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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Lewis Carroll: Hiawatha's Photographing


File:Death-Of-Minnehaha Dodge.jpg

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod --
Crouched beneath its dusky cover --
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence --
Said, "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.

All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions...

from Lewis Carroll: Hiawatha's Photographing, 1857

The Death of Minnehaha (from The Song of Hiawatha): William de Leftwich Dodge, 1892 (image by Infrogmation, 2007


TC said...

Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, a highly romanticized white-eyes version of Ojibwa legend, telling the story of Hiawatha and his beloved Minnehaha, was the forced gruel upon which a Midwestern 1940s elementary school poetic education was sustained. It was performed in summer pageants, crammed down one's throat in textbooks, recited in class ad nauseam. One famous passage:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Reprieve from The Song of Hiawatha, back then, seemed nowhere in sight. Who knew Lewis Carroll had already come to the rescue? He introduced his parody by noting "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject."

(Native Americans have now and then, and not without fair cause, objected to Longfellow's cartoonish depiction, but this never seems to have stopped Walt Disney & c. from capitalizing upon it.)

(The painting selected to accompany this brief excerpt from Carroll's howler of a parody was chosen as the putative kitsch equivalent of the original poem.)

Curtis Roberts said...

By the time I attended elementary school in the late 1950s, The Song of Hiawatha wasn't taught, but everyone knew it from cartoon and comedy references and parodies. Reading about its history, and Longfellow's life and career (which I never really paid attention to before), is fascinating. My wife, who often seems to know everything, was unaware of Carroll's Hiawatha's Photographing, so thanks for that from both of us, and for providing the information (through Carroll) of the connection between rosewood and camera construction, which has coincidental current relevance for me.

TC said...


Carroll evidently had fun with this, he was a camera buff himself and went on for some time tinkering with the poem, adding funny camera-buff details, all in wonderful perfect imitation of the trochaic tetrameter metre of Hiawatha (Longfellow was anything but inventive, he took his form from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and his story from a fellow named, if I remember correctly, Stonecroft).

The full text of his poem, with some of the added bits tacked on down at the bottom, and some funny cartoons of Shutterbug Hiawatha's parlour poseurs, can be found here.

TC said...

Well, so it was Schoolcraft not Stonecroft. Stone, school, craft, croft, wood... a block (wooden, dry-rotted) on this whole semiotic zone currently -- see comment here.

Curtis Roberts said...

Reading the length and breadth of Carroll's Longfellow parody was fun and reminds me that there was a time before television and videogames when enjoyment could be had in ways other than those that come most readily to mind now. Reading about Longfellow this morning, I was struck, however, by the sensitivity he expressed in responding to unkind criticism by Edgar Allen Poe concerning his work, writing (following Poe's death): "The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong". I try to be as measured and thoughtful in my responses to "negative feedback", but don't always (or often) succeed.