On an island in Minnehaha creek, just before it goes over the falls, there is a statue of a man holding a woman. Both are Native Americans; the man holds the woman back as if keeping her safe from the water. The woman is lithe and beautiful. This is Hiawatha and his wife Minnehaha. He is a legendary hero of the Iraquois; she is simply a brook, "laughing water" in the Dakota tongue. But the statue is there because they are both characters in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, a long poem which is, almost by default, America's national epic.
These days, epic poems are seldom mentioned--the cocktail party chatter has moved on to "the great American novel"--but all illustrious nations seem to have them. Greece has The Iliad, France The Song of Roland, India The Ramayana. Virgil felt it was so important that Rome possess a national epic that he wrote The Aeneid. The United States was founded at a time when epics were dying out--the western world was leaving behind the tradition of oral poetry with its anonymous bards in favor of the written word of the poets. But Longfellow, classic scholar that he was, hit upon the idea of taking various American Indian legends and, in one grand Homeric gesture, forging them into an epic tale. No doubt he saw in the "lodge stories" of the Iraquois and Algonquins the same sort of rawness and elemental power that can be found in Beowulf and the Red Branch Cycle. Here (Longfellow must have thought) was an entirely new and rich oral tradition, with its own heroes and mythology; all that was needed was a talented jongleur to put it in order. Longfellow appointed himself to be that jongleur, and though he was not raised in the culture of the folklore, and did a bit more than arrange the stories and commit them to writing, in the end he did a pretty bang-up job. At least, everyone thought so at the time.
The Song of Hiawatha was published in 1855, but Longfellow had been collecting notes on Indian traditions for many years previously. His interest was not singular--Native American life and customs had been all the rage in the 1840s. For over one hundred and fifty years the English colonists had lived precipitously along the eastern seaboard. As they expanded west in the 18th century they had run up against warrior chiefs such as King Philip, Pontiac and Tecumseh, and their opinion of the Indian was therefore narrow and tinged with fear; "murderous savages" would pretty much sum it up. Now, however, from the comfort of their own safety, many European Americans thirsted for a deeper understanding of their frontier neighbors. The demand from newspapers and publishing houses kept a small band of adventurers busy sketching, memorializing, and collecting all aspects of native life. Among the most reliable and respected of these pioneer ethnologists was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and Longfellow based Hiawatha almost entirely on his accounts of Algonquin folktales.
Born into a New York glassmaking family, Schoolcraft made his first tour of the frontier at the age of twenty four, following the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. The published account of his travels was of interest to John C. Calhoun, the current secretary of war, and he drafted Schoolcraft as a geologist on an expedition around Lake Superior led by Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan territory. Cass later appointed him Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie. Schoolcraft was in his element at the Sault, involving himself closely in Indian affairs and taking frequent trips along the Superior shore. In 1824 he married Jane Johnston, the granddaughter of the Ojibwe chief Wabojeeg. Thus he was in an excellent position to capture the oral histories and literature of the Native Americans living on the upper Great Lakes. A volume of Algonquin legends he had recorded, Algic Researches, was published by Harpers' in 1839. The central legend in the book is the tale of Manabozho, the great Algonquin trickster-hero, on which Longfellow was to base the rough outline of Hiawatha.
Manabozho was a manito, an Algonquin spirit who could take any form he liked, but he most often took the form of a man and lived with humans. He was the son of the west wind, and rode in a magical canoe that would move on his command. He took the form of a wolf for a time, and fought a long war with serpent manitos after they killed his wolf grandson. When the serpents flooded the entire Earth to destroy him, he survived by clinging to the tallest tree on the highest mountain and then formed a new world with a clump of earth brought up by his friend the muskrat. Later, he married an arrow maker's daughter.
Longfellow's Hiawatha toned down many of these exploits; others he elaborated upon. For example, Schoolcraft briefly described how as a child Manabozho acquainted himself with the natural world around him:
The first sound he heard was that of the owl, at which he was greatly terrified, and, quickly descending the tree he had climbed, he ran with alarm to the lodge. "Noko! Noko!" he cried, "I have heard a monedo." She laughed at his fears, and asked him what kind of noise it made. He answered, "It makes a noise like this: Ko-ko-ko-ho." She told him that he was young and foolish; that what he had heard was only a bird, deriving its name from the noise it made.
Longfellow turns this into an entire chapter in The Song of Hiawatha, "Hiawatha's Childhood", which is still recited in grade schools to this day. He is frightened by the owl here too:
When he heard the owls at midnight Hooting, laughing in the forest, "What is that?" he cried in terror: "What is that?" he said, "Nokomis?" And the good Nokomis answered: "That is but the owl and owlet, Talking in their native language, Talking, scolding at each other."
Into the fabric of the Manabozho story Longfellow wove other legends from Algic Researches: Iagoo, the story-teller, Kwasind, the fearfully strong man, the shape changing troublemaker Paup-Puk-Keewiss and Pauguk, the personification of death. One of the most popular and widespread legends was that of the origin of maize. In the original story a youth undertaking his ceremonial period of fasting, or Ke-ig-uish-im-o-win, receives a visitor from the sky: a man dressed all in green and yellow. The is Mon-Daw-Min, the personification of corn. He tells the youth he must wrestle with him each night until his fast is over, and that if the visitor dies he must bury him with earth, and he will come to life again. Each night, the youth wrestles and triumphs over Mon-Daw-Min, in spite of his weakness from fasting, and after the last match Mon-Daw-Min falls down dead. The youth buries him as instructed and returns to the village. After some time passes he returns to find maize growing on Mon-Daw-Min's grave--his gift to mankind, who now no longer need to rely on hunting and gathering alone. In "Hiawatha's Fasting" it is Hiawatha himself who wrestles with Mon-Daw-Min:
"I, the friend of man, Mondamin, Come to warn you and instruct you, How by struggle and by labour You shall gain what you have prayed for. Rise up from your bed of branches, Rise, O youth, and wrestle with me!"
So why, if Longfellow based his epic on Manabozho and other Algonquin legends, is it not called The Song of Manabozho? A clue can be found from an entry in Longfellow's writing journal: "June 28th. Work at `Manabozho;' or, as I think I shall call it, `Hiawatha'--that being another name for the same personage." He apparently felt "Hiawatha" to be a more poetic name. They are not at all the same personage, however. Hiawatha is a legendary Iraquois hero, an actual chief of the Mohawks around 1570, who united the different tribes into the Iraquois nation. Over time his legend grew and he began to take the form of a deity, becoming mistaken with Teharonhiawakhon, an Iraquois god who was a friend to man and a master of animals. But Longfellow apparently thought the resemblance enough to warrant the names interchangeable, and so it is Hiawatha Avenue we take through South Minneapolis, and not Manabozho Parkway.
In addition to Schoolcraft's writings, Longfellow used a wide array of materials to flesh out Hiawatha. For example, he borrowed George Catlin's description of the Red Pipe-stone Quarry to begin the poem:
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.
Another addition is Minnehaha. After seeing a sketch of Minnehaha falls, Longfellow was inspired to personify the "Laughing Water" as the beautiful Dakota maiden Hiawatha courted and married (the arrow maker's daughter of the Manabozho story). "Hiawatha's Wooing" is probably the least authentic of the chapters in Hiawatha; the entire courtship seems drawn more from medieval England than the Algonquins. Longfellow's earlier narrative poems, Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish, both had romantic subject matter, and he must have felt it was par for the course. It certainly didn't hurt sales with his chief audience, the educated classes of England and the American east coast.
Having all the subject matter a great epic could want, Longfellow needed only the right form and meter to write it in. After some discouraging attempts, he hit upon the idea of using the trochaic tetrameter beat of Finland's epic, the Kevala. A long poem written in English in the unstable trochaic meter was something that no one had really attempted before, and some critics ridiculed Longfellow's "tom tom" meter. But for the most part it was well received on its publication in 1855, and the public adored it. Five thousand copies sold in the first five weeks, and the poem sold forty five thousand copies by 1859. Hiawatha readings, symphonies, and chants were performed, and there were even Hiawatha pencils.
The epic soon became a staple of the American schoolroom. Perhaps more profoundly, it infused mainstream America with a better understanding and appreciation of Native Americans. This new enlightenment, however, was not enough to stop the broken treaties and land-grabbing of the US government, or frontier politicians like Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey, who viewed the Indian as little more than a violent savage disrupting the settlement of his new state.
One might expect Longfellow himself, after writing Hiawatha, to have been an activist for the plight of the American Indian; but the little activism he did was spent in abolitionist causes, and in fact agitation was not in his character. As Katharine Tynan writes, "He comforts his sorrow--and he knew bitter sorrow,--as a gentle woman might with the old gentle comforts. His mind was not a questioning, not a rebellious, not an intellectual one." Perhaps too he felt, along with Fenimore Cooper, that the differences between European America and the Indian nations was irreconcilable, and that the latter were doomed to fade. At the end of The Song of Hiawatha, Hiawatha has a vision of the coming of the white man. He sees a bright and prosperous land filled with people "Speaking many tongues, yet feeling / But one heart-beat in their bosoms", a reference to the immigrant pioneers. Then the vision darkens:
"I beheld our nation scattered, All forgetful of my counsels, Weakened, warring with each other; Saw the remnants of our people Sweeping westward, wild and woeful, Like the cloud-rack of a tempest, Like the withered leaves of Autumn!"
Shortly thereafter Hiawatha departs in his canoe, to the Islands of the Blessed, from which, in an Arthurian gesture, he promises to return in the distant future.
As for Longfellow, he too has faded. Perhaps the popularity and institutionalizing of The Song of Hiawatha and Longfellow's other works made them too familiar; readers could not see them clearly for the fine pieces they were. By 1900 Katherine Tynan was praising him not for his greatness but his ability to write poetry for the common layman: "Longfellow was capable of conveying the atmosphere of poetry to those for whom the greater poets are a sealed book and in this respect he stands practically alone." And by the time mid-century rolled around F.O. Matthiessen, in his introduction to the Oxford Book of American verse, had to admit that "With Longfellow my one aim was to smash the plaster bust of his dead reputation." At the current date Longfellow's poetry has been out of circulation for decades, and Hiawatha is, as Daniel Akron writes, "a sort of culture spirit floating vaguely and edifyingly in the background of the not-so-young Republic." Reading it for the first time, and without any real preconceptions of Longfellow or his epic, I was struck by it's freshness, it's delicate lyricism and dramatic conception. Longfellow may not be our most thought-provoking or original writer, but he is far and away the best narrative poet. None of his contemporaries--not Emerson, not Poe, not Whitman or Melville or Dickenson--had the talent to pull off an epic; and no American poet has been able to do so since. If Hiawatha reads like an incomplete cultural hybrid, a bit flat in some places and artificial in others, and overall shadowed by the tragedy which surrounds it, one could say the same thing about America itself.
© 2002 by Joel Van Valin. All rights reserved.