Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Biography
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was an influential American poet, translator and professor at Harvard University. Longfellow’s most significant work is, perhaps, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. During his life time, Longfellow was considered the best of all American poets, and his work was widely translated and published in other European languages: Italian, German and French to note a few. Some view Longfellow’s literary reputation as nearly sacrosanct, yet Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman negatively critique his work. Walt Whitman would go so far as to accuse Longfellow as merely being an imitator of European forms. Whitman would praise Longfellow almost exclusively on his ability to keep his audience’s favor. He is the only American to be honored with a bust placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. declared that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the best of American poets and praised the cheer he was able to display in his writing.
On February 27, 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a politician and lawyer.
From 1813 until 1821, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attended the Portland Academy. In 1820, the Portland Gazette published his first poem. Longfellow continued his education at Bowdoin College, an institution for which his father was a trustee. In 1825, Longfellow graduated fourth in his class. Longfellow continued publishing poetry throughout his time in college. During his time at Bowdoin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow befriended the seminal American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Bowdoin College promised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a chair in modern languages on the condition that he tour Europe and continue his studies there. From 1826 until 1829, Longfellow traveled through France, Germany, Italy and Spain. This travel had a profound impact on Longfellow. The traces of the tours influence can be seen not only in Longfellow mode of life, but also his choice of subjects.
In 1831, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter, a woman renowned for her beauty.
Returning to the United States, Bowdoin offered Longfellow a lectureship instead of the promised chair. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refused this position. But when the college created the chair, Longfellow accepted this position as well as an ancillary position as a librarian. In addition to his work in these positions, Longfellow also worked on translations and edited textbooks in languages. His creative writing also continued and he was a regular contributor to North American Review.
When George Ticknor retired from his positions as Harvard University’s Smith professor of modern languages and belles-lettres, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was offered the position. Longfellow went to Europe a second time to gain a better knowledge of German and Scandinavian languages. His wife accompanied him on this journey. She died in childbirth in Rotterdam. In his grief, Longfellow redoubled his efforts of his study. However, during his travels through Switzerland he would meet his second wife and model for the protagonist of his novel Hyperion, Frances Elizabeth Appleton.
In 1836, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow returned the United States and had taken the position at Harvard. Longfellow earned a reputation as a thoughtful instructor. He invested so much time in his teaching responsibility that he was not as creatively productive as he would have liked to be. Yet even with his investment of labor in teaching, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was able to become a financially successful poet. At one point, Longfellow even set a record by earning $3000 for the poem The Hanging of the Crane. In 1854, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow resigned from his position at Harvard University in favor of his friend, James Russell Lowell, so that Longfellow could spend more time writing.
In 1842, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was to turn his poetic prowess in support of the abolitionist movement. He published Poems for Slavery. Longfellow considered the work to be so unobtrusive that it approached neutrality that even a slave owner would not object to. The New England Anti-Slavery Society would continue to print it in order to further their cause.
Longfellow captures the plight of an enslave people with a delicate pen. At the end of one poem, he declares “[the slave] did not feel the driver's whip,/ Nor the burning heat of day;/ For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,/ And his lifeless body lay/ A worn-out fetter, that the soul/ Had broken and thrown away!” Longfellow captures the sentiment that death was the only reprieve available for the enslaved African Diaspora of the nineteenth century, which despite Longfellow’s claim “that Slaveholder might read [it] without losing his appetite for breakfast”, still contains a clear social message.
In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe praised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saying that Longfellow was “unquestionably the best poet in America.” Edgar Allan Poe’s criticism changed as Poe’s reputation as a critic increased his praise from Longfellow ebbed. Poe’s public presentation of his criticism of Longfellow culminated with an accusation of plagiarism of Alfred, Lord Tennyson by Longfellow. Despite Poe’s accusations, many critics have interpreted Poe’s accusations as a publicity stunt to garner attention for the Broadway Journal, which Poe edited.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow returned to Europe in 1842. He stayed in Europe into the following year to marry Frances Elizabeth Appleton. Longfellow’s new father-in-law presented the new couple with Craigie House, which at one time was George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution. The marriage would last until 1861, when Frances would die tragically. She would inadvertently set her dress on fire while attempting to melt sealing wax.
In 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed Paul Revere’s Ride. This poem was composed on the eve of the American Civil War. Longfellow hoped to instill in Northerners a sense of urgency and courageousness. True to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s creative process he wanted to remind his readers of their moral obligations. Many see this poem as an attempt to remind both sides of their moral obligations so that they could remember the tenants of American unity. Although this poem was not entirely historically accurate, it served to create the American legend of Paul Revere, a Massachusetts silversmith who created a system of intelligence and alarm to track the British military during the American Revolution. At one time, Longfellow’s retelling of these events was incorporated into American history textbooks without much mitigation.
As a widower with five young children, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow devoted himself to a programmatic process of translation. His translation of Dante Aligheiri’s Divine Comedy represents the majority of his work in the years after the death of his second wife. The translation is considered overly literal.
In 1868, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow traveled to Europe for the last time. During his travels, celebrities flocked to him. Cambridge awarded Longfellow with an honorary L.L.D., and Oxford awarded him an honorary D.C.L. Despite the renown, Longfellow felt an internal pain. However, he suppressed outward signs the grief and comported himself with a cheery air. He is noted for always consenting to requests for autographs from his fans.
In 1882, Longfellow died suddenly. Ralph Waldo Emerson would give him the epitaph, "This gentleman was a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name." During his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the first American writers to achieve international recognition. After his death, Longfellow’s reputation declined quickly. Many view contemporary readers have come to view Longfellow’s work as imitations of standard European forms.