July 19, 2008

NYT:  Poem on "justly exterminated race"

From the Wikipedia entry on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha:When the New York Times finally published a review of The Song of Hiawatha, it was scathing. The reviewer's judgment, however, seems based as much on the subject matter as on the poem. He allows that the poem "is entitled to commendation" for "embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race." However, "As a poem, it deserves no place" because there "is no romance about the Indian." He complains that Hiawatha's deeds of magical strength pall by comparison to the feats of Hercules and even to those of "Finn Mac Cool, that big stupid Celtic monarch."

The reviewer writes that "Grotesque, absurd, and savage as the groundwork is, Mr. LONGFELLOW has woven over it a profuse wreath of his own poetic elegancies." But, he concludes, Hiawatha "will never add to Mr. LONGFELLOW's reputation as a poet."
Comment:  As Maxwell Smart might have said, "Missed it by that much."

As always, it's "good" to see America's historic racism documented in black and white. In this case, in the newspaper known for having "all the news that's fit to print." Evidently the NY Times considered it fit to disparage the "monstrous traditions" of the "justly exterminated" Indians.

You gotta love the reviewer's blatant Eurocentrism too. He was upset because Hiawatha outshone Hercules and Finn Mac Cool? What did he think this was, a competition between cultural icons? "My hero's better than your hero?"

Thirty-five years later, L. Frank Baum wrote an editorial in which he also seemed glad of the Indians' "extermination." People have excused Baum's genocidal thoughts because he supposedly feared the nearby Sioux would rise up and start a race war. Maybe, but what's this reviewer's excuse? No doubt he was safe in his Manhattan garret, hundreds of miles from any Indian threat, yet he used the same phraseology as Baum.

I conclude that Baum and the reviewer didn't talk about extermination because they were afraid for their lives. They talked about it because they were typical racists of their day.

Below:  Hiawatha carries Minnehaha.

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