Our Longfellow Heritage
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) may no longer have the fame and popularity as a poet that he did during his lifetime—fashions in poetry having changed considerably since the advent of Modernism and Post-Modernism—when he was America's favorite poet but his influence on American popular culture (and on the fame of John and Priscilla) has seldom been matched. The narrative poems he wrote, including The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), The Song of Hiawatha (1847), The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1863) and Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), have forever colored our view of American history, and provided the nation with some of its most beloved and often depicted scenes of our mythic past.
The fame of John Alden long predated Longfellow's romantic rendition of the old family legend. On his death in 1687, two poetic elegies were published as broadsides in Boston, and his memory in the 18th century was coupled with that of Plymouth Rock, on which he was said to have been the first Pilgrim to set foot (Mary Chilton was the other candidate for this honor, which was disputed between the descendants of the two families). People apparently made pilgrimages to Duxbury to see where the Aldens had lived at the time of the American Revolution if not before, and it is reported that John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams were both proud of their Alden lineage. The first publication of the "Courtship" story was made by Rev. Timothy Alden in his American Epitaths (1814), but that was soon followed by references in early local histories such as James Thacher's History of the Town of Plymouth (1832) and Justin Winsor's History of the Town of Duxbury (1849). There was even an anonymous poetical version (attributed to a fictional "Moses Mullins, 1672") published in the New York Rover in 1843, so the most famous of the Alden traditions was well known before Longfellow published his version in 1858.
It was Longfellow's poem, however, that caught and held the imagination and affections of people throughout the English-speaking world, and resulted in the great outpouring of imagry and sentiment that we still see evidence of today. Longfellow was an Alden descendant and justly proud of his heritage, hence the thorough re-working of the old family tradition. As he was writing a dramatic epic rather than simple history, he introduced a number of fictional elements that have since been mistaken for actual historic facts (the Courtship includes many scenes that could not have occured in the spring of 1621 when Priscilla ostensibly made her famous comment to John before the departure of the Mayflower, such as Myles Standish's 1623 confrontation with Peksuot and Wituwamat or the arrival of cattle that same year), and while the legend of Priscilla riding a white bull to her wedding predated Longfellow's poem, it has no basis in fact. The distances implied in the poem appear to assume the settlement of Duxbury, which of course was not accomplished until the spring of 1627/28. These examples of "poetic license" may have led to misunderstandings about what actually happened historically, but they contributed to the strength of Longfellow's narrative and helped make the Courtship of Miles Standish an American classic.
The Courtship's most significant influence was to elevate John and Priscilla's fame above that of the other Plymouth colonists, and made their images—of a couple of marriageable age in period attire—the stereotypical "Pilgrims" who appear in popular art, advertising, drama and at Thanksgiving time. It reinforced the Alden family's pride in its progenitors and contributed to the founding of the Alden Kindred and the preservation of the Alden House. So when you see those Pilgrim pairs (whether real people or even children and animals dressed in typical costunes) appear in ads, classroom decorations and on Thanksgiving cards, you can appreciate that they are the result of John and Priscilla's celebrity status—and that was the result of Henry Wordsworth's evergreen epic, The Courtship of Miles Standish.
For further appreciation of Alden cousin H. W. Longfellow, you can visit the Longfellow House at 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge, Ma. (a National Park Service site), his childhood home in Portland, Maine, or at www.HWLongfellow.org.