Monday Nov. 10, 2014

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The Song of Hiawatha (excerpt)

In the green and silent valley,
By the pleasant water-courses,
Dwelt the singer Nawadaha.
In the green and silent valley.
“There he sang of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how be fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!”
Ye who love the haunts of Nature,
Love the sunshine of the meadow,
Love the shadow of the forest,
Love the wind among the branches,
And the rain-shower and the snow-storm,
And the rushing of great rivers
Through their palisades of pine-trees,
And the thunder in the mountains,
Whose innumerable echoes
Flap like eagles in their eyries;—
Listen to these wild traditions,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

"The Song of Hiawatha (excerpt)" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain.  (buy now)

Today is the most widely accepted birthday of writer Oliver Goldsmith (books by this author), born somewhere in Ireland, probably on this date in 1730. His most famous works are The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and his play She Stoops to Conquer (1771).

Oliver Goldsmith said, "Every absurdity has a champion to defend it."

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther (books by this author), born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. Between the years of 1516 to 1546, he published an article on religion every other week, totaling more than 60,000 pages. It has been estimated that during his writing life, his published writings made up 20 percent of all the literature being published in Germany at the time.

In addition to his own writing, Luther spent much of his late life working on a translation of the Bible into German. There had been a few German translations before his, but they were purely literal translations. He wanted to appeal to average people, and he tried to use words that would be understood by common Germans. He said, "[The translator] must ask the mother at home, children in the street, the common man in the marketplace, and look them in the mouth, and listen to how they speak, then translate accordingly."

Toward the end of his life, Luther began to regret how many books he had written. He said: "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing. ... I wish that all my books were consigned to perpetual oblivion."

Today, most of Luther's writings are only read by theologians, but his words survive in his popular hymns. He knew that many people couldn't read, and he believed hymns could communicate ideas more broadly. He also just loved music. He said, "My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary." His hymns are sung in churches throughout the world.

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Field's, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way. It wasn't nearly as exciting as he thought it would be. He said: "No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation ... [but] I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times." In 1913, Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).

It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman (books by this author), born in Portchester, England (1960). He writes serious comic books and turns them into graphic novels. Growing up in England, he knew what comic books were, but the comic books published in England weren't very exciting. One day, a friend of his father gave him a box of old DC and Marvel comic books from America, and he fell in love with them. He stayed up late every night, reading them by the light from the hallway.

He said, "The most important dreams, the most manipulable of cultural icons, are those that we received when we were too young to judge or analyze." He wanted to take those icons of his youth and write about them in a serious, literary way.

In 1987, DC Comics let Gaiman pick one of their old, failed comic book characters and revive him. Gaiman chose a character called the Sandman, who uses sleeping gas to catch criminals. Gaiman kept the name but changed everything else, turning the character into the god of both dreams and stories.

He chose different artists to draw the 75 issues, and he filled the series with references to myths, folklore, and literature, especially Shakespeare. In 1991, a single issue of The Sandman called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award.

People like Stephen King and Norman Mailer became fans of the Sandman series, and it was also one of the first comic books to appeal to women. The 75 issues were collected and published in 10 volumes, the first of which was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991). It launched the graphic novel as a serious art form.

It was on this day in 1855 that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his poem The Song of Hiawatha (books by this author). Back in his college days, he had read a book about Native Americans and written to his mother: "It appears [...] that they are a race possessing magnanimity, generosity, benevolence, and pure religion without hypocrisy. They have been most barbarously treated by the whites both in word and deed." Decades later, he read Algic Researches by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and it was there that he encountered the legends that he used in The Song of Hiawatha. The stories were mostly from the Ojibwe people living along Lake Superior, and the hero was a trickster figure named Manabozho.

Longfellow began writing on June 25, 1854. Just three days later, he wrote in his journal: "Work at 'Manabozho"; or, as I think I shall call it, 'Hiawatha' — that being another name for the same personage." Unfortunately, he was wrong. Hiawatha was a historical figure who helped unite the Iroquois League in the Northeast, nowhere near the Ojibwe. Longfellow modeled his poem on the long epic poems of Northern Europe. He used trochaic tetrameter, the rhythm of the Finnish Kalevala, instead of the more familiar iambic pentameter. In June of 1855, he wrote in his journal about Hiawatha: "I am growing idiotic about this song, and no longer know whether it is good or bad [...] It is odd how confused one's mind becomes about such matters from long looking at the same subject."

When it was published, The Song of Hiawatha was an immediate best-seller, selling 30,000 copies in its first six months. It also spawned an unprecedented number of parodies, following its trochaic tetrameter rhythm — the most popular, Song of Milkanwatha (1856), contained the passage: "In one hand Peek-Week, the squirrel, / in the other hand the blow-gun— / Fearful instrument, the blow-gun; / And Marcosset and Sumpunkin, / Kissed him, 'cause he killed the squirrel, / 'Cause it was a rather big one." Even Lewis Carroll wrote a parody called "Hiawatha's Photographing" (1857).

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