The Song of Hiawatha - Folkloric and Ethnographic Critiques - General Remarks

General Remarks

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 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 image of the noble savage. He had available to him not only 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."

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