Arts and Leisure

The Long, Footsore Courtship of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for seven years walked back and forth over the West Boston Bridge in what seemed a futile quest.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

When he started his lonely walk, he was a 29-year-old widower and Harvard professor, and he was in love with Fanny Appleton. He had met her in Switzerland eight months after his first wife, Mary Potter, died in November 1835.

Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland (then Massachusetts) to an old New England family. She was born Oct. 6, 1817, the daughter of wealthy Boston industrialist Nathan Appleton.

Upon her return from Europe in 1836, she lived in her family home on Beacon Hill.

He lived in Cambridge in rented rooms at the Craigie House, once George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War and now preserved as a historic site by the National Park Service.

Longfellow walked across the bridge over the Charles River to court her at home. She wasn’t interested. He persisted.

In 1839, he wrote to a friend: “[V]ictory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion.”

The Longfellow Bridge

The Longfellow Bridge

She continued to reject him, causing him to suffer from depression and panic attacks. He took a six-month leave of absence from his job at Harvard to recover at a health spa in Germany.


Fanny Appleton

On May 10, 1843, Fanny Appleton sent a letter agreeing to marry him. He was too excited to wait for a carriage, so he walked for an hour and a half to her house. They were married a month later on July 13, and had their first of six children the following year. Her father bought the entire Craigie House for them as a wedding gift.

Longfellow published a poem called The Bridge in 1845, which made the West Boston Bridge famous. It describes his misery at Fanny’s rejection contrasted with his later happiness. The bridge was replaced in 1906 with a new bridge called The Longfellow Bridge.

Fanny died tragically in 1861 when her dress caught fire at home. Longfellow tried to save her by throwing a rug over her, but failed. He was too badly burned to attend her funeral, and wore a beard for the rest of his life to disguise the scars on his face. He never fully recovered from her death.

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