John G. Neihardt Neihardt, John G(neisenau) - Essay

John Greenleaf Neihardt


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Harriet Monroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Frank Luther Mott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Berenice Van Slyke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harriet Monroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Rose BenéT

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


["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.

Lucy Lockwood Hazard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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W. E. Black

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth S. Rothwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Philip K. Bock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jerry Gallagher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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Lucile F. Aly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John T. Flanagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lucile F. Aly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)