The Song of Milkanwatha: Literary Tradition of Parody

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Oscar Wilde

The Song of Milkanwatha was published in 1856 as an imitation of the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Despite its commercial success, selling 50,000 copies at the time, Hiawatha was a deeply polarising piece of literature. Due to this angst, and its success, Longfellow’s work attracted reaction from the literary community, in the form of numerous, and often venomous, parodies.

The original piece, The Song of Hiawatha was an epic poem written in trochaic tetrameter by Longfellow in 1855. The plot centres on the adventures and tragic love story of a fictional Native American Objibwe warrior, called Hiawatha. Although fictional, Longfellow based much of his information on Native American legend and folklore. The polarising aspects of the piece were both literary and cultural. On the literary front, “the high-tone myth-making of Hiawatha presents a version of the Indian suitable for the ears of schoolchildren” (Logan 551). Criticisms about literary style seem to mask deeper issues having to do with the depictions of race and class. At the time, Longfellow was thought to be too generous to Native Americans, while in contemporary society, Hiawatha is felt to be too patronising. An example of the cultural backlash to the poem, was an anonymous and deeply racist New York Times review: “[the poem] embalmed pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race. As a poem, it deserves no place [because there] is no romance about the Indian” (2). Meanwhile, in England, the acclaimed author George Eliot (of Middlemarch fame), declared exuberantly that “[the poem along with The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, are the] two most indigenous and masterly productions in American literature” (Davidson).

So, what is the literary technique of Parody? “Parody mimics a subject directly, to produce a comical effect. Satire on the other hand, makes fun of a subject without a direct imitation. Moreover, satire aims at correcting shortcomings in society by criticising them” (Literary Devices). There is a long and storied literary tradition of parodying and satirising texts. One of the oldest and most famous, is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift, published

in 1726 which satirises human nature and ‘travellers’ tales. Famous parodies include Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons who parodies the romanticised and doomed lives set in rural England made famous by D.H. Lawrence and the Brontës. More contemporarily, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, published in 2009, parodied Jane Austen’s novel through comedic horror.

Which brings me back to The Song of Milkanwatha. Written by Reverend George A. Strong under the pseudonym ‘Mark Antony Henderson’, the initial inscription immediately reflects the genre. ‘Translated from the Original Feejee ’and published by ‘Tickell and Grinne’. Milkanwatha, in 94 pages, imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. William Logan (American poet, scholar and critic) puts this so very well, when he observes that “The parodists realised something Longfellow could not, that the measure was far better adapted to burlesque than to weepy tragedy, and that the variations and repetitions that make Hiawatha so wearisome were already comic by misadventure, if not intent. Some poems are self-parodic before they’re ever parodied” (Logan 552). ‘Henderson’ does not spare Longfellow by merely parodying Hiawatha, he also cuttingly satirises Longfellow’s use of ‘hydropathy’—pseudoscientific treatment of illness through the use of water—of which Longfellow was an ardent believer. Henderson was not alone in parodying Hiawatha. Lewis Carroll (author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ), also published his own parody called Hiawatha's Photographing in 1857, perpetuating the tradition of criticism through ironic imitation that continues to this day.

Written by Shaun Stephen, Masters student in Writing, Editing & Publishing at UQ.

Note: The small book is in dark brown cloth with stamped borders and emblem on front and back covers. It was published in 1856. It will be available at the 2021 BookFair in the Cabinet Section of Special Books.

References

The Song of Hiawatha, New York Times, 28 December 1855. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1855/12/28/76465870.pdf

Davidson, Mashall B. The American Heritage History of the Writers' America. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1973: 162.

Logan, William. "Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Carroll’s Hiawatha: The Name and Nature of Parody." The Hopkins Review, vol. 5 no. 4, 2012, p. 534-562. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/thr.2012.0073.

https://literarydevices.net/parody/