The Big Read Blog (Archive)

That Famous Day and Year

April 19, 2008
Washington, DC

?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.?

While scholars debate the historical veracity of the poem that begins with these lines, no one can deny the power of its galloping musicality, evocative imagery, and memorable lines. Since his death in 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may have lost some of his appeal, but in the 19th century, he was undoubtedly America's most popular poet. From ballads such as ?A Psalm of Life? to sonnets such as ?Mezzo Cammin? -- and especially for his longer narrative poems Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha -- Longfellow's work remains a vital part of American literature and American history.

Inspired by the continued success of Poetry Out Loud, the NEA and the Poetry Foundation unite once again -- this time in a pilot off-shoot of The Big Read, to celebrate great American poets and the nation's historic poetry locales.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was chosen as the first poet in this newly expanding part of The Big Read. We created and produced educational materials on the poetry and life of Longfellow, which were given to all three Literary Landmarks that celebrate Longfellow's legacy: Longfellow's birthplace in Portland, Maine; Longfellow's long-time residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Longfellow's Wayside Inn was the first grant recipient for these new poetry Big Reads. The public programming for The Big Read: The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began on Longfellow's birthday, February 27, when NEA Chairman Dana Gioia gave an inspiring speech on Longfellow's life and works at the Martha-Mary Chapel near the Wayside Inn. Steve Young, Program Director at the Poetry Foundation, attended this opening event, along with NEA staff -- Felicia Knight, Shana Chase, and Erika Koss.

Sign for Wayside Inn in foreground, the Inn across the street

Longfellow?s Wayside Inn is located on the Old Post Road in Sudbury, MA. Photo by Erika Koss

After dinner, Steve and I joined our fellow travelers Charles Calhoun (Longfellow biographer), Jane Wald (Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum), and Cindy Hall Kouré (Project Director for the Longfellow Big Read) in the oldest room of the Inn, where the Howe family's tavern started in 1716. As the fire burned low and snow fell outside, we enjoyed a late night of camaraderie and poetry-reading. As we five had all travelled that day from four different parts of America --Maine, Illinois, Washington, DC, and Massachusetts -- we inadvertently re-created the ambiance of Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn. (You can listen to the poems we read, as well as lectures by Chairman Gioia and Charles Calhoun, at http://longfellow.wayside.org/html/listen.htm.)

The next day, Charles and I spoke to several classes at Sudbury's Lincoln High School, highlighting several poems by Longfellow -- ?The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls,? ?The Cross of Snow,? and ?The Children's Hour? -- and shedding light on several important moments in Longfellow's life, especially the tragic death by fire of Fanny Appleton, the poet's second wife. Charles and I were impressed by the many insightful comments made by students. We were grateful to the teachers who welcomed us into their classrooms and who included Longfellow as part of their curriculum because of The Big Read.

Through March and April, events were scheduled at the Wayside Inn as well as at the Goodnow Library, the Sudbury Public Schools, and the Sudbury Senior Center. Highlights included talks by Christopher Bing, who engraved and illustrated the children's book The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere , and Colleen Boggs, a Dartmouth College professor who discussed how Longfellow's work as a translator introduced modern European languages into American higher education. In addition, the thirteen singers of The Longfellow Chamber Chorus from Portland, Maine, presented an international selection of 19th, 20th, and 21st century vocal settings of Longfellow poems.

The Wayside Inn will conclude its Big Read programming on Patriot's Day, April 19, by hosting a community read of ?Paul Revere's Ride.? During brunch at the Inn, members of the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companie will provide music.

It seems most fitting to end this blog with the words of Cindy Hall Kouré, whose dedication, creativity, and hard work made the Wayside Inn's Big Read such a success. She summarized their experience with these words:

?The past six weeks have been wonderful, with friends and neighbors coming out not only to express their appreciation of Longfellow's poetry but also their affection for the old Inn. The staff at the Wayside Inn have enjoyed the book discussions -- our participants have shown that they are both literature and history enthusiasts. Longfellow lends himself well to discussions of topics important in New England history: the Transcendentalists, slavery and the Abolitionist movement, and maritime History -- not to mention the history of people's houses! Thanks to the NEA for a great community experience.?