My Lost Youth is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in which he describes his days growing up in Portland, in the town “seated by the sea.” Although many people have read or at least have heard of the poem, few know the actual story of his childhood in Portland. A new book by Maine Historical Society employee and Portland native John William Babin has gone a long way to rectify this oversight.
Babin’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow In Portland, The Fireside Poet of Maine, published by the History Press in November, reconstructs Longfellow’s life from his birth in Portland in 1807 until his days as a professor of modern languages at Harvard and his 1843 marriage to Frances Appleton, his second wife. Babin has utilized Longfellow’s own writings, made up of letters to friends and relatives, to tell this story. The author said this separates his book from others on the renowned poet; he used six published volumes of Longfellow’s letters that can be found at the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Library, books not readily accessible to the general reader.
Babin, the Maine Historical Society’s visitors services manager, has long been interested in Longfellow, ever since his mother took him to tour the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress Street in Portland when he was a young boy. The idea for this book came out of Babin’s position as a docent and tour guide of the historic home. He wanted visitors to have something to inform them about the poet’s youth at the house and in Portland; most books gloss over Longfellow’s youth in the city. The poet wrote his first published poem, The Battle of Lovell’s Pond, in the ancient house when he was 13 (1820). He and his seven siblings grew up there.
Babin had assistance from many MHS employees, including Steve Bromage, the society’s executive director; Melissa Spoerl, the museum store manager; and Sofia Yalouris, image services coordinator. Local author Allan M. Levinsky gave editorial help and enhanced the historical context of the story by adding his own writings to it. Noted Maine historian Herb Adams wrote the foreword, while Levinsky wrote the introduction. An appendix includes, “A Tour Guide’s Reflections,” by Judie Percival, longtime tour guide at the Wadsworth-Longfellow House.
Babin’s book is brilliantly illustrated throughout, with 96 percent of the images coming from the MHS’s Maine Memory Network. There are many portraits of Longfellow as a boy and young man, images that show a pre-beard Longfellow that most people have not seen before. Also throughout are poems that he composed in the time period, 1820-1842. A final chapter focuses on Anne Longfellow Pierce, the poet’s sister who donated the Longfellow home to the MHS upon her death in 1901. Babin has said that not much has been written about Anne, without whom we would not have this beautiful, old home, built by their grandfather, Revolutionary War General Peleg Wadsworth in 1786.
Longfellow, the world-famous author of the poems, The Song of Hiawatha, Paul Revere’s Ride, Evangeline, The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Village Blacksmith, and The Courtship of Myles Standish, among so many others, penned countless letters while growing up and living in Portland and in Maine. Babin deftly incorporates many of them into his book and gives us a unique perspective, a vision of the legendary poet in his own words. The author also weaves much Portland history into the narrative, which helps the reader better understand what the town was like in the first half of the 19th century.
Babin, who started at the MHS as a volunteer, is working on at least one sequel to this book, a volume on Longfellow’s days as a professor at Harvard. Again, the poet’s own words will help to tell the story.
The book is available at the Maine Historical Society’s Museum Shop, 489 Congress St., and other local bookstores.