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 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 of A 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.)