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Chapter 10: Craigie House

In entering on the duties of his Harvard professorship (December, 1836) Longfellow took rooms at the Craigie House in Cambridge. This house, so long his residence, has been claimed as having more historic interest than any house in New England, both from the fact of his ownership and of its having been the headquarters of General Washington during the siege of Boston. It has even been called from these two circumstances the best known residence in the United States, with the exception of Mt. Vernon, with which it has some analogy both in position and in aspect. It overlooks the Charles River as the other overlooks the Potomac, though the latter view is of course far more imposing, and the Craige House wants the picturesque semicircle of outbuildings so characteristic of Mt. Vernon, while it is far finer in respect to rooms, especially in the upper stories. It was built, in all probability, in 1759 by Colonel John Vassall, whose family owned the still older house across the way now called the Batchelder House; and there is a [117] tradition of a subterranean passage between the two houses, although this has hitherto been sought in vain. Both these dwellings belonged to a series of large houses on Brattle Street, called Tory Row, whose proprietors were almost all kinsfolk, owned West India estates and slaves, entertained company in great affluence, according to the descriptions of the Baroness Riedesel, and were almost all forced to leave the country at the approach of the Revolution. Tradition recalls a Twelfth Night party given by Mrs. Washington in 1776, she having come to visit her husband during his residence in Cambridge. ‘She arrived in great ceremony, with a coach and four black horses, with postilions and servants in scarlet livery. During her visit she and her husband celebrated their wedding anniversary, though the General had to be much persuaded by his aides.’1 The southeastern room, afterwards Longfellow's study, had been Washington's office, and the chamber above it his private room, this being Longfellow's original study. The house was bought about 1792, the dates being a little uncertain, by Andrew Craigie, apothecary-general of the northern department of the Revolutionary army, who made additions to the house, which was described as a princely [118] establishment2 Mr. Craigie sometimes entertained a hundred guests at the Commencement festival, and had among his other guests the celebrated Talleyrand and the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria's father, then Prince Edward. Mr. Craigie had large business transactions, speculated extensively but at last unsuccessfully in real estate, and died in 1819. His wife long outlived him, and being poor, let rooms to various inmates. Edward Everett took his bride there in 1822, and so did President Jared Sparks in 1832. Five years after, Longfellow took the rooms, and thus describes his first visit to Mrs. Craigie:—

The first time I was in Craigie House was on a beautiful afternoon in the year 1837. I came to see Mr. McLane, a law-student, who occupied the southeastern chamber. The window-blinds were closed, but through them came a pleasant breeze, and I could see the waters of the Charles gleaming in the meadows. McLane left Cambridge in August, and I took possession of his room, making use of it as a library or study, and having the adjoining chamber for my bedroom. At first Mrs. Craigie declined to let me have rooms. I remember how she looked as [119] she stood, in her white turban, with her hands crossed behind her, snapping her gray eyes. She had resolved, she said, to take no more students into the house. But her manner changed when I told her who I was. She said that she had read “Outre-Mer,” of which one number was lying on her side-board. She then took me all over the house and showed me every room in it, saying, as we went into each, that I could not have that one. She finally consented to my taking the rooms mentioned above, on condition that the door leading into the back entry should be locked on the outside. Young Habersham, of Savannah, a friend of Mrs. Craigie's, occupied at that time the other front chamber. He was a skilful performer on the flute. Like other piping birds, he took wing for the rice-fields of the South when the cold weather came, and I remained alone with the widow in her castle. The back part of the house was occupied, however, by her farmer. His wife supplied my meals and took care of my rooms. She was a giantess, and very pious in words; and when she brought in my breakfast frequently stopped to exhort me. The exorbitant rate at which she charged my board was rather at variance with her preaching. Her name was Miriam; and Felton called her “Miriam, the profitess.” Her husband was a meek little man. [120]

The winter was a rather solitary one, and the house very still. I used to hear Mrs. Craigie go down to breakfast at nine or ten in the morning and go up to bed at eleven at night. During the day she seldom left the parlor, where she sat reading the newspapers and the magazines, —occasionally a volume of Voltaire. She read also the English Annuals, of which she had a large collection. Occasionally, the sound of voices announced a visitor; and she sometimes enlivened the long evenings with a half-forgotten tune upon an old piano-forte.

During the following summer the fine old elms in front of the house were attacked by canker-worms, which, after having devoured the leaves, came spinning down in myriads. Mrs. Craigie used to sit by the open windows and let them crawl over her white turban unmolested. She would have nothing done to protect the trees from these worms; she used to say, “ Why, sir, they are our fellow-worms; they have as good a right to live as we have.”

It was certainly a strange chance which threw the young poet, on his return from Europe, into the curiously cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mrs. Craigie's mind. The sale catalogue of her books lies before me, a mass of perhaps five hundred odd volumes of worthy or worthless literature: Goethe's ‘Werther’ beside the American ‘Frugal [121] Housewife,’ and Heath's ‘Book of Beauty’ beside ‘Hannah More.’ Yet it was doubtless the only house in Cambridge which then held complete sets of Voltaire and Diderot, of Moli-ère, Crebillon, and Florian, Madame de Sevigne and Madame de Stael. Some of the books thus sold form a part to this day of the Longfellow library at Craigie House; but there is no reference to the poet in the original catalogue, except that it includes ‘Outre-Mer,’ No. 1, doubtless the same copy which he saw lying on the sideboard.

Mr. J. E. Worcester, the lexicographer, shared the house with Longfellow, as did for a time Miss Sally Lowell, an aunt of the poet. Mr. Worcester bought it for himself, and ultimately sold it to Mr. Nathan Appleton, father of the second Mrs. Longfellow, to whom he presented it. Part of the ten magnificent elms of which Longfellow wrote in 1839 have disappeared. The ground has been improved by the low-fenced terrace which he added, and the grounds opposite, given by the poet's children to the Longfellow Memorial Association, have been graded into a small public park descending nearly to the river. Within the house all remains much the same, Longfellow's library never having been scattered, although his manuscripts and proof-sheets, which he preserved and caused to be [122] bound in their successive stages in the most orderly manner, have now been transferred to a fire-proof building for greater security. The ‘old clock on the stairs,’ which he himself placed there, still ticks and strikes the hour; and one can see cracks in the stairway through which the mysterious letters dropped morning after morning, as told in the story of ‘Esther Wynne's Love Letters,’ by the accomplished author known as Saxe Holm. The actual letters were more commonplace, but they were apparently written by a schoolgirl under Mr. Craigie's care; and there was a tradition, not very well authenticated, that Longfellow himself had planned to make them the subject of a poem before Saxe Holm or Helen Hunt—as the case may be—had anticipated him in prose.

Such was the house where Longfellow resided for the rest of his life; seven years of which passed before his second wedded life began. The following letter, taken from the Harvard College papers, will show the interest he took in the estate.

my dear Sir [President Quincy],—Will you have the goodness to lay before the Corporation, at their next meeting, my request concerning the trees, which I mentioned to you the last time I had the pleasure of seeing you; viz. that [123] they would permit me to take from the College grounds 3 elm trees to be placed in front of the Craigie House.

I am endeavoring to replace, as well as possible, the old elms, and find it difficult to obtain many of the size I desire. Some parts of the College ground are so thickly planted that a tree may be removed, here & there, without at all impairing the beauty of the grounds. I therefore request permission to remove any 3 trees that the College Steward shall say may be taken without detriment to the College property.

Yrs very truly,

1 Miss Alice M. Longfellow in The Cambridge Tribune, April 21, 1900, page 4.

2 A history of this house from original documents was prepared by Samuel S. Green, of Worcester, and was read by him before the American Antiquarian Society, April 25, 1900, and published in their documents.

3 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XII. 26.

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