J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Lasting Impact of Longfellow's "Revere"

Now that I've decided to write a bit about myths of Lexington and Concord, I must start with the most famous and influential of them all: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Unexpectedly rolling in Eli Lilly money, the Poetry Foundation has set up a very nice poetry website with a page on Longfellow and the complete text of "Paul Revere." The foundation also invited Clements Library map historian Brian Leigh Dunnigan to discuss the historical background of the poem. Lots of people have tackled this topic, and Dunnigan starts out well by not pouncing on Longfellow's misstatements but recognizing what the poet set out to do. He didn't try to write history; he tried to create an inspiring national myth. Dunnigan says:

Although much has been made of inaccuracies of detail in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow’s success in expressing the tension and excitement of impending events probably accounts for much of the popularity of his poem. His nod to the way in which historical incidents are enshrined in regional folklore was expressed in the title given to the work on its second appearance. First published as “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, it was included three years later in a collection of poems called Tales of a Wayside Inn. The poem had been retitled “The Landlord’s Tale,” with the original name relegated to a subtitle, and was presented as a story recounted by a local innkeeper.
In a paper I delivered at U. of Conn. earlier this year, I argued that many of our most stirring examples of Revolutionary lore were shaped by parents and grandparents telling stories to children, not aiming for the history books any more than Longfellow did. (That paper is titled “Listening to the Old Lady in the Kitchen: How Grandmothers’ Tales Became Legends for a Nation,” and it can be downloaded in PDF form here.) [ADDENDUM: Not anymore.]

Longfellow's "Revere" displays some of the ingredients that I think grandmothers used to produce more compelling narratives, starting with an individual protagonist. Doing so required boiling down history, I wrote:
In truth, the American Revolution was a mass movement. Its crucial moments were collective actions. But grandmothers’ tales shrink the conflict to a manageable size. We can see a similar shift from good history to good story by comparing Paul Revere’s actions on the night of 18 April 1775 with the tale that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” which starts, “Listen, my children...” In real life, Revere didn’t watch for the lantern signal from Old North Church, nor did he reach Concord. Longfellow’s poem makes Revere a composite of the dozens of alarm riders crisscrossing eastern Massachusetts that night.
"The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" is bound to be a better story than "The Midnight Rides of Dozens of Guys, Most of Whom I Can't Name."

As a good storyteller, Longfellow also strengthened the connection from Revere's goal and planning to his accomplishments. Good stories are usually fueled by a protagonist's desires. They don't turn at crucial moments on accidents, coincidences, or new characters popping up. Longfellow showed Revere planning for his ride, then carrying it out according to plan. And Dunnigan falls for the same trap:
Patriot spies watched for clues that would provide the answer [to the British army's route]. Meanwhile, two dispatch riders prepared to carry the warning. Revere was to cross by boat to Charlestown on the north side of the harbor, while William Dawes would ride out through the British fortifications on Boston Neck. Confirmation of British intentions would come from light signals displayed in the belfry of Old North Church.
That sounds like a great plan, doesn't it? But Revere's own words show that he and his Patriot colleagues were improvising half the time.

Revere wrote descriptions of his ride in 1775 and 1798. They agree that Dr. Joseph Warren didn't ask him to ride to Lexington until ten o'clock on the evening of 18 April, after both Dawes and the British troops had left Boston. Revere had made a plan to send a signal to Charlestown, but he hadn't arranged a horse for himself. Here's his second, longer account:
About 10 o'Clock, Dr. Warren Sent in great haste for me, and beged that I would imediately Set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the Movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren's house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington—a Mr. Wm. Daws.

The Sunday before, by desire of Dr. Warren, I had been to Lexington, to Mess. Hancock and Adams, who were at the Rev. Mr. Clark's. I returned at Night thro Charlestown; there I agreed with a Col. Conant, and some other Gentlemen, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; and if by Land, one, as a Signal; for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck. I left Dr. Warrens, called upon a friend, and desired him to make the Signals.

I then went Home, took my Boots and Surtout, and went to the North part of the Town, Where I had kept a Boat; two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man of War lay. It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, and the moon was Rising. They landed me on Charlestown side. When I got into Town, I met Col. Conant, and several others; they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was Acting, and went to git me a Horse; I got a Horse of Deacon Larkin.
So Revere was actually Dr. Warren's impromptu back-up—perhaps even the second back-up. And a good thing the silversmith was ready, too. The rider from Charlestown who received the Old North Church signal never got past Cambridge, probably stopped by British officers, and Dawes had to travel a long, slow route.

Furthermore, Revere kept improvising that night. His mission was to warn "Mess. Hancock and Adams." But he and Dawes decided on their own to carry the same warning to Concord. More British officers stopped them along the way, but (as Dunnigan describes) they had picked up another rider. This new character popping up, young Dr. Samuel Prescott, got through to Concord. Meanwhile, all along Revere's route the militias were gathering, and more messengers were riding north and west.

This combination of mix-ups, missed connections, redundancies, false starts, last-minute ideas, dumb luck, and other wrinkles is what we call "life." I suspect we humans cling to well-crafted stories, such as "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," because they make things seem a lot simpler.


Gary McGath said...

So Revere was supposed to go from Boston to Quincy, but wound up heading for Concord instead? I guess Boston hasn't changed all that much since 1775.

J. L. Bell said...

No, when Revere was supposed to ride out to warn Hancock and Adams, he was aiming for where Samuel Adams was staying in Lexington, not John Adams in Quincy.

And he made it. Not in a straight line, but after turning around and taking a detour through Medford. Which is, I agree, the way Boston commuters sometimes have to travel.

Anonymous said...

It might seem Revere was made famous by Longfellow's poem. If it not for Longfellow, Revere may have sunk into obscurity like all the other riders that night.

But, Revere was a High Son of Liberty, able to mingle with the Joseph Warrens, Sam Adams & John Hancocks of the day, and well known in the rough North End of Boston. He was the one selected to bring the Suffolk Resolves to Philadelphia. And, as best as I understand, the only rider that night that was asked, for a 2nd time, to recount his events that evening many years later.

Didn't Longfellow write about him because he was already the most famous rider that evening?

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think that without Longfellow's boost Revere would have sunk to the same level of obscurity as most of the other riders. As you note, in 1798 he was still notable locally for his Patriot activities.

But I doubt that Revere would have remained an icon and household name in America over a century after his death without the poetic treatment.

It's a paradox. Revere deserves a great deal of credit for his political organizing and work. He also gets too much credit for actions on the night of 18-19 April 1775.

Pete said...

It has been told to me by a history professor that one reason Revere was imortalized by Longfellow was that he was actually related to Revere. Many of our legends of our past were actually revered (pardon the pun) for events that didn't happen the way someone has made them out to be. Columbus, Smith, Washington, Lincoln and many other historical legends are famous for things that they didn't actually do or say. You'd be amazed at how many people still think that Washington chopped down the cherry tree.

J. L. Bell said...

Longfellow wasn’t related to Revere, but one of his grandfathers, Peleg Wadsworth, had worked with the silversmith on the Penobscot expedition. Not that anyone would want that disaster to be remembered.