Nova & Vetera Editions

New Life for Forgotten Books

Our First Nova & Vetera Edition: Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha

When I first conceived Nova & Vetera Editions, I was thinking mostly of publishing classics from the English spiritual tradition, so it was a surprise to me when my first revival edition turned out to be a classic of American literature, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (now available on Amazon worldwide).

The eighth grade English students at St. Philip and St. Augustine Catholic Academy in Dallas were the inspiration for this choice. Last spring, I mentioned to their teacher, Rease Parton, that I was working on a personal project to produce attractive and affordable print-on-demand editions of old books that might otherwise be forgotten and asked him if he had any requests. He immediately suggested Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which he teaches each year. Since I was interested in finding some American classics to add to my growing list of largely English works, I was glad to get the suggestion and happy to get to work on the project. When I discovered that he was just weeks away from the lessons that would cover Hiawatha, I returned to the project full-blast to have it ready for him and his students.

I’ll be honest — I had never really read this poem, although, like a lot of Americans, I could quote a few random lines, with their characteristic pulsing rhythm:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. . . .

Yep, that’s about all I knew. When I was a young child, my mother had read to me Longfellow’s Evangeline, to help me understand how my Acadian (“Cajun”) ancestors had been forced to relocate to Louisiana, but by the time we got to the end of that lengthy narrative, I was probably Longfellowed out. I’m sure I read at least part of Hiawatha as a child (I had a vague recollection of towering forests that reminded me of the pine forests of my native Louisiana), but I had little recollection of Hiawatha as a character or the poem as a whole. I certainly had no idea that this great American epic had been one of the most-read stories in America and Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Harrison Fisher, Hiawatha fishing

One of the few Fisher illustrations that didn’t make it into the book.

Because of that early popularity, I found numerous editions of the poem — many of them lavishly illustrated — in the Internet Archive, the treasure trove where I find many of the titles I’ll be publishing. My friend the schoolteacher had mentioned a fondness for the illustrations of Frederick Remington, the great American painter of the West, but I took one look at those highly-detailed black and white renderings and realized they would not reproduce well in a POD print edition. Fortunately, I was able to extract and clean up the simpler, but equally beautiful, pencil drawings by Harrison Fisher that originally appeared in a 1906 edition by the Bobbs-Merrill Company.

For the interior layout of the book, I imitated some of the nicer 19th century editions that give the text plenty of space. I added one of Fisher’s illustrations as a headpiece for each canto and a smaller tailpiece at the end. Some of these latter are pen & ink sketches from the 1908 Houghton-Mifflin Riverside Press edition. Since I was preparing this edition with the classroom in mind, I added line numbers for easy reference and left plenty of space in the margins for notes.

When it came to designing the cover, I knew that I wanted to use of the few of Fisher’s illustrations that incorporate color. The selection wasn’t difficult — I chose a portrait of Hiawatha in a feathered bonnet, looking like the inspiring hero that he is. The art nouveau-influenced typography used for the title and author credits, while paying homage to the turn-of-the-century editions from which I was working, give a curiously contemporary feel that I hope readers will find inviting.

I’m very happy with the way this first edition turned out, and the students, their teacher, and school principal were thrilled. I hope other readers will feel moved to give this beautiful poem a fresh reading in this new edition.

I’ll have more to say about this poem as a work of literature in future posts. Just look for the Hiawatha tag.

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