Book Title: The Song of Hiawatha
Author: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Mythology
Page Count: 136
Format: Hardcover (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 3/12/17
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In a word: Challenging.
My impressions: I’m trying to work some actual literature into my reading challenge, and this epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow seemed like a good idea. I might have read snatches of The Song of Hiawatha in literature class, but I’ve never read the whole thing. While I feel like I’m better off for the effort, I will say this was a very hard book to read because it required finding some quiet, and that’s a big ask in our noisy world.
The reason I needed quiet was because the poetry is written in a musical meter, and you really need to linger over every word to hear the rhythm of it. The story of The Song of Hiawatha is based on the mythologies of various Native tribes, though Longfellow certainly felt free to take license as needed (including naming the story after a character who barely existed in the myths because Longfellow liked the sound of the name Hiawatha). Longfellow was inspired by the Scandanavian Kalevala saga, and his intention was to create a similar saga focusing on the folklore of the Native American peoples.
The poetry is, in a word, magnificent. It sounds far better read aloud than it does read in your mind, and I probably should have just recited the entire epic on my own. A lot of the words and names are challenging until you pronounce them and understand their rhythm, and the earlier passages really aren’t as exciting as the later ones. Still, it’s an incredible poetic work, and had I taken more care to read it properly, I think I would have found myself deeply transported into its world, which I regard as entirely fictional, a white man’s earnest take on a culture he did not truly understand or interact with.
The illustrations in the edition I read weren’t so culturally sensitive, and I would love to see an edition that includes annotations from an Algonquin or Iroquois scholar along with Native depictions of these myths. Should I re-read this poem, that’s the version I’ll seek out.