Perspective on the Longfellow Bridge – 2010
“Tired Iron” – The Longfellow Bridge – 2004
In the summer of 2010 the Massachusetts DOT announced a $300 million rehabilitation project for the aging Longfellow Bridge. Built in 1908, originally known as the Cambridge Bridge, it spans the lower Charles River connecting Boston to East Cambridge. Its granite neoclassical towers are a fixture in the Boston cityscape.
There has been much discussion about redesigning the bridge to give pedestrians and bicyclists more access, to create a space that will be more than just a bridge but will become a destination in and of itself. Now, almost 130 years since Longellow’s death in 1882, it is time to reflect on Longfellow’s poetic works, and what our relationship is to them today .
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family were active participants in the political, economic, and social activities of early and mid 19th century America. His maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, was a commanding general in the Continental Army. He returned from the war to build the house in Portland, ME where Henry Longfellow was born, was active in trade, founded the town of Hiram, served in the Massachusetts legislature and was the first U.S. Congressman from Cumberland County, serving 14 years. His father, Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer from Gorham, ME, had a similar background as state legislator and U.S. Congressman. His maternal uncle and namesake, Henry Wadsworth, was killed in the fight against the Barbary pirates in the Battle of Tripoli. Longfellow can trace his ancestors back on his mother’s side to Mayflower passengers John and Priscilla Alden whose love and courtship he recognized for posterity in his poem the Courtship of Miles Standish. While a professor at Harvard, his home in Cambridge where he lived with his second wife Fanny Appleton even had a connection to the founding of the country. It served as George Washington’s Revolutionary War Headquarters during the 1775 Siege of Boston.
Longfellow’s family position also brought him connections to the cultural elite of the emerging nation. He and his older sister graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825 along with his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. His home in Cambridge at Craigie House was a center of academic discourse of the day. His brother Samuel, who would later write a biography of him, was a good friend of a less well known Levi Thaxter. Thaxter would eventually marry Celia Laighton, the daughter of Thomas Laighton, a lighthouse keeper on White Island of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Portsmouth, NH. Laighton founded one of the early destination hotels on Appledore Island which was an attraction for many of the Bostonian well known literary and artistic figures of the day. His daughter, Celia Thaxter, a literary figure in her own right, was acquainted with Longfellow as well as with his contemporaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Longfellow’s poetry helped create the mythology of the developing nation and peoples of the continent involved in the restructuring of colonial North America. Whether it was the Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline: Tale of Acadie, The Ride of Paul Revere or the The Village Blacksmith, Longfellow was more interested in telling a story that entertained the reader than in producing an historic treatise on the subject. His style and subject matter were not as original or esoteric as some of his contemporaries, such as Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, but they were accessible to the public and live on in our collective memories even if I dare say many more people today know of them than have read them.
Our relationship to the bridge in Boston that bears his name is in many ways similar to our relationship to the man and his works. It reflects a time gone by in our past that is fondly remembered. It is highly utilized but under appreciated. Over time its structure and reputation have become run down. It is well worn and in need of much repair, but the foundation is solid and well built. With attention and rehabilitation it will well serve future generations for years to come.