Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807–March 24, 1882) was born in Portland, Maine, the son of Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer and legislator, and Zilpah Wadsworth. In 1825 he was graduated from Bowdoin College, in the same class with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Franklin Pierce. Though his ambition was to be an author, his father insisted he train for a legal career. That was derailed when Bowdoin offered him a professorship of modern languages, one of the first to be established in America. The position required that he first go to Europe to qualify himself further for his duties. One year stretched out to three, involving visits to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany.
Longfellow taught at Bowdoin from 1829 to 1835, during which period he published his first literary work, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea. In 1831 he married Mary Storer Potter, the daughter of a Portland jurist. In 1834 Longfellow accepted the Smith professorship of French and Spanish at Harvard College, and was again required to go to Europe for further study. He and his wife sailed in April 1835. In Holland, Mary had a miscarriage and died. Longfellow continued his travels, returning to Cambridge in December 1836.
While traveling in Switzerland during the summer of 1836, Longfellow met Fanny Appleton, the daughter of the wealthy Boston merchant Nathan Appleton. From their first meeting, Longfellow had been strongly attracted to her, but his courtship did not run smoothly. Finally, however, she had a change of heart, and the two were married in the summer of 1843. His second marriage, which produced six children, seems to have been as nearly ideal as any union can be. But it ended tragically in 1861. Fanny Longfellow was burned to death when hot sealing wax, with which she was preserving locks of her children's hair, ignited her light summer dress.
While teaching at Harvard, Longfellow's career as a writer moved forward with the publication of his first collection of lyrics, Voices of the Night (1839). In 1847 he further established his reputation with Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, and followed this long story-poem with the phenomenally popular The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), probably the most famous American poetic storybook, was equally as successful, opening with the beloved "Paul Revere's Ride." His literary success enabled him to resign his Harvard post in 1854 and support himself solely by his writing.
Longfellow was enormously popular, especially during his later years; at the end of his life, his birthday was even being celebrated in schools. He was as beloved in England as in America; people from everywhere came to see him, and his last trip to Europe in 1868-1869 was virtually a triumphant processional. Queen Victoria received him in a private audience, and both Oxford and Cambridge gave him honorary degrees. His death in Cambridge, MA, on March 24, 1882, marked the end of an era.
Longfellow's literary reputation, like Tennyson's, has suffered from the inevitable changes in poetic style and taste. In his Indian poems and elsewhere he introduced important native materials into American literature. He also played an important part in establishing modern languages in the American educational curriculum, and he labored valiantly to introduce American readers to large aspects of the literature and art of Europe, encouraging them to enter into the common cultural inheritance of Western culture.
- adapted from Edward Wagenknecht, American National Biography
Slate image of Longfellow commissioned by Henry Ford, 1924
The Longfellow Garden at the Wayside Inn.