When Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855, he experiened immediate success. As with most of his work, critical attention in the intervening years has not demonstrated the same sort of enthusiasm. Just as most of the interest in “Paul Revere’s Ride” has been in attacking the historicity of the poem, the bulk of the attention to Hiawatha has focused on demonstrating its lack of fidelity to Native American legends. While such scholarship has value, it suggests that Longfellow’s poem has no value on its own.
One can’t read Hiawatha without hearing echoes of virtually the entire Western canon in addition to the intentional usage of Ojibwe legends. In fact, Longfellow describes the works as “this [American] Indian Edda,” taking the references far into Europe. What did Longfellow intend to create in the pages of Hiawatha? Hiawatha seems at turns to be Achilles, Hercules, and even a Christ figure.
Before the United States got itself into full empire-building mode, the Romantic-infused crowd with which Longfellow ran were grabbing up cultural territory and bending it to their own purposes. One need look no further than the Unitarianism that flowed from Harvard Divinity School during the early years of the 19th century, perhaps best exemplified by William Ellery Channing. The vocabulary of this movement corresponded to the Christian vocabulary, but the meanings were significantly different.
This is, I would argue, what Longfellow does in various poems when he invokes Christian images and themes. At various points in Hiawatha, we hear Christian-sounding ideas only to see them resist a thoroughly Christian interpretation. Hiawatha experiences a miraculous, semi-divine birth, and part five’s account of his fasting suggests the temptation of Jesus before transforming into an evocation of Jacob wrestling with the angel.
“From the Master of Life descending,
I, the friend of man, Mondamin,
Come to warn you and instruct you,
How by struggle and by labor
You shall gain what you have prayed for.
Rise up from your bed of branches,
Rise, O youth, and wrestle with me!”
As in Genesis, the wrestling goes on a very long time. As in Genesis, the opponent is a mysterious creation, apparently human but apparently somehow non-human. In this case, Hiawatha prevails and, as so often happens in wrestling matches, kills his opponent. He buries him and allows him to sprout into the first maize.
In the final section of the poem, a white Catholic missionary appears and begins teaching about Jesus. Longfellow offers precious little detail on what that teaching involved. Instead, Hiawatha welcomes the missionary, who begins:
And the Black-Robe chief made answer,
Stammered in his speech a little,
Speaking words yet unfamiliar:
“Peace be with you, Hiawatha,
Peace be with you and your people,
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon,
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary!”
As much as I would like to serve as an historical apologist for Christianity, I am fairly certain that this was not how the first encounter between Christians and any Native American group went down. And after welcoming these people who, if they are teaching any Christianity worth crossing waters to teach, will be undermining nearly every important thing that the previous twenty-one sections of the poem have presented as true, Hiawatha get into his magical canoe and heads off into the mists.
Longfellow appropriates the stories and images of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in order to graft them into his own Romantic legend just as surely as he appropriates the Native American legends for inclusion in his work, bending them both to his own ends. But what is that end? Longfellow seems intent on crafting a vision of America where benign Christianity gently pushed back a magical and heroic age. Yet one has to wonder, as the drumbeat of Longfellow’s trochaic verses ends, if we are truly to believe this to be a satisfying end. On the other hand, it is perhaps as satisfying an end as Homer gave Odysseus or Achilles.