The long life of Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”

August 24, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, writers, writing.

When William Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860 and published it in The Atlantic in the January 1861 issue, he had a goal in mind. He wanted to create a clarion call to his fellow citizens to recognize the danger to the Republican by the secession of Southern states and for those citizens to take up arms to prevent it.

He accomplished that. The poem was wildly successful and reprinted in newspapers throughout the North.

But Longfellow accomplished far more than that, according to David Hackett Fischer in the historiography note in his book, Paul Revere’s Ride.

That poem

— raised Paul Revere from being a merely local hero in the New England area to the pantheon of national figures associated with the American Revolution — figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson;

— latched onto and added to the American myth of the lone individual who can make a difference in shaping the great events of the day;

— itself became a national anthem, read and memorized by generations of school children, who were acculturated into the myths of the American Revolution.

Ever since its publication, critics and historians have made a cottage industry of pointing to the many inaccuracies in the poem. The main one — not the only one, by any means — was that Revere acted alone. He had plenty of help at every stage of the story. He was not even the only rider to alert “every Middlesex village and farm.” William Dawes and Samuel Prescott also rode that night, partly with Revere and partly alone. Their names are unfamiliar to us because Longfellow excluded them from the narrative.

Longfellow was part of an abolitionist movement in Boston and was horrified at the potential breakup of the Union. His purpose was to create a hero — a symbol that would enlist the minds of the fighting men and remind them why they had taken up arms. In that, he succeeded admirably.

A final point: Much of the criticism of Longfellow’s shortcomings as a historian have been transferred to Revere himself. That is, many commentators have tried to diminish Revere’s role in the American Revolution altogether. That is both unfair and inaccurate. Paul Revere was a central figure in the revolutionary politics of Boston in the 1770s. A previous post discussed his travels to Philadelphia and other venues to carry news about the independence movement in Boston. In a coming post, we’ll talk about another role he undertook: that of artist to the movement.

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