The Song of Hiawatha

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"Sanborn brought me your good gift of Hiawatha," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) on 25 November 1855 to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He had not been able to finish it before yesterday, he admitted, but then he knew that a book by Longfellow one could dip into whenever one wanted. No need to rush the reading experience: "I have always one foremost satisfaction in reading your books that I am safe—I am in variously skilful hands but first of all they are safe hands." Too safe, perhaps? Emerson claimed he had enjoyed the book his friend Franklin Sanborn had so kindly delivered to him. He found it, as he said redundantly, "very wholesome, sweet & wholesome as maize very proper & pertinent to us to read." However, what bothered him about Longfellow's American Indian poem, was, well, the Indian part of it: "The dangers of the Indians are, that they are really savage, have poor small sterile heads,—no thoughts, & you must deal very roundly with them" and not as lovingly as Longfellow had. "I blamed your tenderness now & then, as I read, in accepting a legend or a song, when they had so little to give" (Letters, p. 386).

It is useful to remember that Emerson, the icon of anti-establishment thought in mid-nineteenth century America, found The Song of Hiawatha, now regarded as the epitome of nineteenth-century conventionality and sentimentalism and as a covert endorsement of Native American removal, too provocative because apparently too sympathetically "Indian." A strange claim when one considers that Longfellow himself had not had much personal exposure to Native Americans. In October 1837, when he had just begun his appointment as the new Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University, he witnessed a gathering of a dozen Sauk and Fox Indians, who had come to Boston to attend a peace conference. They visited City Hall, performed some war dances on the Common, and then went to see a performance by Edwin Forrest at the Tremont Temple, where they unsettled the audience by letting out a war whoop when one of the characters fell dying. The Fox and Sauk impressed Longfellow: "one carries a great war-club, and wears horns on his head," he told his sister-in-law back in Portland, "another has his face painted like a gridiron, all in bars: —another is all red, like a lobster; and another black and blue, in great daubs of paint, laid on not sparingly" (Letters 2:45). These "hard customers," as Longfellow called them, were so visibly different from the white Anglo-Saxon norm, and yet, as Longfellow also noticed, one of them, make-up and all, was puffing a cigar!

In the late 1840s Longfellow was frequently seen around town with the Ojibwa chief Kah-ge-ga-gahbowh or George Copway, a Christian convert and a "good-looking young man" (S. Longfellow 2:145), who gave Longfellow his autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway) (1847). On 27 January 1851, in a particularly poignant moment, he took Copway to the Armory Hall in Boston, where the poet and Native American chief both admired the new sculpture The Wounded Indian by Peter Stephenson (1823–1861), one of the key artistic expressions of the popular belief that "savage" native America was destined to vanish. In his journal, Longfellow misrepresented the name of Stephenson's sculpture as "The Dying Indian," a slip that speaks to what many consider one of the primary themes of the poem Longfellow was to write a few years later. The Wounded Indian catapulted Stephenson to fame, increased the number of his commissions, and allowed him to open his own studio. Likewise, The Song of Hiawatha, which ended with the native protagonist drifting off compliantly and resignedly into a "fiery sunset" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 159), yielded royalties of over $7,000 in its first ten years and helped Longfellow, who had sent his letter of resignation to the Harvard Corporation on 16 February 1854, to secure his new position as a professional popular poet.

On the poem's official publication date, 10 November 1855, 4,000 of the 5,000 copies printed had already been sold, and a new edition of 3,000 was already underway. Interestingly, Whitman's Leaves of Grass had appeared on 4 July the same year, with a print run of just 795 copies, only a few of which were actually sold (Loving, p. 213).

In time, steamships were named after Longfellow's Native American protagonists; "Hiawatha pencils," or sleighs decorated with scenes from the poem, became available for purchase; and a New York bar served a Hiawatha drink, which promised "to make the imbiber fancy himself in the happy hunting grounds" (Moyne, "Parodies of Longfellow," p. 94). No wonder that Lawrence Buell, one of the poet's most sympathetic modern readers, called Hiawatha "a pleasant-anthropological tour de force but nothing more" (Buell, p. xxix).


Longfellow began working on a poem about the Ojibwa trickster-hero Manabozho in late June 1854, just a few weeks after two hundred guards had marched the convicted fugitive slave Anthony Burns through streets lined with shocked onlookers, beneath windows darkly draped in mourning and a black coffin labeled "Liberty" suspended from ropes, to the ship that would return him to Virginia. The event appalled and disgusted Longfellow: "Hung be the Heavens with black!" he wrote in his diary (26 May 1854). But Longfellow saw himself as a healer, not as a political agitator. The same month, he happened to be reading Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884), a collection of the songs sung by the peasants of northern Finland, which the author hoped would be understood as the belated Finnish answer to the Iliad or the Edda, a thought that must have seemed attractive to Longfellow as he was looking for a subject as well as a form that would address and alleviate the crisis of a nation rent apart by the issue of slavery. On 22 June 1854, he wrote in his journal:

I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the Indians that seems to be the right one, and the only. It is to weave together their beautiful traditions into a whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which I think is the right and only one for such a theme.

A few days later, he changed his protagonist's name to that of an Iroquois political leader Hiawatha (pronounced "Hee-a-wa-tha," as Longfellow insisted).

In his 22 June journal entry, Longfellow represents The Song of Hiawatha as an organic whole. But the finished product makes one think less of an intricately woven fabric than of something Longfellow's distant relative Ezra Pound (1885–1972) would later say about his own epic poem, The Cantos, namely that it was a "ragbag" stuffed with bits and scraps of whatever he found that seemed to belong there (Pound, p. 318). "This Indian Edda—if I may so call it," Longfellow wrote in the notes he added to his poem, "is founded upon a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians" (p. 161). But Longfellow goes far beyond mixing Norse poetry and Native American lore. The title of his poem alludes to the Chanson de Roland as well as to the beginning of the Odyssey. The magic mittens and enchanted moccasins of Longfellow's hero remind the reader of the seven-league boots and other magic gifts extended to the heroes of fairy tales, and his adventures ever so faintly resemble the labors of Hercules, the daring deeds of Beowulf, as well as the trials of Prometheus. Like many heroes of epic proportions, Hiawatha is the product of a god's rape of a mortal woman, and like many of them he goes into the underworld to prove his mettle, fighting the evil king of the serpents, Pearl-Feather, and spending time, like Jonah, inside the belly of a big sea creature—not a whale in this case, but a fish, the giant sturgeon Nahma. There are similarities between Hiawatha's courtship of Minnehaha, the beautiful girl from the hostile tribe of the Dakotahs, and the story of Romeo and Juliet, of course without the tragic outcome. His associates are the Hercules-like Kwasind and the beautiful Chibiabos, who, like Orpheus, teaches nature how to make music: "All the many sounds of nature / Borrowed sweetness from his singing" (p. 44).

In twenty-two cantos of varying length, Longfellow leads us through the life of his protagonist. He begins with Hiawatha's birth and childhood and then takes the reader through the various tests of his strength to which he subjects himself (a period of ritual fasting as well as battles with with his father, the evil magician Pearl-Feather, and the unpredictable trickster Pau-Puk-Keewis). Several cantos detail Hiawatha's love for his friends and his wife Minnehaha. But Hiawatha's good work on behalf of his people (as described in Cantos XIII and XIV) cannot last: a period of famine ends with Minnehaha's death, and the final two cantos herald the inevitable arrival of the white colonizers. The plots Longfellow has cobbled together (an origin myth and a coming-of-age story at the beginning, a love story in the middle, and a version of King Arthur's departure from Camelot at the end) reinforce the unfavorable impression that Hiawatha is a hodgepodge of cultural references rather than a cohesive work of the poet's imagination.

Even the native "tradition" mentioned in Longfellow's notes is not a unified whole. Longfellow had in fact mixed a mythical story told by the Ojibwa but shared by several tribes—that of Manabozho, "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" ("Notes," p. 161)—with other "curious legends," notably that of the legendary founder of the Iroquois nation, Hiawatha. He had discovered these and other stories in the books of the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer and amateur ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864), "to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 161). Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), for one, thought that Schoolcraft's retellings of Indian legends were seriously deficient, arguing in her Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844) that the "flimsy graces" and "bad taste" of his style had retained little of the "Spartan brevity and sinewy grasp of Indian speech" (p. 88). But Longfellow went ahead and sanitized the Manabozho myth even further.

Much of the fun of the legend derives from the native trickster's flouting of rules and the unpredictability of his character. Manabozho is a "dirty fellow" and an "evil genius" (Schoolcraft 1:145, 165), a mere mortal as well as a supernatural being, never better and often worse than the people among whom he appears. Deception and suspicion play a prominent part in Schoolcraft's narrative, whereas Longfellow has carefully eliminated such duplicity from his version, notably the episode in which Hiawatha's grandmother Nokomis sleeps with a long-haired bear. Always "fond of novelty" (Schoolcraft 1:156), Schoolcraft's Manabozho has no mission except his own advantage: "He felt himself urged by the consciousness of his power to new trials of bravery, skill, and necromantic prowess" (1:154), whereas Longfellow's saintly Hiawatha thinks not about himself but "for profit of the people, / For advantage of the nations" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 35). The one trickster figure left in Longfellow's poem is Hiawatha's antagonist, the "mischief-maker" Pau-Puk-Keewis, who assumes some of the original Manabozho's attributes, by transforming himself, for example, into the largest of beavers, just as Manabozho once asked to be turned into the largest of wolves. But Pau-Puk-Keewis is killed off in rather dramatic fashion: having his head beaten to a pulp and dropping from the sky like a malevolent Icarus, he ends up buried under a huge pile of sandstone.


Hiawatha's altruistic nature defines Longfellow's political purpose in the poem. His intention was not to "tame" the savages but to integrate native themes and cultural references into the larger system of shared cultural meanings that, for him, was the business of American literature. None of Longfellow's readers in 1855 would have failed to perceive the importance of the first canto, where a multitude of native tribes from both the North and the West—separated not only by geography but also by "hereditary hatred" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 7)—come together to hold a council meeting and listen to the prophecy of Gitche Manito, "the creator of the nations" (p. 7) that he will send them a prophet who will show them how to live together as brothers.

The messianic Hiawatha, a pacifist like his creator Longfellow, brings a golden age of happiness and peace to his people, teaching them, in the pivotal Canto XIV ("Picture-Writing"), how to remember their own past by drawing their ancestral totems on gravestones and how to transcribe their songs on reindeer skins. The most potent of these songs, "dangerous more than war or hunting," is, of course, the love song: "Naked lies your heart before me, / To your naked heart I whisper!" (p. 105). Significantly, for all his traditional heroic bravado, Hiawatha's own most intense emotional relationships in the book are with men, his beloved friend Chibiabos, who is brave as a man but also soft as a woman, and the strong man Kwasind, who has more brawn than brain: "Long they lived in peace together, / Spake with naked hearts together" (p. 47). Strikingly, the death of Chibiabos causes Hiawatha to moan and wail for "seven long weeks," whereas he spends only seven days and nights mourning the passing of his wife Minnehaha. Readers would also have noticed the sexual overtones of Hiawatha's ritual struggle with the golden-haired corn-god Mondamin, whose touch sends throbs of "new life and hope and vigor" (p. 37) through Hiawatha's body. After Mondamin's death, Hiawatha, as if he were Mondamin's lover, makes a soft bed in the ground for his naked body, waiting for the maize to sprout from it. Minnehaha's father, the Old Arrowmaker, laments that the heroes of the olden days are gone—"Now the men were all like women, / Only used their tongues for weapons" (p. 70), a charge that also applies to Hiawatha, "the youth with flaunting feathers" (p. 73), who never misses the opportunity for a good speech.

Arguably, Hiawatha's sensitive or, put negatively, compliantly feminine side leaves him ill-prepared for the advent of the whites at the end of the poem, which is usually cited as an example of Longfellow's ideological blindness and his adherence to the popular stereotype of the "vanishing Indian." Indeed, Hiawatha's final vision seems to underwrite the notion of Manifest Destiny:

I beheld the westward marches
Of the unknown, crowded nations.
All the land was full of people,
Restless, struggling, toiling, striving,
Speaking many tongues, yet feeling
But one heart-beat in their bosoms

(P. 152)

But then he also anticipates another, sadder westward movement, that of his own people scattered, dying, and deaf to all the counsel he has given them. "Weakened, warring with each other" they drift away, "like the withered leaves of Autumn" (p. 153). In Hiawatha's dream, unknown flowers appear to be springing up beneath the feet of the advancing colonists, "the White man's Foot in blossom" (p. 152). But most of Longfellow's readers would have known that this generous vision refers to a troublesome European weed, the broadleaf plantain, also known as the cart-track plant, examples of which Louis Agassiz had pointed out to Longfellow on an after-dinner walk on 13 December 1849. It does matter, too, that the whites that force Hiawatha to depart at the end of the poem are the "Black Robes"—Catholic priests—known, unlike the Puritans, for their normally more informed approach to native cultures. But in Longfellow's poem, they are struggling with Hiawatha's language: "And the Black-Robe chief made answer, / Stammered in his speech a little, / Speaking words yet unfamiliar . . ." (p. 156).

Longfellow's achievement in The Song of Hiawatha is precisely that he defamiliarizes the white world and forces his audience to enter the unfamiliar world of native culture, where humans swim like beavers, ghosts walk at night, the stars, glaring like the eyes of wolves, seem hungry, and snowflakes hiss among withered oak-leaves. The odd, monotonous trochaic meter of the poem (one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable), whether or not it sounds to the reader like a primitive drumbeat, imposes a kind of barrier between the reader and the text, reminding her or him that while the landscape of the poem (the southern shore of Lake Superior, between Grand Sable Dunes and the Pictured Rocks) might be familiar, its original inhabitants are not. In the world of the Ojibwa, a squirrel is called "Adjidaumo," the grasshopper "Pah-puk-kee'na," and the robin "Ope'chee," while the blueberry is known as "Meenah'ga" and the spearmint as "Nah'mawusk"—all reminders that these creatures and plants are both the same as, and different from, the ones Longfellow's readers would have encountered in their own backyards and fields. Drenched with original Ojibwa phrases, The Song of Hiawatha often reads like the draft of a translation deliberately left unfinished, a text that is neither fully English nor really Native American.

Longfellow had his reasons for the cultural mish-mash he offered his readers. His "Indian Edda" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 161), as diverse and disparate as its sources are, reflects a fairly coherent attempt to deconstruct conventional notions like authority, authorship, and cultural authenticity. Several times in the "Prologue" to the poem Longfellow's narrator imagines the question a reader would ask of him ("Should you ask me, whence these stories?" [p. 1]), only to refuse any information about his sources and to suggest that the very idea of an origin is ludicrous when applied to a text that essentially tells itself. Interestingly, Hiawatha himself, who has "neither father nor mother" (Schoolcraft 1:139), is driven by a desire to know more about his origins. He goes out to confront the "heartless" abuser Mudjekeewis, who raped and effectively killed his mother, on the "gusty summits" of the Rocky Mountains. The fight between father and son that now follows assumes mythic proportions—"the earth shook with the tumult and confusion of the battle, / And the air was full of shoutings, / And the thunder of the mountains, / Starting, answered: 'Baim-wawa!'" (p. 31)—and ends only when Hiawatha has driven Mudjekeewis into a corner. Having exorcized the ghost his own father and asserted his self-sufficiency, Hiawatha can go on to be an effective leader of his people. He is no one's son and no one's father, neither a coward nor a patriarchal tyrant, but a friend and brother to his people, a fellow-sufferer and healer, a true shaman. Longfellow's narrator nowhere promises—as Whitman famously did at just about the same time—that one would only need to "stop" with him for a while to "possess the origin of all poems" (Whitman, p. 663). Instead, he wanted his poem to be like the "rude inscription[s]" (The Song of Hiawatha, p. 4) Hiawatha has taught his people to leave on their gravestones, a series of images left on the reader's mind: Hiawatha flanked by his two friends, the poet and the strong man; the nude Minnehaha, "unashamed and unaffrighted," dancing around the cornfield; the sun setting like a blood-red flamingo settling into her nest at nightfall (p. 31).


Inevitably, a poem intended to convey the idea that it was shared cultural property rather than an author's individual creation spawned a number of imitations and parodies. An anecdote widely circulated at the time had a lover respond to a marriage proposal Hiawatha-style: "I will answer, I will tell you; I will have you, I will wed you" (Moyne, "Parodies of Longfellow," p. 95). Everyone these days, sighed Nathaniel Hawthorne in a letter to his publisher Ticknor, seemed to be "seized with an irresistible impulse to write verses in this new measure" (Moyne, "Parodies of Longfellow," p. 96). Parodying Hiawatha became an almost athletic challenge, and even Longfellow kept track himself of the many knockoffs, satirical and otherwise, his poem was generating. When his friend Charles Sumner sent him a parody titled "Miseh-Ko-da-sah," Longfellow recommended that he should read the much better one by Shirley Brooks that had just come out in Punch. Among the many satirical spin-offs with titles like Milkanwatha, The Song of Drop o' Wather, and The Song of Higher-Water, one stands out that seems less good-natured than the rest: Plu-ri-bus-tah: A Song That's-By-No-Author (1856). This is a bitter satire produced by a writer with a particularly unforgiving disposition, "Q. K. Philander Doesticks," a pseudonym for the New York Tribune journalist Mortimer Neal Thomson (1831–1875). In his defiant "Author's Apology," Doesticks declares that his main intent was to "break things" and, more specifically, to "slaughter the American Eagle, cut the throat of the Goddess of Liberty, annihilate the Yankee nation" (p. x). And that is exactly what his poem did: Plu-ri-bus-tah begins with the mighty Jupiter emitting thick clouds of smoke through his meerschaum pipe, an ironical allusion to the peace pipe smoked at the beginning of Hiawatha. The Indians are too busy to notice because they are attending a "Red republican mass-meeting," sponsored by Hiawatha, who has given out free tickets "over all the lakes and rivers" (p. 31). Meanwhile, their ruler, the goddess Miss America, is complaining to Jupiter that the pretty playthings he had given her, the cute Indians who had so entertainingly "shot, and killed, and scalped each other, / Roasted, broiled and stewed each other" (p. 34) have all been captured by "the poet Henry Wadsworth":

He took all my Indian subjects,
All my pretty, playful warriors,
With their toys, the knife and war-club,
With their pretty games of scalping
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Took them all to make a book of.

(P. 36)

The silhouette drawing for the book by John McLenan (credited as "John M'Lenan") shows a tall, thin, spindly-legged figure with a long nose—a "long fellow" indeed—carrying away several miniature Indians with nose-rings while clutching a copy of Hiawatha under his left arm. In the background a screaming Miss America is raising her arms.


As his "Indian" trochees invaded the consciousness of the American reading public, Longfellow could be certain that at least one of his messages had been understood. Hiawatha, the "song that's by no author," had acquired multiple authors; it had become truly everybody's poem. To some extent, this is still true today. One of the more recent spoofs is The Song of Hakawatha, written by the pseudonymous F. X. Reid. Hakawatha, a computer hacker's irreverent take on Longfellow's melancholy Indian story, is said to have originated at the University of Glasgow in the early 1980s, but the lines, which closely imitate Longfellow's numbing rhythms, still speak to every computer user's experience today:

First, he sat and faced at the console
Faced the glowing, humming console
Typed his login at the keyboard
Typed his password (fourteen letters)
Waited till the system answered
Waited long and cursed its slowness
(Oh that irritating slowness—
Like a mollusc with lumbago) . . .

Less charitably inclined readers might contend that the number of Hiawatha parodies proves how hopelessly obsolete Longfellow's work became in the United States in a matter of a just few decades. But one could also take the opposite position and argue that parodies like the one above attest to how much Longfellow still is part of American popular culture.

See alsoFireside Poets; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Indians; Lyric Poetry; Popular Poetry


Primary Works

Doesticks, Q. K. Philander [Mortimer Neal Thomson]. Pluri-bus-tah: A Song That's-By-No-Author: A Deed without a Name. New York: Livermore and Rudd, 1856.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Letters of Ralph WaldoEmerson. Edited by Joel Myerson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Margaret. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Edited by Jeffrey Steele. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Journal, 1 November 1850–31 December 1851. Longfellow Papers, MS Am 1340 (203). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Journal, 1 September 1853–31 December 1855. Longfellow Papers, MS Am 1340 (206). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Letters of HenryWadsworth Longfellow. 6 vols. Edited by Andrew Hilen. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966–1982.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Notes for Hiawatha: Indian Words and Names." c. 1854. Longfellow Papers, MS Am 1340 (92). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Song of Hiawatha. 1855. Edited by Daniel Aaron. London: J. M. Dent, 1992.

Lönnrot, Elias. The Kalevala; or, Poems of the KalevalaDistrict. Translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Pound, Ezra. Poems and Translations. New York: Library of America, 2003.

Reid, F. X. The Song of Hakawatha.∼sinclair/hakawatha.html.

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Algic Researches, ComprisingInquiries Respecting the Mental Characteristics of the North American Indians; First Series: Indian Tales and Legends. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1839.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Edited by Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002.

Secondary Works

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.

Buell, Lawrence. "Introduction." In Selected Poems, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon, 2004.

Fiske, Christabel F. "Mercerized Folklore." Poet Lore 31 (1920): 538–575.

Irmscher, Christoph. Longfellow Redux. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Jackson, Virginia. "Longfellow's Tradition; or, Picture-Writing a Nation." Modern Language Quarterly 59, no. 4 (December 1998): 471–496.

Legler, Henry E. "Longfellow's Hiawatha: Bibliographical Notes Concerning Its Origins, Its Translations, and Its Contemporary Parodies." The Literary Collector 9 (November–December 1904): 1–19.

Longfellow, Samuel. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from his Journals and Correspondence. 3 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Moyne, Ernest J. "Parodies of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha." Delaware Notes 30 (1957): 93–108.

Moyne, Ernest J. Hiawatha and Kalevala: A Study of theRelationship between Longfellow's "Indian Edda" and the Finnish Epic. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1963.

Christoph Irmscher

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The Song of Hiawatha

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