Cheyenne Autumn Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Mari Sandoz

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Cheyenne Autumn is one of several of Sandoz’s books recommended by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society for study and discussion by high school readers. Her works are less well known than those of another Nebraska author, Willa Cather. Whereas Cather’s novels are fiction, Sandoz’s works—including such novels as Slogum House (1937), Capital City (1939), The Tom-Walker (1947), Miss Morissa, Doctor of the Gold Trail (1955), and Son of the Gamblin’ Man (1960)—are products of exhaustive historical research. As gateways to human experiences in accurately described historical settings, her writings are perhaps superior to those of Cather.

Chronologically, Cheyenne Autumn stands midway in a progression of sociohistorical studies that Sandoz called her Great Plains series, specifically Old Jules (1935), Crazy Horse (1942), Cheyenne Autumn, The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Cattlemen from the Rio Grande Across the Far Marias (1958), and The Beaver Men (1964). Sandoz was an accomplished historian who, as a young writer, worked for the Nebraska State Historical Society and coedited its scholarly journal, Nebraska History. Meticulous concern for historical accuracy is a hallmark of her work.

A useful companion reading is Karl Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel’s The Cheyenne Way (1941), a classic interdisciplinary study of law and anthropology on which Sandoz drew when writing Cheyenne Autumn. In addition, a short novel by Sandoz, The Horsecatcher (1957), depicts the exploits of a young Cheyenne brave. This fictional coming-of-age story is more accessible than Cheyenne Autumn, portrays the Cheyenne people in much happier times, and is suitable for younger readers.

The film version of Cheyenne Autumn, directed by John Ford in 1964, radically distorts the mood, intent, and historical basis of Sandoz’s study. Many inaccuracies and inside jokes portrayed on the screen are raucously ridiculed in Tony Hillerman’s enjoyable Navaho mystery novel Sacred Clowns (1993). Sandoz considered the film a disaster.