(Photo credit: Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters NHS, courtesy Mr Littlehand, Flickr Creative Commons)
It’s hard to overstate how much difference a good interpretive guide can make to your experience of a historic monument. I’ve had visits to great monuments spoiled by poor interpreters and visits to less well-known sites really brought alive by inspired historical interpretation. Longfellow House is a happy example of the latter category.
Longfellow House was once home to one of Boston’s most famous poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Long after his death, it was The Longfellow House Trust that donated the site to the National Park Service, in 1972. Perhaps not surprisingly under the circumstances, the park service for many years emphasized the house’s literary antecedents. But the structure is also noteworthy for being the temporary home of another, even more famous occupant more than 60 years before Longfellow set foot in the place. None other than George Washington used the building as his military HQ outside Boston in the early days of the Revolutionary War. The park service has more recently being playing up the Washington connection, giving the general equal billing with the poet. That’s why the site’s name recently changed to Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.
The day my wife and I stopped by Longfellow House I was visiting an old friend who works there as a park ranger. Happily, the site is quite accessible by public transport. From the T (subway) station at Harvard Square the house is less than 10 minutes walk. There’s no need for most people to drive to this one, which is just as well. Even the park service’s web site states quite bluntly that “parking near the site can be difficult and frustrating.”
The house itself looks lovely from the outside. It’s a typical Georgian mansion built in the pre-Revolutionary period—1759, to be exact. It took its place on a Cambridge street that was at one point known as “Tory Row,” because so many of its residents remained loyal to the British crown at a time when Patriot sentiment in Boston was intensifying. The home’s owner was a staunch Loyalist named John Vassall, who with his wife and children used the home as a summer residence. Eventually, on the eve of the Revolution, the staunch Loyalist fled the city with his family. The house remained vacant until occupied by Massachusetts militia forces in June 1775. The following month, George Washington took over the property in his role as commander of the newly created Continental Army. He used the place as his headquarters for the next nine months, while his army continued the siege of British-held Boston.
On the day we visited we’d stopped at nearby Longfellow Gardens—which was once part of the estate—to watch a late-summer outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. We dragged ourselves away from the play before it was over so we could make it over to Longfellow House for the 4 p.m. tour, which my friend was leading. It was a good decision. The tour was excellent. In fact, this hour-long excursion was one of the best I’ve ever seen given by any guide or interpreter. It seamlessly wove together the house’s associations with Longfellow and George Washington—representing two quite different periods in the country’s history.
The front lobby of the house tells its own story about the link between the great general and the great poet who came later. Longfellow took possession of the home in 1843, having previously occupied two rooms in the house as a tenant while teaching at Harvard. When he married Frances Appleton that year, his new wife’s father, who evidently was not short of a few bucks, bought the house outright for the newly-weds. (Longfellow was one of those rare literary talents who was able to realize fame, fortune, and happiness in his lifetime.) It was a great gift for the still-young professor and rising literary star. The thing is, Longfellow was a huge fan of Washington. When he took ownership he wanted every visitor to know the Washington connection. To that end he had a bust of the great man placed in the front lobby to drive home the point.
To be honest I’d never learned that much about Longfellow. I knew the name of course, and I was familiar with his poem about Paul Revere’s Ride, but we hadn’t read any of his works at school back in Scotland. Prior to my visit my interest in the house had really been prompted by its Revolutionary War connections. Our tour certainly covered that element in satisfying detail, showing us where Washington worked, where he and Martha slept, how the general spent his days at the headquarters, and who he worked with. But I ended up surprising myself by becoming quite engaged with the story of the poet.
Longfellow was a rock star during his life, or the equivalent of a rock star in the mid-1800s. This is something that’s hard for us to appreciate today, when contemporary poets and college professors don’t quite pack the pop culture punch of a Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. Back then the literary world contained much of the pzazz we reserve for pop artists and movie stars now. Longfellow’s home had more than a bit of pzazz. Many of the great and the good of the 19th century glitterati called on these doors. Charles Dickens stopped there. So did Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Makepeace Thackeray. Heck, even the emperor of Brazil paid a visit. But that’s not what held my attention. Something else happened there, something awful.
I noted earlier that Longfellow realized fame, fortune, and happiness long before he shuffled off this mortal coil. Unfortunately, that’s not completely true. Fame and fortune he had aplenty, but, this being the 19th century, tragedy had to be lurking somewhere. And indeed it struck with full force one day in 1861, when in a horrific accident Longfellow’s wife’s dress caught fire from a burning fireplace ember and she died from her burns. Longfellow was there at the time and tried to put out the flames, but he was unable to save her. Nineteenth-century dresses were not known for their fire-retardant properties. He suffered serious burns himself. It is hard to imagine the full horror of what happened. Longfellow was devoted to his Frances and he never got over this calamity.
My ranger friend succeeded in dropping all this into his talk without warning yet with full effect as he showed us the spot where it happened. It drew an audible gasp from our small group. The location and the calm yet affecting manner of his delivery made the awful impact of the event all the more profound. Here we were standing at the spot where it had happened more than a century and a half ago, and the tragedy still had the power to shock. He returned to the matter of Frances’ death at the end of his tour, when he took us to the couple’s bedroom and read us one of Longfellow’s poems. It wasn’t from “Paul Revere’s Ride” or The Song of Hiawatha or any of his better-known works. Instead it was his memorial to Frances, a sonnet called “Cross of Snow,” written by the still-grieving Longfellow 18 years after her death. Our ranger read the poem in its entirety, noting how its content makes plain that it was written in the very room where we stood, as the distraught poet had gazed at the portrait of his love.
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died, and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Really. There simply was no better way to conclude the tour. The hour had flown by and I felt I had really learned something and wanted to learn more. I had a much greater appreciation for the site than I had previously. When we later went out for beer and burgers I was effusive in my praise for my friend. The experience drove home to me once again how important it is to have a really good interpreter to make our history come alive. The site can’t do it on its own. Technology can’t do it on its own. They need help. What a historic site will always need is a human being that can help us connect the place we are visiting with other, perhaps greater human beings that once stood here and made some difference to our history. That’s really what it’s all about.
Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/long/index.htm
Hugh Howard (2007). Houses of the Founding Fathers. New York: Artisan.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Cross of Snow.” Available at http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/longfellow.html