Campus News

Special Collections' Longfellow Treasure: Une Lettre Française

Story posted June 04, 2009

The George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives has acquired an important letter that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed in French to a friend, Quebec physician Jean Zéphirin Nault.

Writing on March 10, 1835, Longfellow expresses palpable excitement about undertaking a European journey that will prepare him for his new appointment as professor of modern languages at Harvard College.

Longfellow French530.jpg
The letter with Longfellow's signature, using the French "Henri."

Longfellow had just resigned a similar position at Bowdoin to accept the Harvard offer, and Harvard had granted him two years of travel to hone his linguistic skills, particularly in Germanic and Scandinavian languages. In his new position, Longfellow would replace his mentor, George Ticknor, who had suggested Longfellow's name when Ticknor retired.

Remembered best today as America's most popular 19th-century poet, Longfellow also made important contributions to the study of European languages and literary translation. Soon after being graduated from the College in 1825, in preparation for serving as Bowdoin's first professor of modern languages (from 1829 until 1835), Longfellow had made a similar European trip.

The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Collection
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during his Brunswick years. Courtesy of George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives.

The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Collection includes several hundred letters, manuscripts and photographs, 668 pieces of sheet music, and more than 1,850 volumes, including copies of the French, Spanish and Italian texts that Longfellow had published between 1830 and 1833 for the use of his Bowdoin students.

Read detailed descriptions of the collection.

Modern languages were rarely offered at American colleges at the time, and Longfellow was among a very few academicians who were developing courses, readers and textbooks to advance those nascent disciplines.

The three-page letter, written in Longfellow's familiar, well-rounded script, was previously known only through an English translation that appeared in the March 6, 1926, issue of the Boston Evening Standard. That translated version has formed the basis for published scholarly editions of the letter until the present day.

The rediscovered original French version now offers fresh insight into Longfellow's feelings during this pivotal moment in his life, and it offers testimony about his own facility with the French language. Those fluent in French who have seen the letter have remarked on its impressive linguistic quality and Longfellow's elegant writing style, suggesting that Longfellow had to have learned the language in a saturated, pure French environment in order to enjoy such remarkable fluency.

Nault had attended lectures at the Medical School of Maine, situated on the campus of Bowdoin College, in 1834. It was no doubt then that Nault and Longfellow struck up their acquaintance, perhaps from sharing French as a common language, and the depth of their friendship is obvious from their correspondence. Nault (1810-1864) practiced medicine in Quebec City and later became a founding professor of the school of medicine at l'Université Laval.

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