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Leaving Portland: Longfellow Goes to Bowdoin & Europe

1822 to 1835

Henry W. Longfellow, ca. 1825

Henry W. Longfellow, 1825

In 1822 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his older brother moved to Brunswick, Maine to start their sophomore year at Bowdoin College. They both graduated in 1825, in a class that included the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Silhouettes of the Famous Class of 1825, Bowdoin College

Silhouettes of the Famous Class of 1825, Bowdoin College

During his time at Bowdoin, Henry's passion for writing grew. Stephen Longfellow, concerned about his son's future, argued that Henry should take up the law. Henry was willing to acquiesce but he wrote: "I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently after it…if I can ever rise in the world, it must be by the exercise of my talents in the wide field of literature." Stephen, a trustee of Bowdoin, was not deaf to his son's enthusiasm and may have been instrumental in securing for him a professorship at the college in modern European languages — then a relatively new academic field. To prepare, Longfellow traveled and studied abroad.

His trip began in 1826 and lasted three years. It was the first of a number in his lifetime that would take him throughout Europe, lead to the acquisition or mastery of seven languages, and introduce him to both classical literatures and the living authors of many countries. From this first trip also came his first youthful book and some indication of his literary temperament. It was a meditative travelogue called Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835).

Facsimile of sketch by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1829

Facsimile of Sketch by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1829

In Outre Mer Longfellow filters his experience through the work of other writers - in this case Washington Irving's travel sketches and Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Edgar Allan Poe later accused Longfellow of plagiarizing, but it is clear that Longfellow's use of literary models came from a deep sense of his participation in a universal fellowship of art: to borrow and imitate was to enrich and amplify his own vision. He was, we might say, a completely literary man: imaginatively engaged with works of literary genius; generous to other writers, whom he translated and published regularly; and in love with the act of writing and the power of language. "Study of languages…" he wrote to his family on that first trip to Europe, "is like being born again."

Henry W. Longfellow's Student Lodgings in Goettingen, Germany, 1908

Henry W. Longfellow's Student Lodgings in Goettingen, Germany (photo 1908)

Longfellow began teaching French, Spanish, and Italian at Bowdoin in 1829. He soon married Mary Potter of Portland, began to write critical essays, and published six foreign language textbooks. It was enough to earn him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages at Harvard College, which he accepted in 1834, beginning a long association with the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Longfellow, however, always retained his ties to family and home in Maine.

Mary Storer Potter Longfellow, ca. 1831

Mary Storer Potter Longfellow, ca. 1833

To improve his language skills before taking on the new position at Harvard, he and his wife and two friends left for Europe in 1835. It was a crucial turning point. On this trip life's lessons fell hard on Longfellow. His young wife, Mary, died of complications following a miscarriage. After sending her body back to Cambridge for later burial, he continued his journey in a near suicidal depression, hoping that travel might dispel his cares. Solace did eventually come, but with it a new form of anguish. A chance meeting in the Swiss Alps brought Longfellow together with the wealthy Appleton family of Boston. It was then he met and fell in love with their daughter, the stylish and beautiful Frances (Fanny). Fanny Appleton was the great love of Longfellow's life, but she did not return that love for seven years.