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.

Follow by Email


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writ near a century ago, by the great Major Molineaux?

I was planning to write more about James Brewer tonight, but since I spent all afternoon at a concert of H. W. Longfellow poems set to music (more varied and entertaining than you might think), I’m going back to comment on another name that recurs in the records of Boston’s political conflict: William Molineux.

In Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow used a framing device of people sitting around a Sudbury tavern telling stories. One of those stories, from the Landlord, was “Paul Revere’s Ride,” previously published in periodicals on its own. The book’s “Prelude” set the scene for the storytelling:

The fire-light, shedding over all
The splendor of its ruddy glow,
Filled the whole parlor large and low;
It gleamed on wainscot and on wall,
It touched with more than wonted grace
Fair Princess Mary’s pictured face;
It bronzed the rafters overhead,
On the old spinet’s ivory keys
It played inaudible melodies,
It crowned the sombre clock with flame,
The hands, the hours, the maker’s name,
And painted with a livelier red
The Landlord’s coat-of-arms again;
And, flashing on the window-pane,
Emblazoned with its light and shade
The jovial rhymes, that still remain,
Writ near a century ago,
By the great Major Molineaux,
Whom Hawthorne has immortal made.
In that last line, Longfellow gave a shout-out to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend from Bowdoin College. In 1832 Hawthorne had published a short story titled “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” As for “jovial rhymes,” Longfellow was also referring to an actual bit of verse scratched on a windowpane at the Wayside Inn; it’s still there, now on display instead of exposed to the elements.

What’s the actual relationship between the Boston radical leader William Molineux, Hawthorne’s character, and the verse on the pane of glass? Not nearly as close as Longfellow believed.

First of all, Hawthorne said his tale took place “not far from a hundred years ago,” which meant in the 1740s. Though separating the tale from Revolutionary times, Hawthorne clearly drew on Revolutionary history, both in the name of Molineux/Molineaux and in the climactic “tar-and-feathery” scene. In fact, that punishing ritual didn’t appear in Massachusetts until 1768, in Hawthorne’s home town of Salem, and was applied to low-level Customs workers rather than wealthy gentlemen—so the story is historically anachronistic.

The real William Molineux was in most ways the opposite of the fictional Major Molineaux. The real merchant never held a high militia rank (though at least one man who distrusted his street activism referred to him as “General Molineux”). The major in Hawthorne’s story is unpopular for being, the introductory remarks imply, a member of “the court party”; William Molineux was an opponent of Crown officials. The real Molineux led crowds rather than being attacked by them.

Indeed, there’s a bit of political reshaping in both Hawthorne’s tale and Longfellow’s allusion to it. Hawthorne disliked popular enthusiasms, whether they were eighteenth-century mobs, the witch scare of 1692, the Puritan morality in The Scarlet Letter, or Abolitionism in his own time. By taking a Revolutionary leader’s name and applying it to a Tory, then having a frightening mob punish that Tory, Hawthorne portrayed mobs as fearsome while at the same time symbolically punishing Boston’s crowd leader for the violence he encouraged—all without violating New England expectations of patriotism. Longfellow, on the other hand, took back the name of “Major Molineaux,” declared him “great,” and connected him to the Patriot leader.

Who actually scratched the verse on the Wayside Inn window? It’s clearly [!] signed:
William Molineaux, Jr.
Boston, 24th June, 1774.
So this wasn’t the Revolutionary leader at all. It was his eldest son, the one involved in the strange court case of 1771. And as for the verse itself—well, let’s just say it poses no threat to Longfellow’s rank as a poet:
What do you think?
Here is good drink.
Perhaps you may not know it.
If not in haste, Do stop and taste,
You merry folks will show it.


J. L. Bell said...


Robert J Molineaux said...

The history of the Molineaux family contains more cantankerous contrarians than crown supporters. I go with William.
Robert J Molineaux
Panama City, Panama