The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Essay

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


(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 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Outre-mer, a Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea 2 vols. (travel sketches) 1833-34

Hyperion (novel) 1839

Voices of the Night (poetry) 1839

Ballads and Other Poems (poetry) 1842

*The Spanish Student (verse drama) 1843

Poems (poetry) 1845

The Poets and Poetry of Europe [editor and translator] (poetry) 1845

Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (narrative poetry) 1847

Kavanagh (novel) 1849

The Seaside and the Fireside (poetry) 1850

*†The Golden Legend (verse drama) 1851

The Song of Hiawatha (narrative poetry) 1855

The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems (poetry) 1858

Tales of a Wayside Inn (narrative poetry) 1863

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 3 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1865-67

*†The New England Tragedies (verse drama) 1868

*†The Divine Tragedy (verse drama) 1871

In the Harbor (poetry) 1882

The Complete Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 11 vols. (poetry, dramas, novels, travel sketches, and translations) 1904

*Date denotes the first publication, rather than the first performance.

†Published together as Christus: A Mystery in 1872.

George Lowell Austin (essay date 1883)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Period of Hiawatha,” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Life, His Works, His Friendships, Lee and Shepard, 1883, pp. 314-32.

[In the following essay, Austin sets Longfellow's poem in its historical context, discussing how the poet came to write his most popular work, as well as positive and negative reactions to The Song of Hiawatha.]

In 1849 appeared the least popular of all of Mr. Longfellow's productions. It was entitled Kavanagh,1 and aimed to be a story of New-England life and customs. The tale was written during the previous summer, at the Melville House, not far from the home of Dr. Holmes, in Pittsfield, Mass. Much of...

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Charles F. Johnson (essay date 1886)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Longfellow,” in Three Americans and Three Englishmen: Lectures Read before the Students of Trinity College, Hartford, Thomas Whittaker, 1886, pp. 213-45.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson calls Hiawatha Longfellow's greatest claim to fame, citing the difficulty of the poet's achievement in portraying so well the mythos of a culture with which he was largely unfamiliar.]

Longfellow's best claim to literary power rests, I think, on Hiawatha. This poem lent itself easily to parody,—in fact was a direct invitation to ridicule of a cheap kind,—but I think it a poem of a very high order. I have time to call your attention to but one or two...

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Helen Archibald Clarke (essay date 1909)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Lore of Hiawatha,” in Longfellow's Country, The Baker and Taylor Co., 1909, pp. 177-225.

[In the following essay, Clarke delves into the background legends and stories that inspired Longfellow's poem and describes how the poet adapted and changed them.]

In turning to Indian stories for subject-matter for his poetry, Longfellow has done our literature a lasting service by adopting into it an entirely new range of folk-lore. It is often remarked that we can never have a distinctively American literature because we have no folk-lore of our own. Where is the culture-race that does possess a folk-lore exclusively its own? The French writers have either...

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Wilbur Lang Schramm (essay date 1932)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hiawatha and Its Predecessors,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, October, 1932, pp. 321-43.

[In the following essay, Schramm reminds readers that Hiawatha was not the first poem about American Indians by a white man, and traces some of the traditions Longfellow employs in his poem.]

When Hiawatha was published, November 10, 1855, its success was so immediate and far reaching that other verse narratives of Indian life were for the moment forgotten. Four thousand copies were sold on the day of publication; it became almost at once the centre of a hot critical controversy; it was parodied, set to music, dramatized, and...

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Newton Arvin (essay date 1962)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Indian Edda and Puritan Pastoral,” in Longfellow: His Life and Work, Little, Brown and Co., 1962, pp. 154-80.

[In the following excerpt, Arvin defends Longfellow's poem, valuing, if not its literary prowess, its ability to convey the simple truths of American Indian culture without degrading it in any way, and the poet's ability to convey heartfelt emotions.]

Remarking once, many years ago, that “immortality often attaches itself to the bad as firmly as to the good,” I. A. Richards went on to say that “Few things are worse than Hiawatha or The Black Cat, Lorna Doone or Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard”; and yet, he implied, each...

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David W. Berry (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Hiawatha Saga: Bayard Taylor's Possible Contribution,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 4, December, 1981, pp. 256-58.

[In the following essay, Berry suggests that Longfellow's poem may have been influenced by the work of Bayard Taylor, who apparently also used Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's Algic Researches in his poetry.]

When first published in 1855, The Song of Hiawatha stirred a storm of interest. Four thousand copies of the work were sold that November 10 when it initially appeared on bookstore shelves, and within half a year the sale had reached more than 50,000 copies. Critics also took an interest in The Song of...

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Ron Messer (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Jungian Interpretation of the Relationship of Culture: Hero and Trickster Figure within Chippewa Mythology,” in Studies in Religion Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1982, pp. 312-16.

[In the following essay, Messer discusses Carl Jung's interpretation of Hiawatha as an example of the hero myth, and how his various deeds symbolize the struggle for freedom and independence from the unconscious.]

Within North American Indian mythology a certain supernatural being is frequently presented as the synthesis of two apparently divergent traits of character. Here, the trickster-transformer-culture hero, or trickster fixer, as he is sometimes called,1 is...

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Helen Carr (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Myth of Hiawatha,” in Literature and History, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 58-78.

[In the following essay, Carr examines The Song of Hiawatha as an example of how American literature was striving to achieve a unique identity separate from Europe during the early nineteenth century, and comments on the pros and cons of this self-conscious pursuit.]

… the vengeful ghost lurking in the back of the troubled American mind

(Gary Snyder)

This is the true myth of America …

(D. H. Lawrence)

At the...

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Eric L. Haralson (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mars in Petticoats: Longfellow and Sentimental Masculinity,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 327-55.

[In the following excerpt, Haralson addresses the concepts of masculinity and femininity as Longfellow idealistically portrays them in The Song of Hiawatha.]

For all of the signal contributions of Evangeline and the earlier lyric verse, the Longfellow work that intervened most decisively in the gender system and most subtly rewrote manhood was that “pastel jeremiad”—as Daniel Aaron calls it—The Song of Hiawatha.1 As Robert A. Ferguson has shown, Hiawatha centered on the sectional...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Robertson, Eric S. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. London: Walter Scott, 1887, 177 p.

Biography of the life of Longfellow, including some critical reactions to his work.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne, 1964, 221 p.

A study of Longfellow's life and works.


Jackson, Virginia. “Longfellow's Tradition; or, Picture-Writing a Nation.” In Modern Language Quarterly 59, No. 4 (December 1998): 471-96.

Considers the contrasting arguments about whether Longfellow's Hiawatha is a truly...

(The entire section is 315 words.)