(Re)discovering Longfellow

Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

Wouldn’t it be nice to get a house as your wedding present?  And not just any house but a lovely one in Cambridge with a view of the Charles River?  To be in your 30s and never have had a mortgage?  To find fame and fortune in your chosen profession?  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow certainly managed to fulfill more than one dream during his life.  When he died in 1882, he was not only the United States’ most famous poet but a multimillionaire thanks to his writing!  His fame was such that he is the only American writer honored in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey and his home is a National Historic Site in the USA.

We visited the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site during our trip to Boston.  Like most of the sites we visited in Boston, admission is free.  It’s an easy 10-minute walk from the Harvard T-stop (metro station).  We didn’t have the girls with us and I’m not sure I would recommend the home for children.  That said, four of the ten people on our tour were between 5-12 years old and a summer camp group came in after us.  The house is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm with tours every hour on the hour.  To be honest, Anthony and I came to the house for differing motives–he was curious about an American writer he had never learned about and I wanted to find out more about the house’s George Washington connection.  When we left, I was carrying a copy of selected Longfellow poems from the gift shop and marvelling over his ability to craft verse.  George Washington was no longer my focus.

Prior to Longfellow, George Washington used the house as his first official headquarters during the Siege of Boston in the American Revolution.  Washington was able to use the house as it’s owner had left for Canada never to return.  John Vassall, who built the house in 759, was a British Loyalist who was on the wrong side of history.  Andrew Craigie, Washington’s Apothecary General, next bought the house.  Following his death, his widow would rent rooms to a young Harvard Professor–Longfellow.  He would go to receive it as a wedding present from his father-in-law and the house would remain in his family until being offered to the American people.

Longfellow House Garden

Longfellow’s house is unique in that with very few exceptions everything you see is native to the house.    Following Longfellow’s death, his eldest daughter Alice left the ground floor untouched and moved to the first floor.  Recognizing the historical significance of the home, she along with other family members created the Longfellow Trust.  They catalogued all the home’s contents, their locations, cost, etc. for posterity.  Walking in the house shows off the cosmopolitan world in which the Longfellow’s lived–Longfellow’s books line the walls, Japanese artifacts from his son’s travels pop up in different rooms and paintings, prints and busts (including Washington’s) compete for your attention.  That said, our Park Ranger’s focus was clearly on Longfellow and his family.  He used the house as a way to introduce the man and his poetry to us.  Our Ranger also talked about the birth of American literature in the 1850s–within several years, American writers were writing about American subjects.  Melville’s Moby Dick, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond all date from this period and mark the emergence of American Literature.  Longfellow is their peer in poetry.

As we visited his home, our guide recited Longfellow’s poems from memory in practically every room we visited.  I can’t remember the last time I came across someone so passionate about poetry.  Some of the lines came back to me–“Listen children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,”others were new to me.  Listening to our Ranger recite “The Children’s Hour” in sight of a painting of Longfellow’s girls made everyone on the tour smile.  Hearing “A Psalm of Life” as we moved into his study made everyone stand still in a moment of reflection.  “The Arrow and the Song” flew into our ears in the hall.  It was contagious, it was moving, it was not what I was expecting and it was worth every second of our time.

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One Response to (Re)discovering Longfellow

  1. N High says:

    Great post. Thank you for the postcard you sent me of this house. I remember Longfellow briefly from American Lit. in 10th grade. We mainly focused on novelists though so our poetry exposure was brief.

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