Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

The White Mr. Longfellow by William Dean Howells

Adobe PDF icon
The White Mr. Longfellow by William Dean Howells - Full Text Free Book
File size: 0.1 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

This etext was produced by David Widger

[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them. D.W.]


by William Dean Howells


We had expected to stay in Boston only until we could find a house in Old
Cambridge. This was not so simple a matter as it might seem; for the
ancient town had not yet quickened its scholarly pace to the modern step.
Indeed, in the spring of 1866 the impulse of expansion was not yet
visibly felt anywhere; the enormous material growth that followed the
civil war had not yet begun. In Cambridge the houses to be let were few,
and such as there were fell either below our pride or rose above our
purse. I wish I might tell how at last we bought a house; we had no
money, but we were rich in friends, who are still alive to shrink from
the story of their constant faith in a financial future which we
sometimes doubted, and who backed their credulity with their credit.
It is sufficient for the present record, which professes to be strictly
literary, to notify the fact that on the first day of May, 1866, we went
out to Cambridge and began to live in a house which we owned in fee if
not in deed, and which was none the less valuable for being covered with
mortgages. Physically, it was a carpenter's box, of a sort which is
readily imagined by the Anglo-American genius for ugliness, but which it
is not so easy to impart a just conception of. A trim hedge of arbor-
vita; tried to hide it from the world in front, and a tall board fence
behind; the little lot was well planted (perhaps too well planted) with
pears, grapes, and currants, and there was a small open space which I
lost no time in digging up for a kitchen-garden. On one side of us were
the open fields; on the other a brief line of neighbor-houses; across the
street before us was a grove of stately oaks, which I never could
persuade Aldrich had painted leaves on them in the fall. We were really
in a poor suburb of a suburb; but such is the fascination of ownership,
even the ownership of a fully mortgaged property, that we calculated the
latitude and longitude of the whole earth from the spot we called ours.
In our walks about Cambridge we saw other places where we might have been
willing to live; only, we said, they were too far off: We even prized the
architecture of our little box, though we had but so lately lived in a
Gothic palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, and were not uncritical of
beauty in the possessions of others. Positive beauty we could not have
honestly said we thought our cottage had as a whole, though we might have
held out for something of the kind in the brackets of turned wood under
its eaves. But we were richly content with it; and with life in
Cambridge, as it began to open itself to us, we were infinitely more than
content. This life, so refined, so intelligent, so gracefully simple, I
do not suppose has anywhere else had its parallel.


It was the moment before the old American customs had been changed by
European influences among people of easier circumstances; and in
Cambridge society kept what was best of its village traditions, and chose
to keep them in the full knowledge of different things. Nearly every one
had been abroad; and nearly every one had acquired the taste for olives
without losing a relish for native sauces; through the intellectual life
there was an entire democracy, and I do not believe that since the
capitalistic era began there was ever a community in which money counted
for less. There was little show of what money could buy; I remember but
one private carriage (naturally, a publisher's); and there was not one
livery, except a livery in the larger sense kept by the stableman Pike,
who made us pay now a quarter and now a half dollar for a seat in his
carriages, according as he lost or gathered courage for the charge. We
thought him extortionate, and we mostly walked through snow and mud of
amazing depth and thickness.

The reader will imagine how acceptable this circumstance was to a young
literary man beginning life with a fully mortgaged house and a salary of
untried elasticity. If there were distinctions made in Cambridge they
were not against literature, and we found ourselves in the midst of a
charming society, indifferent, apparently, to all questions but those of
the higher education which comes so largely by nature. That is to say,
in the Cambridge of that day (and, I dare say, of this) a mind cultivated
in some sort was essential, and after that came civil manners, and the
willingness and ability to be agreeable and interesting; but the question
of riches or poverty did not enter. Even the question of family, which
is of so great concern in New England, was in abeyance. Perhaps it was
taken for granted that every one in Old Cambridge society must be of good
family, or he could not be there; perhaps his mere residence tacitly
ennobled him; certainly his acceptance was an informal patent of
gentility. To my mind, the structure of society was almost ideal, and
until we have a perfectly socialized condition of things I do not believe
we shall ever have a more perfect society. The instincts which governed
it were not such as can arise from the sordid competition of interests;
they flowed from a devotion to letters, and from a self-sacrifice in
material things which I can give no better notion of than by saying that
the outlay of the richest college magnate seemed to be graduated to the
income of the poorest.

In those days, the men whose names have given splendor to Cambridge were
still living there. I shall forget some of them in the alphabetical
enumeration of Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, Richard Henry Dana, Jun.,
John Fiske, Dr. Asa Gray, the family of the Jameses, father and sons,
Lowell, Longfellow, Charles Eliot Norton, Dr. John G. Palfrey, James
Pierce, Dr. Peabody, Professor Parsons, Professor Sophocles. The variety
of talents and of achievements was indeed so great that Mr. Bret Harte,
when fresh from his Pacific slope, justly said, after listening to a
partial rehearsal of them, "Why, you couldn't fire a revolver from your
front porch anywhere without bringing down a two-volumer!" Everybody had
written a book, or an article, or a poem; or was in the process or
expectation of doing it, and doubtless those whose names escape me will
have greater difficulty in eluding fame. These kindly, these gifted folk
each came to see us and to make us at home among them; and my home is
still among them, on this side and on that side of the line between the
living and the dead which invisibly passes through all the streets of the
cities of men.


We had the whole summer for the exploration of Cambridge before society
returned from the mountains and the sea-shore, and it was not till
October that I saw Longfellow. I heard again, as I heard when I first
came to Boston, that he was at Nahant, and though Nahant was no longer so
far away, now, as it was then, I did not think of seeking him out even
when we went for a day to explore that coast during the summer. It seems
strange that I cannot recall just when and where I saw him, but early
after his return to Cambridge I had a message from him asking me to come
to a meeting of the Dante Club at Craigie House.

Longfellow was that winter (1866-7) revising his translation of the
'Paradiso', and the Dante Club was the circle of Italianate friends and
scholars whom he invited to follow him and criticise his work from the
original, while he read his version aloud. Those who were most
constantly present were Lowell and Professor Norton, but from time to
time others came in, and we seldom sat down at the nine-o'clock supper
that followed the reading of the canto in less number than ten or twelve.

The criticism, especially from the accomplished Danteists I have named,
was frank and frequent. I believe they neither of them quite agreed with
Longfellow as to the form of version he had chosen, but, waiving that,
the question was how perfectly he had done his work upon the given lines:
I myself, with whatever right, great or little, I may have to an opinion,
believe thoroughly in Longfellow's plan. When I read his version my
sense aches for the rhyme which he rejected, but my admiration for his
fidelity to Dante otherwise is immeasurable. I remember with equal
admiration the subtle and sympathetic scholarship of his critics, who
scrutinized every shade of meaning in a word or phrase that gave them
pause, and did not let it pass till all the reasons and facts had been
considered. Sometimes, and even often, Longfellow yielded to their
censure, but for the most part, when he was of another mind, he held to
his mind, and the passage had to go as he said. I make a little haste to
say that in all the meetings of the Club, during a whole winter of
Wednesday evenings, I myself, though I faithfully followed in an Italian
Dante with the rest, ventured upon one suggestion only. This was kindly,
even seriously, considered by the poet, and gently rejected. He could
not do anything otherwise than gently, and I was not suffered to feel
that I had done a presumptuous thing. I can see him now, as he looked up
from the proof-sheets on the round table before him, and over at me,
growing consciously smaller and smaller, like something through a
reversed opera-glass. He had a shaded drop-light in front of him, and in
its glow his beautiful and benignly noble head had a dignity peculiar to

All the portraits of Longfellow are likenesses more or less bad and good,
for there was something as simple in the physiognomy as in the nature of
the man. His head, after he allowed his beard to grow and wore his hair
long in the manner of elderly men, was leonine, but mildly leonine, as
the old painters conceived the lion of St. Mark. Once Sophocles, the ex-
monk of Mount Athos, so long a Greek professor at Harvard, came in for
supper, after the reading was over, and he was leonine too, but of a
fierceness that contrasted finely with Longfellow's mildness. I remember
the poet's asking him something about the punishment of impaling, in
Turkey, and his answering, with an ironical gleam of his fiery eyes,
"Unhappily, it is obsolete." I dare say he was not so leonine, either,
as he looked.

When Longfellow read verse, it was with a hollow, with a mellow resonant
murmur, like the note of some deep-throated horn. His voice was very
lulling in quality, and at the Dante Club it used to have early effect
with an old scholar who sat in a cavernous armchair at the corner of the
fire, and who drowsed audibly in the soft tone and the gentle heat. The
poet had a fat terrier who wished always to be present at the meetings of
the Club, and he commonly fell asleep at the same moment with that dear
old scholar, so that when they began to make themselves heard in concert,
one could not tell which it was that most took our thoughts from the text
of the Paradiso. When the duet opened, Longfellow would look up with an
arch recognition of the fact, and then go gravely on to the end of the
canto. At the close he would speak to his friend and lead him out to
supper as if he had not seen or heard anything amiss.


In that elect company I was silent, partly because I was conscious of my
youthful inadequacy, and partly because I preferred to listen. But
Longfellow always behaved as if I were saying a succession of edifying
and delightful things, and from time to time he addressed himself to me,
so that I should not feel left out. He did not talk much himself, and I
recall nothing that he said. But he always spoke both wisely and simply,
without the least touch of pose, and with no intention of effect, but
with something that I must call quality for want of a better word; so
that at a table where Holmes sparkled, and Lowell glowed, and Agassiz
beamed, he cast the light of a gentle gaiety, which seemed to dim all
these vivider luminaries. While he spoke you did not miss Fields's story
or Tom Appleton's wit, or even the gracious amity of Mr. Norton, with his
unequalled intuitions.

The supper was very plain: a cold turkey, which the host carved, or a
haunch of venison, or some braces of grouse, or a platter of quails, with
a deep bowl of salad, and the sympathetic companionship of those elect
vintages which Longfellow loved, and which he chose with the inspiration
of affection. We usually began with oysters, and when some one who was
expected did not come promptly, Longfellow invited us to raid his plate,
as a just punishment of his delay. One evening Lowell remarked, with the
cayenne poised above his bluepoints, "It's astonishing how fond these
fellows are of pepper."

The old friend of the cavernous arm-chair was perhaps not wide enough
awake to repress an "Ah?" of deep interest in this fact of natural
history, and Lowell was provoked to go on. "Yes, I've dropped a red
pepper pod into a barrel of them, before now, and then taken them out in
a solid mass, clinging to it like a swarm of bees to their queen."

"Is it possible?" cried the old friend; and then Longfellow intervened to
save him from worse, and turned the talk.

I reproach myself that I made no record of the talk, for I find that only
a few fragments of it have caught in my memory, and that the sieve which
should have kept the gold has let it wash away with the gravel.
I remember once Doctor Holmes's talking of the physician as the true
seer, whose awful gift it was to behold with the fatal second sight of
science the shroud gathering to the throat of many a doomed man
apparently in perfect health, and happy in the promise of unnumbered
days. The thought may have been suggested by some of the toys of
superstition which intellectual people like to play with.

I never could be quite sure at first that Longfellow's brother-in-law,
Appleton, was seriously a spiritualist, even when he disputed the most
strenuously with the unbelieving Autocrat. But he really was in earnest
about it, though he relished a joke at the expense of his doctrine, like
some clerics when they are in the safe company of other clerics. He told
me once of having recounted to Agassiz the facts of a very remarkable
seance, where the souls of the departed outdid themselves in the
athletics and acrobatics they seem so fond of over there, throwing large
stones across the room, moving pianos, and lifting dinner-tables and
setting them a-twirl under the chandelier. "And now," he demanded, "what
do you say to that?" "Well, Mr. Appleton," Agassiz answered, to
Appleton's infinite delight, "I say that it did not happen."

One night they began to speak at the Dante supper of the unhappy man
whose crime is a red stain in the Cambridge annals, and one and another
recalled their impressions of Professor Webster. It was possibly with a
retroactive sense that they had all felt something uncanny in him, but,
apropos of the deep salad-bowl in the centre of the table, Longfellow
remembered a supper Webster was at, where he lighted some chemical in
such a dish and held his head over it, with a handkerchief noosed about
his throat and lifted above it with one hand, while his face, in the pale
light, took on the livid ghastliness of that of a man hanged by the neck.

Another night the talk wandered to the visit which an English author (now
with God) paid America at the height of a popularity long since toppled
to the ground, with many another. He was in very good humor with our
whole continent, and at Longfellow's table he found the champagne even
surprisingly fine. "But," he said to his host, who now told the story,
"it cawn't be genuine, you know!"

Many years afterwards this author revisited our shores, and I dined with
him at Longfellow's, where he was anxious to constitute himself a guest
during his sojourn in our neighborhood. Longfellow was equally anxious
that he should not do so, and he took a harmless pleasure in out-
manoeuvring him. He seized a chance to speak with me alone, and plotted
to deliver him over to me without apparent unkindness, when the latest
horse-car should be going in to Boston, and begged me to walk him to
Harvard Square and put him aboard. "Put him aboard, and don't leave him
till the car starts, and then watch that he doesn't get off."

These instructions he accompanied with a lifting of the eyebrows, and a
pursing of the mouth, in an anxiety not altogether burlesque. He knew
himself the prey of any one who chose to batten on him, and his
hospitality was subject to frightful abuse. Perhaps Mr. Norton has
somewhere told how, when he asked if a certain person who had been
outstaying his time was not a dreadful bore, Longfellow answered, with
angelic patience, "Yes; but then you know I have been bored so often!"

There was one fatal Englishman whom I shared with him during the great
part of a season: a poor soul, not without gifts, but always ready for
more, especially if they took the form of meat and drink. He had brought
letters from one of the best English men alive, who withdrew them too
late to save his American friends from the sad consequences of welcoming
him. So he established himself impregnably in a Boston club, and came
out every day to dine with Longfellow in Cambridge, beginning with his
return from Nahant in October and continuing far into December. That was
the year of the great horse-distemper, when the plague disabled the
transportation in Boston, and cut off all intercourse between the suburb
and the city on the street railways. "I did think," Longfellow
pathetically lamented, "that when the horse-cars stopped running, I
should have a little respite from L., but he walks out."

In the midst of his own suffering he was willing to advise with me
concerning some poems L. had offered to the Atlantic Monthly, and after
we had desperately read them together he said, with inspiration, "I think
these things are more adapted to music than the magazine," and this
seemed so good a notion that when L. came to know their fate from me,
I answered, confidently, "I think they are rather more adapted to music."
He calmly asked, "Why?" and as this was an exigency which Longfellow had
not forecast for me, I was caught in it without hope of escape. I really
do not know what I said, but I know that I did not take the poems, such
was my literary conscience in those days; I am afraid I should be weaker


The suppers of the Dante Club were a relaxation from the severity of
their toils on criticism, and I will not pretend that their table-talk
was of that seriousness which duller wits might have given themselves up
to. The passing stranger, especially if a light or jovial person, was
always welcome, and I never knew of the enforcement of the rule I heard
of, that if you came in without question on the Club nights, you were a
guest; but if you rang or knocked, you could not get in.

Any sort of diversion was hailed, and once Appleton proposed that
Longfellow should show us his wine-cellar. He took up the candle burning
on the table for the cigars, and led the way into the basement of the
beautiful old Colonial mansion, doubly memorable as Washington's
headquarters while he was in Cambridge, and as the home of Longfellow for
so many years. The taper cast just the right gleams on the darkness,
bringing into relief the massive piers of brick, and the solid walls of
stone, which gave the cellar the effect of a casemate in some fortress,
and leaving the corners and distances to a romantic gloom. This basement
was a work of the days when men built more heavily if not more
substantially than now, but I forget, if I ever knew, what date the wine-
cellar was of. It was well stored with precious vintages, aptly
cobwebbed and dusty; but I could not find that it had any more charm than
the shelves of a library: it is the inside of bottles and of books that
makes its appeal. The whole place witnessed a bygone state and luxury,
which otherwise lingered in a dim legend or two. Longfellow once spoke
of certain old love-letters which dropped down on the basement stairs
from some place overhead; and there was the fable or the fact of a
subterranean passage under the street from Craigie House to the old
Batchelder House, which I relate to these letters with no authority I can
allege. But in Craigie House dwelt the proud fair lady who was buried in
the Cambridge church-yard with a slave at her head and a slave at her

"Dust is in her beautiful eyes,"

and whether it was they that smiled or wept in their time over those
love-letters, I will leave the reader to say. The fortunes of her Tory
family fell with those of their party, and the last Vassal ended his days
a prisoner from his creditors in his own house, with a weekly enlargement
on Sundays, when the law could not reach him. It is known how the place
took Longfellow's fancy when he first came to be professor in Harvard,
and how he was a lodger of the last Mistress Craigie there, long before
he became its owner. The house is square, with Longfellow's study where
he read and wrote on the right of the door, and a statelier library
behind it; on the left is the drawing-room, with the dining-room in its
rear; from its square hall climbs a beautiful stairway with twisted
banisters, and a tall clock in their angle.

The study where the Dante Club met, and where I mostly saw Longfellow,
was a plain, pleasant room, with broad panelling in white painted pine;
in the centre before the fireplace stood his round table, laden with
books, papers, and proofs; in the farthest corner by the window was a
high desk which he sometimes stood at to write. In this room Washington
held his councils and transacted his business with all comers; in the
chamber overhead he slept. I do not think Longfellow associated the
place much with him, and I never heard him speak of Washington in
relation to it except once, when he told me with peculiar relish what he
called the true version of a pious story concerning the aide-de-camp who
blundered in upon him while he knelt in prayer. The father of his
country rose and rebuked the young man severely, and then resumed his
devotions. "He rebuked him," said Longfellow, lifting his brows and
making rings round the pupils of his eyes, "by throwing his scabbard at
his head."

All the front windows of Craigie House look, out over the open fields
across the Charles, which is now the Longfellow Memorial Garden. The
poet used to be amused with the popular superstition that he was holding
this vacant ground with a view to a rise in the price of lots, while all
he wanted was to keep a feature of his beloved landscape unchanged.
Lofty elms drooped at the corners of the house; on the lawn billowed
clumps of the lilac, which formed a thick hedge along the fence. There
was a terrace part way down this lawn, and when a white-painted
balustrade was set some fifteen years ago upon its brink, it seemed
always to have been there. Long verandas stretched on either side of the
mansion; and behind was an old-fashioned garden with beds primly edged
with box after a design of the poet's own. Longfellow had a ghost story
of this quaint plaisance, which he used to tell with an artful reserve of
the catastrophe. He was coming home one winter night, and as he crossed
the garden he was startled by a white figure swaying before him. But he
knew that the only way was to advance upon it. He pushed boldly forward,
and was suddenly caught under the throat-by the clothes-line with a long
night-gown on it.

Perhaps it was at the end of a long night of the Dante Club that I heard
him tell this story. The evenings were sometimes mornings before the
reluctant break-up came, but they were never half long enough for me.
I have given no idea of the high reasoning of vital things which I must
often have heard at that table, and that I have forgotten it is no proof
that I did not hear it. The memory will not be ruled as to what it shall
bind and what it shall loose, and I should entreat mine in vain for
record of those meetings other than what I have given. Perhaps it would
be well, in the interest of some popular conceptions of what the social
intercourse of great wits must be, for me to invent some ennobling and
elevating passages of conversation at Longfellow's; perhaps I ought to do
it for the sake of my own repute as a serious and adequate witness. But
I am rather helpless in the matter; I must set down what I remember, and
surely if I can remember no phrase from Holmes that a reader could live
or die by, it is something to recall how, when a certain potent cheese
was passing, he leaned over to gaze at it, and asked: "Does it kick?
Does it kick?" No strain of high poetic thinking remains to me from
Lowell, but he made me laugh unforgettably with his passive adventure one
night going home late, when a man suddenly leaped from the top of a high
fence upon the sidewalk at his feet, and after giving him the worst
fright of his life, disappeared peaceably into the darkness. To be sure,
there was one most memorable supper, when he read the "Bigelow Paper"
he had finished that day, and enriched the meaning of his verse with the
beauty of his voice. There lingers yet in my sense his very tone in
giving the last line of the passage lamenting the waste of the heroic
lives which in those dark hours of Johnson's time seemed to have been

"Butchered to make a blind man's holiday."

The hush that followed upon his ceasing was of that finest quality which
spoken praise always lacks; and I suppose that I could not give a just
notion of these Dante Club evenings without imparting the effect of such
silences. This I could not hopefully undertake to do; but I am tempted
to some effort of the kind by my remembrance of Longfellow's old friend
George Washington Greene, who often came up from his home in Rhode
Island, to be at those sessions, and who was a most interesting and
amiable fact of those delicate silences. A full half of his earlier life
had been passed in Italy, where he and Longfellow met and loved each
other in their youth with an affection which the poet was constant to in
his age, after many vicissitudes, with the beautiful fidelity of his
nature. Greene was like an old Italian house-priest in manner, gentle,
suave, very suave, smooth as creamy curds, cultivated in the elegancies
of literary taste, and with a certain meek abeyance. I think I never
heard him speak, in all those evenings, except when Longfellow addressed
him, though he must have had the Dante scholarship for an occasional
criticism. It was at more recent dinners, where I met him with the
Longfellow family alone, that he broke now and then into a quotation from
some of the modern Italian poets he knew by heart (preferably Giusti),
and syllabled their verse with an exquisite Roman accent and a bewitching
Florentine rhythm. Now and then at these times he brought out a faded
Italian anecdote, faintly smelling of civet, and threadbare in its
ancient texture. He liked to speak of Goldoni and of Nota, of Niccolini
and Manzoni, of Monti and Leopardi; and if you came to America, of the
Revolution and his grandfather, the Quaker General Nathaniel Greene,
whose life he wrote (and I read) in three volumes: He worshipped
Longfellow, and their friendship continued while they lived, but towards
the last of his visits at Craigie House it had a pathos for the witness
which I should grieve to wrong. Greene was then a quivering paralytic,
and he clung tremulously to Longfellow's arm in going out to dinner,
where even the modern Italian poets were silent upon his lips. When we
rose from table, Longfellow lifted him out of his chair, and took him
upon his arm again for their return to the study.

He was of lighter metal than most other members of the Dante Club, and he
was not of their immediate intimacy, living away from Cambridge, as he
did, and I shared his silence in their presence with full sympathy.
I was by far the youngest of their number, and I cannot yet quite make
out why I was of it at all. But at every moment I was as sensible of my
good fortune as of my ill desert. They were the men whom of all men
living I most honored, and it seemed to be impossible that I at my age
should be so perfectly fulfilling the dream of my life in their company.
Often, the nights were very cold, and as I returned home from Craigie
House to the carpenter's box on Sacramento Street, a mile or two away,
I was as if soul-borne through the air by my pride and joy, while the
frozen blocks of snow clinked and tinkled before my feet stumbling along
the middle of the road. I still think that was the richest moment of my
life, and I look back at it as the moment, in a life not unblessed by
chance, which I would most like to live over again--if I must live any.
The next winter the sessions of the Dante Club were transferred to the
house of Mr. Norton, who was then completing his version of the 'Vita
Nuova'. This has always seemed to me a work of not less graceful art
than Longfellow's translation of the 'Commedia'. In fact, it joins the
effect of a sympathy almost mounting to divination with a patient
scholarship and a delicate skill unknown to me elsewhere in such work.
I do not know whether Mr. Norton has satisfied himself better in his
prose version of the 'Commedia' than in this of the 'Vita Nuova', but I
do not believe he could have satisfied Dante better, unless he had rhymed
his sonnets and canzonets. I am sure he might have done this if he had
chosen. He has always pretended that it was impossible, but miracles are
never impossible in the right hands.


After three or four years we sold the carpenter's box on Sacramento
Street, and removed to a larger house near Harvard Square, and in the
immediate neighborhood of Longfellow. He gave me an easement across that
old garden behind his house, through an opening in the high board fence
which enclosed it, and I saw him oftener than ever, though the meetings
of the Dante Club had come to an end. At the last of them, Lowell had
asked him, with fond regret in his jest, "Longfellow, why don't you do
that Indian poem in forty thousand verses?" The demand but feebly
expressed the reluctance in us all, though I suspect the Indian poem
existed only by the challenger's invention. Before I leave my faint and
unworthy record of these great times I am tempted to mention an incident
poignant with tragical associations. The first night after Christmas the
holly and the pine wreathed about the chandelier above the supper-table
took fire from the gas, just as we came out from the reading, and
Longfellow ran forward and caught the burning garlands down and bore them
out. No one could speak for thinking what he must be thinking of when
the ineffable calamity of his home befell it. Curtis once told me that a
little while before Mrs. Longfellow's death he was driving by Craigie
House with Holmes, who said be trembled to look at it, for those who
lived there had their happiness so perfect that no change, of all the
changes which must come to them, could fail to be for the worse.
I did not know Longfellow before that fatal time, and I shall not say
that his presence bore record of it except in my fancy. He may always
have had that look of one who had experienced the utmost harm that fate
can do, and henceforth could possess himself of what was left of life in
peace. He could never have been a man of the flowing ease that makes all
comers at home; some people complained of a certain 'gene' in him; and he
had a reserve with strangers, which never quite lost itself in the
abandon of friendship, as Lowell's did. He was the most perfectly modest
man I ever saw, ever imagined, but he had a gentle dignity which I do not
believe any one, the coarsest, the obtusest, could trespass upon. In the
years when I began to know him, his long hair and the beautiful beard
which mixed with it were of one iron-gray, which I saw blanch to a
perfect silver, while that pearly tone of his complexion, which Appleton
so admired, lost itself in the wanness of age and pain. When he walked,
he had a kind of spring in his gait, as if now and again a buoyant
thought lifted him from the ground. It was fine to meet him coming down
a Cambridge street; you felt that the encounter made you a part of
literary history, and set you apart with him for the moment from the poor
and mean. When he appeared in Harvard Square, he beatified if not
beautified the ugliest and vulgarest looking spot on the planet outside
of New York. You could meet him sometimes at the market, if you were of
the same provision-man as he; and Longfellow remained as constant to his
tradespeople as to any other friends. He rather liked to bring his
proofs back to the printer's himself, and we often found ourselves
together at the University Press, where the Atlantic Monthly used to be
printed. But outside of his own house Longfellow seemed to want a fit
atmosphere, and I love best to think of him in his study, where he
wrought at his lovely art with a serenity expressed in his smooth,
regular, and scrupulously perfect handwriting. It was quite vertical,
and rounded, with a slope neither to the right nor left, and at the time
I knew him first, he was fond of using a soft pencil on printing paper,
though commonly he wrote with a quill. Each letter was distinct in
shape, and between the verses was always the exact space of half an inch.
I have a good many of his poems written in this fashion, but whether they
were the first drafts or not I cannot say; very likely not. Towards the
last he no longer sent his poems to the magazines in his own hand; but
they were always signed in autograph.

I once asked him if he were not a great deal interrupted, and he said,
with a faint sigh, Not more than was good for him, he fancied; if it were
not for the interruptions, he might overwork. He was not a friend to
stated exercise, I believe, nor fond of walking, as Lowell was; he had
not, indeed, the childish associations of the younger poet with the
Cambridge neighborhoods; and I never saw him walking for pleasure except
on the east veranda of his house, though I was told he loved walking in
his youth. In this and in some other things Longfellow was more European
than American, more Latin than Saxon. He once said quaintly that one got
a great deal of exercise in putting on and off one's overcoat and

I suppose no one who asked decently at his door was denied access to him,
and there must have been times when he was overrun with volunteer
visitors; but I never heard him complain of them. He was very charitable
in the immediate sort which Christ seems to have meant; but he had his
preferences; humorously owned, among beggars. He liked the German
beggars least, and the Italian beggars most, as having most savair-faire;
in fact, we all loved the Italians in Cambridge. He was pleased with the
accounts I could give him of the love and honor I had known for him in
Italy, and one day there came a letter from an Italian admirer, addressed
to "Mr. Greatest Poet Longfellow," which he said was the very most
amusing superscription he had ever seen.

It is known that the King of Italy offered Longfellow the cross of San
Lazzaro, which is the Italian literary decoration. It came through the
good offices of my old acquaintance Professor Messadaglia, then a deputy
in the Italian Parliament, whom, for some reason I cannot remember, I had
put in correspondence with Longfellow. The honor was wholly unexpected,
and it brought Longfellow a distress which was chiefly for the gentleman
who had procured him the impossible distinction. He showed me the pretty
collar and cross, not, I think, without a natural pleasure in it. No man
was ever less a bigot in things civil or religious than he, but he said,
firmly, "Of course, as a republican and a Protestant, I can't accept a
decoration from a Catholic prince." His decision was from his
conscience, and I think that all Americans who think duly about it will
approve his decision.


Such honors as he could fitly permit himself he did not refuse, and I
recall what zest he had in his election to the Arcadian Academy, which
had made him a shepherd of its Roman Fold, with the title, as he said, of
"Olimipico something." But I fancy his sweetest pleasure in his vast
renown came from his popular recognition everywhere. Few were the lands,
few the languages he was unknown to: he showed me a version of the "Psalm
of Life" in Chinese. Apparently even the poor lost autograph-seeker was
not denied by his universal kindness; I know that he kept a store of
autographs ready written on small squares of paper for all who applied by
letter or in person; he said it was no trouble; but perhaps he was to be
excused for refusing the request of a lady for fifty autographs, which
she wished to offer as a novel attraction to her guests at a lunch party.

Foreigners of all kinds thronged upon him at their pleasure, apparently,
and with perfect impunity. Sometimes he got a little fun, very, very
kindly, out of their excuses and reasons; and the Englishman who came to
see him because there were no ruins to visit in America was no fable, as
I can testify from the poet himself. But he had no prejudice against
Englishmen, and even at a certain time when the coarse-handed British
criticism began to blame his delicate art for the universal acceptance of
his verse, and to try to sneer him into the rank of inferior poets, he
was without rancor for the clumsy misliking that he felt. He could not
understand rudeness; he was too finely framed for that; he could know it
only as Swedenborg's most celestial angels perceived evil, as something
distressful, angular. The ill-will that seemed nearly always to go with
adverse criticism made him distrust criticism, and the discomfort which
mistaken or blundering praise gives probably made him shy of all
criticism. He said that in his early life as an author he used to seek
out and save all the notices of his poems, but in his latter days he read
only those that happened to fall in his way; these he cut out and amused
his leisure by putting together in scrapbooks. He was reluctant to make
any criticism of other poets; I do not remember ever to have heard him
make one; and his writings show no trace of the literary dislikes or
contempts which we so often mistake in ourselves for righteous judgments.
No doubt he had his resentments, but he hushed them in his heart, which
he did not suffer them to embitter. While Poe was writing of "Longfellow
and other Plagiarists," Longfellow was helping to keep Poe alive by the
loans which always made themselves gifts in Poe's case. He very, very
rarely spoke of himself at all, and almost never of the grievances which
he did not fail to share with all who live.

He was patient, as I said, of all things, and gentle beyond all mere
gentlemanliness. But it would have been a great mistake to mistake his
mildness for softness. It was most manly and firm; and of course it was
braced with the New England conscience he was born to. If he did not
find it well to assert himself, he was prompt in behalf of his friends,
and one of tho fine things told of him was his resenting some censures of
Sumner at a dinner in Boston during the old pro-slavery times: he said to
the gentlemen present that Sumner was his friend, and he must leave their
company if they continued to assail him.

But he spoke almost as rarely of his friends as of himself. He liked the
large, impersonal topics which could be dealt with on their human side,
and involved characters rather than individuals. This was rather strange
in Cambridge, where we were apt to take our instances from the
environment. It was not the only thing he was strange in there; he was
not to that manner born; he lacked the final intimacies which can come
only of birth and lifelong association, and which make the men of the
Boston breed seem exclusive when they least feel so; he was Longfellow to
the friends who were James, and Charles, and Wendell to one another. He
and Hawthorne were classmates at college, but I never heard him mention
Hawthorne; I never heard him mention Whittier or Emerson. I think his
reticence about his contemporaries was largely due to his reluctance from
criticism: he was the finest artist of them all, and if he praised he
must have praised with the reservations of an honest man. Of younger
writers he was willing enough to speak. No new contributor made his mark
in the magazine unnoted by him, and sometimes I showed him verse in
manuscript which gave me peculiar pleasure. I remember his liking for
the first piece that Mr. Maurice Thompson sent me, and how he tasted the
fresh flavor of it, and inhaled its wild new fragrance. He admired the
skill of some of the young story-tellers; he praised the subtlety of one
in working out an intricate character, and said modestly that he could
never have done that sort of thing himself. It was entirely safe to
invite his judgment when in doubt, for he never suffered it to become
aggressive, or used it to urge upon me the manuscripts that must often
have been urged upon him.

Longfellow had a house at Nahant where he went every summer for more than
a quarter of a century. He found the slight transition change enough
from Cambridge, and liked it perhaps because it did not take him beyond
the range of the friends and strangers whose company he liked. Agassiz
was there, and Appleton; Sumner came to sojourn with him; and the
tourists of all nations found him there in half an hour after they
reached Boston. His cottage was very plain and simple, but was rich in
the sight of the illimitable, sea, and it had a luxury of rocks at the
foot of its garden, draped with sea-weed, and washed with the
indefatigable tides. As he grew older and feebler he ceased to go to
Nahant; he remained the whole year round at Cambridge; he professed to
like the summer which he said warmed him through there, better than the
cold spectacle of summer which had no such effect at Nahant.

The hospitality which was constant at either house was not merely of the
worldly sort. Longfellow loved good cheer; he tasted history and poetry
in a precious wine; and he liked people who were acquainted with manners
and men, and brought the air of capitals with them. But often the man
who dined with Longfellow was the man who needed a dinner; and from what
I have seen of the sweet courtesy that governed at that board, I am sure
that such a man could never have felt himself the least honored guest.
The poet's heart was open to all the homelessness of the world; and I
remember how once when we sat at his table and I spoke of his poem of
"The Challenge," then a new poem, and said how I had been touched by the
fancy of

"The poverty-stricken millions
Who challenge our wine and bread,
And impeach us all as traitors,
Both the living and the dead,"

his voice sank in grave humility as he answered, "Yes, I often think of
those things." He had thought of them in the days of the slave, when he
had taken his place with the friends of the hopeless and hapless, and as
long as he lived he continued of the party which had freed the slave.
He did not often speak of politics, but when the movement of some of the
best Republicans away from their party began, he said that he could not
see the wisdom of their course. But this was said without censure or
criticism of them, and so far as I know he never permitted himself
anything like denunciation of those who in any wise differed from him.
On a matter of yet deeper interest, I do not feel authorized to speak for
him, but I think that as he grew older, his hold upon anything like a
creed weakened, though he remained of the Unitarian philosophy concerning
Christ. He did not latterly go to church, I believe; but then, very few
of his circle were church-goers. Once he said something very vague and
uncertain concerning the doctrine of another life when I affirmed my hope
of it, to the effect that he wished he could be sure, with the sigh that
so often clothed the expression of a misgiving with him.


When my acquaintance with Longfellow began he had written the things that
made his fame, and that it will probably rest upon: "Evangeline,"
"Hiawatha," and the "Courtship of Miles Standish" were by that time old
stories. But during the eighteen years that I knew him he produced the
best of his minor poems, the greatest of his sonnets, the sweetest of his
lyrics. His art ripened to the last, it grew richer and finer, and it
never knew decay. He rarely read anything of his own aloud, but in three
or four cases he read to me poems he had just finished, as if to give
himself the pleasure of hearing them with the sympathetic sense of
another. The hexameter piece, "Elizabeth," in the third part of "Tales
of a Wayside Inn," was one of these, and he liked my liking its
rhythmical form, which I believed one of the measures best adapted to the
English speech, and which he had used himself with so much pleasure and

About this time he was greatly interested in the slight experiments I was
beginning to make in dramatic form, and he said that if he were himself a
young man he should write altogether for the stage; he thought the drama
had a greater future with us. He was pleased when a popular singer
wished to produce his "Masque of Pandora," with music, and he was patient
when it failed of the effect hoped for it as an opera. When the late
Lawrence Barrett, in the enthusiasm which was one of the fine traits of
his generous character, had taken my play of "A Counterfeit Presentment,"
and came to the Boston Museum with it, Longfellow could not apparently
have been more zealous for its popular acceptance if it had been his own
work. He invited himself to one of the rehearsals with me, and he sat
with me on the stage through the four acts with a fortitude which I still
wonder at, and with the keenest zest for all the details of the
performance. No finer testimony to the love and honor which all kinds of
people had for him could have been given than that shown by the actors
and employees of the theatre, high and low. They thronged the scenery,
those who were not upon the stage, and at the edge of every wing were
faces peering round at the poet, who sat unconscious of their adoration,
intent upon the play. He was intercepted at every step in going out, and
made to put his name to the photographs of himself which his worshippers
produced from their persons.

He came to the first night of the piece, and when it seemed to be finding
favor with the public, he leaned forward out of his line to nod and smile
at the author; when they, had the author up, it was the sweetest flattery
of the applause which abused his fondness that Longfellow clapped first
and loudest.

Where once he had given his kindness he could not again withhold it, and
he was anxious no fact should be interpreted as withdrawal. When the
Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, who was so great a lover of Longfellow,
came to Boston, he asked himself out to dine with the poet, who had
expected to offer him some such hospitality. Soon after, Longfellow met
me, and as if eager to forestall a possible feeling in me, said,
"I wanted to ask you to dinner with the Emperor, but he not only sent
word he was coming, he named his fellow-guests!" I answered that though
I should probably never come so near dining with an emperor again, I
prized his wish to ask me much more than the chance I had missed; and
with this my great and good friend seemed a little consoled. I believe
that I do not speak too confidently of our relation. He was truly the
friend of all men, but I had certainly the advantage of my propinquity.
We were near neighbors, as the pleonasm has it, both when I lived on
Berkeley Street and after I had built my own house on Concord Avenue;
and I suppose he found my youthful informality convenient. He always
asked me to dinner when his old friend Greene came to visit him, and then
we had an Italian time together, with more or less repetition in our
talk, of what we had said before of Italian poetry and Italian character.
One day there came a note from him saying, in effect, "Salvini is coming
out to dine with me tomorrow night, and I want you to come too. There
will be no one else but Greene and myself, and we will have an Italian

Unhappily I had accepted a dinner in Boston for that night, and this
invitation put me in great misery. I must keep my engagement, but how
could I bear to miss meeting Salvini at Longfellow's table on terms like
these? We consulted at home together and questioned whether I might not
rush into Boston, seek out my host there, possess him of the facts, and
frankly throw myself on his mercy. Then a sudden thought struck us:
Go to Longfellow, and submit the case to him! I went, and he entered
with delicate sympathy into the affair. But he decided that, taking the
large view of it, I must keep my engagement, lest I should run even a
remote risk of wounding my friend's susceptibilities. I obeyed, and I
had a very good time, but I still feel that I missed the best time of my
life, and that I ought to be rewarded for my sacrifice, somewhere.

Longfellow so rarely spoke of himself in any way that one heard from him
few of those experiences of the distinguished man in contact with the
undistinguished, which he must have had so abundantly. But he told,
while it was fresh in his mind, an incident that happened to him one day
in Boston at a tobacconist's, where a certain brand of cigars was
recommended to him as the kind Longfellow smoked. "Ah, then I must have
some of them; and I will ask you to send me a box," said Longfellow, and
he wrote down his name and address. The cigar-dealer read it with the
smile of a worsted champion, and said, "Well, I guess you had me, that
time." At a funeral a mourner wished to open conversation, and by way of
suggesting a theme of common interest, began, "You've buried, I believe?"

Sometimes people were shown by the poet through Craigie House who had no
knowledge of it except that it had been Washington's headquarters. Of
course Longfellow was known by sight to every one in Cambridge. He was
daily in the streets, while his health endured, and as he kept no
carriage, he was often to be met in the horse-cars, which were such
common ground in Cambridge that they were often like small invited
parties of friends when they left Harvard Square, so that you expected
the gentlemen to jump up and ask the ladies whether they would have
chicken salad. In civic and political matters he mingled so far as to
vote regularly, and he voted with his party, trusting it for a general
regard to the public welfare.

I fancy he was somewhat shy of his fellow-men, as the scholar seems
always to be, from the sequestered habit of his life; but I think
Longfellow was incapable of marking any difference between himself and
them. I never heard from him anything that was 'de haut en bas', when he
spoke of people, and in Cambridge, where there was a good deal of
contempt for the less lettered, and we liked to smile though we did not
like to sneer, and to analyze if we did not censure, Longfellow and
Longfellow's house were free of all that. Whatever his feeling may have
been towards other sorts and conditions of men, his effect was of an
entire democracy. He was always the most unassuming person in any
company, and at some large public dinners where I saw him I found him
patient of the greater attention that more public men paid themselves and
one another. He was not a speaker, and I never saw him on his feet at
dinner, except once, when he read a poem for Whittier, who was absent.
He disliked after-dinner speaking, and made conditions for his own
exemption from it.


Once your friend, Longfellow was always your friend; he would not think
evil of you, and if he knew evil of you, he would be the last of all that
knew it to judge you for it. This may have been from the impersonal
habit of his mind, but I believe it was also the effect of principle, for
he would do what he could to arrest the delivery of judgment from others,
and would soften the sentences passed in his presence. Naturally this
brought him under some condemnation with those of a severer cast; and I
have heard him criticised for his benevolence towards all, and his
constancy to some who were not quite so true to themselves, perhaps.
But this leniency of Longfellow's was what constituted him great as well
as good, for it is not our wisdom that censures others. As for his
goodness, I never saw a fault in him. I do not mean to say that he had
no faults, or that there were no better men, but only to give the witness
of my knowledge concerning him. I claim in no wise to have been his
intimate; such a thing was not possible in my case for quite apparent
reasons; and I doubt if Longfellow was capable of intimacy in the sense
we mostly attach to the word. Something more of egotism than I ever
found in him must go to the making of any intimacy which did not come
from the tenderest affections of his heart. But as a man shows himself
to those often with him, and in his noted relations with other men, he
showed himself without blame. All men that I have known, besides, have
had some foible (it often endeared them the more), or some meanness, or
pettiness, or bitterness; but Longfellow had none, nor the suggestion of
any. No breath of evil ever touched his name; he went in and out among
his fellow-men without the reproach that follows wrong; the worst thing I
ever heard said of him was that he had 'gene', and this was said by one
of those difficult Cambridge men who would have found 'gene' in a
celestial angel. Something that Bjornstjerne Bjornson wrote to me when
he was leaving America after a winter in Cambridge, comes nearer
suggesting Longfellow than all my talk. The Norsemen, in the days of
their stormy and reluctant conversion, used always to speak of Christ as
the White Christ, and Bjornson said in his letter, "Give my love to the
White Mr. Longfellow."

A good many, years before Longfellow's death he began to be sleepless,
and he suffered greatly. He said to me once that he felt as if he were
going about with his heart in a kind of mist. The whole night through he
would not be aware of having slept. "But," he would add, with his
heavenly patience, "I always get a good deal of rest from lying down so
long." I cannot say whether these conditions persisted, or how much his
insomnia had to do with his breaking health; three or four years before
the end came, we left Cambridge for a house farther in the country, and I
saw him less frequently than before. He did not allow our meetings to
cease; he asked me to dinner from time to time, as if to keep them up,
but it could not be with the old frequency. Once he made a point of
coming to see us in our cottage on the hill west of Cambridge, but it was
with an effort not visible in the days when he could end one of his brief
walks at our house on Concord Avenue; he never came but he left our house
more luminous for his having been there. Once he came to supper there to
meet Garfield (an old family friend of mine in Ohio), and though he was
suffering from a heavy cold, he would not scant us in his stay. I had
some very bad sherry which he drank with the serenity of a martyr, and I
shudder to this day to think what his kindness must have cost him. He
told his story of the clothes-line ghost, and Garfield matched it with
the story of an umbrella ghost who sheltered a friend of his through a
midnight storm, but was not cheerful company to his beneficiary, who
passed his hand through him at one point in the effort to take his arm.

After the end of four years I came to Cambridge to be treated for a long
sickness, which had nearly been my last, and when I could get about I
returned the visit Longfellow had not failed to pay me. But I did not
find him, and I never saw him again in life. I went into Boston to
finish the winter of 1881-2, and from time to time I heard that the poet
was failing in health. As soon as I felt able to bear the horse-car
journey I went out to Cambridge to see him. I had knocked once at his
door, the friendly door that had so often opened to his welcome, and
stood with the knocker in my hand when the door was suddenly set ajar,
and a maid showed her face wet with tears. "How is Mr. Longfellow?"
I palpitated, and with a burst of grief she answered, "Oh, the poor
gentleman has just departed!" I turned away as if from a helpless
intrusion at a death-bed.

At the services held in the house before the obsequies at the cemetery, I
saw the poet for the last time, where

"Dead he lay among his books,"

in the library behind his study. Death seldom fails to bring serenity to
all, and I will not pretend that there was a peculiar peacefulness in
Longfellow's noble mask, as I saw it then. It was calm and benign as it
had been in life; he could not have worn a gentler aspect in going out of
the world than he had always worn in it; he had not to wait for death to
dignify it with "the peace of God." All who were left of his old
Cambridge were present, and among those who had come farther was Emerson.
He went up to the bier, and with his arms crossed on his breast, and his
elbows held in either hand, stood with his head pathetically fallen
forward, looking down at the dead face. Those who knew how his memory
was a mere blank, with faint gleams of recognition capriciously coming
and going in it, must have felt that he was struggling to remember who
it was lay there before him; and for me the electly simple words
confessing his failure will always be pathetic with his remembered
aspect: "The gentleman we have just been burying," he said, to the friend
who had come with him, "was a sweet and beautiful soul; but I forget his

I had the privilege and honor of looking over the unprinted poems
Longfellow left behind him, and of helping to decide which of them should
be published.

There were not many of them, and some of these few were quite
fragmentary. I gave my voice for the publication of all that had any
sort of completeness, for in every one there was a touch of his exquisite
art, the grace of his most lovely spirit. We have so far had two men
only who felt the claim of their gift to the very best that the most
patient skill could give its utterance: one was Hawthorne and the other
was Longfellow. I shall not undertake to say which was the greater
artist of these two; but I am sure that every one who has studied it must
feel with me that the art of Longfellow held out to the end with no touch
of decay in it, and that it equalled the art of any other poet of his
time. It knew when to give itself, and more and more it knew when to
withhold itself.

What Longfellow's place in literature will be, I shall not offer to say;
that is Time's affair, not mine; but I am sure that with Tennyson and
Browning he fully shared in the expression of an age which more
completely than any former age got itself said by its poets.


Anglo-American genius for ugliness
Backed their credulity with their credit
Candle burning on the table for the cigars
Discomfort which mistaken or blundering praise
Fell either below our pride or rose above our purse
Literary dislikes or contempts
Memory will not be ruled
Shy of his fellow-men, as the scholar seems always to be

Book of the day: