Hiawatha and the Noble Savage Attendance register Revision Revise last week’s lecture on Native Americans; what can we remember about them? - Largely wiped-out by European aggression within just a few hundred years of European arrival; 100% of the population in 1492, in 2010 0.9%. - not all of one coherent race; a group of tribes living often very separate very different lives. Some were hunters, others were agriculturalists - family units very different from European model; a horizontal society where European’s favoured a vertical society – a factor that is affected by nomadic, unsettled tendencies and the facts of communities being small and self-sufficient. A shared, commune-like family environment is more suited to such lifestyles than a family-centred, hierarchical lifestyle. - lack of written language; no horses, no carts, no roads, no trade: no need for written language - nonetheless, they did develop something like a literature; a body of aurally transmitted tales that exist somewhere between the genres of religious writing, mythology and folklore NB; because these stories were never written down by the Native Americans they were always in a state of change; never settling down into one accepted version. This also meant that any versions that we read of Native American stories will be mediated by westerners and/or western intrusion into North America. - The first we read were not made until the early nineteenth-century; 400 years after European arrival, two hundred since the Europeans had begun their North American project. They were often made by Christian missionaries; those people who naturally spend most time with the indigenous population in the early days, and who had obvious agendas when transcribing Indian stories. What would this result in? - Stories infected with biblical English; the tone and syntax of the King James Bible. - Some elements left out; things of a sexual or scatological nature that might seem uncouth to the nineteenth-century religious mind. - Some parts would be changed in an attempt to make religious sentiment accord more closely with English, Christian religious sentiments. We should also remember that these aurally transmitted would be performed; sung and danced – many elements of their telling would be lost in transcription. Introduction
2 This term we will spend some time doing something slightly different from the typical chronological study of the period – in some sessions, like today’s, we will look at art from a later period that reflects on the period we’re studying. We will read such productions with an eye both on what they tell us about our period, the primary subject matter of this course, and for what they tell us about later conceptions of our subject matter. We will read such texts, then, as both history and historiography. Today we will read a section of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855) with a view to understanding nineteenth-century conceptions of the Native American – particularly in reference to the idea of the ‘Noble Savage’, a controversial idea of the period that has been both derided and greatly influential up to the current period. The Noble Savage The idea of ‘The Noble Savage’ is central to nineteenth-century depictions of Native Americans. The phrase was first coined by the English 18th-century poet John Dryden and is essentially oxymoronic. What does noble mean? - Morally good, strong, brave &c. Also, however, refers to aristocratic lineage – means that a person is of the ruling class, with all the luxuries and refinements of such a position. What does savage mean? - In a state of nature; uncivilised – removed from all of those beneficent luxuries that membership of a noble caste can gain one. The ‘Noble Savage’ is, then, the, to the 18th-century mind, the surprising figure of an uneducated, primitive human who is nonetheless imbued with the sentiments and morality of an ideal aristocratic European. Alexander Pope encapsulates the 18th-century position of the noble savage in his poem Essay on Man, where he describes the Native American: Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind; His soul proud Science never taught to stray Far as the solar walk or milky way; Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n, Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n; Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd, Some happier island in the wat'ry waste, Where slaves once more their native land behold, No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold! To be, contents his natural desire; He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire: But thinks, admitted to that equal sky, His faithful dog shall bear him company.
What does Pope suggest about the Noble Savage here? - a simpler life than Europeans
3 - a simpler, more direct religious life than Europeans; they are believers in what one might call ‘natural religion’; a primitive and authentic kind of religious sentiment, untainted by sectarianism or politics. An attractive proposition to Enlightenment thinkers – who wanted to question the inherited traditions of the church. This was not how the Puritans considered Native Americans. In every way he is contrasted with Europeans; - his ontology is different: ‘To be, contents his natural desire’ – he is a kind of primitive existentialist - Europeans are greedy and thirst for gold, he is content with existence itself. Perhaps most importantly; how is the Native American’s relationship to knowledge characterised? - Without Science. Without the Enlightenment model of the apprehension of knowledge through professionalised science and its tools of dissemination. His sensibility pre-dates such concepts. While Pope is very complimentary and positive about his imagined Native American here, he nonetheless withholds the world of scientific discovery from him, and perhaps rationality more generally, from them. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow I would like to move now to Longfellow, the poet whose work we will be studying today, a man who characterised an important later American way of thinking about Native Americans. •
1807-1882 – born then well into the development of the USA, with Thomas Jefferson about to finish his second term as President (he would stand down in 1809); while Franklin D. Roosevelt would be born in the year of his death. He would live to see, then, the Civil War and much of the breakneck expansion of the American nineteenth-century, as well as the Gilded Age and the rise of American political corruption. In 1810 the US population stood at around 7.2 million, by 1880 it was 50,189,209, an increase of 30.2 per cent over the 39,818,449 persons enumerated during the 1870 Census. Witnessed an industrialising America changing with great rapidity from the 18th-century Enlightenment world of the revolution to the industrialised superpower that would dominate world politics in the twentiethcentury. A member of the group of poets that would come to be known as the Fireside poets; America’s first indigenous poetic movement and the first poetic movement in America to begin to rival the popularity of English poets.
The Song of Hiawatha Hiawatha is based on traditional Native American tales, and is in that sense ground breaking; It is based on the folktales of the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, Indians and marks one of the first times than an important American writer took stories from internal,
4 indigenous American sources with the view to incorporating such culture into the American poetic canon. In fact Longfellow’s use of such stories in Hiawatha predates the reading of most Native American folk stories, such as those we’ve looked at already (remember that the Winnebago Trickster Cycle that we read was transliterated in the 1980s). A relatively war-like, nomadic people, like the Iroquois, yet that aspect of their life will not be so important to Longfellow (remember that everything we read will be through the lenses of European eyes). - The song tells the story of Hiawatha’s love for Minnehaha in 22 chapters [show slide showing the lovers on their “honeymoon”, painted by Jerome B. Thompson]. It is quite heavily adapted from its original sources, with much of the original changed to suit American Romantic tastes. - It is, then, a quintessential piece of American Romantic literature, and is only fitfully authentic in its depiction of native American life – and, as we shall see, tells us more about nineteenth-century imagined versions of Native American life than it tells us about the reality of Pre-Columbian America. What was Romanticism? - The solitary I; individual foregrounded rather than society. - Nature before industry. - Emotions over intellect. The idea of the Noble Savage, despite being an Enlightenment idea, dating from the previous century was, then, perfectly suited to use in Romantic literature. It was immediately popular, selling 50,000 copies by 1857 - a fact that suggests that there was something in this tale that was of great interest to contemporary Americans. Though the Native American was yet to be written into American poetry We will now turn to the beginning of the extract I have provided you. Read ll. 1-13. Identify form: - trochaic tetrameter / generally unrhymed, though there is a great musicality in all of it – note the charged ‘ing’ sounds; ‘Wabun’ goes with ‘returned’, then there are other repeated things like ‘the great’ ‘the great’ and the end words from the first few lines are almost all repeated in the next few. This poetry marks the first attempt to use an unusual form to capture a distinctively American voice. What sounds do you think that Longfellow is trying to replicate here? - The trochees are supposed to evoke the sounds of the Native American war dance &c., or the way he imagined it, anyway. The on-beat drumming and chanting that we popularly imagine accompanied the Native American powwow; a music that, in contrast to most western musics, has its stress very much on the first beat of the bar. We can hear this patter in the name of the poem’s hero, Hiawatha. [play video] What is happening in this opening extract? - Iagoo is returning from long travels. Something of an Odysseus; recalling Homer and, perhaps surprisingly, classical epic. We can see, then, connections with
5 western forms of narrative poetry, existing alongside Longfellow’s attempt to mime a Native American form. Among other things, Hiawatha is an attempt to write an American EPIC. What is epic? - Long poem of war and heroism; usually featuring a central, warrior hero and encapsulating in some sense the values of a civilisation. When Longfellow attempts to write his American epic using Native American characters and tales he is, then, attempting to map what he sees as Native American values onto contemporary America. In the poem we see criticism of contemporary, industrial, Europeanised America, but there is also a semi-submerged optimism about an American future that would be able to synthesise the qualities he ascribes to the Red Man with the intellectual and scientific capabilities of the White Man. Ll. 14-29 Note that the verse becomes looser, less intensely musical when the dialogue starts. Note also the ghost of rhyming couplets that we see with the repeated end-words ‘water/water’ and ‘so/so’. There is a lot of repetition in this poem – does this remind you of anything else that we have read? - The repetitive structures of the Winnebago Trickster Cycle. Call and response, repetitive, formulaic stories are ideal for oral and aural dissemination What are the Indians describing here? - a visit to the ocean. Note the manner in which things are metamorphosed into a kind of figurative language – what is the function of this changing of language? - Gitche Gumee – Lake Superior [Show slide of Great Lakes] - To point out to us that the Native Americans don’t see things the same way as European American writers and readers do. A division between author and subject that is in some senses admirable, but that perhaps comes close to condesencion. - Canoe description. What is this canoe? Look at further descriptions until they work it out. The Europeans arriving; ship is translated into canoe, sails into wings, canon into thunder and lightning. Why do they use this different vocabulary? - Longfellow is demonstrating the natural state of the Indians; they use images from nature to describe modern images – European ships are outside of their knowledge so they use the vocabulary of things that they know. Ll. 47-57 What is happening here? - Hiawatha, the hero begins to talk; he agrees with Iagoo. On what grounds? - He has seen the same image, but in a vision – in a dream or through a semireligious visitation.
Note the reversal of typical European, rationalistic, logical Empiricism. here. The auditors do not believe Iagoo, who was seen the ships with his eyes (through his senses) – it is only when Hiawatha confirms that he has also seen them as part of a supernatural vision that they begin to believe Iagoo’s evidence. The American Noble Savages have a system of knowledge not based upon scientific explanation and the development of logic, but on intuition, supernatural instruction and the constant presence of nature in everything. Ll. 58-67 Note the position of nature in this story. The European comes and dislodges nature; a process that Longfellow, living in the middle of the nineteenth-century would have been acutely aware of. We see this anxiety reflected in the pro-nature, anti-industrial message in Hiawatha. Ll. 87-95 A vision of the future for the Native Americans after European arrival. One characterised by warfare, lack of resources and confusion – in which the Europeans are ultimately culpable. The delicate balance of nature is over thrown.. - Note that information about the future comes to the Red Man through vision and intuition, not through the logical consideration of the White Man. In this last section Hiawatha tells of another vision; the eventual downfall of the native peoples, pushed west through the conscious expansionist / genocidal policies of the arriving Europeans. [Show slides of forced migration / Trail of Tears].
Conclusion We can read two stories in this extract of Hiawatha, then; the story of Native American suffering at the hands of arriving Europeans, but also the story of how those Europeans would come to understand their Native American forebears in retrospect. The idea of the Noble Savage, fundamentally connected with the harmonies of nature and correspondingly disconnected from science and rationality – also, therefore, in touch with emotion and not with intellect – has remained an influential stereotype in our understanding of Native Americans. [Show slide of crying Indian] Can you deconstruct this image in the light of what we have learnt of the Noble Savage?
7 - This image, which we looked at at the beginning of our study of the Native American reuses many of the most offensive stereotypes of the Noble Savage in remarkably uncritical form; the Red Man stands for nature, against science and rationality – a discourse that the white American observer, at whom the advert is directed, can feel connected to and which he feels he has the power to change. The Red Man, conversely, is mute, passive, unable to respond to the destruction of nature but for the tear of emotion – Romantic, passive emotionality over rationalist, intellectual action. The offensiveness of the image is further emphasised by the fact that the Red Man here, Iron Eyes Cody, is in fact an Italian. While perhaps endorsing the culpability of the Europeans in this picture, we should be wary of how the Native Americans are depicted – they are not the noble savages demeaningly implied here; they had their own wars before Europeans arrived, with some races predating and oppressing others, while to imagine them as relying only on superstition and intuition is to underrate the extensive folk-literature that Longfellow makes so much use of in his own poem. The Noble Savage is a figment of the American-European imagination, and is in that respect as much a factor of the European oppression of the Native Americans as more outright attacks on the indigenous peoples of North America. I’m not sure, then, where the ‘authentic’ place to find out the truth about Native Americans might be, but it is not in Hiawatha, nor in Keep America Beautiful’s Crying Indian advertising campaign.