December 19, 2010

WHERE WAS THE UN? (via The Mother Judd):

Paul Revere’s Ride Against Slavery (JILL LEPORE, 12/19/10, NY Times)

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW published his best-known poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” 150 years ago tomorrow — the same day that South Carolina seceded from the United States.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Before Longfellow published those lines, Revere was never known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong. But Longfellow didn’t care: he was writing as much about the coming war as about the one that had come before. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it. That meaning, though, has been almost entirely forgotten. [...]

He secretly spent money he earned from his best-selling poems, like “The Song of Hiawatha,” to buy slaves their freedom. In 1856, when Sumner gave his famous “Crime Against Kansas” speech in the Senate, Longfellow congratulated him: “At last the spirit of the North is aroused.” That speech nearly cost Sumner his life — it so incensed a South Carolina representative, Preston Brooks, that he beat Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.

The next year, Longfellow wrote to Sumner calling the Dred Scott decision heart-breaking, and wishing he could find a way to write about it: “I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force. Be sure if it comes to me I will not be slow in uttering 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.”

“Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic, which appeared on newsstands on Dec. 20. It was read as a rallying cry for the Union. It is a poem about waking the sleeping, and waking the dead: “Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,/ In their night encampment on the hill.” The dead are Northerners, awakened, at last aroused. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery — an image that was, at the time, a common conceit: Douglass called his escape “a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 19, 2010 8:45 AM
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