Early Years and Education
In 1881, John G. Neihardt was born in Sharpsburg, Illinois, to impoverished parents who passed their interest in reading and the creative life on to him, but found it difficult to make a living in the American Midwest. His father named him John Greenleaf after the popular American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. (Neihardt later changed his middle name to Gneisenau in honor of a German military officer who helped defeat Napoleon.) John showed early signs of being a precocious child, and at the age of eleven during an illness, he had a mystical experience that convinced him of his vocation as a poet. His father, often unemployed, abandoned the family when John was about ten, and his mother moved with her son to Kansas and then Nebraska to live near her parents.
Neihardt entered Nebraska Normal School (now Nebraska State Teachers' College) at the age of twelve, working as the college bell-ringer to pay his way. He excelled to a degree beyond that of his classmates, and enrolled in a special classics program. He graduated in 1897 at the age of sixteen and immediately began writing poetry, determined to live his vocation as a poet. In 1900, he published The Divine Enchantment, a book-length poem about Hindu deities, and in 1904, another long poem, The Wind God's Wooing, about a Greek fisherman turned into a god. Neither was successful, but both are early indications of Neihardt's fascination with spirituality and cultures outside the European-American mainstream. Around this time, Neihardt lived with his mother in Nebraska near an Omaha reservation, which probably provided his first acquaintance with American Indians.
Family and Early Career
In 1908, Neihardt married Mona Martinsen, a sculptor who had trained with Rodin in Paris. She came to know Neihardt through his published poetry, and they conducted their courtship by mail, marrying the day after they met in person. They were married for 50 years, until Mona died in 1958, and had four children. In these early years, Neihardt published three more volumes of poetry: A Bundle of Myrrh (1907), Man-Song (1909), and The Stranger at the Gate (1912). Some of the poems in these volumes were collected as The Quest and published in 1916. He also wrote numerous short stories, some of which were collected in The Lonesome Trail (1907), two novels — The Dawn-Builder (1911) and Life's Lure (1914) — and four closet dramas (plays intended to be read rather than performed), two of which were later published as Two Mothers (1921). An account of a 2000-mile canoe trip on the Missouri River, published in serial form in 1909 and 1910, was published as The River and I in 1910. He wrote for Midwestern papers and for the New York Times (literary reviews). His early poetry was received respectfully; the influential editor Harriet Monroe even compared him to the radical American modernist poet, Ezra Pound. In the end, however, the quality of his early poetry was limited: It was highly romantic and even sentimental, the language often ornate and decorative. Some may argue that his location in the Midwest placed him outside the most significant literary community of his day, and that his art suffered from the lack of influence and support. Certainly, as a poet he was a minor figure compared with such young modernists as Robert Frost, for example, whose first collection of poetry was published in 1914.
From 1913 to 1941, Neihardt concentrated his artistic energies on writing A Cycle of the West, an epic poem about the American West composed of five separate songs. During these years, he developed the pattern of doing other kinds of writing to earn money and sometimes to acquire material, then allowing himself an extended period of time to work on his poetry. For example, Outing magazine commissioned The River and I. It was published separately as a first-person adventure or travelogue, but it also supplied a great deal of the background material for The Song of Hugh Glass (1915) and The Song of Three Friends (1919), which were the first two sections of A Cycle of the West. Neihardt's 1920 biography of Jedediah Smith (an earlier American explorer who was the first to cross the Sierra Nevada), The Splendid Wayfaring, provided material for The Song of Jed Smith, published in 1941. Actually, it was while searching for material for the fifth poem of the series (The Song of the Messiah) that Neihardt first got in touch with Black Elk, visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation with his son Sigurd in August 1930, and returning with his daughter Enid in 1931. Black Elk Speaks was published in 1932 and The Song of the Messiah in 1935.
From 1912 to 1920, Neihardt worked as literary editor for the Minneapolis Journal. In 1917, the University of Nebraska awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature and, in 1921, he was appointed Poet Laureate of Nebraska. In 1923, he was given a nonteaching chair at the University of Nebraska. During these years he also began to conduct speaking tours, which were enthusiastically received and financially profitable. He published The Song of the Indian Wars in 1925 and his Collected Poems in 1926, for which many people expected him to win the 1927 Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer, however, was not awarded to him. Perhaps disillusioned as a result, he stopped writing for six years. During that time, he worked as literary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he continued until 1930. He received an honorary doctorate from Creighton University in Omaha in 1929. The recognition that Neihardt received and did not receive during these years speaks to the regional nature of his reputation and the way his subject matter, the settlement of the American West, defined him.
When The Song of the Messiah was published in 1935, expectations again ran high for a Pulitzer, which — again — Neihardt did not receive. He returned to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1936 to 1938, and began a long term as associate editor of the Mark Twain Quarterly with its inaugural issue in 1936. A Cycle of the West was finally published in its entirety in 1941. From 1944 to 1946, Neihardt served as Director of Information for the Office of Indian Affairs and continued to work for the organization in a more limited capacity until 1948. From 1949 to 1961, he was the Poet in Residence and Lecturer in English literature at the University of Missouri at Concordia, where he remained a popular instructor. Neihardt's position at the University of Missouri, which he accepted at the age of 68, was his first secure job; he had made a living until that point by patching together pieces of work-for-hire, temporary editing stints, and the poetry to which he was devoted.
Rather late in life, Neihardt published a third and final novel, When the Tree Flowered (1951). It is a fictional Indian autobiography that at least one of his biographers considers his best prose work. The novel is based on material from the Pine Ridge Reservation; its title will remind the reader of the symbolic flowering stick or tree depicted in Black Elk's vision that the Sioux used ceremonially in the sun dance. A little understood aspect of Neihardt's work in later life is his experimentation with paranormal phenomena, related to his interest in spirituality.
John Neihardt died in 1973. Two years before his death, an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show provoked the most viewer response in the history of the show. In 1961, an act of the legislature installed a bust of Neihardt, sculpted by his wife Mona Martinson, in the Nebraska Capitol rotunda, when the governor proclaimed the first Sunday in August John Neihardt Day. His daughter Hilda has published recent (1991) editions of his work.