Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine and studied at Bowdoin College. After spending time in Europe he became a professor at Bowdoin and, later, at Harvard College. His first major poetry collections were Voices of the Night (1839) and Ballads and Other Poems (1841). Longfellow retired from teaching in 1854 to focus on his writing, living the remainder of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a former headquarters of George Washington. His first wife, Jacqueline Kemper, died in 1835 after a miscarriage. His second wife, Frances Appleton, died in 1861 after sustaining burns from her dress catching fire. Longfellow himself died in 1882.
Longfellow predominantly wrote lyric poetry, known for its musicality, which often presented stories of mythology and legend. He became the most popular American poet of his day and also had success overseas. He has been criticized, however, for imitating European styles and writing specifically for the masses.
Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, to Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow in Portland, Maine, and he grew up in what is now known as the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. His father was a lawyer, and his maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, was a general in the American Revolutionary War and a Member of Congress. He was named after his mother's brother Henry Wadsworth, a Navy lieutenant who died only three years earlier at the Battle of Tripoli. Young Longfellow was the second of eight children; his siblings were Stephen (1805), Elizabeth (1808), Anne (1810), Alexander (1814), Mary (1816), Ellen (1818), and Samuel (1819).
Henry was enrolled in a dame school at the age of three and by age six was enrolled at the private Portland Academy. In his years there, he earned a reputation as being very studious and became fluent in Latin. He printed his first poem — a patriotic and historical four stanza poem called "The Battle of Lovell's Pond" — in the Portland Gazette on November 17, 1820. He remained at the Portland Academy until the age of fourteen. He spent much of his summers as a child at his grandfather Peleg's farm in the western Maine town of Hiram.
In the fall of 1822, the 15-year old Longfellow enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine alongside his brother Stephen. His grandfather was a founder of the college and his father was a trustee. There, Longfellow met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would later become his lifelong friend. He boarded with a clergyman for a time before rooming on the third floor of what is now Maine Hall in 1823. He joined the Peucinian Society, a group of students with Federalist leanings. In his senior year, Longfellow wrote to his father about his aspirations:
"I will not disguise it in the least... the fact is, I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently after it, and every earthly thought centres in it... I am almost confident in believing, that if I can ever rise in the world it must be by the exercise of my talents in the wide field of literature".
He pursued his literary goals by submitting poetry and prose to various newspapers and magazines. Between January 1824 and his graduation in 1825, he had published nearly 40 minor poems. About 24 of them appeared in the short-lived Boston periodical The United States Literary Gazette. When Longfellow graduated from Bowdoin, he was ranked fourth in the class and gave the student commencement address.
On August 27, 1829, he wrote to the president of Bowdoin that he was turning down the professorship because he considered the $600 salary "disproportionate to the duties required". The trustees raised his salary to $800 with an additional $100 to serve as the college's librarian, a post which required one hour of work per day. During his years teaching at the college, he wrote textbooks in French, Italian, and Spanish; his first published book was in 1833, a translation of the poetry of medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique. He also published a travel book, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, first published in serial form before a book edition was released in 1835. Shortly after the book's publication, Longfellow attempted to join the literary circle in New York and asked George Pope Morris for an editorial role at one of Morris's publications. Longfellow was considering moving to New York after New York University considered offering him a newly-created professorship of modern languages, though there would be no salary. The professorship was not created and Longfellow agreed to continue teaching at Bowdoin.
On September 14, 1831, Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter, a childhood friend from Portland. The couple settled in Brunswick, though the two were not happy there. Longfellow published several nonfiction and fiction prose pieces inspired by Irving, including "The Indian Summer" and "The Bald Eagle" in 1833.
In December 1834, Longfellow received a letter from Josiah Quincy III, president of Harvard College, offering him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages position with the stipulation that he spend a year or so abroad. In October 1835, during the trip, his wife Mary had a miscarriage about six months into her pregnancy. She did not recover and died after several weeks of illness at the age of 22 on November 29, 1835. Longfellow had her body embalmed immediately and placed into a lead coffin inside an oak coffin which was then shipped to Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. Three years later, he was inspired to write "Footsteps of Angels" about their love. Several years later, he wrote the poem "Mezzo Cammin" to express his sorrow over her death.
When he returned to the United States in 1836, Longfellow took up the professorship at Harvard. He was required to live in Cambridge to be close to the campus and moved in to the Craigie House in the spring of 1837, now preserved as the Longfellow National Historic Site. The home, built in 1759, had once been the headquarters of George Washington during the Siege of Boston beginning in July 1775. Previous occupants also included Jared Sparks, Edward Everett, and Joseph Emerson Worcester. Longfellow began publishing his poetry, including Voices of the Night in 1839 and Ballads and Other Poems in 1841. The latter included "The Village Blacksmith" and "The Wreck of the Hesperus", which were instantly popular.
Longfellow began courting Frances "Fanny" Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy Boston industrialist, Nathan Appleton. At first, she was not interested but Longfellow was determined. In July 1839, he wrote to a friend: "[V]ictory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion". During the courtship, he frequently walked from Harvard to her home in Boston, crossing the Boston Bridge. That bridge was subsequently demolished and replaced in 1906 by a new bridge, which was eventually renamed the Longfellow Bridge.
During his courtship, Longfellow continued writing and, in the fall of 1839, published Hyperion, a book of travel writings discussing his trips abroad. In 1843, he also published a play, The Spanish Student, reflecting his memories from his time in Spain in the 1820s. There was some confusion over its original manuscript. After being printed in Graham's Magazine, its editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold saved the manuscript from the trash. Longfellow was surprised to hear that it had been saved, unusual for a printing office, and asked to borrow it so that he could revise it, forgetting to return it to Griswold. The often vindictive Griswold wrote an angry letter in response.
On May 10, 1843, after seven years, Longfellow received a letter from Fanny agreeing to marry him and, too restless to take a carriage, walked 90 minutes to meet her at her house. They were married shortly thereafter. Nathan Appleton bought the Craigie House as a wedding present to the pair. Longfellow would live there for the remainder of his life. His love for Fanny is evident in the following lines from Longfellow's only love poem, the sonnet "The Evening Star", which he wrote in October 1845: "O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love!"
He and Fanny had six children: Charles Appleton (1844–1893), Ernest Wadsworth (1845–1921), Fanny (1847–1848), Alice Mary (1850–1928), Edith (1853–1915), and Anne Allegra (1855–1934). Their second-youngest daughter, Edith, married Richard Henry Dana III, son of the popular writer Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast. When the younger Fanny was born on April 7, 1847, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep administered ether as the first obstetric anesthetic in the United States to Fanny Longfellow. A few months later, on November 1, 1847, the poem "Evangeline" was published for the first time. His literary income was increasing considerably: in 1840, he had made $219 from his work but the year 1850 brought him $1,900.
On June 14, 1853, Longfellow held a farewell dinner party at his Cambridge home for his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was preparing to move overseas. Shortly thereafter in 1854, Longfellow retired from Harvard, devoting himself entirely to writing. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws from Harvard in 1859.
Devastated by her death, he never fully recovered and occasionally resorted to laudanum and ether to deal with it. He expressed his grief in the sonnet "The Cross of Snow" (1879), which he wrote eighteen years later to commemorate her death:
Longfellow spent several years translating Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. To aid him in perfecting the translation and reviewing proofs, he invited friends to weekly meetings every Wednesday starting in 1864. The "Dante Club", as it was called, regularly included William Dean Howells, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton and other occasional guests. By 1868, Longfellow's annual income was over $48,000.
During the 1860s, Longfellow supported abolitionism and especially hoped for reconciliation between the northern and southern states after the American Civil War. He wrote in his journal in 1878: "I have only one desire; and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between North and South".
On August 22, 1879, a female admirer went to Longfellow's house in Cambridge and, unaware to whom she was speaking, asked Longfellow: "Is this the house where Longfellow was born?" Longfellow told her it was not. The visitor then asked if he had died here. "Not yet", he replied. In March 1882, Longfellow went to bed with severe stomach pain. He endured the pain for several days with the help of opium before he died surrounded by family on Friday, March 24, 1882. He had been suffering from peritonitis. At the time of his death, his estate was worth an estimated $356,320. He is buried with both of his wives at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Though much of his work is categorized as lyric poetry, Longfellow experimented with many forms, including hexameter and free verse. His published poetry shows great versatility, utilizing anapestic and trochaic forms, blank verse, heroic couplets, ballads and sonnets. Typically, Longfellow would carefully consider the subject of his poetic ideas for a long time before deciding on the right metrical form for it. Much of his work is recognized for its melody-like musicality. As he says, "what a writer asks of his reader is not so much to like as to listen".
Longfellow often used allegory in his work. In "Nature", for example, death is depicted as bedtime for a cranky child. Though he often used didacticism in his poetry, he focused on it less in his later years. Many of the metaphors he used in his poetry as well as subject matter came from legends, mythology, and literature. He was inspired, for example, by Norse mythology for "The Skeleton in Armor" and by Finnish legends for The Song of Hiawatha. In fact, Longfellow rarely wrote on current subjects and seemed detached from contemporary American concerns. Even so, Longfellow, like many during this period, called for the development of quality American literature. In Kavanagh, a character says:
We want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers... We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country... We want a national drama in which scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparalleled activity of our people... In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies.
He was also important as a translator; his translation of Dante became a required possession for those who wanted to be a part of high culture.
Contemporary writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote to Longfellow in May 1841 of his "fervent admiration which [your] genius has inspired in me" and later called him "unquestionably the best poet in America". However, after Poe's reputation as a critic increased, he publicly accused Longfellow of plagiarism in what has been since termed by Poe biographers as "The Longfellow War". His assessment was that Longfellow was "a determined imitator and a dextrous adapter of the ideas of other people", specifically Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His accusations may have been a publicity stunt to boost readership of the Broadway Journal, for which he was the editor at the time. Longfellow did not respond publicly, but, after Poe's death, he wrote: "The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong".
Margaret Fuller judged him "artificial and imitative" and lacking force. Poet Walt Whitman also considered Longfellow an imitator of European forms, though he praised his ability to reach a popular audience as "the expressor of common themes – of the little songs of the masses". Lewis Mumford said that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect. Towards the end of his life, contemporaries considered him more of a children's poet as many of his readers were children. A contemporary reviewer noted in 1848 that Longfellow was creating a "Goody two-shoes kind of literature... slipshod, sentimental stories told in the style of the nursery, beginning in nothing and ending in nothing". A more modern critic said, "Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow?" A London critic in the London Quarterly Review, however, condemned all American poetry, saying, "with two or three exceptions, there is not a poet of mark in the whole union" but singled out Longfellow as one of those exceptions.
Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day. He was such an admired figure in the United States during his life that his 70th birthday in 1877 took on the air of a national holiday, with parades, speeches, and the reading of his poetry. He had become one of the first American celebrities and was also popular in Europe. It was reported that 10,000 copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish sold in London in a single day. In 1884 he was the first and only non-British writer for whom a commemorative sculpted bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
Over the years, Longfellow's personality has become part of his reputation. He has been presented as a gentle, placid, poetic soul: an image perpetuated by his brother Samuel Longfellow, who wrote an early biography which specifically emphasized these points. As James Russell Lowell said, Longfellow had an "absolute sweetness, simplicity, and modesty". At Longfellow's funeral, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "a sweet and beautiful soul". In reality, Longfellow's life was much more difficult than was assumed. He suffered from neuralgia, causing constant pain, and he also had poor eyesight. He wrote to friend Charles Sumner: "I do not believe anyone can be perfectly well, who has a brain and a heart". Longfellow was very quiet, reserved, and private. In later years, he was known for being unsocial and avoided leaving home.
Over time, Longfellow's popularity rapidly declined, beginning shortly after his death and into the 20th century as academics began to appreciate poets like Walt Whitman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost.
More recently, he was honored in March 2007 when the United States Postal Service made a stamp commemorating him. A number of schools are named after him in various states as well. He is a protagonist in Matthew Pearl's murder mystery The Dante Club (2003).
Anthologies and translations