April 20, 2010

Fact is better in history than fiction

In the 19th century, several people were mythologizing the American Revolution. Many writers, who were children or grandchildren of veterans of that struggle, elevated the Founding Fathers as larger-than-life infallible heroes. These writers included Jared Sparks (at right), who altered George Washington's letters for publication to make him look more dignified. Washington Irving wrote a well-researched biography of America's first president as well but mostly told it through anecdotes, many of which are apocryphal.

But, perhaps, there is no more famous a myth-maker as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who turned Paul Revere into a national hero in the days leading to the Civil War. Despite what his poem claimed, Paul Revere did not wait on the banks of Charlestown to see the signal from the Old North Church ("one if by land, two if by sea"); he actually helped set them up as a back-up signal, in case he didn't reach his destination. He did not row himself to the opposite shore, but was rowed over by friends. He did not go to "every Middlesex village and farm," but only a select few. His main goal was to reach the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, just off the battle green.

Perhaps most importantly, Paul Revere did not ride alone. He was one of dozens of riders that day, including William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. Longfellow was aware of all the available data on the historic ride and purposely chose to ignore it to create a composite character that would inspire his generation.

The irony comes from a letter written 18 years after the poem. Richard Henry Stoddard (pictured, right, near the end of his life in 1902) was preparing an article on Longfellow and wanted to confirm some biographical details. After reviewing an early draft, Longfellow pointed out a couple inaccuracies and, in a letter dated April 20, 1878, concluded:

This is perhaps of no great importance, but, generally speaking, fact is better in history than fiction.

Longfellow left just enough wiggle room to suggest that, for the sake of a poem, perhaps fiction can be useful in history.


  1. The second sentence in the second paragraph is missing a crucial "not."

  2. Thank goodness people read this blog enough to notice my typos and word mistakes. Three were caught on this one! :)

  3. Really enjoying the blog! I realize this is a little off the Longfellow thread, but I've been re-reading Irving's Washington, and wanted to respond, since you mentioned it. While his biographical modifications and reliance on the anecdotal, etc., have been extensively noted by scholars, this from the introduction of the Twayne Edition: "Although more than one recent biographer has disparaged Irving's labors...most biographers from...Lossing in 1870 to...Flexner ('65-'73) have found Irving a useful authority....Quoting materials not easily available (and often lost), offering judgments based on many years of study, Irving's biography remains useful to professional historians....Irving's work was, of course, eventually superseded, but not until the twentieth century. The first full length biography of unquestionably higher reliability was published by Nathaniel Wright Stevenson and Waldo Hilary Dunn in 1940."

  4. That's a great point! And sometimes the liberties taken with history are more important anyway, as they shed some light on the author and his/her contemporary period and the way that history was viewed at the time. Irving definitely took his book seriously, even if many of his sources were anecdotal, and I, for one, respect that. Thanks for the comment!