|Illustration for "The Nemesis of the Deuces"
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)
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
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
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
The Lonesome Trail is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive.
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
Coming up: The Westerner (1940)