He may be well-known for going to college with Nathaniel Hawthrone between 1822 and 1825, but he was a writer in his own right. Born February 27, 1807, Longfellow was an American poet and college professor. Some of his most notable works include Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha.
Let’s celebrate Longfwellow’s birthday by learning more about his life!
- Born in Portland, Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts.
- He went to college with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Bowdoin College, where he would later work as a professor of modern languages. He eventually moved on to teach at Harvard.
- Before becoming a professor, he spent some time in Europe.
- The story goes that Longfellow was offered a job as a professor as long as he traveled to Europe to learn French, Spanish, and Italian. No one knows for sure, but he traveled the continent for three years. The trip cost his father almost three grand.
- He spent time with Washington Irving in Madrid, who encouraged him to pursue writing.
- In 1829, he wrote to the president of the college, saying $600 salary wasn’t right judging by the duties required. Was he right? Well, he’d had to travel and learn other languages for it, so…
- They raised his salary to $800 with an additional hundred to serve as a college librarian one hour per day.
- During his years of teaching, he translated books in French, Italian, and Spanish.
- Makes sense that in 1833, he first published a translation of medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique’s works.
- He also published a travel book, titled Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea.
- It seems his creative work brought him joy, but his properly paid work did not. He once wrote “I hate the sight of pen, ink, and paper… I do not believe that I was born for such a lot. I have aimed higher than this.”
Longfellow In Love
- In 1831, Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter, a childhood friend from Portland, Maine. They lived in Brunswick, but they weren’t happy there.
- During this time, he published nonfiction and fiction prose pieces inspired by Irving.
- Just three years later, Longfellow received a letter from the president of Harvard College. They offered him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages with the stipulation that he spends a year or so abroad.
- He did and learned Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, etc. Yes, in a matter of a year. And to make matters even more unbelivable, Mary had a miscarriage about six months into her pregnancy and died as a result.
- Longfellow would go on to write about his grief in poetry. He was honest about his personal struggles in middle years.
- He would go on to teach at Harvard, renting rooms at the Craigie House in 1837. He was required to live in Cambridge for his teaching position.
- There, he published his poetry, including his debut book of poetry—Voices of the Night.
- After years of persuing Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a notable industrialist at the time, they finally married in 1843. It was seven years of him trying desperately to get her to be his wife.
- They had six children together. He wrote several poems about her, including the sonnet “The Evening Star.”
- The love had a tragic ending, however. Fanny’s dress caught on fire (as to how remains a mystery, since there are about 2-3 versions of the story). Longfellow tried to stifle the flames with a rug that was too small, and then with his own body. Fanny was badly burned and died the next morning.
- Longfellow was badly injured by the flames, and couldn’t attend her funeral. He wore a beard the rest of his life, to hide his injuries.
- Longfellow died as a result of peritonitis, the inflammation of the lining in the abdominal cavity. He was in severe stomach pain, which he endured with opium, until his death.
- He is buried with his two wives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow didn’t retire from Harvard until his later years, during which he pursued his writing full-time. Ironically enough, despite being a widower twice, and fairly older at the time, it was his happiest time. His career as an educator made him successful and financially stable for the time, but he had to sacrifice quite a bit for the positions.
If we learn anything from Longfellow, it should be that to a writer, true happiness comes from actually writing what you want to write. Whatever you choose to do as a means of financial security is entirely your choice. Just don’t expect it to be your utmost source of joy. That’s the key.