Originally intended for a broad, popular audience, The Song of Hiawatha was standard school fare for generations of adolescents who could recite such familiar unrhymed trochaic tetrameter lines as “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,/ By the shining Big-Sea-Water. . . .” It soon became the most popular book-length poem ever written, selling forty-five thousand copies within five years. With Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ebb in popularity, however, the poem has become increasingly obscure, although its value for young readers could be rediscovered in the wake of a revival of interest in American Indian oral literature in literature classes. In this regard, Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass (1855) was published the same year as The Song of Hiawatha, praised Longfellow as the “universal poet of . . . young people.” His poetry in general is accessible to young readers and has proven a reliable resource for teaching prosody.
Longfellow’s interest in American Indians seems to have at least two known sources. First, he personally witnessed a delegation from the Sauk and Fox tribes, which included chief Black Hawk, on Boston Common in 1837. In addition, Longfellow was influenced by ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft, whose many works on American Indian life and legend fascinated a generation and created a new field of study. Longfellow was much impressed with the picturesque quality of the American Indians’ “beautiful...
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