Anniversary Interpretations

Observing the 150th anniversary of the first publication of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both published essays about it.

In the Wall Street Journal, novelist John J. Miller discussed the poem’s cultural value even though it’s not historically accurate:
David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University has called the poem “grossly, systematically, and deliberately inaccurate.” Revere was a man of courage and conviction, but not a lone champion who single-handedly “spread the alarm / Through every Middlesex village and farm.”

Even so, spotty history can become great literature. That’s how it worked for Shakespeare, whose dramas of Richard III and Henry V involve as much fiction as fact. Likewise, Longfellow took the story of Revere and fiddled with it, giving birth to one of America’s great national poems.
In the New York Times, historian Jill Lepore put the poem in the anti-slavery context of the months when Longfellow wrote it:
On Dec. 2, 1859, the day John Brown was hanged, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution quite as much needed as the old one.”

Pondering that new Revolution, Longfellow got to thinking about the old one. In April 1860, he began writing “Paul Revere’s Ride.” While he worked on the poem, he worried about the fate of the nation. Around the same time he went to see Frederick Douglass speak and read Sumner’s latest speech, which predicted that “the sacred animosity between Freedom and Slavery can end only with the triumph of Freedom.” In November, weeks after finishing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow rejoiced in his diary that Lincoln had won the presidency; echoing Sumner, he wrote: “Freedom is triumphant.”