By Natalie Rothstein
He was a young 30-year-old professor about to start his teaching career at Harvard. So it was that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knocked at the door of 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge, MA to see the widow Craigie about a room to rent. The year was 1837. Longfellow became a boarder in the house that he would eventually own and where he would live for the rest of his life, until his death in 1882 at age 75.
Today, of course, hardly anyone refers to the stately Georgian mansion by any other appellation than that of The Longfellow House. But it did have an honored history before the beloved poet lived there. Built in 1759 by John Vassall, the house, in its earliest days, was most famously known as the headquarters for George Washington during the American Revolution. Washington lived there for ten months during 1775-6, during which time he and his wife, Martha, celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary.
Longfellow took great pride in the fact that his home was a former residence of the nation’s founding father. He bought a bust of Washington which he placed in the entrance hall and it remains there today. Longfellow delighted in the knowledge that his own study with its book-lined shelves had served as Washington’s office when the general was planning the Siege of Boston.
The house, occupied by Longfellow’s descendants until the 1950s is now a National Historic Site and has been since 1972. The mansion is under the management of the National Park Service and guided tours are offered. Jim Shea, site manager since 1992, states that there are 17 exhibit rooms and hallways, with 11-12 major rooms.
Shea talks about the fact that Longfellow was the most prolific and popular American poet of the 19th century. Who doesn’t know at least a few lines of a Longfellow poem? “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
Longfellow’s narrative poems, with their easy rhythms, were once read and spoken by countless thousands. You didn’t have to be an intellectual to know and love his poems. He was a poet of the people who crafted an American identity, says Jim Shea. And that, Shea adds, has led to Longfellow’s image problem, one he would like to see corrected.
Today, Longfellow is often regarded as a poet whose work is only taught to and recited by school children. Whether it is Paul Revere’s Ride or The Song of Hiawatha or The Village Blacksmith, these poems may seem to some old-fashioned and sentimental, even provincial. Not for Longfellow, the edgy sensuality of a Whitman.
Yet the basis of Longfellow’s reputation was as solid as the spreading chestnut tree that he memorialized in The Village Blacksmith. Known for his poetic works, Longfellow was also celebrated for his intellectual achievements. A Harvard professor, he spoke eight languages and could read twelve. He was a translator, most notably of Dante’s Inferno. He counted among his admirers Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens. And he would number Edgar Allan Poe among his critics.
All houses wherein men have lived and died /Are haunted houses. (Haunted Houses, 1858)
A tour through the Longfellow House conjures up the spirit of the man who once inhabited those spaces. Furnished just as it was in the poets day, the rooms echo with the life of the man and his family.
Here is the Dining Room where Charles Dickens came for Thanksgiving dinner. Other renowned houseguests included Oscar Wilde and famed singer Jenny Lind. We don’t have to guess who came to dinner because extensive records and logs of visitors were kept. Gilbert Stuart paintings of family members adorn the walls.
Longfellow married in 1843. Fanny Appleton was the daughter of a well-to-do Boston industrialist who, as a wedding present, gave the newly-wed couple the house on Brattle Street. Longfellow and Fanny had six children of whom five survived.
I hear in the chamber above me/The patter of little feet. (The Childrens Hour, 1860)
Devoted to his wife and children, Longfellow enjoyed what appeared to be an idyllic home life. Not only did domestic life suit him, so did his surroundings. He enjoyed looking out on to the meandering Charles River and the stretch of open land known as Brighton Meadows. While the house today remains surrounded by gardens and spacious lawns, Longfellow’s Brattle Street no longer affords an unobstructed view. Buildings have replaced open land and the river lies beyond.
Stay, stay at home, my heart, and rest;/Home-keeping hearts are happiest. (Collections, 1875-1882)
By all accounts, Fanny was the love of Longfellow’s life. She shared her husband’s sensibilities as well as his interests. In a letter she wrote her brother upon returning to Cambridge after a trip to New York, she commented, We have just returned to our home & are enraptured with its quiet & comfort; we are full of plans & projects with no desire, however, to change a feature of the old countenance which Washington has rendered sacred.
Fanny always kept records and memorabilia relating to her children and she was at work on just such a task one summer day in 1861. Seated in the library at a table with wax and flame, she was at work sealing packages of her children’s hair for keepsakes. Suddenly, perhaps through a breeze flowing through the window, her light summer dress caught fire. Fanny ran from the room to her husband in the next room.
Longfellow grabbed a small rug and tried frantically to extinguish the flames, burning himself severely in the attempt. His efforts to save her were unsuccessful and Fanny died the following morning. She was 44.
The burns on Longfellow’s face and hands were serious but he would recover. The facial wounds led to his growing a beard which he maintained for the rest of his life. However, it was the emotional wounds which were, undoubtedly, more debilitating. Years later he wrote these lines:
Here in this room she died; and soul more white/Never through martyrdom of fire was led/To its repose;Such is the cross I wear upon my breast/These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes/And seasons, changeless since the day she died. (The Cross of Snow, 1879)
The room referred to in Longfellow’s poem where Fanny died is his own bedroom. The visitor will, undoubtedly, be moved to view the bed where she succumbed to her injuries. A large ring attached to the ceiling held the canopy for the bed. A portrait of the young Longfellow hangs on the wall along with a painting of their two sons, Ernest and Charles.
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,/And Edith with golden hair. (The Childrens Hour, 1860)
Of the three Longfellow daughters, Alice never married. She lived her entire life in the Brattle Street house. She was one of the founders of Radcliffe College. Annie (laughing Allegra) and Edith did marry and have families. They built homes right next door to their parents, producing a family compound.
After Fanny’s death, Longfellow did not publish anything for two years. He traveled to Europe and received honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. And he was invited to Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria. After his death, his bust would be installed in Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
But, he would return to his home on Brattle Street. He had formed “The Saturday Club”, a group of close friends who came together, we can naturally presume, on Saturdays, to discuss and ponder the topics of the day. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the famed abolitionist, Charles Sumner, were frequent guests. So fond of them was Longfellow that he commissioned paintings of these gentlemen which still hang today in his study.
Also featured in his study is his stand-up desk, topped by a small statue of Goethe. He would sometimes sit and work at a round table, his dog, a Scottish Terrier named Tramp, curled up at his feet. When “The Saturday Club” or “The Dante Club” was in session, cigar smoke filled the air and wine was enjoyed. Paintings hang on the walls and statues of Dante and Shakespeare mingle with some of the 12,000 volumes in Longfellow’s library.
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,/And all the sweet serenity of books. (Morituri Salutamus, 1875)
Having established his reputation in 1858 with the publication of The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow went on to publish over twenty books. So beloved was he that when the spreading Chestnut tree on Brattle Street was due to come down, a fund was established to utilize the wood from the tree in order to make a chair for the poet. That broad and sturdy armchair remains in Longfellow’s study.
In addition to “The Saturday Club”, Longfellow also founded, in 1865, The Dante Club, a forerunner of “The Dante Society of America”. At a time when he was deeply depressed over Fanny’s death, Longfellow decided that he needed to focus on something rigorous and challenging. His idea was to translate the first American edition of Dante’s Inferno. And what better way to do that than with a little help from his friends such as James Russell Lowell and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
As an interesting side-note, a popular mystery novel, The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl was published in 2003. Set in 1865, the action takes place in The Longfellow House. A series of mysterious murders occur and the poet and his colleagues are drawn into the investigation. Also, with the publication of The Dante Club, there has been a re-issue of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, out of print for over 40 years.
The bards sublime,/Whose distant footsteps echo/Through the corridors of Time. (The Day is Done, 1845)
Longfellow’s words echo through our own times and his home remains an inspiration, to other writers, to school children, to anyone interested in America’s historical and artistic legacy. It will be explored and enjoyed for generations to come.
Natalie Rothstein is a writer of features and fiction. She has published travel pieces, essays and short stories. Her book, An American Family, is a 3-generation family history told against the backdrop of the immigrant experience.
Photos Accompanying this article
National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site