Baccalaureate 2007: Readings from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted May 25, 2007

Voices from Bowdoin's Past
by Timothy W. Foster, Dean of Student Affairs
Baccalaureate
May 25, 2007

Across Campus Drive, behind a construction fence at the moment, stand Winthrop and Maine halls — two of our historic brick residences for first-year students.

The "bricks," as they are known on campus, have been undergoing major renovations, and these that were our first dormitories are the last to be so renovated.

Now, many students have lived in Winthrop over the years, but only one student's presence has been memorialized with a plaque.

Standing with your back to the door of Adams Hall and looking up toward Winthrop, you can make out a rectangle of white marble just below a third floor window on the northeast corner of the building. Step closer and you can read the inscription: "College Room of Longfellow 1823-1825"

Longfellow was one of the first students to occupy New College, where he lived in room # 27 with his brother, Stephen, during his junior and senior years.

Two years in the bricks? In those days, students were content to stay put, and after the renovations, that may again become the desire!

There were no Brunswick Apartments, no rentals on Mere Point — the sorts of accommodations available today to seniors Lauren Huber, Winslow Moore, and Lauren Pfingstag — who also began their days here, like Longfellow, in Winthrop #27.

Living in Winthrop was a very new and exciting experience for young Henry Longfellow, and I do mean young . You see, Henry was already a published poet when he began his studies at Bowdoin — at the age of 14!

During his freshmen year he lived at home in Portland. For his sophomore year, he lived with his brother at the Titcomb House on Federal Street — today known as the Stowe House.

So it was only when he was a junior, that Henry experienced true campus living for the first time. In September, he wrote to his parents:

"...I feel very well contented and much pleased with College life. Many of the students are very agreeable companions and, thus far, I have passed my time very pleasantly. The students have considerably more leisure time than I expected, but as the season advances and the days grow shorter, our leisure moments must necessarily be considerably diminished. I expected, when I got here, that I should have to study very hard to keep a good footing with the rest of the class, but I find I have sufficient time for the preparation of my lessons and for amusement."

Pre-Joshuas and pre-The Sea Dog, where did this "amusement" take place? We are left to wonder.

But Henry was excited — about simply being a student at Bowdoin and living on campus. In October of his junior year, Henry wrote to his brother:

"...I feel far better contented here — far more happy, and far less inclined to be low-spirited, than has ever been the case at any former period...You must not be surprised when I tell you, I wish to not come home. No — not yet! — not for weeks — months!"

Well, guess what parents? Many of them will be coming home. Tomorrow!

As Longfellow approached the midway point of his senior year at Bowdoin, he was beginning to feel the pressure every college student before and since has known. Yes, Class of 2007, this is a constant — the pressure associated with questions about what comes next.

Parents and family, be gentle. It turned out quite well for Henry, and it will turn out for your daughter and son as well.

Henry had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to do after college. But probably like some of you, he wasn't so sure that it was going to fly at home.

Even in 1825, and even with a talent as immense as his, one had to negotiate with parents about future plans.

"My dear father,

...I take this early opportunity to write to you, because I wish to know fully your inclination with regard to the profession I am to pursue, when I leave college. For my part, I have already hinted to you what would best please me.

The fact is, — and I will not disguise it in the least, ... I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers in it."

The response from home — was not what Henry wanted to hear. Imagine that, students! But he persisted, writing again:

January 24, 1825

"My dear father,

...from the general tenor of your last letter, it seems to be your fixed desire, that I should choose the profession of the Law for the business of my life. I believe that I have already mentioned to you that I did not wish to enter immediately upon any profession.

...You must acknowledge the propriety and usefulness of aiming high — at something which it is impossible to overshoot — perhaps to reach...I have a most voracious appetite for knowledge. To its acquisition I will sacrifice anything."

By the time he graduated from Bowdoin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had published two-dozen poems and short prose in a respected literary magazine. Offered a position on the faculty, he spent the better part of three years in Europe mastering the languages necessary to assume the professorship of modern languages and the librarianship of the College. In 1835, Longfellow became Harvard's Professor of French and Spanish, a position he resigned in 1854 to concentrate on his writing.

This year, America and Bowdoin celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking back on his life, and especially at his accomplishments at such an early age, it might seem that his success was preordained. But as he sat where you sit, even with all that success, even with all that confidence, nothing was certain.

"...In five weeks we shall be set free from college...Then comes Commencement - and then - and then - I cannot say what will be after that."

Henry Longfellow, who would go on to be arguably the most popular literary figure in 19th century America, was at his Commencement clearly already a gifted writer able to convey detail in vivid ways.

Tomorrow, after Commencement, as you pack your rooms, say your goodbyes and linger just a bit longer, reflect on the following words which Henry penned in a letter to his father during his junior year.

"The term is about closing, and many of the students, at least, have gone...Now and then there is a solitary footstep in the entry, a solitary rap at the distant door, the noise of the falling latch, and then all still again."

The words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1825.

Thank you for listening.


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