Home Arts and Leisure The Long, Footsore Courtship of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Long, Footsore Courtship of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for seven years walked back and forth over the West Boston Bridge in what seemed a futile quest.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

When he started his lonely walk, he was a 29-year-old widower and Harvard professor, and he was in love with Fanny Appleton. He had met her in Switzerland eight months after his first wife, Mary Potter, died in November 1835.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland (then Massachusetts) to an old New England family. She was born Oct. 6, 1817, the daughter of wealthy Boston industrialist Nathan Appleton.

Upon her return from Europe in 1836, she lived in her family home on Beacon Hill.

He lived in Cambridge in rented rooms at the Craigie House, once George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War and now preserved as a historic site by the National Park Service.

Longfellow walked across the West Boston Bridge over the Charles River to court her at home. She wasn’t interested. He persisted.

West Boston Bridge

Madness of Passion

In 1839, he wrote to a friend: “[V]ictory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion.”

She continued to reject him, causing him to suffer from depression and panic attacks. He took a six-month leave of absence from his job at Harvard to recover at a health spa in Germany.

Fanny_Appleton_Longfellow_Drawing

Fanny Appleton

On May 10, 1843, Fanny Appleton sent a letter agreeing to marry him. He was too excited to wait for a carriage, so he walked for an hour and a half to her house. They were married a month later on July 13, and had their first of six children the following year. Her father bought the entire Craigie House for them as a wedding gift.

Longfellow published a poem called The Bridge in 1845, which made the West Boston Bridge famous. It describes his misery at Fanny’s rejection contrasted with his later happiness. The bridge was replaced in 1906 with a new bridge called The Longfellow Bridge.

Longfellow Bridge, 2019

Fanny died tragically in 1861 when her dress caught fire at home. Longfellow tried to save her by throwing a rug over her, but failed. He was too badly burned to attend her funeral, and wore a beard for the rest of his life to disguise the scars on his face. He never fully recovered from her death.

This story last updated in 2022.

Image: Longfellow Bridge in 2019: By Another Believer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83999177.

10 comments

Nancy Place
Nancy Place February 27, 2014 - 11:06 pm

Thank you for sharing this story!

Deb Putnam
Deb Putnam February 28, 2014 - 12:50 am

These articles have become my favorite sites!

Margaret Dragon
Margaret Dragon February 28, 2014 - 8:29 am

Keep them coming please!

Helen Solomon
Helen Solomon February 28, 2014 - 10:04 am

The Salt and Pepper bridge!

Molly Landrigan
Molly Landrigan February 28, 2014 - 5:33 pm

Yes, we always called the bridge the Salt and Pepper Bridge, too.

Literary Rob April 28, 2014 - 11:39 am

Just a few minor corrections: I’ve never heard that Longfellow suffered panic attacks; his trip to the spas at Germany were to treat his poor eyesight and his neuralgia (not a broken heart). The distance in time between her letter and their marriage is two months, not one as stated here. Most importantly, there seems to be little evidence to indicate any significant frequency in Longfellow walking across the bridge to Beacon Hill to see the Appletons. Certainly, it happened at least once, maybe twice, but not incessantly for seven years, as the folklore (and the opening sentence here) often implies. Even if it did, there was an omnibus from the Cambridge “village” into Boston. The fact is, he was often in Boston anyway, not solely to court a certain lady. It makes the story somewhat more poignant that, on May 10, 1843, he could not wait for the next ride and chose to walk in his excitement.

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