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Henry's Life in Cambridge

1836 to 1854

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1840

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1840

Bereaved and spurned, Longfellow returned to Cambridge in December 1836 to take up his teaching post. He was almost thirty years of age. The true beginning of Longfellow's creative life dates from this moment, perhaps because he had matured, or perhaps because he had glimpsed the real depths of human experience. In the next fifteen years he wrote all the works on which his extraordinary and nearly instantaneous fame came to rest. Hyperion, an autobiographical novel (featuring a thinly veiled account of Longfellow's love for and rejection by Fanny Appleton), appeared in 1839. The poetry collections Voices in the Night (1839) and Ballads and Poems (1841) were received enthusiastically by an international audience.

Frances Appleton Longfellow by Rowse, 1859

Fanny Appleton Longfellow by Rowse, 1859

Meanwhile, the successful poet also worked full time at Harvard University, lectured, and directed the Modern Languages department. The department was meant to consist of four men teaching in their native languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and German. When a position was vacant, Henry had to fill in. Frustrated with his situation, Longfellow wrote to his father in September of 1839, "But my work here grows quite intolerable; and unless they make some change, I will leave them, with or without anything to do. I will not consent to have my life crushed out of me so. I had rather live a while on bread and water." Longfellow managed to tolerate the situation for another 15 years.

F.A. Longfellow and sons, ca. 1849

Frances Appleton Longfellow and Sons, ca. 1849

His popularity as a poet continued to grow. The great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had been a Bowdoin classmate of Longfellow and who became his life-long friend, wrote: "I read your poems over and over . . . nothing equal to some of them was ever written in this world." There followed Poems on Slavery (1842), the anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), the novel Kavanagh (1849), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). Clever marketing, often initiated by the poet himself, expanded the audience for all these works until Longfellow had become one of the best selling and most widely read authors in the world.

Longfellow's Three Daughters, 1859

The Longfellow Daughters, 1859

His early fame and persistent wooing finally led Fanny to relent, and they were married in 1843. Craigie House, the Cambridge residence most closely associated with the mature Longfellow, was a wedding gift from Fanny's father. Henry and Fanny had six children: Charles, Ernest, Fanny, Alice, Edith, and Anne Allegra. The infant Fanny was the only one who did not survive to adulthood: she took ill when she was sixteen months old and died a few days later. The Longfellows raised their children at Craigie House and formed the warm family circle that, through its reflection in many poems, became a kind of national symbol for domestic love, the innocence of childhood, and the pleasure of material comfort.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1854

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1854

It was at Craigie House, too, that Longfellow's famous circle of friends and acquaintances came - Emerson, Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell - as well as thousands of unknown visitors, for whom the house was a kind of shrine.

By 1854 Longfellow was able to resign his teaching post at Harvard; he had become, at age forty-seven, one of America's first self-sustaining authors. For the next seven years, Henry was able to pour his energies into his writing, unimpeded by teaching duties and supported by the love of his family.