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The Song of Hiawatha is an 1855 epic poem, in trochaic tetrameter, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, featuring a Native American hero. Longfellow's sources for the legends and ethnography found in his poem were the Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh during their visits at Longfellow's home; Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox Indians Longfellow encountered on Boston Common; Algic Researches (1839) and additional writings by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnographer and United States Indian agent; and Heckewelder's Narratives. In sentiment, scope, overall conception, and many particulars, Longfellow's poem is a work of American Romantic literature, not a representation of Native American oral tradition. Longfellow insisted, "I can give chapter and verse for these legends. Their chief value is that they are Indian legends."
Longfellow had originally planned on following Schoolcraft in calling his hero Manabozho, the name in use at the time among the Ojibwe of the south shore of Lake Superior for a figure of their folklore, a trickster-transformer. But in his journal entry for June 28, 1854, he wrote, "Work at 'Manabozho;' or, as I think I shall call it, 'Hiawatha'—that being another name for the same personage." Hiawatha was not "another name for the same personage" (the mistaken identification of the trickster figure was made first by Schoolcraft and compounded by Longfellow), but a probable historical figure associated with the founding of the League of the Iroquois, the Five Nations then located in present-day New York and Pennsylvania. Because of the poem, however, "Hiawatha" became the namesake for towns, schools, trains and a telephone company in the western Great Lakes region, where no Iroquois nations historically resided.
The poem was published on November 10, 1855, and was an immediate success. In 1857, Longfellow calculated that it had sold 50,000 copies.
Longfellow chose to set The Song of Hiawatha at the Pictured Rocks, one of the locations along the south shore of Lake Superior favored by narrators of the Manabozho stories. The Song presents a legend of Hiawatha and his lover Minnehaha in 22 chapters (and an Introduction). Hiawatha is not introduced until Chapter III.
In Chapter I, Hiawatha's arrival is prophesied by a "mighty" peace-bringing leader named Gitche Manito.
Chapter II tells a legend of how the warrior Mudjekeewis became Father of the Four Winds by slaying the Great Bear of the mountains, Mishe-Mokwa. His son Wabun, the East Wind, falls in love with a maiden whom he turns into the Morning Star, Wabun-Annung. Wabun's brother, Kabibonokka, the North Wind, bringer of autumn and winter, attacks Shingebis, "the diver". Shingebis repels him by burning firewood, and then in a wrestling match. A third brother, Shawondasee, the South Wind, falls in love with a dandelion, mistaking it for a golden-haired maiden.
In Chapter III, in "unremembered ages", a woman named Nokomis falls from the moon. Nokomis gives birth to Wenonah, who grows to be a beautiful young woman. Nokomis warns her not to be seduced by the West Wind (Mudjekeewis) but she does not heed her mother, becomes pregnant and bears Hiawatha.
In the ensuing chapters, Hiawatha has childhood adventures, falls in love with Minnehaha, slays the evil magician Pearl-Feather, invents written language, discovers corn and other episodes. Minniehaha dies in a severe winter.
The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha's village, containing "the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face." Hiawatha welcomes him joyously; and the "Black-Robe chief" brings word of Jesus Christ. Hiawatha and the chiefs accept the Christian message. Hiawatha bids farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: "But my guests I leave behind me/ Listen to their words of wisdom,/ Listen to the truth they tell you." Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset and departs forever.
The story of Hiawatha was dramatized by Tale Spinners for Children (UAC 11054) with Jordan Malek.
Much of the scholarship on The Song of Hiawatha in the twentieth century, dating to the 1920s, has concentrated on its lack of fidelity to Ojibwe ethnography and literary genre rather than the poem as a literary work in its own right. In addition to Longfellow’s own annotations, Stellanova Osborn (and previously F. Broilo in German) tracked down "chapter and verse" for every detail Longfellow took from Schoolcraft. Others have identified words from native languages included in the poem.
Schoolcraft as a "textmaker" seems to have been inconsistent in his pursuit of authenticity, as he justified rewriting and censoring sources. The folklorist Stith Thompson, although crediting Schoolcraft's research with being a "landmark," was quite critical of him: "Unfortunately, the scientific value of his work is marred by the manner in which he has reshaped the stories to fit his own literary taste."
Intentionally epic in scope, The Song of Hiawatha was described by its author as "this Indian Edda". But Thompson judged that despite Longfellow's claimed "chapter and verse" citations, the work "produce[s] a unity the original will not warrant," i.e., it is non-Indian in its totality. Thompson found close parallels in plot between the poem and its sources, with the major exception that Longfellow took legends told about multiple characters and substituted the character "Hiawatha" as the protagonist of them all. Resemblances between the original stories, as "reshaped by Schoolcraft," and the episodes in the poem are but superficial, and Longfellow omits important details essential to Ojibwe narrative construction, characterization, and theme. This is the case even with "Hiawatha’s Fishing," the episode closest to its source. Of course, some important parts of the poem were more or less Longfellow’s invention from fragments or his imagination. "The courtship of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, the least ‘Indian’ of any of the events in ‘Hiawatha,’ has come for many readers to stand as the typical American Indian tale." Also, "in exercising the function of selecting incidents to make an artistic production, Longfellow . . . omitted all that aspect of the Manabozho saga which considers the culture hero as a trickster," this despite the fact that Schoolcraft had already diligently avoided what he himself called "vulgarisms."
In his book on the development of the image of the Indian in American thought and literature, Pearce wrote about The Song of Hiawatha: "It was Longfellow who fully realized for mid-nineteenth century Americans the possibility of [the] image of the noble savage. He had available to him not only [previous examples of] poems on the Indian . . . but also the general feeling that the Indian belonged nowhere in American life but in dim prehistory. He saw how the mass of Indian legends which Schoolcraft was collecting depicted noble savages out of time, and offered, if treated right, a kind of primitive example of that very progress which had done them in. Thus in Hiawatha he was able, matching legend with a sentimental view of a past far enough away in time to be safe and near enough in space to be appealing, fully to image the Indian as noble savage. For by the time Longfellow wrote Hiawatha, the Indian as a direct opponent of civilization was dead, yet was still heavy on American consciences . . . . The tone of the legend and ballad…would color the noble savage so as to make him blend in with a dim and satisfying past about which readers could have dim and satisfying feelings."
There is virtually no connection, apart from name, between Longfellow's hero and the sixteenth-century Iroquois chief Hiawatha who co-founded the Iroquois League. Longfellow took the name from works by Schoolcraft, which he acknowledged as his main sources. In his notes to the poem, Longfellow cites Schoolcraft as a source for
"a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing-grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. He was known among different tribes by the several names of Michabou, Chiabo, Manabozo, Tarenyawagon, and Hiawatha."
Longfellow's notes make no reference to the Iroquois or the Iroquois League or to any historical personage.
However, according to ethnographer Horatio Hale (1817–1896), there was a longstanding confusion between the Iroquois leader Hiawatha and the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon because of "an accidental similarity in the Onondaga dialect between [their names]." The deity, he says, was variously known as Aronhiawagon, Tearonhiaonagon, Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi; the historical Iroquois leader, as Hiawatha, Tayonwatha or Thannawege. Schoolcraft "made confusion worse ... by transferring the hero to a distant region and identifying him with Manabozho, a fantastic divinity of the Ojibways. [Schoolcraft's book] has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon."
In 1856, Schoolcraft published The Myth of Hiawatha and Other Oral Legends Mythologic and Allegoric of the North American Indians, reprinting (with a few changes) stories previously published in his Algic Researches and other works. Schoolcraft dedicated the book to Longfellow, whose work he praised highly.
Though the majority of the Native American words included in the text accurately reflect pronunciation and definitions, some words seem to appear incomplete. For example, the Ojibway words for "blueberry" are miin (plural: miinan) for the berries and miinagaawanzh (plural: miinagaawanzhiig) for the bush upon which the berries grow. Longfellow uses Meenah'ga, which appears to be a partial form for the bush, but he uses the word to mean the berry. Critics believe such mistakes are likely attributable to Schoolcraft (who was often careless about details) or to what always happens when someone who does not understand the nuances of a language and its grammar tries to use select words out of context.
The Song of Hiawatha was written in trochaic tetrameter, the same meter as Kalevala, the Finnish epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot from fragments of folk poetry. Longfellow had learned some of the Finnish language while spending a summer in Sweden in 1835. It is likely that, 20 years later, Longfellow had forgotten most of what he had learned of that language, and he referred to a German translation of the Kalevala by Franz Anton Schiefner. Trochee is a rhythm natural to the Finnish language—insofar as all Finnish words are normally accented on the first syllable—to the same extent that iamb is natural to English. Longfellow’s use of trochaic tetrameter for his poem has an artificiality that the Kalevala does not have in its own language.
He was not the first American poet to use the trochaic (or tetrameter) in writing Indian romances. Schoolcraft had written a romantic poem, Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega (1843) in trochaic tetrameter, about which he commented in his preface:
"The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography."
Longfellow wrote to his friend Ferdinand Freiligrath (who had introduced him to Finnische Runen in 1842) about the latter's article, "The Measure of Hiawatha" in the prominent London magazine, Athenaeum (December 25, 1855): "Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha." Trochaic is not a correct descriptor for Ojibwe oratory, song, or storytelling, but Schoolcraft was writing long before the study of Native American linguistics had come of age. Parallelism is an important part of Ojibwe language artistry.
A short extract of 94 lines from the poem was and still is frequently anthologized under the title Hiawatha's Childhood (which is also the title of the longer 234-line section from which the extract is taken). This short extract is the most familiar portion of the poem. It is this short extract that begins with the famous lines:
In August 1855, The New York Times carried an item on "Longfellow's New Poem", quoting an article from another periodical which said that it "is very original, and has the simplicity and charm of a Saga... it is the very antipodes [sic] of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Maud, which is . . . morbid, irreligious, and painful." In October of that year, the New York Times noted that "Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha is nearly printed, and will soon appear."
By November its column, "Gossip: What has been most Talked About during the Week," observed that "The madness of the hour takes the metrical shape of trochees, everybody writes trochaics, talks trochaics, and think [sic] in trochees: ...
Parodies emerged instantly. The New York Times reviewed a parody of Hiawatha four days before reviewing Longfellow's Hiawatha. Pocahontas: or the Gentle Savage was a comic extravaganza which included extracts from an imaginary Viking poem, "burlesquing the recent parodies, good, bad, and indifferent, on The Song of Hiawatha." The Times quoted:
The New York Times review of The Song of Hiawatha was scathing. The anonymous reviewer wrote the poem "is entitled to commendation" for "embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race. As a poem, it deserves no place" because there "is no romance about the Indian." He complains that Hiawatha's deeds of magical strength pall by comparison to the feats of Hercules and to "Finn Mac Cool, that big stupid Celtic mammoth." The reviewer writes that "Grotesque, absurd, and savage as the groundwork is, Mr. LONGFELLOW has woven over it a profuse wreath of his own poetic elegancies." But, he concludes, Hiawatha "will never add to Mr. LONGFELLOW's reputation as a poet."
Thomas Conrad Porter, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College, believed that Longfellow had been inspired by more than the metrics of the Kalevala. He claimed The Song of Hiawatha was "Plagiarism" in the Washington National Intelligencer of November 27, 1855. Longfellow wrote to his friend Charles Sumner a few days later: "As to having 'taken many of the most striking incidents of the Finnish Epic and transferred them to the American Indians'—it is absurd". Longfellow also insisted in his letter to Sumner that, "I know the Kalevala very well, and that some of its legends resemble the Indian stories preserved by Schoolcraft is very true. But the idea of making me responsible for that is too ludicrous." Later scholars continued to debate the extent to which The Song of Hiawatha borrowed its themes, episodes, and outline from the Kalevala.
Despite the critics, the poem was immediately popular with readers and continued so for many decades; the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica noted that "The metre is monotonous and easily ridiculed, but it suits the subject, and the poem is very popular." Early modernist poets mocked it and, in the twentieth century, the poem lost both esteem and popularity. The Grolier Club named The Song of Hiawatha the most influential book of 1855. Lydia Sigourney was inspired by The Song of Hiawatha to write a similar epic poem on Pocahontas, though she never completed it.
Longfellow's poem was taken as the first American epic to be composed of North American materials and free of European literary models. Earlier attempts to write a national epic, such as The Columbiad of Richard Snowden (1753-1825), ‘a poem on the American war’ published in 1795, or Joel Barlow's Vision of Columbus (1787) (rewritten and entitled The Columbiad in 1807), were considered derivative. Longfellow provided something entirely new, a vision of the continent's pre-European civilisation in a metre adapted from a Finnish, non-Indo-European source.
His work has inspired compositions by musicians since the 19th century. A musician who set his words said that the poem was an "Edda...[that] idealized the North American Indian and established an elevated type of man and prophet." Soon after the poem's publication, composers competed to set it to music. One of the first to tackle the poem was Emile Karst, whose cantata Hiawatha (1858) freely adapted and arranged texts of the poem.
Arthur Foote set the poet's words in "The Farewell of Hiawatha" (Op.11, 1886), dedicating it to the Apollo Club of Boston, the male voice group that gave its first performance. In 1897 Frederick Russell Burton (1861 — 1909) completed his dramatic cantata "Hiawatha,” also based on Longfellow's words. At the same time he wrote "Hiawatha's Death Song", subtitled 'Song of the Ojibways', which set native words followed by an English translation by another writer.
Longfellow's poem was the basis for a cantata trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha (1898–1900), by the African-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. He named his son Hiawatha. The first part, "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast" (Op. 30, no.1), was particularly famous for well over 50 years, receiving thousands of performances in the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. It has slipped from popularity in recent years. It was followed by two additional oratorios: "The Death of Minnehaha" (Op. 30, no. 2) and "Hiawatha's Departure" (Op. 30, no. 3), which were almost equally popular. "The Death of Minnehaha" had a revival performance in Portland, Maine, in 2010.
The first orchestral treatment was Robert Stoepel's Hiawatha: An Indian Symphony. The composer consulted with Longfellow, who approved the work before its premiere in 1859. Another American treatment was Hugo Kaun's symphonic poems "Minnehaha" and "Hiawatha" of 1901.
Antonín Dvořák was familiar with the work in Czech translation. In an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, he stated that the second movement of his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, was a "sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera ... which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha' and that the third movement scherzo was 'suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance'". Dvořák said that "the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical." Some passages that modern listeners associate with African-American spirituals may have been intended by Dvořák to evoke a Native American ambience.
More popular settings of the poem followed publication of the poem. The first was Charles Crozat Converse's "The Death of Minnehaha", published in Boston around 1856. The hand colored lithograph on the cover of the printed song, by John Henry Bufford, is now much sought after.
The next popular tune, originally titled "Hiawatha (A Summer Idyl)", was not inspired by the poem. It was composed by ‘Neil Moret’ (Charles Daniels) while on the train to Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1901 and was inspired by the rhythm of the wheels on the rails. It was already popular when James O'Dea added lyrics in 1903 and the music was newly subtitled "His Song to Minnehaha". Later treated as a rag, it went on to become a jazz standard. Other popular songs have included "Hiawatha’s Melody of Love", by George W. Meyer with words by Alfred Bryan and Artie Mehlinger (1908), and Al Bowlly's "Hiawatha’s Lullaby" (1933).
Composers wrote works for young performers. They include the English musician Stanley Wilson's "Hiawatha, 12 Scenes" (1928) for first grade solo piano, based on Longfellow's lines, and Soon Hee Newbold's "Hiawatha" for junior string orchestra (2003), a rhythmic composition in Dorian mode.
Some musicians have used excerpts from the poem. Mike Oldfield used the sections "Hiawatha's Departure" and "The Son of the Evening Star" in the second part of his Incantations album (1978); he rearranged some words to conform more to his music. Laurie Anderson used excerpts from the poem's third section at the beginning and end of the final piece of her Strange Angels album (1989). Johnny Cash used a modified version of "Hiawatha's Vision“ as the opening piece on Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965).
Artists also responded in number to the epic. The earliest pieces of sculpture were by Edmonia Lewis, who had most of her career in Rome. Her father was Haitian and her mother was Native American and African American. The arrow-maker and his daughter, later called The Wooing of Hiawatha, was modelled in 1866 and carved in 1872. By that time she had achieved success with individual heads of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Carved in Rome, these are now held by the Newark Museum in New Jersey. In 1872 Lewis carved The Marriage of Hiawatha in marble, a work purchased in 2010 by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.
Other 19th-century sculptors inspired by the epic were Augustus Saint-Gaudens; his marble statue of the seated Hiawatha (1874) is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jacob Fjelde created a bronze statue, Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha, for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. It was installed in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, in 1912 (illustrated at the head of this article).
In the 20th century, Marshall Fredericks executed a small bronze Hiawatha (1938), now installed in the Michigan University Centre; a limestone statue (1949), also at the University of Michigan; and a relief installed at the Birmingham Covington School, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Early paintings were by artists who concentrated on authentic American Native subjects. Eastman Johnson's pastel of Minnehaha seated by a stream (1857) was drawn directly from an Objibwe model. The English artist Frances Anne Hopkins travelled in the hunting country of Canada and used her sketches from the trip when she returned to her studio in England in 1870. Her Minnehaha Feeding Birds was painted about 1880. Critics have thought these two artists had a sentimental approach, as did Charles-Émile-Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet (1821-1900) in his 1871 painting of Minnehaha, making her a native child of the wild. The kinship of the latter is with other kitsch images, like Bufford's cover for "The Death of Minnehaha" (see above) or those of the 1920s calendar painters James Arthur and Rudolph F. Ingerle (1879 – 1950).
American landscape painters referred to the poem to add an epic dimension to their patriotic celebration of the wonders of the national landscape. Albert Bierstadt presented his sunset piece, The Departure of Hiawatha, to Longfellow in 1868 when the poet was in England to receive an honorary degree at the University of Cambridge. Other examples include Thomas Moran's Fiercely the Red Sun Descending, Burned His Way along the Heavens (1875), held by the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the panoramic waterfalls of Hiawatha and Minnehaha on their Honeymoon (1885) by Jerome Thompson (1814 – 1886). Thomas Eakins made of his Hiawatha (c.1874) a visionary statement superimposed on the fading light of the sky.
Toward the end of the 19th century, artists deliberately emphasized the epic qualities of the poem, as in William de Leftwich Dodge's Death of Minnehaha (1885). Frederic Remington demonstrated a similar quality in his series of 22 grisailes painted in oil for the 1890 de-luxe photogravure edition of The Song of Hiawatha. One of the editions is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dora Wheeler's Minnehaha listening to the waterfall (1884) design for a needle-woven tapestry, made by the Associated Artists for the Cornelius Vanderbilt house, was also epic.
In 1856, a slim book entitled The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee appeared, by "Marc Antony Henderson" (Rev. George A. Strong (1832–1912) and published by "Tickell and Grinne." It is a 94-page-long parody of Hiawatha, following it chapter by chapter. It contains the following passage:
Over time, an elaborated version developed that was sometimes attributed to Strong and titled "The Modern Hiawatha":
David W. Solomons set this passage as a canon for 4 equal voices.
Lewis Carroll wrote Hiawatha's Photographing, which he introduced by noting (in the same rhythm as the Longfellow poem) "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject." A poem of some 200 lines, it describes Hiawatha's attempts to photograph the members of a pretentious middle-class family ending in disaster.
In 1865, James Linen, a Scottish native and book binder in New York City, settled in California. He wrote about the Golden State, as in this excerpt from San Francisco (in imitation of Hiawatha)
During World War I, Owen Rutter, a British officer of the Army of the Orient, wrote Tiadatha, to describe the city of Salonica, Greece, where several hundred thousand soldiers were stationed on the Macedonian Front in 1916-1918:
Some Disney cartoons include episodes in which inept protagonists are beset by comic calamities on camping trips. Often these are introduced by a mock-solemn intonation of the lines about the shores of Gitchee Gummee. The most famous of these was the 1937 Silly Symphony Little Hiawatha, whose hero is a small boy whose pants keep falling down. The 1941 Warner Bros. cartoon, Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt, featuring Bugs Bunny and a pint-sized version of Hiawatha, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Margaret Pietsch wrote a parody skit based on "Song of Hiawatha" in 1958; it has been performed many times, most famously on Saturday Night Live.
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