The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XII. Longfellow

§ 2. Bowdoin

After a good schooling and an introduction to the best reading old and new, including Irving’s Sketch Book, Longfellow, in the autumn of 1822, entered Bowdoin College as a sophomore, having Nathaniel Hawthorne as a classmate. Here, as at home, he continued to come under unpretentious, wholesome influences, to which were added those of rural seclusion. Before he graduated in 1825, he was writing verse rather copiously, and some of it was published in a literary journal just founded in Boston. As is not surprising, it was overpraised by a provincial public, but for a wonder, in view of the vogue of Byron, it was not stormily romantic. His success gave point to his plans for leading a literary life, but his more experienced father held out for the law, although he was willing to give his son a year of grace to be spent in less uncongenial studies at Harvard. This plan was abandoned because it was found feasible for Longfellow to fit himself to become the first incumbent of a chair of modern languages to be established at Bowdoin.

Travel and study in Europe were essential to such a design, and the middle of June, 1826, saw the youth of nineteen beginning at Havre a European sojourn of a little more than three years. Temperament and immaturity, combined doubtless with a shrewd perception of the fact that great erudition was not a prerequisite to successful language-teaching in Maine, made it natural that Longfellow should become rather a sentimental pilgrim than a delving student or a philosophical observer, and that he should make but slight use of Ticknor’s recommendation of Göttingen as a centre and source of the exact scholarship so much needed in America. German sentiment and romance were later to mean much to the poet; but Latin colour and picturesqueness meant more to the young traveller. France, Spain, where he met Irving, and Italy, from whose greatest writer his mature and declining years derived their chief solace, were in turn visited, their manners noted, their literatures studied, their languages in more than polite measure mastered. Then several months were given to Germany, including a little studying at Göttingen, and in August, 1829, the neophyte professor was back in America ready to take up the duties of his chair.

Those duties occupied him until his second visit to Europe, which took place nearly six years later. He was a conscientious and successful teacher and compiler of text-books, he lectured on literary history, he wrote for The North American Review essays flavoured with scholarship, he gave a pledge to society by taking to himself, in 1831, a wife, Mary Storer Potter, of Portland. Except for some verse translations from the Spanish and certain traces of the poet to be discovered in a series of travel-sketches, which appeared in a volume entitled Outre-Mer: a Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1835), one might have been justified in supposing that without doubt the undergraduate whose heart was set on “future eminence in literature” would end his life as a distinguished academic personage, not as the most popular poet of his generation. His fate seemed sealed with his acceptance of the Smith Chair of Modern Languages at Harvard, in succession to Ticknor, and with his departure for Europe in April, 1835, in order that by study of the northern literatures he might the better qualify himself for his important post.