Bowdoin's Literary Legacies Pave the Way

Story posted October 12, 2007

Bowdoin students live and learn amid the legacies of such literary luminaries as Hawthorne, Longfellow, Stowe and Coffin. The rich history is now, quite literally, underfoot in the town of Brunswick.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of the Class of 1825 and literary legends who became friends after graduating; Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin of the Class of 1915; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote much of her acclaimed novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in her husband's study in Appleton Hall, are all honored in the Brunswick Literary Artwalk, which celebrates the town's literary history with bronze plaques commemorating the famous authors.

The writers' words and signatures have been cast in bronze and set into the sidewalks of Maine Street. The four plaques were designed by a group of Bowdoin College students under the direction of Mark Wethli, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art; finalized by Mahan Graphics of Bath; and cast by Lefevre Studios of New York City. The quotes were selected by Bowdoin College President and Professor of English Emeritus LeRoy Greason and former Curtis Memorial Library librarian Phyllis Fuchs.

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The dedication ceremony at Curtis Memorial Library on October 10, 2007, included readings from the authors' works, presented by Gary Lawless, Lucinda Bliss, Peter Coviello and Richard Coffin.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is regarded as the most popular and widely-read poet in American history. Born in Portland, Maine, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, and went on to write such well-known works as Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha. The poet has an equally important legacy as a translator and educator, and served as Bowdoin's first professor of modern languages before moving to Harvard University. Internationally renowned poet Gary Lawless, proprietor of Gulf of Maine Books, read from Longfellow's works, including My Lost Youth and The Dead Poets.

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Literary giant Nathaniel Hawthorne was a friend and classmate of Longfellow at Bowdoin, where he also made the acquaintance of future U.S. president Franklin Pierce. He went on to write The Scarlet Letter, among other literary classics, and proved to be an innovator in the use of allegory and symbolism. Hawthorne's work was read by Lucinda Bliss, great-great-great-granddaughter of Hawthorne, and professor of art at Vermont College. Bliss spoke of growing up in the distant Hawthorne legacy; Hawthorne's distancing himself from his Puritan forbears, including one of the judges at the Salem witch trials; and his lifelong interest in all of the arts.

Harriet Beecher Stowe reportedly was addressed by President Abraham Lincoln as "the little lady who started this big war!" Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, created a vivid and emotionally gripping account of the horrors of slavery. She wrote much of the novel in her husband Calvin's Bowdoin College study in Appleton Hall. Calvin, a theology professor, was a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1824. At the dedication Peter Coviello, associate professor of English and director of the Africana Studies program at Bowdoin, spoke of Stowe's centrality to the American literary canon, and her posing of the quintessential question that binds Americans together — empathy to suffering and grief — then read the passage that ends with the question Eliza asks Mrs. Byrd, "Have you ever lost a child ...."

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Robert P. Tristram Coffin's Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of poetry Strange Holiness was praised by The New York Times for its "finely chiseled verses" and "manifold perfections." A native of Brunswick and resident of Harpswell, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1915 and returned to campus as professor of English from 1934 until his death in 1955. Richard Coffin, the author's eldest son and a retired professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, told stories of his father and read several poems.

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