Tuesday, May 27, 2014
May 27, 2014: Remembering William Dawes
[This is the second in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]
On the vagaries of collective memory, and whether they matter.
Is it just as simple as the need for rhymes? That’s long been the predominant theory for why Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poetic ballad about “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” instead of Revere’s fellow rider William Dawes. There seems to be some truth to that, but it’s also true that by 1860, when Longfellow composed his poem, Revere was already significantly better remembered in our Revolutionary histories than Dawes. Longfellow’s easily memorized bit of verse certainly cemented that status and permanently relegated Dawes to a distant second fiddle; but somehow, Revere seems to have been the front-runner from the very first lighting of those lanterns.
Whatever the timeline and reasons, clearly our collective memories feature Paul Revere far more fully than they do William Dawes. But does it matter? After all, few American actions have been as much about shaping the present, impacting the immediate moment and its vital needs, as the two men’s rides—had they not succeeded in warning the colonists of the Redcoats’ imminent arrival, it’s entirely possible that there would be no America, or at least that its Revolution would have gotten off to a significantly different and less victorious start. Which is to say, what William Dawes did in his life echoes in eternity precisely as much as does Revere’s ride, and no disparity in memory can change that shared influence.
And yet. Obviously I believe that remembering our histories with more accuracy and complexity matters, and Dawes presents a case in point. For one thing, I’d say it’s pretty significant that the midnight ride was a joint endeavor—we love our rugged individuals here in America, but so much of the time it really takes a village, or at least a couple of guys coordinating their efforts, to get the job done. And for another thing, better remembering Dawes would help us to recognize how constructed and over-simplified and mythic our national narratives tend to be—which might be fine for a ballad about a larger-than-life hero, but is woefully inadequate when it comes to the dynamic messiness that is history. It might be a lot harder to fit “The midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes” into a rhyme scheme and rhythm, that is, but we most definitely need to fit them into our collective memories.
Next remembering tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?