Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There is a statue memorializing Henry Wordsworth Longfellow located in a triangular park at the confluence of Connecticut Avenue and 18th and M Streets (MAP), just south of DuPont Circle, in northwest D.C. The life-sized bronze statue by William Couper and Thomas Ball is mounted on a base of Swedish granite, and depicts a seated Longfellow, dressed in his academic robe, resting his chin on his left hand with his arm supported by the armrest of his chair, and holding a book in his right hand.  Originally just an island of grass at the intersection, the small park in which the statue sits was redesigned by the National Park Service in the late 1960’s to include sidewalks, a water fountain, landscaping, and a number of benches and seating areas which make it a popular location for lunch breaks among the downtown office workers.

The statue was dedicated at a ceremony which was held in May of 1909, and was the first in D.C. to honor an American literary figure.  A number of dignitaries were present at the dedication ceremony, as well as descendants of Longfellow.  Hundreds of spectators and members of the public were also in attendance.  Seats for approximately 700 people were set-up on the Connecticut Avenue side of the park, with an overflow crowd that filled the streets.  During the ceremony Attorney General George W. Wickersham, who was standing in for President William Howard Taft, accepted the statue which was presented by Brainard H. Warner, treasurer of the Longfellow National Memorial Association, which donated the statue.  Melvin Fuller, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then president of the Memorial Association, presided over the unveiling ceremony.

Born in 1807, Longfellow grew up the second of eight children in Portland, Maine, which was then a part of Massachusetts.  He attended private schools, and went on at the age of fifteen to study at Bowdoin College, a college which had been founded by his grandfather and where his father was a trustee. After spending time in Europe, he became a professor at his alma mater, but later moved to Cambridge to become a professor at Harvard College.  Longfellow was married twice, first to a childhood friend named Mary Storer Potter.  Mary had a miscarriage about six months into her pregnancy, and failed to recover, dying after several weeks of illness.  Shortly after Mary’s death Longfellow began courting Frances “Fanny” Appleton.  They married after a seven-year courtship, and had six children together before she died of burns when her clothing accidentally caught fire in their home.  As a result of his attempts to save her, Longfellow burned himself badly enough to be unable to attend her funeral.  His facial injuries from the fire also led him to stop shaving, thereafter wearing the beard which became his trademark.  By the time Fanny died, Longfellow had retired from teaching to focus on his writing.  Devastated by her death, he never fully recovered, and lived out the rest of his life in Cambridge.  Longfellow is buried with both of his wives at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

An American poet and educator, Longfellow is considered one of the most important figures in American literature.  While still in college, he not only decided on his future literary vocation but already began pursuing his goals by submitting poetry to various newspapers and magazines.  He published nearly forty poems by the time he graduated.  During his career Longfellow was also important as a translator.  Among many projects, he was the first American to translate Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.  But it is for his writing that he is best known and remembered.  Among his many works, Longfellow was probably most known during his day for the poem “Sail On, O Ship of State.”   Today, however, he best remembered for “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  He became a national literary figure by the 1850s, and a world- famous personality by the time of his death in 1882.  His poetry has been a continuous presence and influence in our language ever since.

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