Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Tales of a Wayside Inn

Introductory Note

THE PLAN for a group of stories under the fiction of a company of story-tellers at an inn appears to have visited Mr. Longfellow after he had made some progress with the separate tales. The considerable collection under the title of The Saga of King Olaf was indeed written at first with the design of independent publication. Nearly two years passed before he took up the task in earnest; then, in November, 1860, “with all kinds of interruptions,” he says, he wrote fifteen of the lyrics in as many days, and a few days afterward completed the whole of the Saga. Meanwhile he had written and published Paul Revere’s Ride, and before the publication of his volume he had printed one of the lyrics of the Saga and The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi. Just when he determined upon the framework of The Wayside Inn does not appear; it is quite possible that he had connected The Saga of King Olaf, which had been lying by for two or three years, with his friend Ole Bull, and that the desire to use so picturesque a figure had suggested a group of which the musician should be one. Literature had notable precedents for the general plan of a company at an inn, but whether the actual inn at Sudbury came to localize his conception, or was itself the cause of the plan, is not quite clear.

He sent the book to the printer in April, 1863, under the title of The Sudbury Tales, but in August wrote to Mr. Fields: “I am afraid we have made a mistake in calling the new volume The Sudbury Tales. Now that I see it announced I do not like the title. Sumner cries out against it and has persuaded me, as I think he will you, to come back to The Wayside Inn. Pray think as we do.”

The book as originally planned consisted of the first part only, and was published November 25, 1863, in an edition of fifteen thousand copies,—an indication of the confidence which the publishers had in the poet’s popularity.

The disguises of characters were so slight that readers easily recognized most of them at once, and Mr. Longfellow himself never made any mystery of their identity. Just after the publication of the volume he wrote to a correspondent in England:—

  • “The Wayside Inn has more foundation in fact than you may suppose. The town of Sudbury is about twenty miles from Cambridge. Some two hundred years ago, an English family by the name of Howe built there a country house, which has remained in the family down to the present time, the last of the race dying but two years ago. Losing their fortune, they became inn-keepers; and for a century the Red-Horse Inn has flourished, going down from father to son. The place is just as I have described it, though no longer an inn. All this will account for the landlord’s coat-of-arms, and his being a justice of the peace, and his being known as ‘the Squire,’—things that must sound strange in English ears. All the characters are real. The musician is Ole Bull; the Spanish Jew, Israel Edrehi, whom I have seen as I have painted him, etc., etc.”
  • It is easy to fill up the etc. of Mr. Longfellow’s catalogue. The poet is T. W. Parsons, the translator of Dante; the Sicilian, Luigi Monti, whose name occurs often in Mr. Longfellow’s Life as a familiar friend; the theologian, Professor Daniel Treadwell, a physicist of genius who had also a turn for theology; the student, Henry Ware Wales, a scholar of promise who had travelled much, who died early, and whose tastes appeared in the collection of books which he left to the library of Harvard College. This group was collected by the poet’s fancy; in point of fact three of them, Parsons, Monti, and Treadwell, were wont to spend their summer months at the inn.

    The form was so agreeable that it was easy to extend it afterward so as to include the tales which the poet found it in his mind to write. The Second Day was published in 1872; The Third Part formed the principal portion of Aftermath in 1873, and subsequently the three parts were brought together, into a complete volume.