John G. Neihardt, Poet Laureate of Nebrask
THERE is only one poet laureate in the Tinted
States. This title that takes one hack to the
days of John Prxdcn. William Wordsworth and
Alfred Tennyson, of Kngland. ha just been htstowed
on John Ci. Neihardt by the Nebraska legislature, Not
onl is he the rirt man who has such an honor con
ferred on him by any state in the I'nion. hut hi is the
only poet since the days of the Cambridge g roup to
have one ot hil long epic poems dealing with American
life published in a volume by itself for use in t ho
tchoola. Two editions were exhausted in i sin 1 yeai
lp to 1914, John G. Neihardt was ai obscure port,
who made his home at Bancroft, Nebraska. For moi
than 20 years he had bun making a study of the
hardships of the earlv pioneers, the fur traders and
the trappers who came into the plains region following
the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark in 1804.
These men he has immortalized in a poem, "The Song
of Hugh Glass." Instant recogni
tion came. I eacnera demanded it
for use in the schools. Then the
Nebraska legislature, in the spring
of 1921 caught the inspiration and
passed the following joint resolu
' Whereas. There is the doflest
connection between the growth of
civilization and the deviiopmen's
of literature, and
'Whereas, wise commonwealths
in all ages have rec . :.rd this
relation by lifting the poet to the
same plane as the statesman and
military chieftain, and
"Whereas. John G. Neihardt,
a citizen of Nebraska, has written
a national epic wherein he has de
veloped the mood of cour
ace with which : pi.nees
explored and subdued our
plains, and thus has in
spired in Americans that
love of the land and its
heroes whereby freat na
tional traditions are built and perpetu
"Whereas, our people wish to exalt
sue' i Ft! of the human spirit, therefore
"Resolved and enacted, by the house
of representatives, the senate concur
ring, that John G. Neihardt be, and hereby
is declared poet laureate of Nebraska.
Laureate was the name first applied to tl who
were honored by the gift of a laurel wreath. It is now
a title i an official of the royal household of Great
Britain '1 hai been recognized then for more than
500 years. The ceremonies conferring the laureate
honors on John G. Neihardt were held at Lincoln,
Nebraska, Jane 18, 1921, They were conducted by the
Nebraska lY.iversity faculty, and the presental m was
made by I ean L. A. Sherman.
This is an auspicious day and date for Nebraska."
said I u $herman. "No other state, it appears, has
by legislative recognition, a poet laureate. No other
tna v fairly say. has such a reason. Nature
has not shaped for as, in this paradise of prairie coun
try, mountains that might become by myth of fancy
the home godl and BSUSes. There is, there can be.
no Olym; no Parnassus lure. Hut we have that
which has given fame to all the sacred groves and
mountains and fountains of spiritual history. We have
the pot t's ruling risiostj and shaping hand.
"The ceremonial that we assembled to witness is
"o means l novel one. In the days when Parnas
li in the routh time of the art-, sons of Apollo
were crowned publicly with his laurel. And so at the
of the Middle tges was Petrarch crowned at the
capttol in Rome. Were our own great new c.
finished, it would have been fitting that the first c
la irean of Nebraska should have been honored it its
Before tin audience which came to witness these
nation ceremonies, came a slender man just 40.
heavy hair and large head would mark him
i ipicuoui in any audience. He was simple of ad--tifttple
as had been his life. The Poel cihard
wai brn m an Unplastered one-room Itructura on a
d farm near Sharpsburg. Illinois, January 8. 1881
Shortly after the birth of this sen the family moved to
Northwestern Kansas, where pioneer c ditions pre
vailed and the family residence was a sod house Five
years later the family went to Kansai City, Missouri
and in 1892 to Wayne. Nebraska, where Neihardt was
educated at the Nebraska Normal School. He wa
poor that he earned his tuition by ringing the chapel
bell hourly to announce the Convening of classes.
Even in his youth there was a noticeable mysticism
and melancholia in the nature of Nnhardt. s a little
boy he wanted to become an inventor and the back
yard of the Kai s;,s City home was strcwi with cabl
line ly Stems, tunnell and grades and turbine enginci
When the boy was 10 years of age hi father died
and his mother supported herself and children h .
ing for 50 or 75 cents a day It was while living in
Kansas ( ity that the awe and psTVadn atmosphere
of the West settled with all its subtle meaning into
his nature. The Missouri River as it comes sweeping
dowtl thr .ugh the plains at Kansas City touch. .1 him
with a feeling of loneliness and Hisismincancc, latrr to
be portrayed in the poem, "The River and I"
' I remember well the first time I looked on my
turbulent friend, who has since become as a brother
to me." said Mr Neihardt in explaining this hushed
feeling and smpath inspired by the ner. It wi
from Dluft at Kansas City. I know I must have been
JOHN G. NBlHAftOT
By FRED L. HOLMES
a very little boy. for the terror I felt made me reach
up to th saving forefinapr of my father, lest this insane
devil-thing before me should suddenly develop am un-
reasoi ii g hunger for little boys.
Tor the iucnin r had smitten the distant moun
tains and the June floods ran. Far across the yellow
swirl that ipread out into the wooded bottomlands, we
watched the demolition of a little town.
Many lax) Sunday stroll took us back to the
river; aiuf little by little the dread became less, and
the wonder grew and a little love crept in.
"If in a moment of despair I should reel for a
breathing space away from the fight, with no heart
for battle cries, and with only a desire to pray. I could
do it in no better manner than to
lift my arms above the river and
cry out into the big spaces. You
who somehow understand behold
this river ! It expresses what is
voiceless in me. It prays for
At 11 years of age Neihardt
forgot his toys, his sailboat, his
engines and machinery, and, fol
lowing a dream, decided to become
a poet. It wa not unnatural, for
hil father had scribbled many un
"It was as if a voice called
me from my mechanical inven
tions, saying: 'Come away. This
is not the thing.'" explained Mr.
Neihardt. "That was the first
feeling which 1 had and it
is this compelling influence
i i t- t j i
wnicn nas guicieu my nic
Shortly afterward Nei
hardt wrote the first of his
verses, "The Stubble Haired
Boy." At once he began
to collect a library of good
books in cheap bindings
The first volume of poetry
he owned wa ' Idylls of the
King," obtained as a pre
mium for soap wrappers.
His first verses were pub
lished in the Cook County
(Illinois) NeWS. when he was nearly 14 years old.
His first poem for which he received pay was printed
by the Vouth's C 'omfam ion, It was written in 19(X) in
a potato patch with the back of his hoe for a desk and
was called "The Song of the Hoe."
For neafly six years, 1901-7, Neihardt lived among
the Omaha Indians, studying their character, history
and legends. He had taught country school two years
at Hoskins, Nebraska When this desire came to know
mote about the world than the ordinary human sees, he
spent his summer tramping through Kansas and Mis
souri and between the agt s of In and 20 he engaged
in the occupations of farm hand, hod carrier, office
boy. marble polisher, stenographer and teacher.
Neihardt has always been poor. When he had fin
ished the normal school he wanted to go to the state
university, but was without funds. Carrying in one
pocket a copy of Tennyson and in another Browning,
he went back to work in the bc t
fields for 50 cents a day. and as
he crawled on his hands and
knees, weeding and thinning the
beets, his h:ain was busy with
the great dream. It was called
The Divine Enchantment1 and
was finisln d in 1900. As soon as
the beet- were harvested he be
gan the C Ripotition of the poem
and continued work on it for
mure than two years.
It w.;s while as a boy living
in a sod house in Northwestern
Kansas that Neihardt conceived
the greatness of the West, the
Compelling beauties of the prairie,
the immensity and boundless
I weep of its vast untrammeled
The Greek and Latin
poems which had inspired him in
his college course now awakened
in him a desire to picture this
tern advance of civilization as
"The four decades during
which the fur trade flourished
west of the Mississippi Kivcr may be regarded as I
typical heroic period, differing in no essential from the
many otto - great heroic periods that have made glorious
the st - pi the Aryan Migration," said Mr. Neihardt
m explaining how he conceived the idea of writing
western epics. "The heroic spirit, as seen in historic
poetry Ue are told, is the outcome of a society cut
loos, its r(,ots( of a time of migration, of the
shifting of populations. Such conditions are to be
found during the time of the Spanish conquests of
Central and South America; and they are to he found
those wonderful years of our own Wesl when
wandering bands , trappers were exploring the rivers
and the mountains and the plains and the deserts from
the British posv lions to Mexico and from the III
soun to the Pacific.
"We lack the
. mvim vuiiiiiiuii T , I
A SNAPSHOT OF MR. NEIHARDT
on that view. The affairs of antiuuitv c
generality of us to be as remote as the a- t0 thc
and as little related to nnr ,,,,. ,,mnt sbr
call the slow lapse of ages is really only tl vL1
an eye. Sometimes this sense of the clo, K
: i ii i . v,,v i. lose litntv
nine anq an nutnan experience has com v 01 311
strongly that I have felt, for an intense nZjV
just a little hurry on my part might get m? ,u W
tune to hear Aeschylus training a chorus J! thcre
wizard chisel still busy with the Parthenon thc
to hear Socrates telling his dreams to his ?
is :n some such mood that I approach tin hi II
precious saga-Stuff which I have called h udy0t
American Kpos ; and I see it, not as a th i ,25?
but rather as one phase of the who, raceBf.
the beginning, indeed, the final link in that Inn lm
ot heroic periods stretching from the region J
Euphrates eastward into India and westward m e
own Pacific Coast." rd ,nto our
Out of this study of thc advance of the nionrrrc
establishment of trading posts, the rise and deel L
the fur trade, the depredation of Indians, he o n in
of military camps, and the picture of the 2 ?
come the epic poem, "The Song of Hugh Glass" It
is the story of a pioneer trapper who enters the WV
and who in searching for food is caught bv a fifeu
and left prostrate on the plain. His friends discover
h.m. but after two days of watching the unconsd
man was left alone to die. Rut Hugh Glass, a moun
tain of a man. the embodiment of sinew and brawn
and adventure, revives, and crawls a hundred miles
back to CSTtllzatlon, subsisting on berries and the frafa
ot brush and thicket the while. tS
Founded on historic facts, this poem h not a
story of colorless and naked straight lines but is a
rich mosaic made up of a thousand historic incidents
pictures of shades and light, of watte citangiftf everv
hour from dawn to midnight, the odorous ozone of
rain-drenched land, the soughing of the winds in the
cottonwoods. the nickering of horses in the corral the
disturbing voices of wild life, the blistering heat of
summer, the blinding snow of the blizzard and the
loneliness and solitude under the judgment' of stars
twinkling in thc night.
Deserted by friends in the drear and waste of a
land then desolate. Hugh's memory paints the picture
of days at home, the twilight and evening
It was the hour when cattle straggle home.
Across the clearing in a hush of sleep
They saunter, lowing; loiter belly-dcq)
Amid the lush grass by the mead' m stream.
How like the sound of water in a dream
The intermittent tinkle of yon bell.
A windlass creaks contentment from I well;
And co,,l deeps gurgle as the bucket sinks.
Now blowing at the trough the plow team drinks;
The shaken harness rattles. Sleepy quails
Call far. The warm milk hisses fa the pails
There in the dusky barn lot. Crick. j t ry.
One hears the horses munching at their oats.
The green grow s black. A veil of slumber floats
Across thc haunts of home-enamored men.
It is not alone the colorific portrayal of Hugh Glass
which the Poet Neihardt would canvass, but it is the
story of that body of adventurers, their characteristics
and their aspirations, who from 1822 to 1S-H opened a
way of expansion of the nation beyond the Missouri,
found the southern pass through the mountains and
the overland route to California.
which thousands were to travel
in a mad rush to the gold fields
20 years later. It il the story of
westward expansion in America
told in its relation to the whole
race movement from the begin
ning. It is the humble achieve
ments of ordinary men, not the
"History as written in the past,
has been too much a chronologica
record of official governmental
acts, too little an intimate ac
count of the lives of the people
themselves," said Mr Neihardt m
explaining the basic inspiration
back of this poem. "Doubtless
the democratic spirit that now
seems to be sweeping the world
will, if it continues to spread,
revolutionize our whole concep
tion of historv. bringing us to
realize that the glory of the race
is not the glorv of a chosen tew.
K,,t Ut it radiates from P"
precious heroic stuff of common
human lives. And that view. I am proud to say, i
keeping with our dearest national traditions. .
"I ire mud of making those men live again tor -oung
men and women of my country. The trernen
moos of heroism that was developed in our Ame '
WtS! during that period h properly a part WT J
racial inheritance; and certainly no less ,mj,or,f(J it
part than thc memory of ancient heroes in
can be shown that these men Kentuckians. irg jn
IVnnsvlvaniani, Ohioans-were direct j1""
the epic line, of all the heroes of Of Aryan ns.
U i Kr. mtKratoil hv thr nocts Of thc last. u . t
4 am. j . f a nra ' of Rolana.
or us it
14 almost a tlimvli u u . i
' u ? W,"H ofgan yrsierna morning'
and too much of our contemporary literature is based
me epic line, oi an mc huvaj v. .
have been celebrated by the poets of thc 1 ast
ants of Achilles and Hector; oi Aeneas, -
Sigurd, and of the Knights ot Annur vw... m
went as torch bearers in the van of our wester
ilization. Your Present is, in a great measure,
age from their Past.'
xml | txt