Even Longfellow Got the Blues

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Every neighborhood has a party house. In the quiet, tree-lined streets just blocks away from Harvard University in the 1850s, that house was the Longfellow’s. Celebrated poet and Harvard professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sure knew how to throw those ragers. On any given Saturday night, you might arrive with a bottle of wine and a festive cheese plate to find Charles Dickens standing by the fire place droning on about one of his new “little stories” set around the time of the French Revolution (Yawn–save it for your editor Chuck, this is a party!). Transcendental philosopher and literary goliath Ralph Waldo Emerson might be smoking cigars in the library with Dom Pedro II, the King of the Empire of Brazil. Fanny Kemble, the Idina Menzel of nineteenth-century theatre could be found entertaining guests around the Longfellow’s great dining room table. To be a cool kid invited to this kind of A-list hangout, which tells you a lot about what I consider “cool,” is all I can think about when I duck under the rope that cordons off one of the house’s side porches meant to keep out “other” tourists, but not a hometown tourist like me, and climb up on the porch to peek in the windows like some kind of burglar at her first day on the job.

Even before it was a host to nineteenth-century artistic, political, and cultural hipsters, the Longfellow House was already at the epicenter of history. Built in 1759, it remains a stately mansion constructed in the Georgian style, which is architectural shorthand for elegantly boxy with ornamental columns. The house sits back from the road, accessed through a gate and up a long walk leading up a several flights of stone steps to the front porch. It’s painted a cheerful lemonade yellow with crisp black shutters. There’s a tranquil garden tucked into the northeast corner of the property behind the house with paved walkways and arching, white trellises. Longfellow lived there for more than 40 years, and it’s easy to see why.

The first inhabitant of the house was an Englishman named John Vassall. He inherited a house on a large tract of land alongside a major stretch of road initially named The King’s Highway, now Brattle St., when he was 21. When I turned 21 I was a sophomore in college. I got a new stereo to listen to my bitchin CD collection from Columbia House Records. The Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2 never sounded so sweet, I assure you. John Vassall might have been just a teensy bit privileged. And in classic trust fund child style, he tore down the existing house to build the current mansion as his summer residence.

Vassall was pretty happy at 105 Brattle St. until the fall of 1774 when a little something happened us Massholes like to refer to as The Revo-FREAKING-lutionary War. We are also fond of bragging that this was, “the most wicked awesomest of all wars” because the “Brits might have stahhhted it, but we frickin finished it!” That is an historically accurate quote. Vassall was loyal to King George, which was going to be a very big inconvenience. That September Vassall packed up whatever wasn’t nailed down and fled to England. The Patriots confiscated all of Vassall’s properties, yelling “How do you like THEM summah houses?”

As the war got underway Boston was the first stronghold to see conflict. General George Washington set up his headquarters in Vassall’s recently vacated house in the summer of 1775 to oversee what would become known as the Siege of Boston, which lasted for ten months (so, you could say it was siege-light).

Washington’s Apothecary General (real job), Andrew Craigie, purchased the house in 1791. He lived there until he didn’t—because of the dying in 1819. Craigie undertook massive renovations to the house—adding on beautiful porches flanking both sides of the house, turning the library into a massive ballroom—and died leaving his wife, Elizabeth, in financial straights. At the time women had very few rights. They could not vote, could not attend college, and could not own property. They could, however, get saddled with their husband’s debt. The technical term for this type of gender disparity is “utter bullshit.” Like many of her peers, Elizabeth was enterprising, resilient, and creative. She earned money by opening the house up to borders. One of those borders was a young man with dark eyes, unruly hair, and genuine puzzlement about all of the snickering and smiling whenever he introduced himself as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow was just starting a professorship at Harvard College when he boarded at the Craigie home. It would be the house he eventually owned and raised his family in. It was also a creative sanctuary for Longfellow. He occupied a study on the first floor, the same room that had served as General Washington’s office. There he wrote many of his most enduring works such as the poems “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Village Blacksmith” as well as the epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, underneath the gaze of portraits of his buds like writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and painter Eastman Johnson, who went on to co-found New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What a drag to have such slacker, nothing-burger friends. And also, Henry: no pressure.

The house is under the management of the National Park Service. In non-pandemic times, it is open for tours. I am out of luck on the recent Sunday morning that I visit and have to settle for creeping around the exterior and surrounding grounds. But even that proximity does the trick: I am nearish to “the room where it happens” (sorry Hamilton, get used to that over-use). I think this is part of what plays into what brings us to visit these types of places and motivates their careful and earnest preservation.

I want to plant my feet in the spot where General Washington looked out toward the Charles River to gauge its traffic—friend or foe. I want to slip into the cracks of history to get closer to the people who made it. This probably makes me weird, but hardly unique. Isn’t this why we collect things like Beatles memorabilia or outbid someone for JFK’s slippers? We want to scratch the itch to transcend our ordinary, regular selves and be a tourist in someone else’s life. But all vacations must end. As any of these individuals would tell us if they could: real life is not lived in preservation. And maybe that’s also what draws me to find out more about the lives lived behind any four walls. It’s inspiring to try and siphon a bit of greatness from a historical person or place, but it’s much more satisfying to leave reminding myself that at the end of the night, Dickens still had to go home and write the damn thing and even Longfellow got the blues.

2 comments

  1. Once again Sheila,you’ve transported me into your wit filled mind and entertained, inspired and educated. Thanks so much!!

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