“If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
I was staring up at the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church reciting the words of the famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride in my head. It was here on that fateful night so long ago that a man named Paul Revere signaled that the British army was approaching, which is reason enough to visit this historic site. I was here now, however, because another man had later written that act into rhyming verses, ensuring Revere’s act not be forgotten by future Americans. That man was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I realized I knew very little about the poet who’s stanzas I have been able to recite by memory since childhood. Today I was following Longfellow’s footsteps through Boston to learn more about the man and the context of his poetry.
The Old North Church
Although a tour of the Old North Church promised to tell me more about Revere than Longfellow, it seemed like the place to start since my association with Longfellow started here. I had purchased tickets ahead of time for one of the church’s “Behind the Scenes” tour which would grant us admission to the church as well as a guided tour of the bell ringer chamber and the crypt. To be honest, I thought this meant we would be taken up to where the bells are and the guide would point to a window and say this is where Revere put his lantern, and we would then look out over the rooftops of the city. This isn’t what happened. We were taken two floors up, past the room which used to house the church archives, to a room where the bell ropes descend through a hole in the ceiling. This is the chamber where the bell ringers stand. Unfortunately, due to liability, the church is not allowed to take tourists up the final ladder to the actual bell chamber. Though we did learn that Revere was once a contracted bell ringer for the North Church, which explains how he would have had access to this tower to hang a lantern. And as for the views, there was one small round window up high in this chamber, but it looked toward the brick building on the other side of the street rather than over the rooftops of Boston as I’d imagined.
Despite differing from expectation, the history of the church, it’s famous part in the Revolution, and the stories of individuals housed in the crypt made for an interesting tour. It was also not hard to see how the events that happened here 86 years prior to Longfellow publishing his famous poem captured his interest and imagination.
The Longfellow House, Cambridge
Taking the subway probably doesn’t qualify as following in Longfellow’s actual footsteps, however that’s what I did next. I took Boston’s T (subway) to Harvard because the historic Longfellow House in Cambridge is only a couple blocks from the Harvard Square station. It was here I hoped to learn more about the poet himself.
The large yellow house, which once had a view of the Charles River but today just looks out at a paved street, was the boarding house where young Longfellow found a room after being granted a professor position at Harvard. The house was also once home to George and Martha Washington, who made it their headquarters during the Revolution. When Longfellow finally convinced the love of his life to marry him, the woman’s father, a man of means, offered to buy her any house she wanted as a wedding gift. It was this boarding house’s former occupants, the Washingtons, that made her settle on this particular house. The current borders moved out and Longfellow and his new wife redecorated to make the house their own.
Although the house continued to be passed down through the family until it was turned over to the National Park Service, much of it was kept or returned to the way Henry and his wife would have had it. Walking through the rooms, I got the feeling that Longfellow had left the decoration of most of the house to his wife. The floral carpets and wallpapers all had a very feminine vibe. It was finally in Longfellow’s study, filled with deep red colored fabrics and walls of books that I could imagine the professor escaping from the female domain to write and entertain friends.
Interestingly, Longfellow faced similar funding woes at Harvard that teachers face today, and eventually he began to make more money with his poetry than teaching so he retired from the University to focus on his writing. As his popularity as an author grew, so did his friendships with his contemporary authors, names we know today as authors of classic literature. This included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson, and Charles Dickens. Longfellow had portraits made of several of these men and hung them around the walls of his study, similar to the way in which we would put up photographs of friends today. Stunningly, the portrait of young Longfellow himself looked so similar to the portrait of Charles Dickens I saw at his home in London, I did a double take and then asked our guide if this was actually a portrait of Dickens. She confirmed that even upon meeting, Longfellow and Dickens acknowledged that they looked very much like twins!
*Note: If you show up at opening time in the middle of the week, there’s a good chance you can get a personal tour. Apparently nobody else was waiting to learn about Longfellow at 10am on the morning I visited!
Omni Parker Restaurant
Longfellow didn’t just meet with his fellow authors in his study. At 3pm on the last Saturday Of every month he would join The Saturday Club at Parker’s Restaurant in the Omni Parker House hotel for dinner. The Saturday Club was a men’s social gathering whose members consisted of the most illustrious 19th century writers and scholars. Over the years membership included Louis Agassiz, Richard Henry Dana Jr., James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Cornelius Conway Felton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Hickling Prescott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Asa Gray, John Lothrop Motley, Benjamin Peirce, Charles Sumner, John Greenleaf Whittier, and others.
They would spend the afternoon giving readings, having passionate discourses, philosophizing, critiquing each other’s works, and enjoying the company of visiting writers. Charles Dickens would join the Saturday Club when he visited America for book tours. It was here he gave his first American reading of A Christmas Carol. It was here the Transcendentalists of Concord shared their philosophies about nature. And, it was also here that Longfellow started drafting Paul Revere’s Ride.
So although it wasn’t a Saturday and we’d made our reservation for later than 3pm, our day ended with a dinner date at Parker’s Restaurant.
*If you’re not familiar with Boston’s Omni Parker, it is the oldest continually operating hotel in the United States, and the oldest of Boston’s elegant inns, and there’s a dress code for dinner. So we had to make a slight detour back to our hotel before dinner to prepare for our date. Make sure to pack appropriate clothes and make a reservation ahead of time if you plan on dining at Parker’s.
The food was so delicious it almost wiped all thoughts of literature and those who had come through this hotel out of my mind completely. Our extremely attentive and kind waiter, when he learned I had come because of the authors who once dined here, began to divulge his great store of knowledge. As I savored my lobster on a bed of risotto with corn and shrimp, he listed off famous names of people who had either visited or worked at the Omni Parker. Besides the authors, famous politicians, actors, and chefs have come through Parker’s. Malcolm X was a busboy. Ho Chi Minh was a baker. It seemed anybody who’s anybody had come through here!
Our waiter even gave me a print out of an article by house historian Susan Wilson about the history of the Omni Parker House, which includes a long section about the Saturday Club. And before we left, he told us not to miss the mirror in the Mezzanine on our way out. This mirror used to hang in Dickens’ hotel room and he would use it to practice his readings.
Back at the hotel, full from dinner and tired from walking, I settled down on the bed to read through the article about the Omni Parker House. It turns out that the hotel has been completely remodeled since the days of the Saturday Club. The building used to be a white marble structure. So in the end it turns out we may not have dined in the exact surroundings that Longfellow and his club would have, and according to an account by Thoreau, the restaurant had a very smoky atmosphere which he detested. So the atmosphere has changed somewhat (for the better) since the days of the Saturday Club as well. You could nonetheless imagine a group of writers dressed in suites dining, having a lively discussion around a table, and gesticulating wildly with pipes in their hands.
And did I mention Parker’s is the home of the Boston Cream Pie? Turning out the light, I wondered if Longfellow had ever tried a Boston Cream Pie, because if he had, I bet his poem might have been written about an entirely different subject altogether.
If you would like to do this tour, I suggest a combination of walking and taking the subway. You can find the locations mentioned in this post on the map:
Read about more Boston literary locations in this post: A Walking Tour Through Boston for Book Lovers
Are you familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poetry? Have you visited any of these places? Have you visited any locations because of a poet? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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