Pimping his ride

History Dept.
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 1, 2010

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Most will recognize the lines above as the first stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride." Written just before the Civil War, the poem inspired abolitionists to rally, cemented Revere's star in the firmament of American history, and assured Longfellow's place in English textbooks from here till the apocalypse.

In the 150 years since TheAtlantic Monthly first published it, the poem has suffered the slings and arrows of sticklers angry at Longfellow for his loosey-goosey way with the facts. Yet the poem proved so catchy as to eradicate from the national consciousness at least two other patriots who galloped in warning of the British invasion.

This week, the Paul Revere Memorial Association and the Old South Meeting House kick off a free, month-long lecture series to take place at the latter. "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Paul Revere's Ride: Facts, Fables, and Fiction" will explore the poem and its historical antecedent. Each Wednesday this September, a historian will engage Longfellow's work and Revere's ride from a different angle.

Longfellow enthusiasts will delight in Charles Bahne's recitation of the unpublished final lines of Longfellow's original manuscript. Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, suspects that an enterprising editor at The Atlantic took out Longfellow's words and replaced them with his own. Bahne will read the poem as he believes it was originally intended.

J.L. Bell gives the other riders their due. His lecture, "The Lost and Legendary Riders of April 19th," will discuss less vivid figures who helped sound the alarm. And Bob Damon will plumb the enduring mystery of who exactly hung the lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church.

I'd sell my tricornered hat to see Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore deliver her lecture, "Revering America: The Politics of Remembering the American Revolution." With any luck, she'll expand "Tea and Sympathy," her chilling, genius New Yorker article about the ways Americans appropriate the Revolutionary War to further their political aims.

Lepore's take on why Palin et al. insist on invoking the Founding Fathers every few seconds should be as widely anthologized as any Longfellow poem. She destroys Tea Partiers' fervor for what they can only imagine their heroes might have meant. "The history that Tea Partiers want to go back to is as much a fiction as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy," she wrote. Imagine how satisfying it will be to hear Lepore give it to Glenn Beck at the mouth of the source.

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