Anne Longfellow Pierce
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's sister Anne was born in 1810, the fourth of eight children. Anne grew up in the family home on Congress Street in Portland, and lived there for 87 of her 90 years. Anne eventually became the sole owner of the house, bequeathing it to the Maine Historical Society when she died in 1901.
On November 26, 1832, Anne married George Washington Pierce, a classmate and close friend of Henry, who had studied law in Stephen Longfellow's office. In October 1835 George died of typhus, and Anne returned to her parents' home to face her loss—compounded by the death of her sixteen-year-old sister, Ellen, from the same disease.
Anne Longfellow Pierce lived on in the Portland house with her parents and her mother's sister, Aunt Lucia. As a young widow "sad beyond description," she forced herself to "sit downstairs with the others more…and talk more to them but generally without feeling any interest or half the time knowing what I'm talking about." Her greatest comfort was her mother. "I love so to be…with my good old mother—she talks with me from morning till night of my own dear George." Zilpah and Anne talked about the brief happiness Anne and George had shared in what Anne would look back on as "my little life." Anne healed herself by staying involved with the extended family, creating a flower garden behind the house, running the household, and following the life and career of her dearest brother, who was becoming increasingly famous.
In the years that followed, Henry and his second wife, Fanny, and later their children, made annual visits, usually in the summer, to Portland from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By 1851 the household that greeted them had been seriously altered. Henry and Anne's father, Stephen, died on August 3, 1849, after more than a decade of "bad days." Their mother, Zilpah, died on March 13, 1851. When Henry received the news of her death by telegraph, he left immediately for Portland. "In the chamber where I last took leave of her…a sense of peace came over me, as if there had been no shock or jar in nature, but a harmonious close to a long life." Zilpah bequeathed her half of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House to Anne. When Lucia died in 1864, she too left her share to Anne, whose increasing responsibility for the house became a legal fact.
In this period, fire, which was Anne's ever-present fear, also took its toll. The house was brick, but the barn that her grandfather Peleg Wadsworth built was attached to the house by a wooden ell and outbuildings (one of which housed the privy). In 1849 an nearby stable caught fire, and Anne described its effect: "Coals of fire were literally showered down upon our roof…and the whole street " air was full of burning cinders…Lucia [was] soon at the cistern. Alex…upon the roof…What would have become of us if he had been out of town? [The] old roof must certainly have caught." She was thankful the Longfellows' old barn "was out of the range of the wind." Inevitably, however, the barn did burn, in March 1851. Anne was surprised that she was "not at all frightened…when beholding that old barn–the terror of my nights for years actually burning before my eyes."
Through it all the house endured, and remained a busy place. Henry and Anne's younger brother Alexander–a noisy, booted, cigar-smoking, late-night-keeping presence–still lived at home. As a civil engineer for the United States Coast Survey, he charted the shoreline and harbors of New England. After he married Elizabeth Clapp Porter in 1851, they stayed for a winter before moving into their own Portland home. To Anne "no gentleman in the house seems to make no family." The same could be said for children, but there were many in her life–nieces and nephews and the children of relatives or friends from distant Maine towns who boarded with her in order to attend Portland schools.
Anne was most involved with the children of her troubled older brother, Stephen, and his wife, Marianne, who often brought their youngest offspring for the day, making extra work. In 1850 when Marianne divorced the alcoholic Stephen for lack of support and adultery, Marianne's father demanded that the Longfellows provide support for his daughter's five children. In 1850 Anne took legal guardianship of ten-year-old Henry, his famous uncle's namesake. Anne was forty when Hen, as she called him, came to live with her, and she confided to Mary that her responsibility for him was daunting but "presents itself so strongly as a duty." She gave Hen birthday parties, allowed school friends to visit for noisy play, listened to his prayers, and filled his Christmas stocking. In late nineteenth-century photographs, Anne is an old woman, her waistline lost to age, her dress severe. The expression on her face hints at stress and, interestingly, diffidence. Her love of children, however, remained alive.
Anne lived eighty-seven of her ninety years in the house she called "dear old home." "[I] am happier here than anywhere. An affectionate presence seems to enfold me here…A benediction will ever rest on us children under the old roof tree…so long as memory of our dear parents lives within us." Her feelings were shared by the two generations of Wadsworth and Longfellow children who had lived there and later visited. Her uncle, John Wadsworth, observed: "[I need to] maintain some kind of connection with the old homestead, a kind of moral chain of communion, even if the links be sometimes a year long." Anne called their visits "house vacations." Henry helped maintain the Portland household by providing regular financial assistance to Anne throughout her life. Anne died in 1901, nineteen years after the death of her beloved Henry. During her final years she arranged for the future of her "dear old home."
In 1895 she executed a deed for her bequest of the house to the Maine Historical Society. A new headquarters for their collections was to be built on the site of the barn. The house was to be preserved as a "Longfellow Memorial" with the two first-floor front rooms "kept with appropriate articles for a memorial of the Home of Longfellow." After Anne's death in January 1901, the Society accepted her bequest, fulfilling her wish that the house become not only a shrine to the brother she valued for his abiding friendship and support, his accomplishments and fame, but also as a memorial to the family that reared him.
Reader's Note: The letters of Stephen and Zilpah Wadsworth, and their children, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf, and Samuel Longfellow are in the archives of the National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and quoted with their kind permission.