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American Literature 72.1 (2000) 59-86
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Work, Manhood, and Poetry
Longfellow’s invention of himself as a poet was one with his assumption of a leading place in the social order, an accession that must have seemed very natural to him. The decisive years for this self-invention are roughly those of the mid- to late 1830s, when Longfellow left a professorship at Bowdoin College in the village of Brunswick, Maine, to go to Cambridge, where he followed the eminent George Ticknor as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard. Since his youth in maritime Portland, Longfellow had been ambitious to make a name for himself in letters; his biographer Lawrance Thompson shows how assiduously the young Longfellow worked as a Bowdoin professor to master his discipline and, through an impressive variety of academic projects, to escape what he called in a letter “this land of Barbarians—this miserable Down East.”1 In exchanging Brunswick for Cambridge, Longfellow was finally moving out and up. His father, a Harvard graduate and Bowdoin trustee who in Yankee fashion was both suspicious and cautiously supportive of Henry’s literary career, continued to set goals for his thirty-year-old son even as he expressed his congratulations:
I rejoice, my dear son, that you are at length established in so very eligible a situation. With your literary tastes and habits, I can hardly conceive of a more pleasant location, and I most sincerely hope and pray it may remain permanent, and that no unfortunate circumstances may occur to mar your enjoyment or diminish your usefulness. I think your ambition must be satisfied, and your only object now will be to fill with eminence and distinction the office in which [End Page 59] you are placed, and to become distinguished among the literary men of the age.2
Over the next several years, as he lectured on Dante and Goethe to classes made up of the sons of New England’s elite, as he befriended up-and-coming young men such as Cornelius Felton and Charles Sumner, and as he made a place for himself in Cambridge and Boston society, Longfellow began writing poetry for the first time in years, perhaps in part to meet the challenge his father had set him. His poems from this period seem motivated by a new sense of public obligation, a determination to be useful and instructive as a poet, and a desire to improve and uplift his readers. In moving to Cambridge and taking up his duties at Harvard, Longfellow entered a sphere that gave added impetus and scope to the incipient paternalism of his poetry.
The tier of New England society to which Longfellow belonged was made up of prominent families whose men became distinguished in law, religion, medicine, and education, and who felt deeply their civic responsibilities.3 Stephen Longfellow, the poet’s father, was a leading Portland lawyer, a representative to the Massachusetts legislature (Maine did not become independent until 1820), and for one term a member of Congress; late in life he served as President of the Maine Historical Society. His father had been a Portland judge and also a delegate to the Massachusetts state legislature, and his grandfather had been a schoolmaster. The poet’s maternal grandfather was General Peleg Wadsworth, a Revolutionary war hero who had also been elected to the Massachusetts legislature and to Congress.4 With such a family history of honorable service Longfellow seems fated, in retrospect at least, to channel his literary ambitions into socially acceptable forms; when called upon late in life to account for a certain lack of romantic passion in his poetry, he reportedly replied, “[E]ven had I the inclination, one could scarcely expect me to lie awake at night writing things that would set a bad example to a class of thirty young men whom I had to teach in the morning.”5 Whether true or not, the anecdote captures a truth about Longfellow. James Russell Lowell, Longfellow’s successor in the Smith Professorship, similarly translated the moral imperative of gentry...