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.
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 strength, as a reward. Hiawatha's thoughts then turn to Minnehaha, the young maid whom he first saw in the land of the Dakotahs. Against Nokomis's advice, Hiawatha goes to Minnehaha's family and requests her hand in marriage, proposing that their union would unify the Dakotah and Ojibway tribes. Minnehaha consents to be his wife.
Hiawatha teaches his people the virtues of kindness, wisdom, and strength. He also shows them the art of picture writing, so that their ancestors' histories can be recorded and not forgotten. When his friend Chibiabos the singer drowns, Hiawatha becomes sick with grief, but is healed by the priests and medicine men; afterwards, Hiawatha is able to go forth and instruct people in the art of healing.
Hiawatha’s final episodic adventure tells of the coming of the white people to the Ojibways. However, rather than fearing and fighting the white priest who soon arrives, Hiawatha welcomes him as a sign of things to come and is not troubled by the visions he has had of the native tribes being scattered to the West. He welcomes the change, bidding his people farewell as he departs to the land of the northwest-wind that his father has promised him.
Longfellow is known for his simple, optimistic themes. In The Song of Hiawatha he lauds the kindness, wisdom, and bravery that are embodied in his title character, as well as addressing the theme of the importance of home and the happiness it can bring. Longfellow contrasts Hiawatha's mental and physical capabilities with those of his friends Chibiabos, the artistic singer who dies during a hunt, and Kwasind, who is strong but foolish enough to allow himself to be killed by the Little People. Hiawatha represents the ideal blend of wisdom and courageous strength. But Hiawatha, while brave, is no warrior. He is a peacekeeper and reconciler to the point that when the white men come bringing a foreign religion and portending the end of the natives' way of life, Hiawatha embraces that change as positive, believing it will lead eventually to a better life. Thus, Longfellow's optimism to the point of unrealistic romanticism is clearly seen.
While The Song of Hiawatha was roundly praised on both sides of the Atlantic after its publication, criticism in more recent years has been considerably less laudatory. Longfellow's choice to mimic the solemn, unrhymed tetrameter of the Finns’ Kalevala has caused his poem to be criticized by many, to the extent that some have felt Longfellow plagiarized the Finnish work. While the poem was sometimes mocked by his contemporaries, it has been subjected to increasing satire through the years, even being lampooned in Marx Brothers films and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Critics have also debated what sources Longfellow used, and some have been annoyed by the anachronism of the arrival of white men when Hiawatha's stories are more properly set long before the European settlers arrived. Nevertheless Longfellow’s poem was popular with the public. Despite the flaws critics have highlighted in the work, The Song of Hiawatha is still widely accepted as a significant nineteenth-century American poem.