Intellectual with much promise seeks career change…

In 1834 a young Bowdoin College professor wrote to the U.S. Senator from Maine, Peleg Sprague, looking for a favor (two favors, actually).  He was hoping that Sprague could assist his very talented friend, George Cooke, in obtaining a commission to paint one of the four vacant panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC.   He also hoped that Sprague could help him in obtaining the Modern Language professorship at the University of Virginia.

Sadly, George Cooke was not tapped to contribute to the paintings in the Capitol.  Instead, these commissions went to John Vanderlyn (Landing of Columbus), William Powell (Discovery of Mississippi), John Chapman (Baptism of Pocohontas), and Robert Weir (Embarkation of the Pilgrims).  George Cooke (1793-1849) did go on, however, to become a distiguished American painter under that patronage of the industrialist, Daniel Pratt.  His most famous work is the Interior of St. Peter’s in Rome currently on display at the University of Georgia.

And the Bowdoin College professor?  Well, Sprague apparently was not much help there either. The young man ended up teaching at Harvard, publishing a few poems and translating some Italian.  His name was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The following is a transcription of the letter from Longfellow to Sprague:

Feb. 23rd 1834

Hon. Peleg Sprague

Dear Sir,

I must apologize for troubling you with a letter at a time when you are so much engaged, as at the present moment.  I certainly should not do so, were it not in behalf of a friend, and upon business which, in a certain sense, is of a public nature.

I see by the papers that four American artists are to be employed to execute paintings upon national subjects for four vacant panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol.  A very intimate friend of mine, Mr. George Cooke of New York, is very desirous of this opportunity to distinguish himself.  He already enjoys a high reputation as a portrait and landscape painter, and I have every reason to believe that he will become equally celebrated in historic painting.

I passed nearly a year with Mr. Cooke in Italy, and I can bear witness to his ardent and assiduous application in his profession.  He passed, I think, four years in Europe and returns home full of zeal and enthusiasm for his art, and burning to distinguish himself by some great work.  His age cannot be far from thirty-five so that he is in his prime – a man of fine powers and long experience.  His style of painting is exceedingly finished and beautiful, and his coloring very excellent.

I believe our Representative is one of the Committee, to whom this subject is referred.  If you should have leisure to speak with him, I must beg of you to mention Mr. Cooke as a man who would not be likely to disappoint the expectations of the Committee.

Will you excuse me, Sir, if having thus far pleaded the cause of my friend, I take the liberty of asking a favor for myself?  From reasons which I need not mention, I have become desirous of leaving Brunswick.  My ardent desire is to obtain an appointment as Secretary of Legation in some foreign Embassy; but this I suppose is impossible at the present moment.  I have no friends in power under the present Administration, though I hope hereafter to procure such a situation.  En attendant a gentlemen from Virginia – a friend who is much interested in my success in life – informs me that in all probability I should be able to procure the professorship of “Mod Lang” in the University of V[irginia].  I have requested Mr. Cooke, who is acquainted with Mr. Rivers, Senator from Va. to write to him upon the subject, to see if there is a vacancy.  If you will ask Mr. Rivers (who is one of the Gov. of the University) what the state of the institution is, and what the salaries, or prerequisites of the professors are you will do me a great favor.

I hope, Sir, you will not think I have presumed too far in this letter.  I should not have written were the subject of much importance to me and I will request you, in conclusion, not to put yourself to any inconvenience in these matters, but let them wait you leisure.

I am, Sir, very respectfully,

Your Ob’d Ser’t,
Henry W. Longfellow

The letter can be found in the Peleg Sprague Collection.

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