Longfellow had a disability, and family members who helped him adapt
One of the most remarkable aspects of Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site is the breadth and depth of its history – including disability history. The careers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and George Washington are two key stories associated with the site, but not the only ones. Other key figures in the site’s history include the people who were enslaved and carved out their freedom here before Washington arrived, as well as the three generations of queer Longfellows who later lived in this home. Though the Longfellow house has been a National Historic Site for 50 years, there are always new research threads to pull as we uncover sources and read old sources with new eyes.
The phrase “read old sources with new eyes” is particularly apt when applied to one of the site’s most familiar stories. We’ve known for years that famed 19th century poet Henry Longfellow had trouble with his vision throughout his life. He sought medical treatment for his vision in Germany in 1842. While he referred to his eye problems in letters and journals throughout his life, he didn’t go into detail – whether his vision was blurred or limited, or he had headaches, or he couldn’t focus. He simply wrote about “his eyes.” The problem also waxed and waned throughout his life. Whatever the exact medical details, at times the problems formed a substantial limitation on his ability to read and work. In other words, Henry Longfellow had a disability.
Disability is not a new part of the human experience. What disabilities mean and how they affect a person’s life depends, as so many things do, upon the society a person inhabits and their role within it. Today there are two main models for how U.S. society constructs disability. The medical model says disability comes from a person’s “particular mental or physical limitations,” while the social model holds that disability comes from the ways in which a person’s set of abilities does not mesh with what their society deems “normal.” To use Longfellow’s eyes as an example, the medical model would hold that there was something wrong with them that could (in theory) be fixed, while the social model would hold that he was disabled only because he lived in a culture that relied upon writing for communication. If he had lived in a society where poetry was shared orally, his vision might have been less of an inconvenience to him.
We know Longfellow was not happy about his vision problems because of the way he wrote in letters and his journal. His vision seems to have been a chronic problem, as he complained about it throughout much of his adult life. When writing about his eyes, he frequently used words such as “bad,” “feeble,” “dim,” “poor” and “useless.” In an 1850 letter to his friend Francis Lieber, he apologized for not writing as frequently as he wanted to, saying “My eyes are to blame – not my heart. So much dust and darkness have gathered on those ‘windows to the soul,’ that I can hardly see out of them …”
A few years before this letter, in May 1846, his eyesight led to Longfellow being “forced to suspend for the present” the lectures he had been giving at Harvard on Dante, and he instead spent an afternoon playing in the garden with his son Charley. While his eyes were not, in his phrase, “bad” enough to completely obscure his vision, the visual impairment did in this moment prevent him from doing his job. According to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” Its list of “major life activities” includes, among other things, reading, communicating and working. Henry’s eyes prevented him from working, but from the evidence we have he does did not seem to have trouble with most of the other major life activities, such as hearing, eating or walking.
The cancellation of lectures seems to have been an isolated incident for Longfellow. The disability’s greatest impact was on his poetical career and his ability to communicate with extended family. When he was not able to write letters himself, Henry received assistance from his immediate family. As his brother Sam wrote in a 1886 biography, “one of Mrs. [Fanny] Longfellow’s first wifely duties was that of amanuensis,” or scribe, without mentioning that he also filled this role for Henry, as did their brother Alex. Throughout history, people with disabilities have developed assistive technologies and relationships; Longfellow did not have a modern computer with a speech-to-text function, but he had a family able and willing to support his needs.
Through the lens of modern law, it’s clear that Longfellow had a disability. Is that how he would have viewed himself? That is a question we can never answer, but we should not let that lack of certainty prevent us from discussing the topic. Disability is something that has been part of humanity since the beginning, and yet for too long museums and historic sites have suppressed this important aspect of the human experience. There is no single way to experience disability; for some people, it is a deep and intrinsic part of their identity, while for others it’s simply something to consider as they move through the world. Talking about nuanced aspects of historical figures’ personhoods, even if they themselves might have used different language from what we have today, paints a fuller and more accurate picture of who they were. It is our purpose and honor to share this more inclusive vision of the past with our community.
About History Cambridge
History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.
We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Our theme for 2022 is “How Does Cambridge Work?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.
About Longfellow House
Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site preserves the home of famed 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also Gen. George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston. Today the site embraces but digs beyond their stories to explore the history of slavery, acts of emancipation, American historical mythology, LGBTQ history, architecture and family life. This is its 50th year as a National Historic Site, and there are plans to celebrate the many achievements that have shaped the site into a dynamic community resource, tourist destination and center for scholarship. Staff will continue to peel back the layers of history for an even deeper understanding of 105 Brattle St.’s place in Cambridge history, in U.S. history and in world history and work to make the Longfellow House more welcoming and accessible to all. Visitors are invited to join in a fresh exploration of U.S. history through the arts, scholarship, stewardship and community.
Kate Potter is an interpretive park ranger at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. She received a master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School in 2020.