like “The Children’s Hour” were set within its rooms. It was here that he entertained a dazzling registry of esteemed friends and foreign visitors, raised five children and lost one, and translated Dante into English. The house is still much visited today, though with each passing generation Longfellow’s poetry has become more and more a musty national memory.
The National Park Service, which maintains the house, refers to it as Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. That is because the house, built in 1759, was where George Washington lived in 1775 and 1776, when he was forging the Continental Army and pressing the Siege of Boston. Longfellow was well aware of the house’s hallowed provenance when, as a young poet and Harvard professor who had already been widowed once, he rented rooms here in 1837. The house at that time was owned by Elizabeth Craigie, whose late husband, Andrew, had bought the property in 1791. Craigie added side porches and a rear extension to the house and updated its Georgian architecture with various Federalist flourishes.
The eccentric, beturbaned Mrs. Craigie turned Longfellow away at first when he inquired about a room, thinking he was just another unreliable student. But she changed her mind when he called her attention to a book on her side table titled Outre-Mer, a recent best-selling prose account of a young man’s sojourns in Europe, and identified himself as its author.
“I live in a great house which looks like an Italian villa,” Longfellow crowed to a friend after he moved in. “Have two large rooms opening into each other. They were once Gen. Washington’s chambers.”
Anyone would have been delighted to live in Washington’s rooms, but for Longfellow the pride was acute. He had grown up in a home in Portland, Maine, in which an engraving of Washington hung over the mantelpiece, and through his grandfather Peleg Wadsworth—a hero of the Revolutionary War—the family had acquired a lock of the gen-eral’s hair snipped by Martha Washington herself and protected in a gold locket.
When Longfellow moved into the Craigie house, he could have had no idea that he would one day own it outright, that he would live and write there until he grew old and died, and would be laid out in the same room where his wife met her gruesome accident. By that time the Craigie house that had once been Washington’s headquarters would be enshrined as the Longfellow House, so well-known and admired for its chaste architectural grandeur that replicas would be built around the country and a mail-order version offered in the 1918 Sears Roebuck catalogue.
I ARRIVED at the Longfellow House on a bright summer morning and joined a tour that was just beginning at the back of the building. We were ushered through the laundry and kitchen and latter-day entrance hallway added by the Craigies until we stood in the dining room, in the heart of the original structure. Like the other rooms of the house, it is stolid and ornate at the same time, anchored by sideboards and bookcases of black walnut, its gilded walls hung with portraits of Longfellow’s extensive family, European landscape paintings and a flaming sunset study titled Hiawatha’s Departure that was presented to Longfellow by the artist himself, Albert Bierstadt. Charles Dickens, among many other notables, dined here with Longfellow.
Standing beneath a portrait of Longfellow’s three daughters, our guide thoughtfully recited lines from “The Children’s Hour”:
“From my study I see in the lamplight, / Descending the broad hall stair, / Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, / And Edith with golden hair.”
A few moments later we were standing in that same study, where Longfellow had watched his children coming down the stairs, and vowed to them in verse “And there I will keep you forever, / Yes, forever and a day.”
Forever has come and gone, and with it most of Longfellow’s once
titanic reputation. His poetry turned out to be too comfortable, too confirming, too crafted to withstand the 20th-century blast of modernist thought and the withdrawal of poetry from the open air of the marketplace and into the academic laboratories, where poems like his that lodged in the brain by virtue of their metrical regularity and transparent meaning—“Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”—offered so little to dissect.
Longfellow had a personality that trended toward depression, but overall he did a good job of keeping the darkness at bay throughout some harrowing experiences. He was an industrious family man, faithful, warm-hearted, extremely well-off, with none of the fiery self-destructiveness or hermitic tendencies that would come to be regarded as indicators of an uncompromising poetic temperament. None of that helped to extend his reputation into a dramatically changing world. “He came to be seen,” notes his recent biographer Charles C. Calhoun, “as a symbol of everything that a writer should not be.”
Longfellow’s study, where Washington had met with his generals and with Benjamin Franklin, and where he came to the conclusion that America must declare its independence from Great Britain, is an intimate room off the entry hall. One can imagine it overflowing with books and manuscripts during the poet’s productive life, but now it is tidy and feels rather ghostly, with Longfellow’s stand-up writing desk next to the window and a powerful-looking wooden armchair by the fireplace. The armchair was a 72nd birthday gift to the poet from the schoolchildren of Cambridge, carved from the same sort of “spreading chestnut tree” that he had made indelible in his poem “The Village Blacksmith.”
Also in the study are a bust of Dante and a statuette of Goethe, reminders that Longfellow’s mind ranged far from the cozy New World subject matter for which he is so loftily dismissed today. Longfellow spoke eight languages, wrote or translated as a young professor his own French and Spanish textbooks, later formed the famous Dante Club in which, canto by canto, he tried out his translation of The Divine Comedy in front of great minds like William Dean Howells, James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton. He was the most cosmopolitan American writer of his age, enriching his country’s cultural life with European thought and poetic forms.
Longfellow House conveys so strongly a sense of hearth and home that it’s easy to forget what a driven traveler its owner was—“Want action,” he once complained in a letter to a friend, “want to travel—am too excited—too tumultuous inwardly.” It was no armchair poet who sat in that spreading chestnut armchair. He first went to Europe in 1826 at the age of 19, having convinced his indulgent lawyer father that in order to pursue a career as a professor of modern languages he needed the opportunity to master those languages in the countries where they were spoken. He was gone three years, visiting France, Spain, Italy and Germany, enthralled by everything he encountered. He came home to Maine, taught French and Spanish at Bowdoin College, published essays and translations, married the daughter of a Portland judge, was offered a professorship at Harvard and wrote Outre-Mer, the book that brought him to the notice of his future landlady.
Before Longfellow moved to Cambridge and took up his prestigious position at Harvard, he set off on another grand tour of Europe, this time taking his new wife. But the pregnant Mary Storer Potter Longfellow suffered a miscarriage in Amsterdam. She recovered enough to go on to Rotterdam, but once there she began to steadily weaken and grow feverish. In her last moments she told her young husband she would always remember his kindness to her.
Shattered and guilt-stricken, Longfellow sent his wife’s body home to her parents in a lead coffin and robotically continued his pilgrimage. Seven months later, in the Swiss Alps, he met Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a Massachusetts industrialist of lordly wealth. Fanny was 19 and had recently lost her mother and brother to tuberculosis. She had embarked on the Grand Tour with her father and her cousin William, but by the time she met Longfellow, William was dying of the same disease.
They were both vulnerable in their grief, though Longfellow seems to have fallen harder for Fanny than she did for him. Back in Boston, in her Beacon Hill mansion, she decided to keep him at a careful distance. For seven years he remained desperately in love with her, while she seems to have regarded him as nothing much more than a fond social acquaintance. Her indifference drove him into gloomy reflection, but also into a remarkable creative stretch in which he produced, among other works, poems such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Village Blacksmith” and the universally beloved-when-not-reviled anthem to the power of positive thinking “A Psalm of Life”: “Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal.”
A less stirring but more striking poem from this period is a sonnet called “Mezzo Cammin” that begins: “Half of my life is gone, and I have let / The years slip from
me and have not fulfilled / The aspiration of my youth to build / Some tower of song with lofty parapet.”
Less than a year after he wrote this beautiful, despairing poem, he received a letter from Fanny Appleton in which she hinted at “a better dawn.” She had changed her mind, he discovered, and would marry him after all.
Her father’s wedding gift to the couple: the Craigie house, where Longfellow had lived as a boarder all the long years he had been pining for Fanny. Washington’s headquarters now became Longfellow’s headquarters, the seat of his ever-expanding fame and of his growing family. Six children were born to Henry and Fanny there. One of them, Frances, died at the age of a year and a half (“There is no flock, however watched and tended, / But one dead lamb is there!”) but overall it seems to have been a thriving, happy household, presided over by the quiet poet patriarch at his stand-up desk.
“Those who lived there,” Oliver Wendell Holmes ominously noted of his friend’s house in the 1850s, “had their happiness so perfect that no change, of all changes which must come to them, could fail to be for the worse.”
FROM THE STUDY, our tour entered the library. It’s a long, open, spacious room with an oak library table in the center, a Japanese screen at one end and bookcases filled with French, German and Italian poets, the various languages bound in different colors of vellum and leather. Fanny Longfellow’s desk sits by the window overlooking the piazza. It was here that it happened. By one account, she was holding wax up to a candle in order to seal away a lock of one of her children’s hair. By another, her youngest daughter was playing with matches at her feet. In any case, flames rapidly traveled up Fanny’s muslin hoop-dress and she ran into the study, where Longfellow was napping, and cried “Henry!”
He woke up and managed to put the fire out, burning himself in the process. He carried her up to their second floor bedroom, known today as the Gold Ring room because of a large curtain ring that hangs from the ceiling over the sleigh bed. She died here the next day. He was too badly burned and too sedated to go to her funeral. He could never bring himself to speak to his children about their mother’s death. “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen,” he wrote, “I know not.”
Longfellow himself would die in this same room, but not for another 20 years—not until he had finished translating Dante and prolifically published more poems, though his most enduring work was behind him. He was not by nature a public man, but people from all over the world flocked to Craigie house to shake his hand, and with admirable patience he answered the letters of tens of thousands of correspondents who asked for his autograph or his opinion of their amateur poetry.
“How will men speak of me when I am gone,” Longfellow wrote in a verse play about Michelangelo, composed when he was in his late 60s. “When all this colorless, sad life is ended, / And I am as dust?”
It was a question that lingered when the tour ended and I left through the gift shop at the back of the house. For most of my reading life, I realized with a touch of regret, I had blindly conformed to the conventional sophisticated wisdom that Longfellow was not nearly as important or interesting a poet as his contemporaries Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, or his distant relation Ezra Pound.
“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow?” wrote the literary critic Ludwig Lewisohn in 1932. “He never touches poetry.”
But anyone who approaches Longfellow’s work with an open mind has to ask: Who reads Lewisohn? If Longfellow really needs defending, I thought, you could start with what is the greatest, strongest, most mysterious, most resonant first line in American literature: “This is the forest primeval.” You don’t have to read the rest of “Evangeline,” or even like it very much, but in those few opening words there is something glorious and permanent. And all those overly familiar lines scattered through his work that can seem now like laughable clichés—“Sail on, O Ship of State!” “I shot an arrow into the air,” “footprints on the sands of time,” “let us, then, be up and doing,” “the patter of little feet,” “ships that pass in the night”—are not clichés at all, but phrases that were so clear and original when first read they simply slipped into our common vocabulary.
It was work well done, a life well lived, in a house well built. When I left the Longfellow House and walked out onto Brattle Street carrying a brand-new copy of the Selected Poems, I left with the poet’s trochees and hexameters in my head. They sounded like something close to the American heartbeat.
Stephen Harrigan is the author of the novels Remember Ben Clayton and The Gates of the Alamo.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of American History magazine.