I read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha over quite an expanse of time, so I really don’t have a solid impression of it. However, it held together pretty nicely in my head, and I feel like I have a decent sense of it and its story.
The Song of Hiawatha is an 19th-century epic poem that tells various stories from Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox First Nations’ lore concentrated around an amalgamated character named Hiawatha. The poem follows Hiawatha from his childhood, through his growth to adulthood, and ultimately to his departure from the world, keeping a record of all of the supernatural figures and situations he encounters along the way.
The Importance of Poetry
In particular, I really appreciate the constant rhythm and metre that Longfellow keeps throughout. It’s really quite catchy and you can hear the drums in it. But I’m also kind of carrying this sense that that brings with it a bit of the racism and stereotyping of Longfellow’s day.
But, if you can look past that and see it as a work of poetry, I think Hiawatha‘s a great example of how you can string language together to create a steady and inviting rhythm. That alone makes this book worth reading if you’re looking for some long form poetry.
But, this book definitely shows its age when it comes to stereotypes. Most glaringly to me, is the Christian missionaries referring to the Jews as a “tribe accursed” (XXII.136). And though it seems like Longfellow took care to be sensitive according to the standards of his time, I’m sure there are some inaccuracies or embellishments that the Onondaga and Mohawk would find offensive or at the very least annoying (like changing the original main character’s name from “Manabozho” to “Hiawatha” likely just for the sake of prosody).
The Song of Hiawatha‘s Greatest Strengths
Still, as a cultural work I like Hiawatha because it’s a collection of mythology combined into a single linear tale.
At its heart, the poem is a European take on Onondaga/Mohawk mythology centred around a single hero much like the Greek and Roman myths of Hercules or Mithras.
As such, a single hero embarks on a journey through the natural and the supernatural and meets beings of both types along the way. Hiawatha learns of his powers, meets a wife, frees her from her captor, and then lives happily with her.
But then Longfellow, as if acknowledging the living, breathing heart of this mythology also includes the hero’s exit. But it’s not by sudden death or complicated scheme. Instead, Hiawatha has a vision and acknowledges the coming of the Europeans and the change they’ll bring that makes for a neat nod toward the historical record. Thus, instead of being something that happened in a vaguely connected past or golden age that seems to never have really appeared on record or has been embellished beyond recognition, there’s a clear implication that Hiawatha is a story of what came before the European arrival in the Americas.
Still a Little Problematic
Yet, as much as Longfellow takes the stories around Hiawatha, melds them together with artful words, and puts the whole thing into the frame of a European myth with great skill, I think the poem could be problematic for some. As steady as his rhythm is, and as respectful as he seems to be (as far as I, someone mostly unfamiliar with first nations’ stories and storytelling techniques, can tell), he’s still taking native stories and casting them in a European voice. He’s still appropriating these stories for a European audience. His words’ rhythm acknowledges the stories’ source probably as much as English can, though, and as much as a European man of the mid-1850s could, I think.
So, in short, I think that Hiawatha is a fantastic poem, an excellent retelling of native folklore and myth, but still a product of its time — albeit a sensitively made one.
So, check it out if you’re looking for a 19th-century epic poem that presents mythology and lore in a more engaging way than a summary of characters and events.
Do you think the value of old poems is diminished if it includes problematic bits that would’ve been completely overlooked by the people who first read it?