John G(neisenau) Neihardt 1881–1973
American poet, novelist, biographer, critic, dramatist, auto-biographer, and short story writer.
Neihardt based much of his poetry and prose on the history of the American frontier of the nineteenth century and emphasized the spiritual and psychological import of the settling of the West. Although he is best known as the author of Black Elk Speaks (1932), the life story of a Sioux holy man, Neihardt devoted most of his career to the creation of his long five-part poem A Cycle of the West (1915–1941). Neihardt called this work an attempt to "preserve a mood of race courage" and to "remind men that they are finer than they think." This belief that all people are capable of overcoming the weaknesses of human nature was central to most of his work.
While A Cycle of the West occupied Neihardt for the majority of his writing years, his additional literary output was large and varied. Divine Enchantment (1900), his first major publication, is a long lyric poem revealing his interest in Hindu mysticism; The River and I (1910) is an autobiographical account of a trip down the Missouri River; The Splendid Wayfaring (1920) is a biography of Jedediah Smith; and Poetic Values: Their Reality and Our Need of Them (1925) is a critical account of Neihardt's poetics. In addition to these works, Neihardt also published collections of short stories, two plays, volumes of lyrics, including two collected works, The Quest (1919) and Collected Poems (1926), many novels, including his last major work, When the Tree Flowered (1952), and two volumes of autobiography written at the end of his life. Out of his long career Neihardt emerges as a man of considerable talent who nevertheless received minimal critical attention during his lifetime.
Born in Illinois and raised in Kansas and Nebraska, Neihardt devoted much of his life to the study of the history of the Old West from the perspectives of both the native Plains Indians and the white settlers. The pursuit of this interest and his work with the Office of Indian Affairs led to extended contact with Sioux Indians and his friendship with and biography of the Sioux shaman Black Elk.
In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk describes his visions and his personal struggle to maintain his tribe's spiritual unity in the face of cultural obliteration. Although the story is told in the first person, the book was composed by Neihardt, who selected appropriate details and used simplified syntax and rhythmic repetition to convey Black Elk's sensitive insights. Black Elk Speaks has been widely studied "as anthropology, as sociology, as psychology, and as history," according to Sally McCluskey, and it gained international recognition when psychologist Carl Jung took an interest in its mystic and psychological significance.
The five parts of A Cycle of the West concern the period between 1822, the beginning of the Ashley-Henry fur trading expeditions, and 1890, the official closing of the frontier. Three of the five sections recount the heroic deeds of western trappers and settlers: The Song of Hugh Glass (1915), The Song of Three Friends (1919), and The Song of Jed Smith (1941). The Song of the Indian Wars (1925), considered by some critics to be the most important portion of the cycle, and The Song of the Messiah (1935) center on the conflicts between the Plains Indians and the white settlers. Throughout the poems, the characters overcome both physical and spiritual hardships, gradually bringing morality and civilization to a chaotic world.
Like much of Neihardt's work, A Cycle of the West blends classical literary techniques with historically accurate details and...
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regional folklore. Some critics contend that the tightly structured rhyme and rhythm schemes, lofty language, and classical allusions conflict with the expansive scope and the western particulars of the work. Others, however, agree with Kenneth S. Rothwell that with the creation ofA Cycle of the West Neihardt produced "a long American poem which celebrates the timeless themes of Creation, Warfare, Journey, and Settlement intensely, urgently, and transcendentally…."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)
[The Song of Three Friends] has not hitherto been reviewed in Poetry, because it seemed unnecessary to repeat criticisms fully suggested, in February, 1916, in a notice of The Song of Hugh Glass, the first poem published of its author's projected epic series, though the second in artistic order. But the recent P.S.A. award to this book, as one of the two best American books of verse of 1919 … seems to call for a more complete statement of our exceptions to the committee's verdict, our reasons for thinking this poem "fundamentally unsound as a work of art."
The reasons are essentially one—the discord between the story and the style. The poet's project—a series of narratives presenting that most romantic period of American history, the winning of the West by adventurous wanderers and traders—is an heroic adventure itself, and not more deliberate a literary plan, perhaps, than most epics. But having started, he lacked the native human spirit, the unconscious courage, of his heroes—he couldn't give himself wholeheartedly to his adventure, let his subject carry him, but must needs load it with all the rhetorical and legendary impedimenta of many races, many literatures. He set out carrying not only the "heroic couplet" of Pope, and all the archaisms of so-called "poetic" language, now quaintly rococo; but also all the approved lesser-classic traditions of epic form and style. These details of manner, when applied to a story of wild-western pioneers, effect a discordant incongruity, at times absurd. (pp. 94-5)
Harriet Monroe, "A Laurelled Poem," in Poetry, Vol. XVII, No. 11, November, 1920, pp. 94-8.
In ["The Song of the Indian Wars"], the history of the Indian wars in the west during the decade following the Civil War is detailed in verse which is always competent and sometimes brilliant and powerful. The moods of the times—in the Indian village, in the soldiers' camp, and in the pioneer's cabin—are poignantly distinct; and the human note, as always in Neihardt's work, rises clear and plain. Here is the greatest Indian fighting, without a doubt, in American poetry, as well as veridic and memorable Indian oratory, rough and desperate heroism of troopers, and pictures of the plains in all seasons of the year. The story of the death of Crazy Horse, with which the poem ends, is a very effective narrative poem by itself.
The case of John G. Neihardt, doing a big task so well and with so much clear sighted idealism, gives one about as much pride in America and hope for American literature as anything else on the horizon. (p. 89)
Frank Luther Mott, "The Devotion of John G. Neihardt," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXII, No. 1, September, 1925, pp. 88-9.
I have certain quarrels on minor points [in The Song of the Indian Wars]: the use of 'twas, 'twere, alas, aye, etc., for which this poet has been sorrowfully reproached before; the lack of feminine endings which, rhymed, would have given variety and animation; the very rare use of the trochee for the iamb in search for musical relief and emphasis; the lack of an occasional illegal dactylic foot for suppleness; the use of the French word coup; the heading of the first part, The Sowing of the Dragon. Rhyme indubitably holds back the story, the machinery of it is evident in lines not important in themselves completing the couplets. If only the author had fallen by sectional moments into blank verse he would have gained brevity, lost nothing of accuracy or music; and when at the Council with the white men, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and Man-Afraid spoke, I longed to hear the forceful rhythms of free verse carry their pungent words.
Why head a portion of this narrative, indigenous to our own soil, with a title taken from the Greek? Could not a symbol have been found, in what American tradition we have, equally expressive of the fertility of hatred, and more country-colorful, country-suggestive? (p. 329)
As unfailingly as one climax moved me, the opening of the following part wearied me, partly because of the fatal "picking up" necessary to the continuance of the same rhythm and rhyme-scheme, partly because the story involves a sequence of many men in series of events rather than a few carried through to the end; and here the question arises, whether in presenting heroic material, matter of history, the poet must stick to the order of facts or present the essential element of truth in a guise best adapted to the ear of eternity. The Song of Hugh Glass and The Song of Three Friends are both better constructed, more fused and unified, than the present book.
The concrete details are excellent, Mr. Neihardt's knowledge of the country of the "Sioux, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Commanches, Kiowas and Crows" so exact that I looked for a map; his feeling for words has advanced a long way beyond the mere vehicles that they were in his early lyrics…. (p. 330)
[The value of The Song of the Indian Wars] lies in the long sweep, in the moving caravan of bloody episodes that crossed by Powder River, Little Horn and Fort Phil Kearney. The shouts of battle dwindle in the last to the lamenting "Hey—hey-hey!" of Indian defeat and sorrow, and down the vital stream of pride in conquest floats the dark leaf of shame. In spite of flaws, in spite of my acknowledged prejudices, my sometime wearying, this is a book of power and worth. Mr. Neihardt is a poet with steel in him; and in his cyclic effort, still unfinished, he owns the nerves and sinews of his undaunted scouts although the weapon of his verse is single. (p. 331)
Berenice Van Slyke, "Neihardt's Epic," in Poetry, Vol. XXVII, No. VI, March, 1926, pp. 328-31.
Mr. Neihardt has always taken himself and his mission as a poet seriously, and worked with high ambition and a sense of responsibility. His Collected Poems represents a life-work loyally carried on against all the crushing distractions—domestic, worldly, financial—which impede and often conquer so many a fine vocation. His most important offering, filling nearly four hundred of these over six hundred pages, is a series of Epics of the West, in which he has given a poetic setting, in rhymed couplets, to dramatic and characteristic episodes of our pioneer history. Thus he has fulfilled, to an exceptional degree, the command of his muse; and, in doing so, he has endeavored patriotically to monumentalize certain fast-fading figures, to give heroic form to our conquerors of the wilderness. (pp. 99-100)
The more personal part of Mr. Neihardt's poetry was the work of his youth—the lyrics comprised in A Bundle of Myrrh and two or three other small volumes published from 1907 to 1912. This was a rather barren period in America, and those critics who admired the young poet gave him extravagant praise. Reading these books now, one realizes how many voices clearer, richer and more moving have been thrilling us since Mr. Neihardt startled his world. Surely that early over-praise did him an injury, for it encouraged an egoism always too eager, and never held in check by a sense of humor.
Reading these early books now, in the first third of the Collected Poems, one feels that perhaps lack of humor is the root of the trouble…. Ever so little of it would have saved this poet from the self-conscious attitudinizing one observes here, from his preoccupation with himself as the poet, the vates, and from strident and declamatory utterances in this character…. [When] he becomes conscious of another Being in his universe, the lady of his love is never individualized, is never a humble little human girl, but always that impossible She of man's invention, the Woman who never was on sea or land…. (pp. 100-01)
Youthful egoism is common enough, and not always impenetrable; but one would hardly expect Mr. Neihardt's later work to be influenced by the swift currents of "the new movement," which set in soon after the completion of the two series, The Stranger at the Gate and The Poet's Town. Indeed, one would not have wished him to be affected by its greater simplicity and directness if his style had been inherently original, unmistakably an indigenous growth of his own soul. We may pass over the two plays—Agrippina and Eight Hundred Rubles—as experimental essays in the well-worn sock-and-buskin mode, and consider briefly the three Epics of the West.
In narrative we find the poet at his best—more dramatic than in the plays, and less bombastic than in the lyrics. Sometimes he almost forgets himself and his poetizing in his story, and molds the heroic couplet into a swift and efficient instrument of his chosen style, so that the story moves along, for pages at a time, quite freely. Here he does a good job of the kind he set out to do, and hands on to the future some lively rhymed tales of pioneers and their Indian wars.
Thus one's quarrel, if there be any, is fundamental. In my opinion, there is, between Mr. Neihardt's subject and his method, an inherent inconsistency which necessarily artificializes the resulting work of art. It is, like Pope's Homer, "a pretty poem, but not"—our rough-and-tumble pioneer adventuring. Not only is the couplet too smooth an instrument, but the poet polishes it with a too poetic diction. (pp. 103-04)
Mr. Neihardt has given us some interesting chapters, as Long-fellow did, for the juvenilia of our literature, and for this he deserves "much thanks." But the "epic of the West" is still to be written. Whether it ever will be adequately written—ah, that is quite another question. (p. 104)
Harriet Monroe, "What of Mr. Neihardt?" in Poetry, Vol. XXX, No. 11, May, 1927, pp. 99-104.
WILLIAM ROSE BENÉT
["The Song of Hugh Glass," "The Song of Three Friends," and "The Song of the Indian Wars"] are Mr. Neihardt's most important work to date, and they partially compose a work to which he is devoting the twenty best years of his life. To judge by his handling of the episodes of the Ashley-Henry time and of the time of Custer he is eminently justified. He has given us vivid, heroic, authentic canvases. He has handled the flow of his couplets with power and beauty, he has evoked thrilling drama. His lyric period is past; but he was never a lyric poet of the first water, while he is nigh to be narrative poet of that kind….
Neihardt is, above all things, a good teller of tales. That is indicated also by the book of his prose ["Indian Tales and Others"]…. It is uneven, but the best stories have considerable power….
There is no doubt that Neihardt knows the Indian. His understanding of and sympathy with the Redskin go deep…. Never, I venture to say, has red Indian warfare been described so well. It is as if we were actually present at the epidodes. (p. 39)
William Rose Benét, "A Homer of the West," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. IV, No. 3, August 13, 1927, pp. 38-9.
The Splendid Wayfaring, as the subtitle informs us, is "the story of the exploits and adventures of Jedediah Smith and his comrades, the Ashley-Henry men, discoverers and explorers of the great central route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean." Mr. Neihardt lists his sources, and a student familiar with the authorities realizes how accurately and intelligently he has followed them throughout his narrative; how he has clarified and vivified them by the careful selection and animated expression of the material; how important a service he has done in the recreation of history, in the rescuing from oblivion of one of those "forgotten brave men" whose hands, as Carlyle says, have made the world for us. Jedediah Smith, as he appears in The Splendid Wayfaring is one of the "immortal dead who live again" in the choir invisible of generous heroes.
There is more work to be done in this resurrection of heroes. Mr. Neihardt is admirably fitted to do it and it is to be hoped that he will do it. The Splendid Wayfaring (1920) the last of these three books on the frontier, has been followed by another installment of the "epic cycle": The Song of the Indian Wars. Evidently Mr. Neihardt instead of following the rich vein which he struck in The Splendid Wayfaring intends to follow the less profitable one which he explored in his first books, The Song of Hugh Glass and The Song of Three Friends.
As the titles of these books imply, they are written in verse while The Splendid Wayfaring is written in prose. They are as meretricious as The Splendid Wayfaring is meritorious. Mr. Neihardt makes an acceptable Carlyle but a feeble Masefield. Perhaps Mr. Neihardt is a better prose-writer than he is a poet; perhaps prose is the more appropriate medium of expression for the epic of the American frontier. Whatever the cause, certainly the germ stories of the two poems are more dramatic, more moving, more convincing, in the prose form in which they appear in The Splendid Wayfaring than they are in the expanded poetic versions. (pp. 127-28)
In the poem the story is expanded to one hundred and twenty-five pages. As a result, of course, the frontier is diluted with a good deal of Neihardt. Now Mr. Neihardt's poetry per se is neither better nor worse than that of many contemporary versifiers. But when a poet presumes to "approach that body of precious saga stuff which I have called the Western American Epos" (I use Mr. Neihardt's own words), and offer himself as the Homer of the Frontier, the reader has a right to expect that the "precious saga stuff" shall be treated in a style worthy of epic tradition. What has Mr. Neihardt contributed to the raw material?
In the first place, classical allusions…. Now classical allusions may find a place in a literary epic, such as the Divina Commedia or Paradise Lost. But they have no place in a folk epic such as the Iliad or Beowulf or (to use Mr. Neihardt's own modest climax) The Song of Three Friends.
Secondly, Mr. Neihardt has contributed painfully elaborated figures of speech. The metaphor with its direct audacious identification of the objects of comparison is a mode of expression well adapted to primitive tales; the simile with its detached, deliberate, intellectual parallelizings betrays immediately the sophisticated poet. Such similes abound in these "Songs." (pp. 129-30)
The third contribution: lavish descriptions, chiefly of nature…. Some of these descriptions have a lyric delicacy, others are forced and incongruous; the bulk of the description in proportion to the bulk of the action falsifies the impression of the whole.
The plot is smothered not only by descriptions but by reflections. Mr. Neihardt is true to epic tradition in his frequent introduction of gnomic passages. He begins with the conventional ubi sunt…. At each turn of the story he tucks in a platitude…. These philosophizings, unlike the "commonplaces" of the Greeks and the gnomes of the Anglo Saxons, represent external comments, intrusions of the author's own thought into an alien world. (pp. 130-32)
The essentially swift and primitive action of the episode is further clogged by detailed and subtle analyses of mental states. Mike [Fink's] passion for the Long Knife's daughter is sentimentalized into the dawning of a pure romance. The resultant jealousy, the fight, the fatal shooting of the whiskey cup—this catastrophe which Neihardt tells in nineteen lines of prose is dragged out over thirty-seven pages of verse, chiefly telling how Neihardt supposes Fink and Talbeau felt. Entirely of Neihardt's own invention is the closing scene on the fire-swept plain where Talbeau "plays God" and exacts a fearful retribution of one friend for the murder of the other. (p. 132)
It is not our purpose here to discuss the merits of the poem as a poem. Parts of it have dramatic power; parts are labored and artificial. It is our purpose to discuss Neihardt's use of frontier materials in the poem; and it is a use which on the whole is regrettable…. The trapper, as we meet him in frontier chronicles, is essentially crude, primitive, healthyminded, given to action rather than to thought or feeling. The trapper as Neihardt presents him in the Songs is credited with a refinement of feeling, a complexity of motives, a power of introspection which would have effectually incapacitated him for fighting Indians, cheating Mexicans, outwitting other trappers, exploring undiscovered country. Neihardt's trappers would serve as the heroes of romantic poetry or psychological fiction, but they are sorry heroes for an epic. (p. 133)
The last, the most elaborate, and the most significant portion of Mr. Neihardt's epic cycle of the West is The Song of the Indian Wars, published in 1925. This, in Mr. Neihardt's own words, "deals with the last great fight for the bison pastures of the Plains between the westering white men and the prairie tribes—the struggle for the right of way between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean." A large order—and it is hardly to be wondered at that the result is in places confused and sketchy. The confusion is augmented by Mr. Neihardt's inability or reluctance to decide which characters are to play the role of heroes and which of villains. He describes himself in the preface as a "Custer partizan" but his hero-worship fails to vitalize the section of the poem devoted to Custer's last stand. Custer remains throughout the action, elusive and nebulous. In the preface, also, Mr. Neihardt disclaims any intention of sentimentalizing his characters; yet his account of the assassination of "the last great Sioux" Crazy Horse and the reduction of his people to "whining beggars in a feeding pen," reads much like the propagandist pathos of Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor. Confusion is inherent in the very nature of Mr. Neihardt's theme. Paradoxically enough, the effect of the book would be less blurred if the confusion were deliberately accentuated. Mr. Neihardt has always been stirred by the pulsating urge of the western migrations. He recognizes in the apparently unscrupulous, coldblooded pushing out of the Indian tribes an inevitable manifestation of this westering…. But this belief in the manifest destiny of Aryan stock to inherit the earth does not deaden Mr. Neihardt's sympathies to [the American Indians]…. (pp. 134-35)
One could wish that this divided sympathy had sharpened the clash of cultures which is the theme of The Song of the Indian Wars. But even though weakened by a seesawing between the opposing parties, and by a failure to establish with sufficient clarity the connection between episodes, though disproportioned by an elaborating of the trivial (as in the incident of little Hohay's imaginings) and a neglect of the obligatory (as in the incident of the death of Custer), even though marred by the sententious gnomes, the labored personifications, and the longwinded descriptions which characterize his other Songs, The Song of the Indian Wars marks a forward step in Mr. Neihardt's employment of frontier materials. He occasionally sketches situations with a few stark, powerful strokes, as in the description of the despairing wait of the wounded survivors of Beecher's Island. (pp. 135-36)
The most significant feature of The Song of the Indian Wars is its perhaps unconscious impersonality. No heroic character such as Leatherstocking or John Jacob Astor dominates Mr. Neihardt's most recent frontier, although many nameless heroes emerge, play their brief parts, and vanish. In spite of Mr. Neihardt's professed admiration for Custer, his evident sympathy with Crazy Horse, neither the General of the Gray Fox nor the brave of the Sioux stands out as a unifying figure of the narrative. Grater than Red Cloud, Roman Nose, or Crazy Horse, greater than Fetterman, Forsyth, or Custer, greater than that "Omniscience in a swivel chair" who "half a continent away" blandly bungles the handling of Indian affairs, is the relentless destiny which makes for the expansion of the Americans and the extermination of the Indians…. Is it too fanciful to see as the real hero-villain of Mr. Neihardt's frontier, the railroad, "the many-footed monster," fit symbol of a mechanistic civilization. (pp. 136-37)
Lucy Lockwood Hazard, "Hunter and Trapper: Heroes of the Fur Trade," in her The Frontier in American Literature, Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers, 1927, pp. 94-146.∗
The nature of our concept of reality determines the nature of our actions because every ethical act is performed within a metaphysical framework. In his writings, John G. Neihardt has investigated this relation of attitude to action, of metaphysics to ethics; and especially two of his lengthy poems The Divine Enchantment, a poem of Hindu mysticism, and The Song of the Messiah, a poetic treatment of the Sioux ghost-dance religion, demonstrate his statement that "our conception of values, by which we live, must grow out of our genuine belief as to what is real." (p. 205)
The Divine Enchantment recounts the tale of the virgin Devanaguy who, according to ancient prophecies, would bear Christna, the incarnation of Vishnu. The tyrant Kansa has imprisoned her to prevent this, yet Vishnu nonetheless "overshadows" and impregnates her. "During the term of her gestation, Devanaguy was transported by a continual ecstatic dream." It is the revelation of this dream which forms the central content of the poem. (p. 206)
The philosophical premises which underlie The Divine Enchantment and Neihardt's subsequent works are rooted in two Hindu triads. The first is composed of Brahman, Universal Being; of Atman, the ego of the individual consciousness; and Maya, illusion created not by our perception of the phenomenal world but by the concept of individuality which accepts only a partial, and hence faulty, view. To escape maya, it is necessary to transcend a partial view; it is necessary to attain Nirvana. The three stations leading to Nirvana form the second triad basic to our understanding of Neihardt's metaphysics.
The first station is Waking Consciousness, a state of awareness totally blinded by illusion. The second is the Dream-sleep, a partial loss of self; and the third is the Deep-sleep, the total loss of self. (pp. 206-07)
It is from illusion-ridden Waking Consciousness that Devanaguy is freed: it is from Waking Consciousness that Neihardt wishes to free his reader…. (p. 207)
In essence, both The Divine Enchantment and The Song of the Messiah are the sharing of a vision: the one from youth, the other, maturity. It is with a certain degree of self-consciousness that Neihardt interrupts the flow of The Divine Enchantment an Interlude composed of but four quatrains. Still they point ahead twenty-five years to Neihardt's lecture statement that
The value of a poem is in proportion to the largeness of the mood that it is capable of creating in the properly sensitive recipient. The major inspiration of the poet is concerned with the conception of that mood and not with details of mechanism in the translation of the mood.
In the Interlude, concerned with how the vision may be shared, Neihardt dramatizes his grappling not only with form but with content—the elusive qualities contained in the expanded mood which he represents in the symbol of the lotus…. (p. 208)
[In The Divine Enchantment, Man's] creation is followed closely by his "most wordy flow" of debate on the subject of death, after-death, and religion. Neihardt, attacking the idols which illusion has established as "Gods on thy hills, and gods within thy glades / [Man's] rude conceptions, rudelier put in clay," insists on a view which will transcend the maya, the partial view, found even in religion. However, even Reason cannot overcome the maya of religion, and Man is left in a situation from which he cannot extricate himself.
To free mankind from maya, Vishnu the Preserver decides to father a messiah; but in order to prepare the way for his son, Vishnu first must bind the sun, then must sprinkle the world with lotus-seed. (Here, in Devanaguy's retrospective dream which supplies the narrative, as well as in the Interlude, the lotus is used to symbolize expanded consciousness.)
Thus having seen the cosmic events leading to her impregnation, Devanaguy is recalled to the present as discordant worldly contentions break into the rapture of her dream. Even as she wakes, Christna the Messiah is born; with him the lotus-dream spreads among mankind. (pp. 209-10)
Neihardt's conclusions arrived at in The Divine Enchantment are still basic to The Song of the Messiah, though twenty-one years separate the two works. The subject matter itself necessitated subtle changes in the presentation. The abstract account of the flatly-characterized Devanaguy is replaced by the richlyhumanized story of the visions which, around 1890, gave substance to the ghost-dance religion of the Sioux Indians. The mystical experience is symbolized, not by the lotus, but the Blooming Tree. As the earlier work had paraphrased the Immaculate Conception, "in a letter to Henry Latham of Macmillan's, Neihardt described [The Song of the Messiah] as 'a retelling of the universal Christ story in an unfamiliar medium, with a new emphasis and, perhaps, with a significance not commonly derived from it'."
Most importantly, the revelation of The Divine Enchantment ("They saw that all is one") motivates the ethic in Song of the Messiah. It is the pantheistic element in their ecstatic visions which give the followers of the ghost-dance cult both their calmness and their eschatology. Dealing with the actions of these real people rather than with the motions of cosmic abstractions, Neihardt treats his material sympathetically, realizing that the actions of the Sioux stemmed from their conviction, and achieving an esthetically-satisfactory balance between metaphysics and ethics. (pp. 210-11)
Where in The Divine Enchantment the dream-vision had been centered on the cosmos itself awaking and forming, Song of the Messiah depicts the waking of the individual and his ultimate immersion into a pantheistic universe….
However, the mystically-revealed ghost-dance religion cannot survive in a world blinded by illusion, a country whose maya is characterized by the figure of the Indian Agent. In keeping with the rest of the poem, this portrait, too, is drawn on the human level, the individual scale…. (p. 211)
Persecuted for their religion and forced to take refuge in the Sand Hills beyond the borders of their reservation, the followers of the ghost-dance religion are hunted down by the Army and shamefully massacred at Wounded Knee. The transcendent calm of the ethic, however, by which the Sioux meet their deaths reflects the transcendent nature of their metaphysical vision….
In The Divine Enchantment, Neihardt, discovering the nature of the One, presents a basically Hindu metaphysic which, in his lectures on Poetic Values, he envelopes in a systematic philosophy outlining the need in his own country for expanded consciousness and tracing its ethical implications, especially for the artist. In Song of the Messiah the didactic traces have virtually vanished; Neihardt is able to eliminate the distinction between metaphysic and ethic. The abstraction, quietly but completely, has become the motive of the action. (p. 212)
W. E. Black, "Ethic and Metaphysic: A Study of John G. Neihardt," in Western American Literature, Vol. II, No. 3, Fall, 1967, pp. 205-12.
[The] heroic celebration of the conquest and settlement of the Trans-Mississippi West has remained a viable theme, ripe for the attention of America's would-be epicists. Such a narrative poem, when and if it were successfully composed, and then widely accepted by an American audience, might be called an "Astoriad." As Astoriad, it would be a verse sequel to Washington Irving's Astoria …, a history of John Jacob Astor's opening up of the West to the fur trade, his establishment of a trading post at Astoria on the Columbia river, and his triumphs as a capitalist. (pp. 53-4)
Of the perhaps two dozen poets who have attempts Astoriads, John G. Neihardt, poet laureate of Nebraska, once praised by William Rose Benét for his "vast panorama of the West," makes the first claim to attention. Not only is he epicist but he is also regionalist. If regionalism may be thought of as a preoccupation with the history and ecology of a particular geographical section, then Neihardt's A Cycle of the West serves as an outstanding example. (p. 54)
In an age when "spontaneity" has become the higher virtue, the qualities of industry and self-sacrifice displayed by Neihardt, who is neoclassical in training but romantic in practice, are almost impossible to explain or defend. Moreover the flaws in his work are flagrantly apparent, easy to pounce on, and they cannot readily be accounted for. Neihardt's virtues are much less apparent, entirely subtle, and they emerge in a reader's slow recognition that Cycle is another triumph of the human spirit over the chaotic, mindless powers of the universe. Neihardt endows his cosmos, his region, with an identity. (p. 55)
Uneven in style, no doubt the result of the lengthy incubation period, [the five "Songs" of A Cycle of the West] yet add up to a compelling account of the Old West, the frontier at a time when man's challenges were direct and physical. The earliest of the songs, "Three Friends," tells of the legendary Mike Fink, here somewhat romanticized, and his friends, Will Carpenter and Frank Talbeau…. [Discussion] of plot, mythos, does little to evoke the flavor of Neihardt's poem, the poet's gift for apprehending a physical landscape…. The prairie as sea is a recurring motif in Cycle …, while echoes of Odyssean journey, the physical quest, remain in Neihardt's fascination for the serpentine rivers that twist through the Plains: the Kaw, the Platte, the Sioux, the Missouri. The imagination of John G. Neihardt is essentially that of a pastoralist without illusions. The size of the land, the sky, the heat of the winds, the ferocity of the sun, the snarl of thunderheads, the smoke of prairie fires—these are the elements he knows first-hand, loves, and respects.
In Cycle the land itself becomes epic protagonist, or antagonist, as though puny man were relegated to mere deuteragonist. The second song, "Hugh Glass," ostensibly looks into the ordeal of Hugh, a trapper with Ashley's party, but actually reverts to the theme of the land…. Less rich in texture than "Three Friends," ["Hugh Glass"] descends to a style too plain, even indecorous and unceremonious, for epic. (pp. 55-6)
Neihardt's third tale, "Jed Smith," a series of campfire stories, shows how the hero's expedition crossed the continental divide to find Salt Lake, and, after heroic struggles with the Indians, made its way into California…. In this song, Neihardt often achieves a balance between the rhetorical excess and defect of the first two sections. At his best he displays epic objectivity in finding an American voice to celebrate the Midwestern topography…. (p. 56)
The last two sections, "Song of the Indian Wars" and "Song of the Messiah," record famous Indian battles, including the fight at Fort Kearney, the Fetterman massacre, the Wagon Box incident, the battles at Beecher's Island and Little Big Horn. Here is Neihardt's Iliad phase as the gorier intimacies of battle injury confront the reader, much as in the Homeric tale of Troy…. And the point of view shifts as the red man rather than the white man becomes the principal actor, a change in perspective that allows Neihardt opportunity to display his considerable knowledge of Indian lore and customs. The growing disenchantment of the red man is increasingly shared by the poet, who would agree with Red Cloud's Council speech that the white man's "hearts are bad and all their words are lies." The last song, "Messiah," shows the defeat of the Sioux at the Battle of Wounded Knee after the Indians had discovered signs and portents of a Messiah among their own kind. They had been motivated toward this delusion by "Black Robes" (Roman Catholic priests), who had told them of a man long ago who had died and been reborn…. Cycle here hovers on the edge of that ultimate tragedy of the frontier, the destruction of the red man to allow the white man fulfillment of his Manifest Destiny. To establish the new land, the new cosmos, the white man slaughters redskins much as St. George slew the dragon to signify the founding of the English nation. Neihardt's epic is a belated ritual accompaniment to an act that has scarred the soul of a nation.
A Cycle of the West emerges as an epic of the West, an Astoriad, whose thematic core is local color, regionalism, a profound, indeed mystical, sense of the land. Setting and atmosphere overwhelm character; Cycle is a triumph of verbal opsis over ethos, so to speak. Saturated in his region, Neihardt makes it believable…. Not that Neihardt's work has not posed problems for the critic. Undoubtedly his greatest flaw has been in the area of diction. Caught between a classicist's training and an aboriginal instinct for a region, Neihardt succeeded in being not entirely successful as either folk poet or literary epicist. He lacked Walt Whitman's gift for echoing but not aping the accidence of epic. He shows little or no awareness of that definitive trait of the modern poet, a passion for the renewal of language…. Neihardt has been rebuked by several critics, among whom the severest has been Lucy Hazard [see excerpt above]. But against the record of excess, of flawed language, undeniably there, must be balanced a transcendent achievement, an ultimate impact, of several hundred pages devoted to a love affair with a region. Despite the Victorianisms "'Twas" and "Alas," and so forth, which prejudice the modern reader, Neihardt, as previously suggested here, is also capable of terseness, a stoic decisiveness, which approximates what one expects of epic…. (pp. 56-8)
A major objection to thinking of Cycle as "epic" lies in the poem's multiplicity and diversity of plot, its failure to focus on a single hero engaged in a well-defined enterprise. This lack of narrational unity, though compensated for by the thematic concentration on the land, places Neihardt's poem more in the category of epic romance than romance epic. Only the poet's choice of a rough meter saves Cycle from being another metrical romance, those lengthy pseudo-Indian narratives of the class of Longfellow's Hiawatha and James Eastburn's Yamoyden…. During the thirty years of the poem's gestation, the poet apparently grew increasingly sympathetic with the plight of the Indian. The Indians of the first song, "Three Friends," may sound like stereotypes … but the Indians of "Messiah" are Christ-figures, crucified on the cross of the white man's rapacity…. While some have seen this shifting perspective as an artistic flaw, others may choose to regard it as a reflection of the poet's, as well as the nation's, growing sophistication. Homer never made it entirely plain either, as to whether the reader should admire Achilles or Hector, Greeks or Trojans. In these closing sections, Neihardt almost looks into the fire, almost sees America as Eden awaiting corruption. (p. 58)
Cycle is a step toward that elusive entity, a long American poem which celebrates the timeless themes of Creation, Warfare, Journey, and Settlement intensely, urgently, and transcendentally in a prosody that endows the American language with dignity and sobriety. (p. 59)
Kenneth S. Rothwell, "In Search of a Western Epic: Neihardt, Sandburg, and Jaffe As Regionalists and 'Astoriadists'," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 53-63.∗
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was read at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in October 1971.]
Black Elk Speaks has been many things to many people, and has been studied at various times as anthropology, as sociology, as psychology, and as history. It has been cited as evidence of a religious revival and used as an ecological handbook. But no one, as far as I know, has written about Black Elk Speaks as literature, and while its protagonist, Black Elk, has become a sort of culture hero and underground prophet, the man who wrote Black Elk's story, John G. Neihardt, has received surprisingly little credit for the artistry with which the book is written. Neihardt's very faithfulness to Black Elk's spirit and his skill in expressing that spirit have, ironically, eclipsed the effort he spent in writing the book, and often Neihardt has been ignored by press and scholars as if he were merely the instrument Black Elk used to tell his story, and not the shaping intelligence and lyric voice of the book. (p. 231)
There are difficulties in discussing the book as literature, for it had a peculiar genesis and belongs to no clear-cut genre unless one accepts Robert Sayre's term "Indian autobiography": an Indian's life story written down by a white interviewer, editor or translator. Black Elk Speaks is not really an autobiography, for Black Elk could neither read nor write; indeed, because he could not speak English, he told his story to Neihardt through his son, Ben Black Elk, who acted as interpreter. Neihardt's daughter Enid took stenographic notes, and Neihardt used the transcript of these notes to write the book. The content is partly biography, partly history, partly anthropology, partly anecdote, but all told through Black Elk…. Dee Brown pronounced it the finest book in existence on the American Indian, and Oliver La Farge lauded it. Paul Engle wrote that it "seems as close as we can ever get to the authentic mind and life of the plains tribes."
But the book's power is in the persona of Black Elk and in the texture of the prose itself. His story progresses in seemingly artless fashion and at a leisurely pace, but on closer examination we can see that Neihardt, as editor, was careful to catch the details that made Black Elk human. One can pick up any "as told to" autobiography recounting the life of some celebrity and encounter literary personality and prose style flatter than the pages that contain them. But Black Elk emerges fully rounded, and so does the world he lived in…. His faith, his fears, his rage, and his humanity unite, making him a complex human being who walked real roads, saw real clouds, smelled real winds, and tasted real meat.
Neihardt's use of the first person, he said, was a literary device, for he had to fashion Black Elk's story from many days of talk, many reminicences recalled not necessarily in order. That Neihardt's conversations with Black Elk contained a good deal more information than Neihardt included in Black Elk Speaks is indicated by the novel When the Tree Flowered, published some twenty years later, and showing a great knowledge of Sioux rite and ritual, much more rite and ritual than is included in Black Elk Speaks. It is my guess that he edited such information from Black Elk Speaks so that he could include more detail about Black Elk's life. (pp. 231-33)
It is not that Neihardt neglected religion in the book: Black Elk's faith is presented, but in clean outlines. (p. 233)
Similarly, the history the book recounts is told dramatically…. There is also plenty of action, as in Black Elk's account of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and humor as in the "High Horse's Courting" episode. And there is pathos, as when, after having fled to Canada, Black Elk and a few other braves go out into the bitter cold on a hunting party. (pp. 233-34)
It is this emotional range and the lyrical quality of the prose that give Black Elk Speaks its power, for it has no plot to speak of, and no suspense—we all know who won the Indian wars. It does not follow the standard form of an autobiography, for other old Indians speak in it besides Black Elk. Standing Bear, Iron Hawk, and Iron Thunder occasionally break into the narrative to tell what they saw. It does not even recount the whole life of Black Elk, but only the first twenty-seven years, and one eighth of the narrative is taken up by Black Elk's first power vision. It is a loose, free recollection, held together by the powerful persona of Black Elk, and the increasing conviction on the reader's part that it presents, in the story of one man, the tragedy of two nations, red and white.
It is the personality of Black Elk that dominates the book, and while his story is that of a mystic, and therefore strange, and of dramatic times, and therefore interesting, it is ultimately the way the story is told that endows it with greatness, and Black Elk's language which creates the power of Black Elk Speaks. (p. 234)
If the book touches a generation that never saw a buffalo, never saw an eagle flying free, and never knew anything of Indian life except what it saw on the screen, it is because John Neihardt was the kind of man he was, and a writer of sensitivity and discipline. The forces that defeated Black Elk and the Sioux are the same that many Americans revolt against today: technological rape of environment and soul, progress without humanity, values too materialistic, and individualism too sterile, John Neihardt had warned of such things before he ever met Black Elk, in his poetry, his novels, his criticism, and his book about the Missouri The River and I; for he knew that if men were too intent on getting, they would have little time for seeing and if they lost their sense of continuity with the earth and with their fellow men, all the shining power lines and roaring power plants and jingling money in the world could not fill the sense of that loss. (pp. 241-42)
Sally McCluskey, "'Black Elk Speaks': And So Does John Neihardt," in Western American Literature, Vol. VI, No. 4, Winter, 1972, pp. 231-42.
An old Indian man sits alone in his snow-shrowded tipi, dreaming of the past and blowing meditatively on an eagle-bone whistle. A younger White man comes to visit him, bringing gifts and a sympathetic ear for the old man's tales of long ago. This situation, incidentally portraying the early fieldwork of many [American ethnographers] … has been skillfully used by poet-novelist John Neihardt [in When the Tree Flowered] to recreate the experience of the Oglala Sioux in the mid-nineteenth century. The form admirably fits the content: the old man is speaking freely to an outsider, and tries to make clear things that an outsider would not understand; but his listener still occasionally misses the point, becomes impatient, or needs further explanation. There are tales of adventure and of romance, of war parties and vision quests, of hunger and of ritual (the first-person description of the Sun Dance is superb). And if the poet is occasionally carried away with the symbolism of a prayer or an explanation, he always stays within an idiom that seems (at least to me) authentic.
The theme is old age—the place on the "black road" where "there is a cane," and where "the road becomes steeper before it ends." What age (which sees, though not with eyes) can teach to youth, and the obligations of youth to age—these problems are not irrelevant to contemporary society. American Indians had (and perhaps still have) solutions that are wiser than those of our professional gerontologists.
Philip K. Bock, in a review of "When the Tree Flowered: A Fictional Biography of Eagle Voice, a Sioux Indian," in American Anthropologist, Vol. 74, Nos. 1-2, 1972, p. 31
[All Is but a Beginning] is a masterpiece of autobiography.
The only regrettable aspect of the book is that it is simply the first installment covering Neihardt's first twenty years. We must be grateful for small favors, however, and hopeful that God will be generous enough to allow him enough time to complete what he has started.
It is not that Neihardt's first twenty years were all that unique. They were not. He makes them unique, however, using words with the skill and precision of a surgeon. His finely etched portraits of people, places, and events flow from cover to cover with a mastery that defies the reader to describe anything he set down better than he has done it. It simply can't be done. His portraits of his father, his fourth-grade teacher, and his boy friend, John Chaffee, are unforgettable….
The most amazing aspect of the book is its extremely contemporary feel. The events are from another century, yet has anything really changed? Are John Chaffee and John Neihardt on the road anything more than "Easy Riders" with a time warp? Are John Neihardt's experiences with his students anything more than "Room 222" in a one room schoolhouse? Not really. It is hard to believe that a man ninety years old could write with such vivid imagery.
Jerry Gallagher, in a review of "All Is but a Beginning," in Best Sellers, Vol. 32, No. 15, November 1, 1972, p. 357.
[Black Elk Speaks] is told in language that suggests Indian idiom, as in Neihardt's Omaha stories. Short sentences, simple syntax and connective words, Indian expressions ("Yellow metal" for "gold"; "four-leggeds" for "horses"; "horse-backs" for "horses and riders") created the impression of Indian speech so well that some critics mistakenly assumed Neihardt had simply typed up Enid's notes verbatim, a notion that irritated as much as it amused him. As in the Cycle, the simple surface structure is deceptive; much of the complexity of the style comes from the use of apparently concrete statements that are actually abstract and enthymemic…. An interesting stylistic feature is Neihardt's frequent dependence on flattened adjectives like good and bad for a double effect: they suggest the limitations of the Sioux vocabulary, but more important, they reflect by understatement the stoic endurance of the Indians. "The good days before the trouble began," for example, and "It was a very bad winter for us and we are all sad," are more than cliché; they are understated to imply the particulars of suffering from cold, hunger, and fear. Closing the story with Black Elk's prayer is dramatic; in the dignity and pathos of the old man, Neihardt epitomizes the tragedy of the Indian people. (p. 175)
Lucile F. Aly, in her John G. Neihardt: A Critical Biography, Rodopi, 1977, 307 p.
Patterns and Coincidences is the second part of [John Neihardt's] autobiography. It is a slight book but not without its charm. In his modest introduction Neihardt denies that "the life story of an ordinary man is necessarily of sufficient interest to justify the telling." But he adds that almost any life has high spots which are worth sharing with the rest of humanity. As a consequence, he brings together without much coherence and with no obligation to preserve chronology some incidents, reminiscences, and visions of a long life. Some knowledge of earlier Neihardt books will help the reader to understand at least his choice of material, but the eighteen short chapters present a pleasant view of a sensitive and articulate man at the end of his career. (pp. 284-85)
Patterns and Coincidences is a low-keyed book with few dramatic scenes and no heroes. But details of events in a remote past are skilfully recalled and the pages are deftly written. (p. 285)
John T. Flanagan, in a review of "Patterns and Coincidences, a Sequel to All Is but a Beginning." in Western American Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 284-85.
[Neihardt's] youthful lyrics show his attentiveness to poetic forms; testing meters and rhyme schemes, he experimented with free verse and chant forms of the Omahas, as well as rhythm and sound combinations. By the end of his lyric period he had rejected the influence of Whitman, abandoned free verse, and modified the super-sonics of Poe and Swinburne that affected him temporarily. In his matured poetic technique he shows most clearly the influence of F.W.H. Myers' theory that rhythm and sound, through the manipulations of vowel and consonant combinations, pause and stress, create an emotional overtone to reinforce the mood and sense of poetry by releasing a subconscious human response unbounded by century or geography. From his self-taught study of Greek Neihardt worked for compression of images in a disciplined economy of expression fostered by the use of rhyme. He thought that the same poem, written in unrhymed verse and then in rhymed, would be shorter in the rhymed version. Only after long, arduous apprenticeship did he consider himself ready to undertake an epic. (pp. 314-15)
However closely Neihardt's abilities and preparation met the requirements of Goethe and Vida for an epic poet, whether he actually achieved the American epic—or an American epic—is an entirely different question entailing all the perils of prediction. Early critics like William Rose Benet [see excerpt above] and others, thought he had produced an enduring work; some unhesitatingly pronounced him the American Homer and assigned a permanent place in literature to the Cycle. The verdict was not unanimous; some critics, carping chiefly about points of style, conceded narrative power but renounced Homeric comparisons. Harriet Monroe, in particular, disapproved outspokenly when The Song of Three Friends won the American poetry prize in 1920 [see excerpt above], but Harriet Monroe's pronouncements about Neihardt after their quarrel in 1913 must be read with some reservations. Critics have concurred amazingly well on Neihardt's devotion to his task, his narrative and descriptive powers, and the authenticity of his settings; Arthur Murray Kay called him the kind of authority film producers must consult for information. Critics have, however, questioned the right of the Cycle to status as the American epic on grounds of flaws in style and structure. Kenneth Rothwell, for example, judged the Cycle only a "memorable document in the unfinished search for an American epic," although it succeeded "as well as any other American epic as being an Astoriad [see excerpt above]." Kay conceded a "genuine epic temper" and considered Neihardt above the "popular and household poets," but agreed with Harriet Monroe that it was not the epic of the West.
Such critics may be right—but they may also be wrong. Every age suffers its myopia, not to say prejudices, and our age may well be a third sophistic, a stylistic-structuralist sophistic—and Neihardt was exactly the kind of poet to activate the syndrome. He would not leave the West, as most writers did, and he kept himself aloof from literary coteries and publishing circles. His rural seclusion undoubtedly denied him the personal contacts that assist the building of a literary reputation. On the other hand, it enriched his sense of man in the natural world…. (pp. 315-16)
Critics may also be wrong, or at least partly wrong, about the style of the Cycle. Kay's denunciation of neihardt's "enslavement to outmoded form and diction" has some justification, particularly in the early epics, where Neihardt too profusely employed contractions like 'tis,' twas, and twixt, interjections like lo and hark to presage emphasis, and such rhetorical questions as "What augury in orniscopic words / Did you swart sibyls on the morning scrawl?" Words like orniscopic, yon, and swart distressed critics too, as did "inappropriate" allusions to classic myth or Rabelais. The meaning of the quoted line, however, is exact if the words are examined carefully. Awkward flaws almost disappeared in the later epics, and allusions of any sort should not unduly exasperate critics in an age dominated by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. In Neihardt, such references as "comrades of Jason and his crew" to describe the Ashley-Henry men derive from his sense of human experience as timeless; he had absorbed from Bergson the theory of continuity in flow. Judgments on the Cycle too often seem to rest on superficial reading and misapplication of lyric standards. Blends of style, fused levels of language, rhetorical questions, and classical references are defended by various critics as necessary accoutrements of epic. Epics are not written for the short attention-span. (p. 317)
A Cycle of the West is not written in heroic couplets, as some critics assume. Neihardt had labored long over his verse form and selected pentameter as a line long enough for epic dignity and better suited to English cadences than the classical hexameter; as he himself explained, he used the techniques of blank verse and added two-line rhyme, not couplets, because rhyme enriched the tone and forced a tighter precision…. As he worked with meter Neihardt manipulated pause and stress for flexibility and used his "sound mosaic" in vowel and consonant combinations to carry complex emotional overtones…. In many lines sound webbed to sense builds emotional tone, as in the description of the Beecher Island fight in The Song of the Indian Wars…. [His] lines are clearly not the work of a clumsy stylist, nor is Neihardt's ability to blend into his dignified epic style Indian idiom or trapper phrases, or the rich Irish brogue of Mike Fink. Neihardt's lines were written from his belief that poetry was meant to be heard, particularly epic poetry, based as it is on oral tradition.
If skeptical critics are wrong about their judgments of Neihardt, and A Cycle of the West is destined to stand in the future as an—or the—American epic, its durable qualities should be discoverable today, even though epics are likely to share the fate of a prophet in his own country. How well does the Cycle meet established criteria for an American epic?
To begin with, it tells a rousing story of heroes and heroic action—history in the making, for in concert if not individually, the fur-trade men and the Indians certainly affected the destiny of America. In seeking to "preserve a mood of race courage" and "remind men that they are finer than they think," Neihardt drew arresting pictures of brave men in action…. (pp. 317-19)
Neihardt's heroes, mostly drawn from real men, are given sufficient authenticity, but in details of character are adjusted to the needs of epic: Mike Fink, for example, is considerably deloused. Critics who faulted Neihardt for putting too elevated language into the mouths of his characters may be forgetting that epic heroes cannot be given the full-blooded portraits necessary for characters in novels. The epic hero must be generalized to embody universal human experience. (p. 319)
The Cycle meets the requirement of "spaciousness," both in setting and in theme. The Songs cover the area of the American West from the Missouri River to the Pacific in a panorama of formidable snowy mountains, tongue-swelling deserts, lush valleys with crystal streams or tumbling rivers and dangerous rapids. (p. 320)
Expansiveness of theme is clear in the Songs, but its full impact requires more than a single reading. The one great theme in literature, Neihardt said more than once, must be the relation of man to the cosmos and to other men. In the Songs he intended both a structural and a thematic progression, in time and space from the departure of the Ashley-Henry men in 1822 to the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890; from St. Louis, the point of embarkation, to the Pacific coast. This progression covers the opening of the West by the fur-trapper explorers, and in the last two Songs the displacement of Indian tribes by white men. (pp. 320-21)
The thematic progression, the real point of the Cycle, rests on Neihardt's belief that values operate on a vertical, not a horizontal, scale, and that men must respect each level of values without confusing the lower with the higher. The Song of Three Friends explores the values of physical courage, lowest on the scale but essential, for courage is necessary to all values. In this Song the heroes perpetrate tragedy because physical courage cannot solve problems that demand moral force. Fink is blinded by wounded pride, Carpenter by inarticulateness, Talbeau by anger. At the end, Talbeau's belated repentance, when he realizes that he has no right to play God by assuming Fink's punishment, prepares for the rise of value level in the next Song. The Song of Hugh Glass lifts the level to magnanimity as Hugh progresses from lust for vengeance to recognition of its dehumanizing force when he sees his face in a pool, and then begins to learn the way out of hate through forgiveness and love—the "miracle of being loved at all" and the "privilege of loving to the end." The lower values serve a purpose, for hate has saved Hugh's life by prodding him on. The Song of Jed Smith develops the value of spiritual faith, the security of man in a cosmos where all creatures and all nature are linked in a spiritual whole. (p. 321)
The last two Songs about the defeat of the Indians rise to the level of self-sacrifice for the good of the group in The Song of the Indian Wars, where brave men fight valiantly—men on both sides—and to the level of the Christian ethic in The Song of the Messiah, where Neihardt shows in Sitanka the victory of the spirit over physical defeat. (p. 322)
Like the Greek epics, the Songs are informed by a balanced, compassionate objectivity about the lot of mankind trying to survive against odds. The sense of universal experience runs through the epic in sharp pictorial scenes…. (pp. 322-23)
The real power of epics, according to Thomas Greene, comes from the movement through archetypal images or themes. In this respect the Cycle takes on stature in the interweaving of archetypal experiences of men. Immediately prominent is the theme of the integrated universe, the kinship of man and nature, chiefly textured in the metaphor and in the attention to birds and animals. (p. 323)
The archetype of man against a chancy world runs through the Cycle, often in choric prophesies or wry reminders of universal uncertainty—the "unseen player" that stacks the deck…. Other archetypes include the noble sacrifice and also the tragic waste of war, when white men and Indians exert all but superhuman energies and rise to heroic heights to destroy each other for essentially the same goals. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull become archetypes of the conquered hero, meeting death courageously—summing up, as Crazy Horse does directly in his death chant, the tragedy of a defeated society.
The Messiah archetype appears in the final Song, interwoven with the cycle-of-sin pattern strong in The Song of Three Friends and The Song of Hugh Glass—temptation, fall, repentance, atonement, and redemption. The betrayal theme epitomizes human experience, for men are always betrayed by their expectations of life and of their fellows; they save themselves only by learning to love past imperfections. The Messiah theme parallels the quest for spiritual truth, the archetype that dominates the Cycle. (pp. 323-24)
The Song of Jed Smith, the last Song written, actually completes the theme by showing that men can live by the spiritual principle; Jed's life demonstrated the possibility. Other archetypal images might also be traced; for example, it is possible to see in the Hugh Glass story an archetype of the artist in an unsympathetic world. (p. 324)
Lucile F. Aly, "John G. Neihardt and the American Epic," in Western American Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 4, February, 1979, pp. 309-25.