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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Sunday, September 23, 2007

New Light on "Paul Revere's Ride"

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending Charles Bahne’s lecture on “‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ Revisited” at the Old South Meeting-House. He gave a detailed account of how Henry W. Longfellow wrote that famous poem, including his artistic choice to deviate from his main source, Revere’s own account, in order to create a better story.

In Longfellow’s papers, Charlie found what appears to be the first complete draft of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It includes an entire lost stanza about a “tall, gray rider,” inspired by the legend of Hezekiah Wyman. (Someday I’ll discuss the basis of that story.) I suspect Longfellow dropped those lines because focusing attention on that man—another rider, in fact—would have dimmed his poetic spotlight on Revere as a lone hero.

Charlie’s talk also made me rethink the political significance of “Paul Revere’s Ride” in its own time. The poem is usually interpreted as Longfellow’s call to arms to loyal Americans as the Civil War approached. It was published in the issue of The Atlantic Monthly that went on sale on 20 Dec 1860, the same day that the slaveholders who held power in South Carolina voted to secede. War was on its way.

However, Longfellow started writing his poem in early April 1860, before the Democratic Party split over slavery and before the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. Longfellow finished that first draft on 13 October, when the election was still more than three weeks away. Because he was pacifist, I doubt he would have looked ahead to a war while he could still imagine the country avoiding it. So although I believe Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” to inspire his contemporaries, I’m not sure the crisis he was thinking about was a future war.

Instead, I look at the political atmosphere that surrounded Longfellow as he wrote, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Longfellow was an Abolitionist, giving that movement both his Poems on Slavery and financial contributions for both organizations and escapees. (Read about the notations in his account books in this downloadable issue of the Longfellow House Bulletin.)

Read against the background of mid-1860, there’s a different historical resonance to Longfellow’s lines:

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
The call in the night sounds like a call to help refugees, defying the authorities who might be marching after them. Of course, by the time “Paul Revere’s Ride” was actually in print, the U.S. of A. faced a crisis of a different form.

In a matter of weeks, Charlie Bahne’s presentation will be available at the WGBH Forum Network for everyone to enjoy. [ADDENDUM: Here it is.] This was the first time those lost lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride” were ever read publicly.

This month’s series of Longfellow lectures ends on Wednesday, 26 September, at 7:30 P.M. at the First Parish in Cambridge, right off Harvard Square. National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia and Poetry Foundation president John Barr will talk about Longfellow’s legacy as a public poet. See the Cambridge Forum website for more details.


Anonymous said...

IIRC Wymans ancestor was an officer in MA only cavalry unit in one of Mass' wars against native Americans

J. L. Bell said...

I think the Hezekiah Wyman legend is simply a myth, a literary concoction of a common sort in the early and mid-1800s. As originally published, it appears to have no sources, particularly on the all-important British point of view.

I suspect eager historians found a man of the same name—which wasn’t that uncommon. They ignored how the documented Wyman was from a different town and of a different age from the man described in the story. That Wyman might well have had ancestors involved in previous wars. Whether he had white hair and a long gun and a horse on 19 Apr 1775 is another matter.

Anonymous said...

'Francis Wyman and his son Francis Jr., and John Wyman and his son, John Jr., fought in King Philip's war, as members of Capt. Prentice' cavalry troop. On December 19, 1675, in the Swamp, or Narragansett Fort, battle, John, Jr., was slain. Francis, Jr. was in the same battle and died April 26, 1676, presumably from wounds or illness contracted there. John, Jr. was Cornet (3d ranking officer) in the troop, afterward promoted to Lieut. after his death, his father was made Lieut.—he was wounded, also."

J. L. Bell said...

This source needs a citation or link, and to make the point above it should specify a connection between these Wymans and the Hezekiah of the Revolutionary period.

Furthermore, as I wrote above, there are still holes and discrepancies in the story of a man named Wyman riding a white horse on 19 Apr 1775. He was said to be eighty years old and from Lexington. The documented Hezekiah Wyman was fifty-five and from Woburn.

Anonymous said...

It was a quote from a page on a Wyman genealogical site. Apparently my shift key wasn't pushed enough and it came out as starting with an apostrophe instead of a quotation mark.
I realize after that I should’ve put its URL but was in a hurry at the time I was posting, and wasn't thinking.

It was Wyman's ancestor, according to another Wyman ancestry site I saw about a couple years ago but can't seem to locate.
From the above mentioned site, it gives

John Wyman, Lieutenant (Sr.)

Seth Wyman, Lieutenant

Seth Wyman

Hezekiah Wyman

You can trace it back (by clicking the father’s name), from:

BTW I'm not trying to infer it's got anything to o with the legend, I'm just giving a little color about Wyman's family background.

From what you've mentioned about the legend I believe you are 100% correct in your assumptions. Even trying to explain it as a garbled or exaggerated form of this story seems too much of a stretch, Indians to British, 80 years old, etc.

Anonymous said...

BTW the "Wyman Chronology "part includes more sources for the Infian War story (1675)