Biography Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Time Period1807 - 1882
  • PlacePortland
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow was a powerful figure in the cultural life of nineteenth century America. Born in 1807, he had become a national literary figure by the 1850s and a world-famous personality by the time of his death in 1882

Henry's grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829), was a Revolutionary War general who later served seven terms in the United States Congress. The family home in Portland was built for Peleg in 1785-6.

Father Stephen Longfellow (1776-1849) was a lawyer and legislator who helped found many of Maine's early cultural institutions, including the Maine Historical Society (1822). Henry's mother and early encourager was Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow (1778-1851), direct descendant of Plymouth's John and Priscilla Alden, and a woman of learning, wit, and liberal religious convictions.

Longfellow attended Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, where he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, his lifelong friend and literary colleague. After graduation in 1825 and three years of touring and study in Europe, he assumed the professorship of modern languages — then a relatively new field — at Bowdoin.

His publishing record (six foreign language textbooks in as many years) finally earned him a similar post at Harvard in 1834, beginning his long association with the city of Cambridge.

Longfellow was a devoted husband and father with a keen feeling for the pleasures of home. But his marriages ended in sadness and tragedy — the first to Mary Potter, of Portland, who died in 1835; the second to Fanny Appleton — the great love of his life and the mother of his six children — who died of burns from a terrible accident in 1861.

A deep nostalgia for his life with Fanny colored the rest of Longfellow's life. Longfellow published his first poem at age thirteen in the Portland Evening Gazette — a precocious sign of an astounding literary career as editor, anthologist, translator, playwright, novelist, and, above all, poet. His many published works sold in phenomenal numbers and multiple editions.

Most important are Ballads and Other Poems (1841), Poems on Slavery (1844), Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (1867), and Keramos (1878).

One of Longfellow's favorite metaphors is the backward glance. People in the present look back into their distant pasts and make a discovery. What had once been history — political, conflicted, sad, and bloody — could now be seen as imaginative myth: ordered, noble, and a source of strength. Longfellow wrote for a young nation ready to make this backward glance.

The Indian, the Puritan, the Acadian had all, seemingly, sacrificed their identities on America's stage. In return they would become our originating legends. It was Longfellow's genius and unique opportunity that supplied his country with its mythic past. He did so in a supple lucid verse: moody, melodic, and filled with moral tenderness. For this he was loved.