Historian Illuminates Longfellow's Bowdoin Days

Story posted January 30, 2007

Generations of students were reared on the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among the most illustrious of Bowdoin's 19th century graduates. Memorization and recitation from works such as, "The Song of Hiawatha," have been de rigeur for countless students of a certain age.

Book Jacket

And so it seemed curious to noted 19th century historian Charles C. Calhoun that the life and career of Longfellow had largely been forgotten by 20th century scholars. It was an omission Calhoun encountered during his own research for the 1993 book, A Small College in Maine, the bicentennial history of Bowdoin. He set out to rectify that, with a highly readable and well-researched book, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (Beacon Press, 2004).

Calhoun, who currently is Scholar-in-Residence at the Maine Humanities Council, recently sat down with Associate Director of Academic Communications Selby Frame, to recount the events and impact of Longfellow's Bowdoin days on the Maine-born poet, essayist and literary critic.

SF: Longfellow had an evolving relationship with Bowdoin. He enrolled here as a 14-year-old, distinguished himself as a student, then later returned as a professor of modern languages. Broadly speaking, how would you characterize his days as a student at the College?

Calhoun
Calhoun

CC: As a student I think he fit in perfectly. The College was designed for people like young Henry — sons of the coastal elite of Maine, distinguished families of Portland. And there were personal ties: His paternal grandfather was among the College founders, and his father served on the governing boards of Bowdoin for 19 years.

While he was here he did something unprecedented as an undergraduate; he published 24 of his poems and short prose in a respected literary magazine. I think he was marked out as an up-and-coming literary figure even then.

SF: I understand his older brother, Stephen, also was at the College and was something of a rotter?

CC: Yes, well, I think it was partly Henry's job to keep an eye on Stephen, his scapegrace brother, who apparently drank and gambled, among other things. Henry didn't seem comfortable with that role, as he and his brother were quite good friends. There are letters in which his mother is asking him in a nice way to spy on Stephen and he resists. Sadly, Stephen had a fairly horrible life, whereas Longfellow had an outwardly successful one — despite some personal tragedies.

SF: His Bowdoin days also overlapped with Hawthorne's, with whom, oddly, he had little connection — though they would become friends later on when both were established literary figures. Why wouldn't these two young men with similar interests have been friends?

CC: Basically, there were rival student societies at the College that tended to divide along political lines and Longfellow and Hawthorne were in opposite camps. Longfellow's Peucinians were associated with the Whigs, the established, respectable party. Hawthorne's Athenaeans were Democrats, made up of men "on the make," you might say, at least not from established backgrounds. It wasn't so much a liberal-conservative split as a social division, "establishment" v. progressive. This rivalry was enacted in many interesting ways among the students, some as formal debates, some at a more prankish level ...

SF: You must have had fun combing through the archives here at Bowdoin, and elsewhere, for such details.

"What is really remarkable is that there are still books and periodicals in circulation in the Bowdoin library that Longfellow may well have read."

CC: Yes, it really was thrilling to find something you didn't know existed that had that kind of personal connection. It's like going into someone's attic and making wonderful discoveries. The Special Collections here are especially useful in providing a context for what it was like to be a student and young professor at the College in the 1820s and '30s.

But what is really remarkable is that there are still books and periodicals in circulation in Bowdoin's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library that Longfellow may well have read. Not many institutions have a collection that has such rich 19th century material still on the shelf. Obviously, the truly valuable things have been stored away and cared for, but there's a lot to be said for just walking through the stacks.

SF: I gather that when Longfellow returned to Bowdoin as a "newbie" professor — after five years in Europe — his experiences here were challenging and not entirely happy.

Calhoun

CC: He was asked to do a job that no one in academia had ever been asked to do before — teach the full range of modern languages in a fairly new college. There were scholars of individual languages at other institutions, but no one had tried to pull all of these together into one career.

SF: And I understand he got up to snuff in these languages by studying culture and language in Paris, Rome, Madrid and other European cities. All undertaken at his father's expense?

CC: Yes, well I think the College was being, let's say, "economical." They wanted to get the most bang for their buck and he was obviously a clever young man, gifted in languages, who had the right background for a Bowdoin faculty member of the day. But he didn't do too bad a job at absorbing the languages. And he didn't stop with just learning the grammar. Longfellow approached language as a cultural system where you had to know the history and poetry and painting as well. He gave modern languages a cultural context.

But what he found when he got here was that there were no textbooks. There were handbooks on French grammar and Spanish vocabulary, but all very primitive and not useful in the classroom. I suspect they were more designed for sea captains and merchants doing trade abroad.

SF: So how did he get from there to becoming an important voice on language and literature, highly influential in inventing the field of comparative literature?

CC: What he did was to find a local printer here in Brunswick who could turn out small textbooks quickly and cheaply. They got to work together. He translated and published language textbooks and literature from Europe and adapted them for use in the classroom. His textbooks also found a national market. None of this was scholarly work per se, but it was a remarkable achievement. He also was the librarian at Bowdoin. The funds were very limited, but he encouraged the purchase of books in modern European languages.

SF: Beyond the academic challenges, he seems to have felt hemmed in by Brunswick. In your book you cite a letter in which Longfellow complains to a friend that Maine is a "land of Barbarians — this miserable Down East. I feel as if I were living in exile."

CC: He got pretty bored with Brunswick. He had been living in Paris and Rome and then comes back to Brunswick, a small town on the edge of the North Atlantic civilization. Within a fairly short time he felt the limitations of his position and was unhappy. In 1835 he was offered a very good job at Harvard, so he goes to Europe again for more language study and then ensconced himself there and had a distinguished academic career.

SF: What would you say is Longfellow's lasting gift from his work as an academic?

CC: I think it was his self-prescribed role as a bridge across the Atlantic. America was still a rough, uncultured land and Longfellow saw it as his duty as a poet and a professor to introduce people to the older and perhaps more mature cultures of Europe. At the same time, he introduced Europeans to much of the American lore, be it the Paul Revere, Hiawatha or Evangeline stories. He was a very curious and wonderful conduit.

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