John Greenleaf Neihardt Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

John Gneisenau Neihardt was born John Greenleaf Neihardt on January 8, 1881, in a two-room rented farmhouse near Sharpsburg, Illinois. Later, his family moved into a one-room sod house in Kansas. Neihardt grew up on the edge of the frontier, gathering buffalo chips for fuel, as the great herds had vanished only a few years earlier.

Two experiences deeply impressed the young Neihardt: the sight of the Missouri River in flood, and a fever-induced, mystical dream in which he vividly experienced flight. These two powerful experiences turned him toward poetry. He continued to gather raw materials from his closeness to nature’s beauty and power and through his lifelong contact with Plains Indians, fur trappers, migrant workers, and cowboys.

Neihardt went directly from elementary school to Nebraska Normal School. Then after harvesting beets, pulling weeds, and teaching in a Nebraska country school, he set out on a hobo journey to Kansas City, Missouri, all the while revising his first book of poems, The Divine Enchantment.

Next Neihardt worked as an editor for the Omaha Daily News and began to establish a fellowship with the Omaha Indians, whose tribal chant rhythms are directly reflected in The Wind God’s Wooing. His collected lyric poems in A Bundle of Myrrh became an immediate success and brought him an offer to finance a solo adventure down the Missouri River in a homemade boat, documented in...

(The entire section is 471 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Greenleaf Neihardt (NI-hahrt) was born in 1881 near Sharpsburg, Illinois, to Nicholas and Alice Culler Neihardt. His father gave him the middle name “Greenleaf” after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The young Neihardt later changed his middle name to “Gneisenau” after an ancestral name. When Neihardt was eleven years old, he became deathly ill. While lying in the delirium caused by the illness, he experienced a life-altering “fever dream.” It was during this “dream” that Neihardt said he felt the presence of a “spirit brother” urging him to a life of writing and poetry.

In 1900 the family moved to the small community of Bancroft, Nebraska. At age thirteen, Neihardt attended Nebraska Normal College (now Wayne State College) in Wayne, Nebraska. Although his desire for education was intense, his mother knew that the family finances could not support a college education. She arranged for her son to ring the school bell (which signaled the start and end of classes) in exchange for tuition. While in college, Neihardt was a voracious reader of the classics, and he quickly learned Latin and Greek. It was also during his college years that Neihardt met Bill Durrin, a tombstone carver who was well-versed in Eastern philosophies. Neihardt was introduced to the Upanishads and The Bible in India, works that influenced his writing the rest of his life.

In 1900, at the age of nineteen, Neihardt published his first poem, “The Song of the Hoe,” in the Youth’s Companion periodical. That same year he published his first book of poetry, The Divine Enchantment. The work was an extended poem celebrating the influences of Eastern mysticism and teachings. Even at this early age, Neihardt was his own harshest critic: He collected and burned the work. Only a dozen or so copies survived.

In 1908 another collection of Neihardt’s poetry, A Bundle of Myrrh, was discovered by the bohemian culture on the East Coast. The work attracted the attention of Mona Martinsen, a wealthy young student of the Parisian sculptor...

(The entire section is 859 words.)