Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859
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 Auguste Rodin. Martinsen and Neihardt married and had four children: Enid, Sigurd, Hilda, and Alice. The family made their home in Bancroft until 1921, when Neihardt moved his family from the harsh conditions of Nebraska to the milder climate of Missouri.
In 1912 Neihardt embarked on the writing project that would win him his first major accolades from the larger literary world. At the age of thirty-one, Neihardt began to write a series of epic poems celebrating life on the Great Plains of the Midwest. The poems, five in all, had their basis in the Homeric styles found in the Illiad and the Odyssey. They were each published as independent works: The Song of Hugh Glass (1915), The Song of Three Friends (1919), The Song of the Indian Wars (1925), The Song of the Messiah (1935), and The Song of Jed Smith (1941). The five poems were later published together as A Cycle of the West.
Following the publication of The Song of Three Friends, the Nebraska legislature took an unprecedented step, introducing a legislative declaration in 1921 to make John G. Neihardt the poet laureate of Nebraska. This action was the first of its kind in the United States. Neihardt remains Nebraska’s only poet laureate; he was given the posthumous title of “poet laureate in perpetuity” in 1982.
Neihardt was meticulous for accuracy even while embellishing some historic events for the sake of poetic expression. While researching material for The Song of the Messiah, Neihardt was told that a cousin of the great Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, still lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Hoping to get more information on Crazy Horse, Neihardt discovered a much richer story in the life and teachings of this Lakota holy man named Black Elk. Black Elk agreed, through an interpreter, to an extensive series of interviews in the spring of 1931. Those interviews became Neihardt’s most well-known and beloved work, Black Elk Speaks.
Black Elk Speaks was a milestone in its description of Native American spirituality, represented in Black Elk’s Great Vision of the Hoop of the World. Moreover, Black Elk was witness to many historic conflicts between the United States Cavalry and Plains Indian tribes, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Originally published in 1932, Black Elk Speaks received minimal attention and seemed destined for obscurity. However, the work was brought to light in the 1950’s when the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung referred to Black Elk’s Great Vision as a perfect example of his archetypal theories. Neihardt’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show on June 12, 1972, further popularized Black Elk Speaks, which has since been translated into over a dozen foreign languages and is taught in high school and college classrooms throughout the United States.
At the age of sixty-eight, Neihardt was appointed poet-in-residence and lecturer in English at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Neihardt returned to Nebraska in his latter years, working on his autobiographies All Is but a Beginning and Patterns and Coincidences. The poet felt “the great change” coming over him in the fall of 1973, and he spent his final days at the home of his daughter, Hilda, near Columbia, Missouri.
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