Harrison Middleton University

The Trouble with Longfellow

The Trouble with Longfellow

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September 9, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Like many American children, I grew up with the rhymes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I still remember snippets of “Paul Revere’s Ride”: “[T]hrough the gloom and the light,/ The fate of a nation was riding that night;/ And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,/ Kindled the land into flame with its heat.” That poem thrilled me and carries nostalgia for childhood and nostalgia for this great American dream. Clearly, Longfellow knew a thing or two about inspiration and rhyme, about imagination and history.

As we grow up, however, we see old works through new eyes. We read diverse experiences through increasingly critical lenses. Recently, a colleague recommended the book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy. In it, Savoy also recalls reading Longfellow as a child and being captured by the rhyme. As an adult investigating part of her ancestry, however, she noticed some discrepancies with Longfellow’s account of Hiawatha and the Ojibway version. One section of Savoy’s book follows the trajectory of Longfellow’s incorrect retelling of this Native American tale. Her research reveals the problematic nature of literature and translation, of appropriation and discovery.

Lauret Savoy writes:

“Longfellow might have viewed The Song of Hiawatha as a poetic restating of tribal voices and traditions, but he borrowed, distorted, and invented. Many have since noticed that the relentless, pulsing, trochaic meter that so moved the child-me resembles that of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala. While the stories came mainly from [Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches, Longfellow was accused of borrowing a few incidents from Kalevala. He even changed names. Schoolcraft recalled ‘the myth of the Indians of a remarkable personage, who is called Manabozho by the Algonquins, and Hiawatha by the Iriquois, who was the instructor of the tribes in arts and knowledge, was first related to me in 1822, by Chippewas of Lake Superior.’ Longfellow preferred Hiawatha: ‘I chose it instead of Manabozho (Ojibway) for the sake of euphony.’

“Schoolcraft even suggested that the poem’s ‘theme of native lore reveals one of the true sources of our literary independence’ from Europe. He didn’t seem troubled that such American literary ‘independence’ came from an invented ‘Indian’ voice that dislocated and rendered complex traditions into simplistic forms.

The Song of Hiawatha eventually found its way into dozens of languages. To me what is most telling of its appeal is that childhood memories led to a remarkable number of translators to work on a poem that they, too, had accepted in youthful innocence as faithful to its tribal origins. …

“Ironies of tangled fictions become more glaring with the poem’s translation from English back into ‘Chippewa’ by a Canadian Pacific Railroad official for an outdoor opera casting Native players. The railroad published the libretto Hiawatha, or Nanabozho: An Ojibway Indian Play as a lakeside tourist attraction in 1901, even inviting Longfellow’s daughters to be received as honorary tribal members. ‘Especially it is a marked homage from American Indians [for] a white person to be so received,’ related one newspaper, ‘and yet we may take it that these surviving redmen expressed a deep and sincere national feeling in electing the poet’s daughters as daughters of their tribes. They have, furthermore, done wisely as well as kindly, for the song of ‘Hiawatha’ is a beautiful memorial and an eloquent plea for their race and their history.’” …

“Gerald Vizenor has described Manabozho, or Nanabozho, as the ‘shadow name’ of the sacred Anishinaabe woodland trickster, ‘an ironic creator and, in the same instance, the contradiction of creation.’ Narratives of the ‘teases’ of creation are in Vizenor’s words ‘suspensive, an ironic survivance’ for ‘trickster metaphors are contradiction not representation of culture.’ The works of Schoolcraft and Longfellow posed as extant remains of tribal narratives. Neither man could understand Earth itself as a trickster creation. Instead they wrote false obituaries. And as a child I honored their elegies rather than the continuing presence of vital, fluid cultures.”

I am fascinated by the path that Longfellow’s poem has taken, particularly being translated into a libretto with Ojibway actors. I agree with Savoy’s assessment, yet it troubles me as both a reader and as a writer. First of all, as a reader, I want better resources that allow me to read things in comparison. I want publishers willing to gamble on different cultures and bilingual texts. I want more V.F. Cordovas and Louise Erdriches. I think it is important and essential that we read works that challenge us, works outside of our own background and comfort zones, but how do we gain access to these texts? What best practices can we cultivate in ourselves as readers? For example, I admire Longfellow for his narrative skill and the ability to bring a reader into poems. His works inspired a common identity at a time when that was still in the making (maybe it is always in the making). Yet, did he shirk some responsibility in appropriating another culture’s story and altering it?

Savoy also raises the interesting question of what rights an author has to borrow or retell stories. It would be interesting to research authors who have changed details in order to suit “euphony” or some other poetic sensibility. I imagine that the list would be long. Are changing details in the name of harmony or rhyme accepted poetic devices? Should authors be allowed to disregard fact and bend truths? What are the rights and responsibilities of the author when retelling stories?

Furthermore, Savoy brings up questions of translation. I am currently translating a book of indigenous poetry, and so this question gets to the heart of my own project. At a recent conference, I asked about the decency of publishing my translation of an indigenous poet. Though this poet’s work does not exist in English, I thought, at first, that it would be excellent practice for my writing skills (translation is a great exercise for writers!). However, what began as an exercise to gain skill and thwart writers-block has turned into a pseudo-obsession. Due to significant cultural differences, however, I can never be sure that I understand the poet’s intention, sensibility, or meaning. More importantly, some of the notions simply don’t translate. Therefore, I wonder, is it acceptable to offer a partial first translation? This may be its only current path into English, but at what cost? I have yet to find a comfortable option.

I owe a great debt to Savoy for her intersectional work. In tracing the many histories, geographies, and cultures of this nation, she brought vital questions to the foreground.

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