The Song of Hiawatha The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Song of Hiawatha Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The following entry presents criticism of Longfellow’s narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). See also, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie Criticism.

Set along the southern shores of Lake Superior in the years before the arrival of European colonists, a time and place completely unfamiliar to Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha (1855) draws largely on the stories of native tribes recorded and compiled by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in his Algic Researches (1836). Longfellow also gained from the travel accounts of George Caitlin, who wished to record the ways of Indian life before they disappeared, and the work of John Heckewelder, a missionary whose writings about the Delaware and Huron tribes inspired James Fenimore Cooper. The name Hiawatha is actually derived from a historical Indian chief who helped form the Iroquois Confederacy; but other than sharing the same name, Longfellow's Hiawatha is unrelated. Instead, he is patterned after a legendary figure known among the Iroquois as Tarenyawago, and among the Algonquin as Manabazho. Utilizing both tribal legend and imaginative storytelling, Longfellow used trochaic tetrameter, after the Finnish Kalevala, and created an epic poem. While The Song of Hiawatha was an immediate popular success and hailed by many as the first poetic achievement by a white man concerning the myths and legends of the American Indians, its popularity has waned in recent years, and critics have mocked it as overly sentimental and idealized.

Biographical Information

In 1854 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow retired from his professor's position at Harvard College so he could focus on his writing. In particular, he wished to write what he called his “Indian Edda” (after the famous Nordic verse), a monumental poem dedicated to the American Indian whose way of life was even then clearly endangered. He credited the idea for the poem to a young Harvard graduate whom he had met and who had brought back tales of Indian folklore from the West; the former student suggested that Longfellow might want to put these tales in verse form. Longfellow researched the subject and came upon Schoolcraft's book of recorded Indian legends among other sources of inspiration. Upon its publication, The Song of Hiawatha brought Longfellow both fame and noteriety, and he was largely praised by his contemporaries for giving the art form of poetry back to the general populace.

Plot and Major Characters

The Song of Hiawatha is an episodic poem arranged in twenty-three cantos. It tells of the triumphs and sorrows of Hiawatha of the Ojibway, a tribe of Indians living along the Lake Superior shoreline in what is now Michigan. Hiawatha's coming is foretold by Gitche Manito, the mighty spirit who gathers his people together and tells them a peacekeeper will be born who will bring wisdom to the warring tribes and stop their fighting. Hiawatha is born to the virgin Wenonah, who is made pregnant by the west-wind god, Mudjekeewis. But when Mudjekeewis abandons her, Wenonah dies and young Hiawatha is raised by his grandmother, Nokomis. Nokomis and the animals of the woods educate Hiawatha, who grows up to be a great hunter. One day, Nokomis tells Hiawatha of his father and how his mother died. Angered, Hiawatha seeks revenge, but is unable to kill his father, who is an immortal god. Mudjekeewis is nonetheless both impressed by and proud of his son, and tells Hiawatha to return to his people and become a great leader, promising that when it is time for Hiawatha to die, he will become the ruler of the northwest wind.

Hiawatha goes on to perform many great deeds: he wrestles and kills the Corn Spirit, Mondamin, and is rewarded with the gift of corn, which he presents to his hungry people; he defeats the King of Fishes, Nahma, with the help of some seagulls, and receives the fish's oil as a trophy; and he defeats the magician Pearl-Feather, who had brought disease to the people, and takes his shirt of wampum, a symbol of wealth and...

(The entire section is 57,753 words.)