Thursday, October 6, 2011

John Neihardt, Lonesome Trail (1907)

Illustration for "The Nemesis of the Deuces" 
Born in Illinois, John Neihardt (1881-1973) grew up in eastern Nebraska and as a young man lived in Bancroft, near the Omaha reservation. A poet, he developed a life-long interest in Native American cultures. Much of his writing concerns the settlement of the West and the displacement of the Indians.

Lonesome Trail
was his first collection of stories, many of which had appeared in the magazines. He lists seven of them in the opening pages of the book: Munsey’s, Tom Watson’s, Overland Monthly, Scrap Book, All-Story, Smart Set, and The American Magazine.

Style and tone. While a few of the stories are about whites on the frontier, most of them are about Indians. And most of those attempt to assume an Indian point of view and style of storytelling. They have a sober, weighty tone not unlike the accounts of figures in the Old Testament.

They’re told with a matter-of-fact style that accepts the norms and customs of another culture without question. While Native Americans surely had a sense of humor and a capacity for irony, these stories are more high-minded in their purpose. They seem meant to carry the weight of life lessons, not simply to entertain.

Missouri, Oto, Ponca Indians, Karl Bodmer (1809-1893)
His portrayal of the Omaha, Ponca, and other tribes he knew can apparently make some claim to authenticity. Susan La Flesche-Picotte, the first Native American doctor, provided a note with one of Neihardt’s stories in a 1907 issue of Munsey’s. There she commended Neihardt for showing Indians as “beautiful, noble, and dignified” and for his “insight into the mysticism and spiritual nature of the race.”

Neihardt was a poet, and you realize at times you are reading the words of a writer with a poet’s sensibility. This happens typically when he has occasion to describe the prairie or the weather. There’s not a lot of this, however. Neihardt has stories to tell, and he seems intent on moving on to what happens next, with a kind of stark simplicity.

"The Look in the Face," Munsey's July 1906
Theme. Nearly all the 20 stories in the collection have a single theme. From the first, “The Alien,” about a half-breed who tries to befriend a wolf, to the last, “The Nemesis of the Deuces,” about a guilt-ridden drifter, they are about loss and isolation. Usually there’s a murder.

In “Feather for Feather,” White Cloud claims wrongly that he’s earned a feather by taking a Sioux chief’s scalp-lock in battle. In fact, he stole the scalp-lock from Little Weasel, who kills White Cloud in a fit of rage. Expelled from the tribe for killing a tribesman, Little Weasel gains re-entry—and gets his feather—by starting a prairie fire that burns over the tribe’s camp.

In “The Scars,” a man tells of transporting a prisoner from Pierre to St. Louis, where he is to be hanged for murder. The killing we learn, was in self-defense, and the victim had once left his killer to die so that he could marry a woman they both loved. When the prisoner fails to seize an opportunity to make an escape, he explains to his escort that he is not a coward just because he is going to be hanged. 

Achieving manhood. A frequent theme in the stories is the transition from boyhood to manhood, usually achieved in a Dream of greatness that comes as part of a ritual of initiation. Greatly to be desired is a dream of being a great warrior, pitiless and strong, as one mother hopes for her son. A dream of a great holy man or medicine man is also welcome. It means a direct line to Wakunda, the Great Spirit.

Neihardt’s stories are typically about failure to have a dream that promises greatness. His young males or more often than not disabled, physically weak, or taken by other less manly interests. Failing to achieve manhood means being relegated to the ranks of the women, whose job is to carry water and wood. Or such males may leave the tribe altogether, to wander on their own.

"The Lonesome Trail" published Feb. 1906
In “The Singer of the Ache,” an Indian boy fails to have a fortuitous dream. Instead, he has a vision of a woman in the moon, which has the effect of filling him with melancholy. A disappointment to the tribe, he happens to see a white woman on a northbound steamboat. He follows it, but eventually returns, having never found her. He is expelled from the tribe as a fool. 

Red and white. Whites and Indians cross paths in only a few of the stories. In “A Political Coup at Little Omaha,” Neihardt segues into farce, as Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress attempt to win the Indian vote by fair means or foul, and in total ignorance of their constituents.

Only a handful of stories are just about whites. In a dark tale, “The Revolt of a Sheep,” a man awaits execution for the slow and painful killing of a priest who has fathered a child by the man’s wife. In “The Nemesis of Deuces,” a man mournfully tells of a friend who gave up his life in a prairie fire so that one of them could escape on their only horse. 

John Neihardt's study, Bancroft, Nebraska
Wrapping up. Neihardt’s Indian stories may seem a little beyond the margins of the western with its usual concerns. But a look at the geography and the climate of Neihardt’s stories, and you recognize them as familiar “western” territory. For that reason it makes sense to include them in the big picture of western fiction.

The Lonesome Trail is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive.

Image credits:
Illustration for "The Nemesis of the Deuces" by F. E. Schoonover
Illustration for "The Look in the Face" by E. M. Ashe
All-Story cover,  FictionMags Index
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: The Westerner (1940)


  1. Sounds very interesting. I will look into this. Love his study!

  2. Been to that study myself. A terrific post, Ron. Is it a cliche to say it really hits home? Nice work.

  3. Great post! I had never heard of John Neihardt before. As usual, your multi-faceted analysis was very informative.

    Are you planning on turning these early Western posts into some sort of study or collection?

  4. Charles, yeah his study has been preserved.

    Richard, Neihardt writes of the Indian tribes I learned about in Nebraska history classes.

    Cullen, Neihardt had a big following with BLACK ELK SPEAKS back in the 1960s about the same time as Carlos Castaneda. Yes, there are plans for a book.