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November 3, 2013

Leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’

Visiting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historic home

Editor’s Note: Today, we’re back on the road with Mike Lunsford for the 4th installment of his “New England Journal.” In December, head to Prout’s Neck, Maine, for a surprising walk along the sea to painter Winslow Homer’s studio and home.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Had I taken the time to read a street map, I would have been able to walk through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historic home four years ago. My daughter, Ellen, and I spent the better part of a day hiking over the grassy hillsides of historic Mount Auburn Cemetery, just a few blocks away from the great poet’s house, and never knew we were that close.

But a journey that began on home soil in the washboard-flat middle lands of Indiana last summer, brought me back to Longfellow’s doorstep, not far from the heart of Boston, this time with my wife as companion on a leg of a two-week long trip to New England. It’s hard to imagine now just how much we were able to see in that small amount of time, and the great poet’s house stood right in the middle of it all.

Longfellow became a poetic superstar by the mid-19th Century, and not just to academics who spent their days in stuffy study of such things; he was the first American poet who made a living selling his poetry, mostly because he could be read and understood by average people.

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1807 to a mother whose father had been a Revolutionary War hero, and a lawyer father who became a member of Congress, Longfellow spent his youth with words and books as companions, listening to and treasuring the stories of the men of the sea as they spoke in exotic and foreign tongues. Following graduation from Bowdoin College (author Nathaniel Hawthorne was a classmate), the young Longfellow travelled throughout Europe for three years studying languages — eventually mastering seven of them — then came home to teach at his alma mater and write. In 1831, Longfellow married school sweetheart Mary Potter and published his first book about his travels.

But in 1835, during a second trip abroad, Longfellow’s wife died in childbirth. After a year of depression-filled wanderings of the old countries, he took a teaching position at Harvard, but before he ever left Europe, chance brought him together with the wealthy Appleton family of Boston, who was vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Longfellow was immediately smitten with the Appleton’s daughter, Francis (Fanny); it would take seven years of courtship, but they would finally marry.

In 1837, Longfellow took up residence in a home near Harvard (he was a lecturer and headed the Department of Modern Languages there) known then as the Craigie House. Renting two rooms to Longfellow was a necessity for the owner, Elizabeth Craigie; her husband had died after years of extravagant living and extensive spending on their fine home, and she needed the rent money to stay afloat financially.

The house at 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, was historically significant long before Longfellow ever lived there. Built in 1759 by loyalist merchant John Vassall, the Georgian-style mansion sat near other homes owned by supporters of King George III, many having commanding views of the Charles River. But in 1774, the Revolution looming on the horizon, Vassall abandoned the home for England. In July 1775, George Washington commandeered the house as he first took command of the inexperienced army he was to lead for the next six years. The house was sold to Andrew Craigie in 1791, and it was he who renovated and expanded it.

Longfellow was writing some of his finest poetry by the time he married Fanny; his “Psalm of Life,” written in 1838, was typically optimistic, nearly preaching to readers that their lives could be inspirations to our “shipwrecked and forlorn brother [s],” and we could all make our lives “sublime” by “leaving our footprints in the sands of time.” The poem was included in his first book of poetry, “Voices of the Night,” in 1839.

Not long after the Longfellows married, Fanny’s father, Nathan, one of the wealthiest men in New England, presented Craigie House to the newlyweds as his wedding gift. Over the next four decades, the Craigie-Longfellow House became one of the most famous residences in the country. It was home to their five children (Charles, Ernest, Edith, Alice, and Anne; daughter, Fanny, died in 1848), repository of thousands of artifacts collected in travels, and an eloquent warehouse for all that mattered to a family that pursued a variety of interests. By 1854 Longfellow had left teaching for good. By then, he had already written five volumes of poetry.

A dizzying list of the famous called at the Longfellow’s door, including Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Oscar Wilde, and the abolitionist, Charles Sumner. It was there that Longfellow wrote much of the most famous poetry of the century, and that would come to define American culture itself. It was there that the first anesthesia ever to be used during childbirth was administered to Fanny; there that Longfellow painstakingly labored over the first English translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” (the task he turned to in his grief), and there that he held readings with, among others, editor/poet James Russell Lowell, critic William Dean Howells, and literary scholar Charles Eliot Norton in his “Dante’s Club.” It was also the place in which the poet’s life was shattered. In 1861, Fanny died, the result of a fire in which the poet himself was badly burned as he frantically tried to douse the flames.

Joanie and I arrived at Craigie House in mid-morning, a convoluted and quite unintended course of one-way side streets and maddening traffic behind us. Parking near the home is, to say the least, challenging. We eventually began to recognize fellow drivers as we engaged in a sort of vehicular musical chairs, all cruising in a three to four-block radius around the home until a precious spot opened. We intended to camp in a median if necessary, but finally got our chance to park on busy Mount Auburn Street, no more than three blocks from the house.

The Longfellow Home is operated by the National Park Service, so a uniformed attendant met us at the gate. Not long after we asked our first question of the day, he asked us from where we hailed, our “strong accents” leaving him curious. I told him we were from the Land of Larry Bird, which brought a smile to his face.

After just a few minutes in a small gift shop off the back of the house, our tour guide, the quite capable Anna Christie, led us through a kitchen and into Longfellow’s world. Reciting many of the poet’s best-known works along the way, she took us first to the dining room, where many of the Longfellows’ guests were entertained, and, decades before, the Washingtons (wife Martha joined the general there) sat with such luminaries as John and Abigail Adams and Benedict Arnold. From there, we came to the grand entry hall, where Longfellow, always aware of the historic significance of the house, kept a bust of the ever-present Washington. Longfellow’s beloved study came next; it’s where he read to his children by firelight, proudly displayed Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s inkstand and a fragment from Dante’s coffin, and where he stood at a writing table, straining his weak eyes by window light, a small statue of the German philosopher and poet, Goethe, strategically placed in the middle of it for inspiration. The house is a literal treasure trove of busts, figurines, paintings and books (Longfellow had a library of 14,000 on hand). The Park Service lists nearly 775,000 archival items related to the Longfellow Family, including photographs, journals, and original documents signed by Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

After seeing the library, the real core of the house that served as a family room — Fanny caught her dress on fire there as she sealed Edith’s curls in wax — we saw the rooms that the poet had rented from Mrs. Craigie. We then visited the bedroom where Fanny died the day after the fire. Eighteen years to the day of her death, which had happened 18 years to the day they had been married, Longfellow wrote his “Cross of Snow,” inspired by the portrait of his wife that faced the bed they shared, and in which the poet himself died in 1882.

Chris Wirth, the Archives Specialist at the Longfellow House-Washington Headquarters National Historic Site, as the NPS refers to it, says of Longfellow, “Henry was such a decent person — not without flaws, of course — but truly decent. He was ambitious and achieved his ambitions, but one thing that comes across again and again as I delve into the family’s papers and help our various researchers understand his story, and the story of his family, is his consistent openness and generosity.”

Before we left town via the clogged arteries of Interstate 90, we thought it would be fitting to head just down the street to the cemetery to see Longfellow’s tomb. What was planned to be an hour of visiting the great poet’s gravesite and to take a look at the magnificent chapel and lake there, turned into four hours of hiking and pondering and searching, all culminating in the climbing of the huge stone Washington Tower. It gives visitors a splendid view of the Boston skyline, a world away from Longfellow’s sedate gardens and stately trees.

Mount Auburn is one of the great cemeteries of America. Opened in 1831 and a perfect example of the “rural cemetery,” it now consists of 174 acres and nearly 100,000 graves, but it was a considerably smaller place when Longfellow was buried there. Along a ridgeline, not far from the imposing “Egyptian Revival” entrance gates, Longfellow’s great grey granite tomb can be found under a canopy of trees, his old friend, Lowell, resting not far away. There, this man of great generosity and compassion, and, great loneliness too, was finally reunited with Fanny; eventually, with all of his children.

It is easy to mourn for Longfellow, for his later years and his sorrow. But we should also remember that even in his last years, and in one of his final poems, he wrote, “But who shall dare/To measure loss and gain in this wise?/Defeat may be victory in disguise; /The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.”

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” has recently been released. He’ll be speaking and signing his books at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Rockville Public Library.

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