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Critics totally panned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha when it first came out in 1855. For starters, many Americans weren't happy to see Native Americans portrayed in such a sympathetic way. After all, 1855 was a year when the U.S. was aggressively expanding to the west and clearing away any Native Americans who stood in its way. On top of that, critics hated the way that Longfellow tried to write this poem using a meter that was supposed to mimic that of Native American chants and songs.
In short, the critics felt like Longfellow was giving way too much credit to a people and a way of life that most Americans found barbaric and evil.
Fast-forward to the present day and you'll find critics hating on The Song of Hiawatha for reasons totally opposite to the critics of Longfellow's time. Today's critics are more likely to point out how Longfellow is racist in the way he portrays Native Americans as "noble savages" and constantly hints that their beliefs are just perverted forms of Christianity. While his earliest critics felt like he wasn't racist enough, today's critics find him too racist. They even credit him with spawning all of the classic romanticized images of Native Americans you still see in modern popular culture, like in Disney's 1995 movie Pocahontas.
While criticism has raged on both sides, at its core The Song of Hiawatha is Longfellow's attempt to write down some of the most interesting legends he learned from the various North American tribes he had read or heard about. He mashes all of these legends into a single poem and uses a made-up guy named Hiawatha to be his hero. It's clear that the guy has a lot of admiration for these stories, but it's also clear that he lacks any deep understanding of Native Americans and their ways of life. After all, it's not like the guy asked Native Americans to write their own stories. Longfellow was more than happy to speak on their behalf and, well, that's where you run into pretty some tough moral questions.
It's a sad fact that many people still think of Native Americans as warriors who hide in the forests and shoot arrows at cowboys. In reality, Native Americans are a modern-day people who still live in all parts of the United States, in all kinds of different conditions. Unfortunately, many Americans are more comfortable thinking of Native Americans as a people who only lived in the past. Even in 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow thought of Native Americans as a people who were going to vanish as America kept expanding westward.
But when you think about Native Americans as a vanished people, all you're really doing is forgetting your present-day responsibilities. Native Americans are still around, but many people tend to use this romantic image of the "noble Indian" in order to sweep these people into the past.
One huge issue that often comes up with Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" is the question of "cultural appropriation." In other words, does an old bearded white dude have the right to make a poem out of traditional Native American legends? Some people will say that a poet can write about whatever he wants to, while others will say that Longfellow is immoral for using the legends of an abused culture for his own financial gain. This question continues even to this day, where you have people arguing over whether the Washington Redskins should change their name or whether the Cleveland Indians should change their name, logo, and mascot.
What the whole question of cultural appropriation comes down to is this: do people (mostly white people) have the right to do whatever they want with the traditional symbols of a culture that their ancestors nearly exterminated, or do white people have a social responsibility to honor this culture by leaving its symbols alone? Again, you're going to get some people who insist that freedom of speech allows them to do whatever they want. Then you'll get people who insist that the concept of respect should still have meaning. And the argument will go around and around.
What's important for us to remember here is that this kind of argument goes all the way back to 1855 with a poem like "The Song of Hiawatha," which reminds us that it's totally possible to be racist—even when you think you're celebrating a certain group of people.
Longfellow at the Maine Historical Society
Since Longfellow was a proud native of Maine, it makes sense that the state's historical society would have a page dedicated to the guy.
Longfellow at Poets.org
They're not exactly the Maine Historical Society, but the folks at Poets.org decided to honor Longfellow with his own page too.
Longfellow at Biography.com
The portrait alone is worth a visit to Longfellow on this page.
The Song of Hiawatha
It's short and there isn't a ton of dialogue, but this video will help give you a sense of the landscape and characters Longfellow is talking about in The Song of Hiawatha.
Disney's "Little Hiawatha"
Here's a cartoon from 1937 that pretty much shows what white Americans thought about Native Americans at the time. You can even think of '37 as a midway point between the publication of "Hiawatha" (1855) and today.
Fight with the Swamp Demon
It's not exactly loyal to the poem. But then again, the poem isn't loyal to the original legends, either.
Song of Hiawatha Full Audiobook
Yup, you've got the whole thing right here.
Reading of the Intro to Song of Hiawatha
Here's a shorter audio clip just to give you a taste.
Evangeline by Longfellow
Check out this audio poem to get a sense of some of the other stuff Longfellow wrote.
Longfellow the Young(ish)
It's tough to tell just how old Henry is in this photo, but we can sure say it's younger than he looks in some of his other portraits.
Longfellow the Middle-Aged
A few more years and a few more tears have gotten to this face…
On a Stamp
Yup, the American Government liked Longfellow so much they slapped him on a stamp.
Native Languages in Hiawatha
This article can give you a solid idea of what Native American words Longfellow uses in The Song of Hiawatha and how accurate he is in using them.
Minnehaha Falls and Longfellow's Hiawatha
This article takes a look at some of the specific geographical landmarks that helped inspire Longfellow's poem.
Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life
For a great recent bio of Longfellow, be sure to check out this book.
The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume 5
You know, in case the first four volumes weren't enough.
It's true that Longfellow has gone down a lot in popularity since his time. But the author of this book thinks it's high time to give his career a second thought.
The Song of Hiawatha (1997)
This is the most recent revisitation of Hiawatha that you're likely to find and it's worth checking out.
The Legend of Hiawatha (TV Movie 1988)
Here's an animated version of the Hiawatha legend.