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Town where Longfellow born celebrates 200th anniversary of birth

PORTLAND, Maine --Remembrances of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would have turned 200 on Tuesday, are hard to escape in his native Portland, the place he described in "My Lost Youth" as "the beautiful town that is seated by the sea."

In the heart of the downtown sits Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the three-story brick building where the poet lived as a youth. It's a few blocks east of Longfellow Square and even closer to Longfellow Books. Some of the city's elementary school pupils attend Longfellow School. Older folks can, in season, order a locally brewed Longfellow Winter Ale in a nearby bar or restaurant.

Longfellow, one of the most beloved literary figures in 19th-century America, has left his mark in the city where he was born on Feb. 27, 1807. Because of that connection, the Maine Historical Society is hosting a 200th birthday celebration Tuesday that kicks off a year of bicentennial activities.

Similar events, including poetry readings, lectures and exhibits, are also being held in Brunswick, where Longfellow attended Bowdoin College in the same graduating class as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and in Cambridge, Mass., where he spent most of his life and taught foreign languages at Harvard University.

Known for such familiar poems as "Evangeline," "The Children's Hour," "The Song of Hiawatha" and "Paul Revere's Ride," Longfellow achieved fame during his lifetime comparable to that of today's leading pop culture figures.

"People don't realize what a huge celebrity he was," said Steve Bromage, assistant director of the Maine Historical Society, who has been planning this year's bicentennial events. "He was an international celebrity of rock star status who was recognized around the world."

After Longfellow's death in 1882, his poems were taught to generations of school children, who recited them in class and in some cases never forgot them.

Even those with little knowledge of Longfellow or his poetry can't escape his influence. Phrases from his work that have become part of the language include "the patter of little feet," "ships that pass in the night" and "into each life some rain must fall."

With the rise of modernism toward the middle of the 20th century, Longfellow lost much of his luster.

"It was a general reaction against all things Victorian. Victorians were seen as stuffy, sexually repressed, patriarchal, a lot of dead white males," said Charles C. Calhoun, author of "Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life."

"He was dismissed as being either mawkishly sentimental or simply a children's poet."

But there have been signs of a reversal over the past decade or two amid renewed respect for his poetry and a focus on other aspects of his life, including his trans-Atlantic visits that heightened interest in American literature among Europeans and vice versa.

"He's still a very neglected figure in academic departments," Calhoun said, "but people are finally realizing that he was a major figure in Victorian America. Whether you like his poetry or not, he was a defining figure in that culture."

One of the highlights of the bicentennial will be the Portland Stage Company's performance in October of "Longfellow: A Life in Words," a play by Daniel Noel that explores the poet's legacy through his writings and letters to family, friends and other literary figures.

Longfellow is also being celebrated musically. A choral concert Sunday at Portland's First Parish Church, where the poet worshipped as a boy, featured the poet's works set to music. A March 25 gala at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, site of the 1907 Longfellow centennial celebration, will include the Boston Landmarks Orchestra's performance of Julian Wachner's composition, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

In Brunswick, where Longfellow enrolled at Bowdoin College at age 14, a bicentennial exhibition will be on display at the college's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library. A sidewalk plaque with words from the poem "Keramos" will be unveiled Tuesday evening as part of the town's annual Longfellow Days celebration.

Within a few weeks, anyone who mails a letter will be able to share in the Longfellow celebration.

On March 15, the Postal Service will issue a Longfellow commemorative stamp. The 39-cent stamp, part of the Literary Arts series, features a portrait of the poet with a scene of "Paul Revere's Ride" in the background.

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