Working with The Atlantic Monthly

The Atlantic Monthly was the natural venue for publication of Longfellow’s new poem. The magazine had been founded three years earlier by his friend and neighbor, James Russell Lowell. A Longfellow verse had appeared in its first issue; he had contributed several poems since; and he was a regular attendee at the “Atlantic Club,” which gathered to select pieces for publication.

The publisher in 1860 was another good friend of Longfellow’s, James T. Fields (shown here). Fields was also starting to assume the duties of editing the magazine. Lowell was still officially editor, but he was easing himself out of a position he would soon relinquish.

Simply put, The Atlantic Monthly of 1860 was the premier forum for the literary celebrities of Boston, which group naturally included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Meeting sometime in November—possibly on November 3, three days before Lincoln’s election—the Atlantic Club agreed to include Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” in the January 1861 edition of the magazine. Longfellow hand-copied the poem onto new sheets of paper; he kept the original and submitted the copy (which is now apparently lost) to his friend Jamie Fields, publisher and de facto editor of the magazine.

Unfortunately, in copying over the poem’s text, Longfellow inadvertently omitted a stanza, half a dozen lines commencing with “He has left the village and mounted the hill.” Since Longfellow was not given an opportunity to review proofs of the magazine, the error was not discovered until after publication. In a letter to Longfellow after the mistake was found, Fields lamented, “How unfortunate, as they are so excellent as to rank with the best in the poem, which is saying much for them. It is a fine piece of poetry and painting.”

Surviving correspondence between Longfellow and Fields also shows that Fields felt free to rewrite the poet’s work. As originally drafted by Longfellow, the last three lines read:
In the hour of peril men will hear
The midnight message of Paul Revere,
And the hurrying hoof-beat of his steed.
But Fields wrote to Longfellow suggesting these lines be changed to:
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The People will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of his steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Fields commented, “It seems to me the last line as it stands above is stronger than the end as it now remains in the proof. What do you say?” His friend concurred, and the last stanza was printed almost exactly as Fields suggested.

More significant, however, were changes made elsewhere. Longfellow’s original manuscript, now in the collections of Houghton Library at Harvard University, includes an entire stanza that has never been published. The manuscript’s first 108 lines were printed with minor alterations, a word here, a comma there, a rewritten phrase somewhere else—the kind of changes that a good editor would make to improve a friend’s work. There were two lines deleted in different stanzas, and four lines added in another location, still relatively small changes, we know not by whom they were made.

But of the final 27 lines in Longfellow’s first draft, only eight made it to publication intact. A dozen lines were removed entirely; four were moved and placed in a new context; and three were rewritten by Fields, as noted above. Four new lines, of unknown origin, were added.

Who made these changes? One can only speculate. Perhaps Longfellow made them, as he copied the original manuscript into the now-lost version that he submitted for publication. Perhaps Jamie Fields made them, with Longfellow’s approval, just as he had rewritten that last stanza. Or perhaps the two friends collaborated on rewriting the poem’s conclusion, to make it a stronger piece of literature. No evidence has been found to point one way or another.

It is clear, however, why the change was made. In Longfellow’s original version, the poem darts off on a tangent by introducing another rider on another horse:
And there in the field, in the midnight gloom,
Stood a white steed cropping the clover bloom,
Shaking his bar-entangled mane
The lines refer to the legend of Hezekiah Wyman, a “tall, gray rider” who mysteriously fired on the Redcoats as they retreated through Lexington and Menotomy that April afternoon, hours after Revere’s ride had concluded. Wyman’s story had been retold in several books and magazines in the 1850s and—unlike Revere’s story at the time—it was familiar to many New England residents. But it was an unwelcome distraction from Longfellow’s main theme.

This article was composed by Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, for the bulletin of the Paul Revere House. Copyright © 2010 by Charles Bahne. Click here for Part 3.

Extracts from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow papers are printed courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University. Call numbers: Journal, MS Am 1340 (209); poem manuscript, MS Am 1340 (105); G. W. Greene letter, bMS Am 1340.2 (2379), no. 494.