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May 02

Treasures of the WFPL: A Note from Longfellow

Posted on May 2, 2018 at 1:25 PM by Brittany Byrd

Old book with gilded text reading The Poetical Works of LongfellowA descendent of one of Watertown’s early settlers, Solon Whitney was born in Harvard, MA. After spending his youth elsewhere (Seneca Falls, NY; Fall River, MA; Providence, RI), he returned to his ancestral hometown as principal of Watertown High School in 1866. Whitney stayed in that role for only six years before taking up a teaching position at the high school in Cambridge, yet he remained fiercely dedicated to Watertown. He was our founding librarian, and for fifty years, we were the beneficiaries of his attention and generosity. A genealogy of the Whitney family published in 1895 attested that Solon Whitney’s “best thought and life has gone into this little village library.”

In 1881, Whitney, who was then 50, acquired a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Complete Poetical Works, Illustrated, published in 1879 by Houghton, Mifflin & Company, for the library. His 1882 Annual Report to the Trustees mentions that “a fine autograph copy of the new edition of the complete works of Henry W. Longfellow, is among the volumes added to the alcove of poetry.” The title also appears in an appendix to the 1882 Town Report as part of the library’s “First Supplement to Second Catalogue: List of Books Added During the Year 1881 and to Feb. 1, 1882.”

We still own that “fine autograph copy,” a gorgeous two-volume set with marbled endpapers and gilt edging,[1] but we now know that Whitney’s description was entirely too modest. What he failed to mention in the report—how the autograph was obtained—is revealed in a penciled note that reads:

"will Mr. Longfellow kindly put his autograph in this copy of his poems as it is intended for preservation in the Library, and oblige greatly the Trustees and the Librarian, his warm admirers, Solon F. Whitney, Librarian.” Below, Whitney adds: “I will call at the door for this soon as I pass on my way from school. (Cambridge High School) SFW.”

In 1881, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in his mid-seventies, at the height of his literary fame, yet in declining health.[2] In a year, he would be buried in Lot 580 at Mount Auburn Cemetery. What was his reaction to the note from the Cambridge teacher and Watertown librarian? Did he sigh wearily at yet another plea for a relic of his renown? Was he flattered by the admiration expressed in the request? Did he feel a special connection to Watertown, “a frequent destination for excursions with his wife, Fanny,”[3] from their longtime home in Cambridge? Was he happy to provide this gift to a public library, in particular—perhaps believing, as Whitney did, that it had the potential to “ever stimulate the minds of the young to that orderly and systematic pursuit of knowledge which builds up the individual and doubly enriches a community”?[4]

We can only speculate. All we know is that Longfellow inscribed our book, then added his own note, in pencil, to the lower right-hand corner of Whitney’s:

“My signature on title page. HWL.”

[1] Longfellow’s Complete Poetical Works, Illustrated has been digitized and can be viewed online courtesy of HathiTrust…but wouldn’t you rather see the original? Stop by the Local History Room on the second floor of the library, where it is on display.

[2] Longfellow “was universally well-regarded, and much feted,” writes biographer Charles Calhoun in Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, “but at the same time increasingly seen as a children’s poet. His melancholy in these years [was] aggravated by chronic ill health and the deaths of close friends.” (p. 246).

[3] According to Christine Wirth, Archives Specialist at the Longfellow House in Cambridge (personal correspondence with the author, 10/12/17).

[4] Librarian’s Report to the Trustees, 1881, in Watertown’s 1881 Annual Report.

Tag(s): Local History