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Longfellow Legend In Maine By Bonnie Mason

Shhh. Don't tell anyone. It's just gossip. And anyway, the only two people who know the truth are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Susan Chase. And they are not here to defend themselves, so it's not really fair is it?
But if you promise, really promise, I'll tell you the story. And it is just a story.
Back in 1822 to 1825 when young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a student at Bowdoin College, he was reportedly seen walking from the Bowdoin College campus out to Pennellville. Now here's where the speculation begins.
Did young Henry walk out Mere Point Road and then follow along the shore? Or did he walk as the crow flies?
Did he walk out to watch the ships being built in Pennellville by the Pennell shipbuilders? Or did the now famous student walk out to watch the tidee in?
Did he sometimes wander over to Bunganuc Road to visit the Samuel Chase family who raised five young women, many of whom married into the Pennell clan?
And if so, why? Was it because the youthful poet's maternal grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth, had become friends with Benjamin Chase, Susan's grandfather, during the Revolutionary War?
William Barry, at the reference desk of the Maine Historical Society says he can see find no such link between the Chases and the Wadsworths or Longfellows "Perhaps, " he says. "Benjamin Chase was a Revolutionary War captain, but I cannot find it here."
Still, there's a possibility that the families knew each other, says Charles Calhoun, author of Longfellow, A Rediscovered Life. "Maine was a small place, and the leading families all knew each other."
"The Chases and the Longfellows were all leading gentry of the day, " explains Walt Henshaw, a retired Boston lawyer, as he tramps through the snow on his property near the small cemetery where Samuel and Mary Chase are buried on Bunganuc Road.
And on these visits to see the Chases, did Longfellow make the acquaintance of a special Chase daughter, one named Susan Chase?
Henshaw, who at one time lived in the Chase home, at 380 Bunganuc Road, after his parents bought it, but before his nephew, John Henshaw, rennovated it, first heard the legend as a youth at the feet of Robert P.T. Coffin, former Maine Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner.
His mother and grandmother had befriended Coffin's daughter who got caught in a thunderstorm riding her bicycle in front of their house. They took her back home to Coffin's in Pennellville. Coffin invited them in.
"The whiskey bottles popped open, " says Henshaw. "And Coffin told us the tale."
Now it has been said by some, who don't want to be named, that Robert P.T. Coffin was a better storyteller than he was historian, but no matter, a story is a story. And the fact that it has persisted so long is interesting, says Charles Calhoun, Scholar-in-Residence, Maine Humanities Council.
"Even if the story were true, " says Dr. Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, "and I haven't seen any references to it anywhere-it wouldn't change our perception of Longfellow one bit. He was a very sensual man, and even before his marriage, he was involved with a number of women we know about-a girl in Spain with whom he seems to have fallen in love in 1827, Florencia Gonzalex, and in Rome he became romantically interested in Giula Persiana-so all of this would be old news."
Don't tell that to those who believe in the story about Longfellow and Susan Chase.
Nancy Pennell of Pennellvile says that the legend was passed down to her from her mother-in-law, Alice Coffin Pennell.
And Robert P.T. Coffin's son, Richard Coffin, of Falmouth says that he has always known about the legend of Longfellow's letters to Susan which Susan's aunt, Mary Ellen Pennell, supposedly burned after Susan's death.
Were they love letters, those letters that Robert P.T. Coffin writes about in Captain Abby and Captain John? Were they kept in a trunk all Susan Chase's life? Nobody knows. "People in the Victorian Age never talked about sex, " says Richard Coffin, "or anything that somebody might think would be bad."
No letters from Susan Chase to Longfellow, however, can be found at the Harvard Houghton Library, according to Anita Israel, Archives Specialist, Longfellow National Historic Site.
"Victorian families were famous for editing family papers to remove any hint of scandal, " says Calhoun. So even if there were letters, they may not have survived.
"I can neither confirm not deny these rumors, " says Richard Lindemann, Director, George J. Mitchell Dept. of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
But even the people out at Pennellville who aren't Pennells believe the legend that Susan Chase and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may have been on courting terms at least for a brief while.
"Oh, all of us know that story, " said an elderly gentleman I met when I drove out to enjoy the view of the water one sunny day last summer in Pennellville. But he didn't repeat the story. He seemed to assume that I must know it, too. Like everyone else.
Speculation continues to this day. Did Longfellow perhaps want to marry Susan, as history buff, Frank Connors, of Bowdoinham, suggests? Did her father refuse a poet because he wanted a sea captain?
Or did Susan want to marry Longfellow but the poet preferred to follow his father's wishes, which may have been for him to marry Mary Potter, the daughter of a Portland lawyer who was his father's friend?
The facts remain. "The two great loves of Longfellow's life were Mary Potter and Fanny Appleton, " says Calhoun, Scholar-in-Residence at Maine Humanities Council.
But Walt Henshaw disagrees. "Longfellow broke Susan's heart twice." Once, when he married Mary Potter. And a second time when he chose to pursue Fanny Appleton in Boston after he moved to Cambridge to teach at Harvard.
"Maybe little Susan Chase wasn't going to hack it, " suggests Henshaw. "Longfellow may have had greater social ambitions. "
Irmscher doubts that conclusion. "Longfellow was a very ethical man, and while he liked women, he did not decide whom to be with on the basis of money or social status. His seven-year-long courtship of Fanny which brought him to the brink of madness and physical collapse had nothing to do with economic aspirations at all."
Will we ever know the truth about Longfellow and Susan Chase? Probably not, unless some letters surface that are now thought to be lost.
So shhh! Don't tell. It's just gossip, anyway.
"But it's a story I like to tell, " says Henshaw as he turns to trudge through the snow back to his beautiful home on the water, across from the Chase mansion.
Bonnie_Mason Bonnie_Mason
height="90" width="64" Bonnie-Mason_164861 Bonnie Mason -

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