A Look at Life in the Longfellow House (#5)

The Longfellow House was not just an important site in George Washington’s military career. It was also important in the historical study of the general because the scholar Jared Sparks lived there as he prepared the first edition of Washington’s collected letters.

After work as a Unitarian minister and editor of the North American Review, Sparks (1789-1866) convinced Washington’s heirs to loan him the first President’s papers so that he could prepare an edition for the press. In March 1833 Sparks signed a contract for publishing those volumes. The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, by Herbert Baxter Adams, quotes Sparks’s diary as the scholar and his wife of six months rented rooms in the mansion on Brattle Street on April 2:
This day began to occupy Mrs. Craigie’s house in Cambridge. It is a singular circumstance that, while I am engaged in preparing for the press the letters of General Washington which he wrote at Cambridge after taking command of the American army, I should occupy the same rooms that he did at that time. Mrs. Craigie’s house is the one in which he resided, and which he made his headquarters during his residence in Cambridge. We purpose to remain here during the summer, as well on account of its being a charming summer residence as that my presence near the printing-office is now very convenient. Washington’s writings and the little volume of Franklin’s letters are now both in press at Mr. Folsom’s office in Cambridge. The college library also affords other facilities, being the most complete collection which the world affords of books relating to the history of America.
The first volumes that appeared the next year were numbered 2 and 3 since Sparks planned a biography of Washington as volume 1, and wanted to edit all the letters before finishing that. He sent the last sheet of the biography manuscript to the printer on 22 July 1837, ten years after he had received the documents.

By that time, Henry W. Longfellow had also moved into Elizabeth Craigie’s boarding house, and occasionally visited his fellow scholar’s room to read Washington’s original letters.

While the public appreciated Sparks’s edition, it fell short of rising scholarly standards. Sparks had “corrected” not only spelling and capitalization, but also phrasing and thoughts, in an effort to depict Washington as practically flawless. He snipped out signatures and cut up documents that he deemed unimportant to make souvenirs for visitors and correspondents. Nevertheless, Sparks is an important figure in establishing the goals, if not the methods, of American historical scholarship.

Sparks also edited the papers of Gouverneur Morris and Benjamin Franklin, and the influential Library of American Biography. He was president of Harvard College in 1849-1853, and Sparks Street in Cambridge is named after him.

This month, the Friends and the staff of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site commemorate Gen. Washington’s work with special tours and a lecture on March 17, the day in 1776 when the British military evacuated Boston.