If ever there was a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yet far from using his birthright as a ticket to a dissolute life, Longfellow combined his family connections and his exceptional intellect to become the most famous poet in the world.
Longfellow’s career began in Portland, Maine (Massachusetts at the time) where he grew up in a house originally built in 1785-1786 for his maternal grandfather, Revolutionary War general Peleg Wadsworth. The house was built in a neoclassical style of brick, one of the earliest brick structures in Maine. Originally the house had two stories, but a third story was added after a fire in 1814. That made it big enough to accommodate the large family. At times as many as 12 people lived in the house.
The Wadsworth family can trace its roots in America to the Mayflower. The Longfellow family, meanwhile, traced its roots to England via William, Henry’s great-great grandfather. He was a soldier who came to Nova Scotia as part of a British military force. Henry’s grandfather served as a judge and his father a congressman.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
These two families came together in the marriage of Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth, who in 1807 would take up residence in the Wadsworth home at 489 Congress Street in Portland. Henry was eight months old then. He would live there until he left for Bowdoin College at 14, and he would call it home for 35 years. Henry mastered three foreign languages and returned to Bowdoin, after touring Europe, to teach. He would later take a position at Harvard College until he gave up teaching and turned his attention to writing full time.
The house played an important role in shaping Longfellow’s life. In the house he first got the notion to make writing his profession, rather than law or medicine or business. His father did not fully support his plan, given the unlikelihood that he could support himself as a writer.
Longfellow would prove his father’s doubts wrong, and by no small measure. He became the best known poet in the English-speaking world in his lifetime, writing works such as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline.”
People of all walks of life appreciated Longfellow’s work. When he was in his sixties in 1868, Queen Victoria received him. The queen was surprised to see her servants clamoring for a glimpse of him.
Longfellow died in 1882 and lived most of his adult life in Cambridge, Mass. But his childhood home in Maine retained a place in his heart, and he visited regularly until the year before he died.
Anne Longfellow Pierce, Henry’s sister, preserved the family home in much the state it was in when Peleg Wadsworth had lived in it. In her will, she bequeathed the house, land and many furnishings to the Maine Historical Society upon her death in 1901. The society has operated it as a museum ever since. A visit takes you on a remarkable trip back in time to the early days of Maine and Longfellow’s life.
Five Things You’ll Never Forget if you Visit
The Pitcher in the Summer Dining Room
On one shelf in the summer dining room rests a blue-and-white pitcher made around 1800 in memory of George Washington. The pitcher was used to serve lemonade each year on the Fourth of July. It has sat on the shelf for well over 100 years.
The Waiting Room
For about 10 years beginning in 1815, Stephen Longfellow operated his law office in the house’s front sitting room. A new side entrance and vestibule were built as a sitting room for clients. It was a place Henry often used to study and write. He was not happy when the family remodeled the room to make it a china closet after his father moved his law office out of the house.
Childhood Desk of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The second-story back bedroom contains a number of items from the Longfellow children’s day, including a pine child’s desk, worn and scribbled with graffiti, that dates to the school years of the Longfellow children.
Handprints in the Hall
In the rear hallway of the house, the plaster bears one of the most tangible reminders of the Wadsworth children. On the wall you can see the handprint in the plaster and the inscription “Eliza Wads-worth.” It belongs to Zilpah’s sister who died at the age of 22. Elizabeth Wadsworth not only was a favorite of Zilpah, who nursed her through her young life, but she was also thought to be betrothed to Stephen Longfellow. She died, however, before they married. It was after Elizabeth’s death that Zilpah and Stephen would marry.
Zilpah’s chamber on the second floor was a room that Henry’s mother spent many hours in. While much of the mansion is typical of what you might expect of an old New England home, Zilpah’s room reflects her colorful tastes, especially on the wall. The bright blue French wallpaper features a trellis and floral design that look very un-New England.
Visiting the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Childhood Home
The Wadsworth-Longfellow House is open for tours May through October. Information about the house is available at its website.
Summer dining room image courtesy of the Library of Congress.