I’ve been reading the epic poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poems I read as a child and in junior high and high school English classes. These are poems like Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Tales of the Wayside Inn, which includes what is still one of the best-known poems in America, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
The epic Longfellow poem I hadn’t read was The Song of Hiawatha. And I was drawn to it not because I hadn’t read it, but because of an insulting comment aimed in its and Longfellow’s direction. I read an interview with two poets who have both written nonfiction works about the value of poetry. One of them mentioned The Song of Hiawatha as having something that appealed to her, even though it was “to say the least, racially insensitive.”
My first reaction was a question. Why do we feel compelled to politicize everything? My second reaction was to seek out the poem and read it for myself. Having already read three of Longfellow’s epic poems; and discovering that in one of them, Evangeline, that he had done something no one in America had previously done (find the heroic in Catholics); and knowing that the poet had also written poems against slavery which cost him sales of his books in the South, I wondered whether the poem was as “racially insensitive” as the writer seemed to think.
Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855. The reviewer for The New York Times hated it, “because there is no romance about the Indians,” and referred to Indians as “a justly exterminated race.” Another reviewer believed Longfellow had plagiarized Nordic legends and transported them to Indians in America. The critics generally hated it, but it was a popular success—people loved it.
But think about those remarks: “because there is no romance about the Indians” and “a justly exterminated race.” It was not Longfellow who was being racially insensitive. He had done something similar to what he had done with Evangeline—he amplified the heroic in native Americans, at a time when they were considered distinctly non-heroic and not entirely human.
On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.
From his footprints flowed a river,
Leaped into the light of morning,
O’er the precipice plunging downward
Gleamed the Ishkoodah, the comet.
And the Spirit, stooping earthward,
With his finger on the meadow
Traced a winding pathway for it,
Saying to it, “Run in this way!”
The Song of Hiawatha is about the origins of Hiawatha and his doomed love for the Dakota maiden Minnehaha. But it is also much more. It is an accounting of the origins of all the native American tribes, based on legends and tales but now brought coherently together in one place and in one narrative. It is a mythology of native American gods. It is a story of origins of geography and people.
And while it is filled with evil actions and bad characters, it is also filled with nobility of purpose and people acting heroically. In many ways, the poem is the classic struggle between good and evil, and how good and evil thread themselves through the lives of both villains and heroes.
Some of the stories that inspired The Song of Hiawatha came from a tribal chief who visited Longfellow many times in his home. Others came from the poet’s research and meeting other native Americans in Boston.
It’s an enthralling story with strong elements of the mythic, and it is a story about American Indians. No one had written about them in this way before.
To call the poem “racially insensitive” tells us far less about the poem, Longfellow, and the time he lived in, and far more about our own time. The Song of Hiawatha is a beautiful story about a heroic leader who loses what he holds most dear.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish