Friday, October 9, 2009

7: Portland: The Longfellow legacy

Anne Longfellow Pierce was a forward thinking woman when it came to history. The sister of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow intended, even as she was living in the family house in Portland, Maine—and she lived there until 1901—that she would see to its preservation as a museum. Thanks to her and the Maine Historical Society, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, or the “Old Original” as the family called it, has been remarkably preserved.

History was a matter of importance to the Longfellow family—Henry and Anne’s father, Stephen, was a founding member of the Portland Historical Society, and he and Henry (who served at one time as its librarian) were lifelong members. Their own family history was important too: Henry’s maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, who built the house in the 1780s, served as a general in the Continental Army, and there are numerous George Washington mementoes around the house. A portrait over the fireplace in the parlor has been hanging there since 1802. (Washington was an early object of the cult of celebrity, especially after his death—there’s an image of him surrounded by angels being taken to Heaven. Elvis had nothing on Washington.)

Hard to believe that the house on Congress Street (then called Back Street) had a view of the harbor when it was built. It was also the first brick house in Portland, and now the only surviving single-family residential building in the area. In Wadsworth’s day the property had a barn and store. Peleg and his wife Elizabeth raised their ten children in the house; they moved to the family’s farm in Hiram in 1807 (when Portland got to congested for Peleg) rented the house to daughter Zilpah and her husband Stephen Longfellow. The Longfellows added a third story to the house for raising their eight children.

The year 1835 was a difficult one for the Longfellow family. Henry and his young wife Mary were on a tour of Europe when she suffered a miscarriage and died. Sister Anne lost her husband, George Washington Pierce, to typhus after only three years of marriage. When Henry received the news of his sister’s loss, he returned to Portland to comfort her. During his stay, obviously considering their hardships, he wrote “The Rainy Day.”

            The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
            It rains, and the wind is never weary;
            The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
            But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
                     And the day is dark and dreary.

            My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
            It rains, and the wind is never weary;
            My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
            But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
                     And the days are dark and dreary.

            Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
            Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
            Thy fate is the common fate of all,
            Into each life some rain must fall,
                     Some days must be dark and dreary.

When she was widowed, Anne moved back into the family home and remained there the rest of her life. After their parents passed away Henry sent money home to Anne to help pay for the upkeep of the house, and he visited often. However …

In 1843 when he married Fanny Appleton, the two stayed in the guest bedroom during their honeymoon visit. The new Mrs. Longfellow, from a wealthy Boston family, was accustomed to grander surroundings, so on subsequent visits they stayed in a hotel.

The house has been restored to the way it was in the mid-nineteenth century. As far as plumbing goes, reclaiming the past wasn’t difficult: Even in 1901 when Anne Longfellow Pierce bequeathed the house to the Maine Historical Society it had no indoor plumbing—and there was still an outhouse in the back yard.

Artwork from Europe hangs in several of the rooms, souvenirs from the poet’s travels that he brought home for his family. On his first trip, which he took in preparation for teaching modern languages at Bowdoin College, he became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. Eventually, he learned to speak twelve languages.

His later life was marked by loss just as his young adulthood had been. His daughter Fanny, born in 1847, died when she was just sixteen months old. His father died in 1849, and his mother followed in 1851. His second wife Fanny died tragically in 1861 when she set herself on fire using sealing wax; Longfellow, who bundled her in a rug to extinguish the flames was himself burned and bore the scars on his face for the rest of his life. They were mostly concealed by the full beard he grew. (See this Maine Historical Society microsite for more on Longfellow’s life and works.)

The Maine Historical Society building next door to the Wadsworth-Longfellow house has a gallery space for exhibits. The current one, Re/Collected: Great Works and New Discoveries from the Brown Library, showcases an interesting assortment of books, journals, maps, broadsides and photographs from the Society’s own holdings. Among them: a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work (1853). This unwieldy title fronts a response to critics of her 1852 novel—which she wrote while living in Brunswick, Maine—and documents the factual sources that provided inspiration for the characters and conditions in her story. (I’ll be visiting Stowe’s home in a future field trip.)

After the house visit my friend Steve and I walked down Congress Street to Longfellow Square (the house sits near Monument Square, go figure). A statue of the poet stands in the middle of it. This was also a personal history tour; when Steve moved to Portland, his first apartment was here on Longfellow Square.

Then we headed back to he community television building where the Portland public library was holding its monthly Brown Bag Lunch lecture (the library itself is under renovation, so the series has a temporary home at CTN). This lunch session wasn’t actually a lecture; it was a reading by Steve Luttrell, current poet laureate of the city of Portland. (He is also publishing editor of The CafĂ© Review.) It was fun to hear poetry after considering Longfellow all morning, and listening to Luttrell, a Portland native, read made me wonder if Longfellow had a similar accent, since he too was a Portland native.

No brown bag lunch for us. After the reading we walked down to Middle Street and into the cozy, brick-lined interior of Duckfat. Now, I love history and I enjoy poetry, but truth be told they were both relegated to the far reaches of my attention once our order arrived. A large cone of Belgian fries, hot and crisp from their immersion in duck fat. A couple of “Five Dollar” milk shakes (actual price $4, don’t ask me). An a couple of paninis: one a take on the classic Reuben made with corned beef tongue and marinated red cabbage and the other duck confit with Black Mission fig. Big flavors all around. I’m only sorry I didn’t have room for dessert.

Gotta go back.

Note: If you’re going to visit, the Maine Historical Society encourages you to bring a friend. Their website offers a coupon for two-for-one admission. You can also get a dollar discount if you are a AAA member.

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