Fiction. Poetry. Folklore. HTML: Longfellow wrote his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha in 1855. He based it on the Ojibway legends, which had been compiled by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his Ojibway wife Jane Schoolcraft. It tells the legend of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, his lover..
A note on the edition I read (which claims to be the only unabridged version in print): it was published by David R. Godine, and contains the illustrations by Frederic Remington that accompanied the original edition. They are not coordinated to the text at all, and mostly consist of marginal drawings of tools, utensils, and other articles of Indian origin; animals, plants and features of the landscape of the Southwest. They are exquisite. This edition also includes a glossary, notes (in which the page references are all incorrect), and an informative afterword by the publisher. If you want to read this epic, I strongly suggest you get your hands on this edition.
The setting for The Song of Hiawatha is the Pictured Rocks along the southern shore of Lake Superior.
I've spent time along the great lakes and am
Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within American borders.
I marvel at the Great Lakes picturesque beauty and recognize their vastness and danger. Perhaps that is why I appreciate reading maritime history and the legends along the lakes.
English writer George Eliot called The Song of Hiawatha, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the "two most indigenous and masterly productions in American literature".
If you look back at 1855 it was known as a year of conflict between Indians and American Soldiers and Longfellow's text depicts a brave Indian with noble traditions.
History tells us the storms of 1855 were unusually fierce during September and November and it proved to be a disastrous season for Navigation in the Lake Superior region.
The Ojibwe Indians knew the area as the land of thunder and the gods. The name for Lake Superior - also called "Kitchi gami" (or "Kitchi-gummi) is said to mean the shining blue sea water but has also been translated as great water.
So, while I read Longfellow's, ‘By the shores of Gitche Gume’, Gordon Lightfoot’s song 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' popped into mind. Gordon Lightfoot’s helped define the folk-pop sound with material that is lyrical and moving. The 729′ SS Edmund Fitzgerald remains the largest ship to have sunk on North America's Great Lakes. She sank in eastern Lake Superior, about 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, Michigan, November 10, 1975. The entire crew of 29, many from my home state, were lost.
Back in 1855, Longfellow closed The Song of Hiawatha with Hiawatha launching his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset where he departs forever.
No wonder Longfellow received commendation in Westminster Abbey despite not being British. His poetry is patterned with a meter that is obvious to any reader. It does not rhyme but in a chant, lulls the reader into a trance as she/he wonders what is coming next in Hiawatha's adventures.
Themes span the gamut of one's lifespan; birth, adventure, marriage, family, civic service, and death are all covered. In an age where Native Americans could be viewed as racially tinted, Longfellow's approach humanizes the bloodline. One sees Native Americans as a nexus of relationships that, too, long for peace and prosperity.
Unfortunately, history did not always listen to Longfellow. Native American culture is still not much appreciated today and is constrained to reservations. Reading this poem almost 150 years since its first publication, one cannot help but ponder whether Longfellow's idyllic vision meets the reality of modernity. At the very least, however, it gives us something to aspire to.