23 September 2007

Marketing "Paul Revere's Ride" in 1860

Last week I got to hear Charles Bahne analyze the publication of Henry W. Longfellow's famous poem "Paul Revere's Ride." (Thoughts on the historical aspects of that talk here at Boston 1775. Book cover from the edition illustrated by Christopher Bing.)

"Paul Revere's Ride" is usually called an Atlantic Monthly poem. Longfellow worked on it with that magazine's editor, James T. Fields, and it appeared in the January 1861 issue, which went on sale on 20 Dec 1860.

However, Charlie Bahne shared the news (and gave me a photocopy to confirm it) that the Boston Evening Transcript of 18 Dec 1860 printed the poem first. "Paul Revere's Ride" appears on the left side of the front page, the only item on that page that's not an ad. It's prefaced with this remark:

(The charming poem which follows is taken from the advanced sheets of the Atlantic Monthly for January. It is from the pen of Mr. Longfellow, who we are glad to learn, will favor the readers of the Atlantic with frequent contributions.)
Why, I wondered, did the Atlantic share its "advanced sheets" with this newspaper, and thus let itself be scooped?

Charlie said something else that provided the answer: at the time, all contributions in the Atlantic were anonymous. Longfellow was immensely popular, so a new poem by him would help sell a lot of magazines--if people know about it. By letting the Evening Transcript print "Paul Revere's Ride" with the Longfellow name attached, the Atlantic could get the word out that its new issue was worth looking for. [ADDENDUM: Charlie's lecture can now be downloaded as an MP3.]

This Wednesday, 26 September, there will be another free lecture on Longfellow in the Boston area, at the First Parish of Cambridge, right in Harvard Square. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, will share thoughts on Longfellow's legacy as an American poet. The event starts at 7:30, and is part of the Cambridge Forum.

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