Mari Sandoz Essay - Critical Essays

Sandoz, Mari (Susette)


Mari (Susette) Sandoz 1896–1966

(Also wrote under pseudonym of Mari Macumber) American nonfiction writer, novelist, short story writer, and historian. Sandoz is widely considered an outstanding historian of the American West, as well as an accomplished regional novelist. Although she was not formally trained as a historian, her work has been praised for its accuracy in describing the development and settling of the Great Plains. Believing that earlier books on the Old West had relied on romanticism and had grossly distorted historical fact, Sandoz became known as an exceptional authority on the West because of her candid realism and strong narrative skill.

Sandoz was born in northwest Nebraska and raised by Swiss immigrant parents. Her childhood was typical of many frontier children. As the eldest of six children, she bore the burden of tending to her younger brothers and sisters as well as performing heavy physical chores. While in her teens, Sandoz was sent out in a blizzard to retrieve the family's livestock that had strayed. As a result of the exposure to the sun and snow during that incident, she was permanently blinded in her left eye. At seventeen Sandoz completed the eighth grade and became a teacher at a nearby rural school. She later attended the University of Nebraska.

Sandoz's father had a significant impact on her life and writing career. Her first book, Old Jules (1935), is a narrative based on the life of her father. Jules Sandoz was the quintessential pioneer. He was one of the original immigrants to settle along the Niobrara river in Nebraska during the 1880s and had vigorously recruited many families to migrate near his homestead. He became a dominant figure in the region. Sandoz was often the victim of her father's violent temper and their relationship was strained, yet she saw his compassionate side in his relationship with the Indians who lived on a nearby Sioux reservation. These Indians were frequent guests of the Sandoz family. During their visits Sandoz heard many colorful stories of past Indian wars and such historical figures as Chief Sitting Bull and General George A. Custer. These stories influenced her use of idioms and enabled her to employ the symbolic language patterns of the Sioux. After the publication of Old Jules Sandoz spent the remainder of her career researching and writing about the Western frontier.

Sandoz's nonfiction is collectively known as The Great Plains Series or The Trans-Missouri Series. Crazy Horse (1942), the first book published in this series, is a picturesque biography of Chief Crazy Horse. Sandoz researched his life through government files and included Indian folktales she had heard as a child. Critical reception to the book was generally positive, although some critics maintained that Sandoz's method of writing from the point of view of an Indian made the book difficult to read. Cheyenne Autumn (1953) is an epic chronicle of a group of Cheyennes and their two-thousand-mile march from an Oklahoma reservation back to their Montana homeland. Although most critics praised Sandoz for the book's authenticity and scholarship, some questioned her objectivity, charging that she was overly sympathetic toward the Indians. The remaining three books of the Great Plains Series, The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Cattlemen (1958), and The Beaver Men (1964), are also historical studies of the American West.

Sandoz has also written several novels for both adult and juvenile readers. Her adult novels never received the critical attention accorded her nonfiction. However, her first novel, Slogum House (1937), became notorious for its plot and strong language. Set in a mythical Nebraska county, Slogum House is about a ruthless woman and her quest for power and wealth. To achieve her goal, she offers her daughters to influential men in exchange for political and business favors, and openly encourages her sons to murder anyone who opposes her. This book was banned in Omaha and in several other Nebraska libraries. Capital City (1939) is an allegorical novel about the threat of fascism in modern American society. Although critics compared this book with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, they found its message too sensational to be credible.

Sandoz's keen sense of history is prevalent throughout her work. She eloquently explored the conflict between the Plains Indians and the settlers, and recorded the Indian's demise in journalistic, yet lyrical prose. Having grown up on the prairie, Sandoz was attuned to nature and recognized the need to protect and preserve it. Although she deeply regretted the ways in which the West was finally conquered by the white man, critics believe that her vibrant love of the land and of America itself prevail in her work.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)

William Allen White

[Old Jules] is the story of a pioneer in the high plains of the trans-Missouri country—western Nebraska. To understand Old Jules thoroughly and to get the sap out of him, to see him in his rugged beauty, one must understand his habitat. The trans-Mississippi country rises, an inclined plane, from the Father of Waters. In six hundred miles the plane is tilted from five hundred feet above sea level to five thousand feet, at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The land along the valley through the eastern Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and eastern Kansas is much like that from the Mississippi east to the base of the Alleghenies, rich alluvial soil, loam mostly, where corn grows wherever there is adequate rainfall. There crops are fairly certain. But after the land has risen more than 2500 feet into the thin, dry air, rainfall is never predictable. It is a land of strong contrasts, floods and drouths. Here the buffalo and the horse Indians of the high plains roamed in the sixties and seventies until the late eighties, the last stand of the red man. Here the regular army after the Civil War appeared as a defender of the settler, and the Indian, the soldier, and the pioneer made a unique and colorful civilization. Spread fairly thin, this rather gaudy pattern of American life covered those high plains in the western Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas, eastern Colorado and Wyoming. This was the area which geographers of the first half of the nineteenth century called 'The Great American Desert.' It was then and is still semi-arid, a...

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Stanley T. Williams

Distrustful of Leatherstocking and of the vast body of sentimental literature of the frontier, some of us have long suspected that the true conqueror of the land was a hero as brutal as its icy winters but, at times, as picturesque as the sunflowers along its sand trails…. Romanticists have tinted the stark fact of such men, and realists have dimmed their romance, until in our present attempts to relive the life of the West we encounter either the Rousseauesque natural man, ennobled beyond all probability, or the free trapper with his ax and rifle, keeping his bare journal, too sterile, too colorless to be the true mirror of the explorer's life. The extraordinary power of [Old Jules] appears to be in conveying truth of event and scene on the frontier in the medium of a style so vital and imaginative that instead of fiction or a trader's diary we read the very minds of these pioneer men and women. (pp. 391-92)

The story of Old Jules himself is absorbing. So are the glimpses of the frontier women, as authentic as those in the untutored pages of St. John de Crèvecoeur of the eighteenth century. I think the story itself a valuable bit of Americana: how Jules Sandoz quarrelled with his father; how he came out of the East in the spring over the pale green prairie to found his home and race. Two passions moved him, to obtain a woman for his home, and to subdue the land. To fulfil the first aim he had four wives, one of whom became...

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Rose C. Feld

["Slogum House"] is a book that none but Mari Sandoz could have written. No other woman would have dared attempt such a background and such a story and no man possesses the intimate knowledge of a feminine mind as strong and corrosive and ruthless as that of Gulla Slogum. "Slogum House" is a brutal book written for strong stomachs, and its author in her strength casts a shadow tall and deep.

Pioneer life—its trials, its hardships, its color—has been the magnet that has drawn the steel of many a novelist. It is an important part of the heritage of the nation, nearer to this generation, as this volume shows, than most persons realize. The years have cast a glamour about it, made up of covered wagons, of strong silent men, of splendid brave women who made fine mates and good mothers. There is truth in this picture but not the whole truth.

"Slogum House" tells the story of pioneer strength divorced from goodness, of greed for land that knows no law and no kindness, of motherhood that uses its power for evil and for gain. It is as though Mari Sandoz, incapable of longer retaining her impatience with the pretty stories of a life she has known and heard about at first hand, had come to the conclusion that the reading world is old enough and mature enough to face the facts of life. It is possible that in her devotion to integrity of fact and scene she has crowded the canvas beyond artistic proportions, but hers is a compulsion that knows no conventional measurements. Like the principal character she depicts, she is ruthless in attaining her desire and, like her, succeeds in becoming a person unique among her kind…....

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Margaret Wallace

It is not altogether unusual, in these literate days, to come upon a first novel of artistic merit. But it is always bound to be something of an event when a first novel not only proves to be admirable on the score of craftmanship but also introduces to the ranks of contemporary novelists a new and original and arresting personality. This is what "Slogum House" does. While it is a first novel, and one to review with surprise and remember with pleasure, it is not a first book. Mari Sandoz's story of her father, "Old Jules," won a non-fiction prize award in 1935.

Geographically the two narratives are similar…. Mari Sandoz shows herself so closely informed of the life of her own country—its history,...

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Clifton Fadiman

The design on the jacket of Mari Sandoz's novel, "Capital City," suggests a bursting bomb. While the book's materials are potentially explosive, I doubt that its final effect on the reader will be more than that of a mild concussion. For one thing, Miss Sandoz is too obviously out to shock: her very sentences show the strain. For another, though the journalistic value of "Capital City" is high, it is simply not a very good novel.

Miss Sandoz aims to pin down with the brass tacks of fact the picture of American Fascism that Sinclair Lewis drew so tellingly in "It Can't Happen Here." In the not-so-imaginary Midwestern State of Kanewa is the not-so-imaginary capital city of Franklin. Things are going on...

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Stanley Walker

Miss Sandoz, that unusual and powerful writer who is best remembered for her story of her lusty father, "Old Jules," now turns her hand to the life and times of the great warrior of the Oglala Sioux, the quiet and deadly one known as Crazy Horse. Her regard for the man is deep, amounting almost to adoration. And this is understandable. For among all those remarkable Plains Indians none was braver than Crazy Horse, and none more steadfast.

The research that obviously has gone into ["Crazy Horse"] is downright astounding. Miss Sandoz has dug into every old report she could find, the government files, faded letters, and in addition she has interviewed scores of persons who might contribute something to...

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Clifton Fadiman

[Mari Sandoz] has been carrying on a fervent historico-literary affair with a dead Indian, the consequence of which is a curious, half-interesting, uneven book called "Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas." (p. 84)

The author has gone to enormous trouble not merely to get at the tangled truth of our own somewhat shameful relations with the Indians of the region but to project her imagination backward in such a manner as practically to identify herself with the Indian mind. The result is a book that is half history, half heroic epic, and not entirely successful as either. Crazy Horse was doubtless a great, if inevitably doomed, leader, but his story is told so completely from his own point of...

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W. R. Burnett

Because of my bias in favor of all accounts and stories of the Old West, I hesitate to state categorically that ["Cheyenne Autumn"] is a great book, but I have a deep suspicion that it is. And I say this in spite of the fact that at times the author annoys and irritates me with her wild partisanship in favor of the Cheyennes. The Indians are shown throughout as high-minded and well-intentioned—even when they are looting, killing and burning. And, with few exceptions, the whites are shown as cowardly, treacherous, drunken and generally repulsive and ridiculous. And yet this very understandable partisanship, particularly in a woman, is part of the strength of this Indian epic. Miss Sandoz … writes of the Cheyennes...

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J. Frank Dobie

Let no one regard "Cheyenne Autumn" as one of those customary attempts by historians to rescue an episode or a figure from oblivion. The episode did not change history, any more than the march of 10,000 Greeks under Xenophon out of Persia changed history, but it has all the elements of that drama. Miss Sandoz has made it into a Lear-like tragedy of displaced persons.

The story begins in the fall of 1878 and ends in the following winter. The place is along 2,000 harsh miles between a guarded reservation camp in Oklahoma and the mouth of Powder River on the Yellowstone. The main actors are Dull Knife and Little Wolf, who fulfilled the conception of a great chief: "Forget himself and remember only the...

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W. R. Burnett

The fate of the Plains Indian was inextricably bound up with the fate of the buffalo; they fell together. This is the story Miss Sandoz has to tell [in "The Buffalo Hunters"], and she tells it beautifully, forcefully, epically. She knows what she is writing about to the minutest detail; she knows the Great Plains country and loves it—not as a tourist but as a native, well aware of its drawbacks and dangers.

A procession of interesting frontier figures, red and white, passes through the narrative, briefly but sharply characterized: Wild Bill Hickok, one of the most controversial figures of the time—they are still arguing about him in some sections of the West; pompous Buffalo Bill, part charlatan,...

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W. R. Burnett

Mari Sandoz has written one good book after another, including "Old Jules," "Cheyenne Autumn" and "Buffalo Hunters." These are solid studies of the Old West, displaying not only great knowledge of an area and a period but a great sympathy and an intuitive understanding; at times this has seemed almost a personal involvement, as if the author had actually lived through the times she described and experienced them at first hand. These books, though listed as fiction, hardly seem like novels at all, but more like memoirs of the time. The story is allowed to take care of itself while incident follows incident—chaotic, seemingly pointless at times, but all contributing to a vivid, naturalistic, almost hallucinatory...

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J. Frank Dobie

"The Cattlemen," by Mari Sandoz, is another essay, following Paul Wellman's "The Trampling Herd," at summing up the whole drama of cows and cow people—women excluded—on the ranges of western America. It begins with a good deal of fancifulness over the first Spanish cattle and ends with the contemporary "ritual" of rodeo riding and roping. The best part of the book is laid in the part of the country with which, despite dutiful reading, Mari Sandoz is most familiar—Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana—the setting for the stronger parts of her books on Crazy Horse, the buffalo hunters, the Cheyennes, and Old Jules, her masterpiece.

Miss Sandoz uses the word dedicated over and over in...

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Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.

There is really nothing new in [Mari Sandoz's telling of "The Battle of the Little Bighorn"], save the quality of the telling itself, and this rises above all previous accounts. This is the author of "Old Jules," bringing the same creative power and style to a great historic theme, enfolding in top-drawer literature what should have been there long ago. It is almost as if this were properly the climactic work of Miss Sandoz's career….

Buffs may disagree with some of Miss Sandoz's interpretations and conclusions, but to the white man that is the basis of the continuing lure of the battle: no one but Indians knew exactly what happened to Custer, and no one will ever know for sure why Custer did what...

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Scott L. Greenwell

Mari Sandoz was a didactic writer. Because of her tendency toward instruction, she found much of American fiction—particularly romantic western novels—thin, "without anything of the push and throb of life, totally inconsequential." She liked bone and muscle in literature. She blamed what she considered the poor quality of domestic fiction on the American writers' tendency to conform to the commercial market, and waged a continuous battle herself against what she termed "eastern editorial rewriting and pressure to recast [her works] on popular western notions." With few exceptions, Sandoz wrote to please herself and considered the market later. In this way she sought to achieve something more lasting, more...

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Helen Winter Stauffer

Mari Sandoz is recognized as a novelist, historian, and biographer, as well as an authority on the Indians of the Great Plains. Her work varies in quality, her novels usually considered least successful, and her histories, particularly her biographies, most trenchant. In the latter she has fused her skill as a writer, her mastery of historical research, and her empathy for her subjects to create works of unique and lasting value. (p. 1)

Mari seemed to make little conscious distinction between methods of writing fiction and those of writing nonfiction. She spoke of using the same techniques for biography and for fiction, except that in biography one must keep as close to the actual story, the actual...

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