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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Monument

 

When this staute was unveiled on M and Connecticut Streets NW, the place was absolutely buzzing. The heroic bronze figure sat draped in his academic robe, book in hand, and looked out on the streets packed with the wide spectrum of adoring fans: men, women, and children “of all races and nationalities.”

 

It was May 7, 1909. The Marine Band played "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful" while the flag that had previously covered the statue “floated above the heads of the great throng.” Then a Reverend blessed the ceremony—such was the power of the man!

 

And yet for all the pomp with which it was dedicated, when DCist went to see this monument of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow one recent evening, we could hardly see him. The man described as “the joyful, enthusiastic mouthpiece of what was best in his time” sits unlit, alone, and stranded on an island in the middle of the noisy intersection southeast of Dupont Circle.

 

Rev. George R. Grose wrote in the Zion’s Herald that at the dedication there was a large shield in the middle of the platform which read (from Longfellow’s “The Building of a Ship”):

 

“Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity, with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”

 

The only inscription we could find was one word: LONGFELLOW.

 

Even though interest in the monument has obviously waned considerably—our contact at the NPS said, “In my six years here, no on has ever asked about the monument”—the original context of the monument’s construction is, as the Revisiting Series tends to find with most forgotten monuments, rather fascinating.

 

The monument was erected not only as a testament to one of this country’s greatest poets, but also as a statement of American culture. For at the time of the unveiling, according to Grose, there were no national monuments in D.C. that commemorated American literature.

 

Grose mentions the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and is both relieved and jubilant that the nation was able to raise the $35,000—“by gifts from rich and poor”—to celebrate Longfellow’s contribution to American literature and society. Grose was sure the monument cemented the U.S.’s legitimacy in global culture and expressed the nation’s propulsion into a new age. Indeed, Longfellow, “while he makes us feel the nobility of his white soul, and brings close to our view the great, simple, normal life of humanity,” would be a fine model for America as it sought to keep its morals and traditions in order while adjusting to a frenetically industrialized, internationalizing modernity.

 

There may not be “flags, wreaths, and festoons of laurel and bunches of iris, the poet’s favorite flower,” commemorating Longfellow anymore, but surely we have space in our hearts for a little appreciation for one of the most important figures in American literature. So next time you find yourself stuck in traffic or transitioning from one Dupont bar to another, take a second to pay your respects. Remember peaceful old Longfellow, the poet who was not only "the purest democrat known to humanity," but a crucial player in this country's cultural maturation.

 

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807 – March 24, 1882) was an American poet whose works include Paul Revere's Ride, A Psalm of Life, The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline. He also wrote the first American translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and was one of the five members of the group known as the Fireside Poets. Longfellow was born and raised in the Portland, Maine area. He attended university at an early age at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After several journeys overseas, Longfellow settled for the last forty-five years of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a wood frame house once occupied during the American Revolution by General George Washington and his staff.

 

Early life and education

Birthplace in c. 1910Longfellow was born in 1807 to Stephen and Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow in Portland, Maine, and grew up in what is now known as the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. His father was a lawyer, and his maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth Sr., was a general in the American Revolutionary War. He was descended from the Longfellow family that came to America in 1676 from Yorkshire, England and from Priscilla and John Alden on his father's side

 

Longfellow's siblings were Stephen (1805), Elizabeth (1808), Anne (1810), Alexander (1814), Mary (1816), Ellen (1818), and Samuel (1819).

 

Longfellow was enrolled in a "dame school" at the age of only three, and by age six, when he entered the Portland Academy, he was able to read and write quite well. He remained at the Portland Academy until the age of fourteen and entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1822. At Bowdoin, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became his lifelong friend. He was a 5th great grandson of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley who were on the Mayflower.

 

First European tour and professorship at Bowdoin

After graduating in 1825, he was offered a professorship at Bowdoin College with the condition that he first spend some time in Europe for further language study. He toured Europe between 1826 and 1829 (visiting England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain), and upon returning went on to become the first professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, as well as a parttime librarian. During his years at the college, he wrote textbooks in French, Italian, and Spanish and a travel book, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. In 1831, he married Mary Storer Potter of Portland.

 

Second European tour and professorship at Harvard

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowLongfellow was offered the Smith Professorship of French and Spanish at Harvard with the stipulation that he spend a year or so abroad. His 22-year old wife, Mary Storer Potter died during the trip in Rotterdam after suffering a miscarriage in 1835. Three years later he was inspired to write "Footsteps of Angels" about their love.

 

When he returned to the United States in 1836, Longfellow took up the professorship at Harvard University. He settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he remained for the rest of his life, although he spent summers at his home in Nahant. He began publishing his poetry, including "Voices of the Night" in 1839 and "Ballads and Other Poems", which included his famous poem "The Village Blacksmith", in 1841.

 

Marriage to Frances "Fanny" Appleton

Fanny Appleton LongfellowLongfellow began courting Frances "Fanny" Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy Boston industrialist, Nathan Appleton. 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 as the Longfellow Bridge. After seven years, Fanny finally agreed to marriage and they were wed in 1843. Nathan Appleton bought the Craigie House, overlooking the Charles River as a wedding present to the pair.

 

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)

Anne Allegra (1855-1934).

When the younger Fanny was born on April 7, 1847, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep administered the first obstetric anesthetic in the United States to Fanny Longfellow.

 

Longfellow retired from Harvard in 1854, devoting himself entirely to writing. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws from Harvard in 1859.

 

The death of Frances

Longfellow was a devoted husband and father with a keen feeling for the pleasures of home. But his marriages ended in sadness and tragedy.

 

On a hot July day, while putting a lock of a child's hair into an envelope and attempting to seal it with hot sealing wax, her dress caught fire causing severe burns.She died the next day, aged 44, on July 10, 1861. Longfellow was devastated by her death and never fully recovered. The strength of his grief is still evident in these lines from a sonnet, "The Cross of Snow" (1879) which he wrote eighteen years later to commemorate her death:

 

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These forty five years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

 

Death

Longfellow died on March 24, 1882, after suffering from peritonitis for five days.

 

He is buried with both of his wives at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1884 he was the first American poet for whom a commemorative sculpted bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.

 

Longfellow's work

Longfellow 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.

 

His work was immensely popular during his time and is still today, although some modern critics consider him too sentimental. His poetry is based on familiar and easily understood themes with simple, clear, and flowing language. His poetry created an audience in America and contributed to creating American mythology.

 

Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells" is the basis for the Christmas carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day".

 

Longfellow's home in Cambridge, the Longfellow National Historic Site, is a U.S. National Historic Site, National Historic Landmark, and on the National Register of Historic Places. A two-thirds scale replica was built in Minneapolis, Minnesota at Minnehaha Park in 1906 and once served as a centerpiece for a local zoo.

 

Noted minister, writer and abolitionist Edward Everett Hale founded organizations called the Harry Wadsworth Clubs.

 

Trivia

A number of schools are named after him in various states, including Maine, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas.

 

"Longfellow Serenade" is a pop song by Neil Diamond.

 

In March 2007 the United postal service made a stamp after him.

  

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Taken on April 1, 2007