John G. Neihardt

Neihardt’s Epic Poetry and the Troubled History of the American West

By Daniel Clausen

Neihardt’s lyrics, like most lyrics poems, don’t really concern themselves with history or narrative. Rather, they try to capture and evoke short moments, but moments that happen over and over again like the return of spring, or the birth of a child. Neihardt’s lyrics are often highly symbolic and sometimes even a little vague, and rely on the reader having some familiarity with the scene described and the traditions of poetry. His epic poetry is exactly the opposite.

Epic poetry is not merely poetry that deals with grand moments or ideas, though this current use of “epic” as an adjective is not completely inaccurate. Instead, epic poetry is a distinct genre that tells the story of a historical figure or event. Broadly speaking, epics are poems about heroes and heroic acts. They often deal with either founding of a new “civilization” (or nation, or era); or tell the story of how a hero bravely faces certain doom, and eventually dies a heroic, worthy death.

Tim Anderson’s new biography of Neihardt tells the story of how, as Neihardt reached thirty, he knew that he wanted to write an epic poem. This poem, like the epics of Homer and Virgil that Neihardt had read and loved, would tell a long and heroic story, and in doing so it would present the poet’s understanding of the world, of virtue, and even what it means to be human. Neihardt was planning to write about the French Revolution. Luckily for us his wife Mona pointed out that he had material enough, “right under his feet,” with the story of Hugh Glass. So much for France.

But shaping an epic out of Western American history was not an easy task. Americans have long had some bad habits in thinking about our history—the worst of which is doing what Neihardt almost did and thinking that we have no history worth writing about—that “historic” events occur in Europe or at least “the old world.” It’s a commonplace occurrence to hear a westerner especially call the place they call home “new” and say something like “there’s really no history here.” This erasure is astonishing, and dangerous. There is history here, of course. Our history includes one of the most complex and dynamic civilizations in the world: the civilization of Native Americans. It is that history, and most particularly the story of the encounter between that civilization and European civilization that would eventually make up much of Neihardt’s Cycle of the West, the five book epic focused on the Plains Indians and the explorers, trappers, and soldiers who interacted with them.

Neihardt is not the only writer to see the potential for an epic in this historical story. As Paul Olson, professor emeritus of the UNL English department writes, other plains writers also felt their history was good raw material for an epic. He says, it “may be that the plains writers had witnessed or had been told of heroic deeds done in their time, or almost their time, by people whom they knew and whom their fathers or mothers knew. They had grown up in a big world” (266). This nearness made heroism seem more real, and the epic more available as a genre. It helped Neihardt write about “ordinary people striving against hardship that the man in the street could understand. Neihardt believed in the heroic potential of common people” (Aly 6). And in fact, Neihardt actually was able to meet first hand people who had been present at some of the events he wrote about, including, most famously, Nicolas Black Elk.

Reading Neihardt’s epics from our twenty first century perspective, we have to be careful to appreciate the ways in which his attitudes are shaped by his time. Such an awareness can also help readers better judge the ways in which Neihardt’s epic is unique. Most striking is Neihardt’s treatment and usage of Indians in the epic’s books The Indian Wars and The Song of the Messiah. The historical figures who populate The Indian Wars are in many ways a good example of a fairly generous attitude toward Indians at the time. These figures are not wooden, 1950s Hollywood Indians. Neither are they the “noble savage” of European American literary imagination (such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans), and the depictions certainly aren’t overtly racist and demeaning (as, for instance, in the Little House books). In a letter, Neihart wrote that: “I am not interested in Indians as Indians—only as people in a peculiar situation. Human nature in the grip of fate—not Indian nature as a curiosity—interests me.” (Young 49)
The Indian characters are plausible—if also poetically heightened—humans.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of how these epics deal with Native American are clear in the section on the “Council on the Powder” in The Indian Wars. Lucile Aly notes that Neihardt’s major source for this scene is Charles Eastman’s Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. Whether or not the council actually took place is not clear, but Neihardt trusts Eastman’s account. Since Eastman was a Santee Dakota, and may well have had knowledge that was dismissed by European-American historians who were Neihardt’s contemporaries. This is also a scene in which “poetic license” is exercised. Poetic License is the prerogative of poets who dramatize history to diverge somewhat from what can be historically verified. Historians are concerned with the facts of what happened, but poets, and certainly Neihardt is also concerned with the feeling and meaning of what happened. Thus poets are apt to revise words from the records, or describe a scene or moment that was not recorded but is still plausible.

One prime example is the speech of Red Cloud:
The feast now being finished, Red Cloud stood
Still pondering his words with mouth set grim;
But men felt thunder in the hush of him
And knew what lightning struggled to be wise
Behind the hawklike brooding of the eyes

It is easy to see how the beat and couplet rhyme of the poem, at its best, create a speed that draws the reader forward. The metaphors are drawn from the natural world, with thunder and lightening, important to Native culture, figuring prominently. It is difficult to judge how much Neihardt was influenced by the conventions of his day, or perhaps his own interactions with Native Americans (especially the Omaha near his home in Bancroft) in writing this scene. But it does read as plausible—and Red Cloud’s speech is stirring. The rightness of his cause seems clear:

My friends, ‘twas many snows ago
When first we welcomed white men. Now we know
Their hearts are bad and their words are lies…
My friends, if you would have these things tomorrow,
Forget the way our fathers taught us all.
As though you planned to live till mountains fall,
Seek out all things men need and pile them high.
Be fat yourselves and let the hungry die;
Be warm yourselves and let the naked freeze.

This is certainly quite the indictment of American consumerism, whether of the 19th century or the 21st. Classicist David Young points to Neihardt’s emulation of Homer in this “absolute frankness and fairness with which he treats both sides” (50). I would agree, with one warning. We need to recognize the ways in which the glorification of the Indian heroes (and they were certainly heroic) is troublesome in so much as they are doomed heroes. Of course, this is a part of the appeal of the epic. The European heroes (in this case the white trappers and soldiers) are founding something, while the Indian heroes struggle valiantly but ultimately fruitlessly. To some degree this is true—the wars, maltreatment, and degradation of the Native Americans in the United States is an enduring and ongoing injustice. But it is not a story without hope; as events as far removed in time as the Trial of Standing Bear, or the repatriation of Pawnee land attest.

The problem with poetic license, of course, is that it can introduce a certain interpretation to events. It might read something back into history that wasn’t actually there. But this fault is inevitable. The only correction is to read with an awareness of Neihardt’s moment. What is perhaps insidious in Neihardt’s depiction of Native heroism is the broadening of a personal tragedy into an inescapable tragedy for a whole people. To swallow too completely his sense of inevitable doom for his heroes creates a subtle but dangerously ahistorical view. If we read the Cycle of the West without an awareness of our own recent history, we run the risk of creating a view of Native American’s as forever a subject of the past, not of people who still live here and have a vibrant living tradition and culture. Too much glorification of doomed Indian courage diminishes Indian continued survival, resistance, and flourishing.

So in reading Neihardt we are confronted with some of the same questions Neihardt himself wrestled with. How can we recognize the humanity of those individuals whom the past has put beyond our reach? Neihardt’s answer was to write epic poetry, to seek to do for American Indians and the American West what Homer had done for the Trojans, Greeks, and the Bronze Age Aegean world. Whether he succeeded is up to the reader to judge, but certainly he sought the human spirit at its best in his epic poems. And his epic poetry can still present that grand sense of and adventure to readers young and old—and if it takes us even to the beginning of an awareness of the heroes of the past, then it has done a valuable service.

Works Cited

Olson, Paul. “The Epic and Plains Literature: Rolvaag, Cather, and Neihardt.” Prairie Schooner. 55.1/2. 1981. 263-

Young, David C. Classical and Modern Literature in Literature & the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. ed. Jaye, Michael C., and Ann Chalmers Watts. 1981. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Aly, Lucile. “John G. Neihardt and the American Epic“. Western American Literature. 1981.

Neihardt, John G. Cycle of the West. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991.