Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day. As a friend once wrote to him, "no other poet was so fully recognized in his lifetime". Many of his works helped shape the American character and its legacy, particularly with the poem "Paul Revere's Ride". He was such an admired figure in the United States during his life that his 70th birthday in 1877 took on the air of a national holiday, with parades, speeches, and the reading of his poetry.
Over the years, Longfellow's personality has become part of his reputation. He has been presented as a gentle, placid, poetic soul: an image perpetuated by his brother Samuel Longfellow, who wrote an early biography which specifically emphasized these points. As James Russell Lowell said, Longfellow had an "absolute sweetness, simplicity, and modesty". At Longfellow's funeral, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "a sweet and beautiful soul". In reality, Longfellow's life was much more difficult than was assumed. He suffered from neuralgia, which caused him constant pain, and he also had poor eyesight. He wrote to friend Charles Sumner: "I do not believe anyone can be perfectly well, who has a brain and a heart". He had difficulty coping with the death of his second wife. Longfellow was very quiet, reserved, and private; in later years, he was known for being unsocial and avoided leaving home. He had become one of the first American celebrities and was also popular in Europe. It was reported that 10,000 copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish sold in London in a single day. Children adored him and, when the "spreading chestnut-tree" mentioned in the poem "The Village Blacksmith" was cut down, the children of Cambridge had the tree converted into an armchair which they presented to the poet. In 1884, Longfellow became the first non-British writer for whom a commemorative sculpted bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London; he remains the only American poet represented with a bust. In 1909, a seated statue of Longfellow sculpted by William Couper was unveiled in Washington, D. C.
More recently, he was honored in March 2007 when the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating him. A number of schools are named after him in various states as well. Neil Diamond's 1974 hit song, "Longfellow Serenade", is a reference to the poet. He is a protagonist in Matthew Pearl's murder mystery The Dante Club (2003).
Longfellow's popularity rapidly declined, beginning shortly after his death and into the twentieth century as academics began to appreciate poets like Walt Whitman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost. In the twentieth century, literary scholar Kermit Vanderbilt noted, "Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow's popular rhymings." 20th-century poet Lewis Putnam Turco concluded "Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career... nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics."