Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cycle of the West by John G Neihardt

Earlier I wrote about cowboy poetry as apart of poetry month. This is the second work I wanted to write something about this month.

As a child John G Neihardt had two loves the Missouri River and the frontier way of life surrounding it and epic poems of the Greeks. He came to believe that the time in American history that expanded west was a Heroic and epic age and should be written about accordingly.

"The period with which the Cycle deals was one of discovery, exploration and settlement--a genuine epic period , differing in no essential from the other great epic periods that marked the advance of the Indo-European peoples out of Asia and across Europe. It was a time of intense individualism, a time when society was cut loose from its roots, a time when an old culture was being overcome by that of a powerful people driven by the ancient needs and greeds. For this reason only, the word "epic' has been used in connection with the Cycle; it is properly descriptive of the mood and meaning of the time and of the material with which I have worked. There has been no thought of synthetic Iliads and Odysseys, but only of the richly human saga-stuff of a country that I knew and loved, and of a time in the very fringe of which I was a boy."

Frederick Jackson Turner was a very influential historian. He wrote an essay, "The Frontier in American History", that was the backbone of the so called Frontier Thesis which dominated historical thinking for a long time and is still debated today. Turner believed that the expansion west and the western frontier largely shaped Americans (as a people and a country) and American democracy. He is worth mentioning in any discussion of westerns because of his influence on the non-fiction field of western studies and because clearly Neihardt was influenced by Turner's thinking. (Turner's work is in the public domain and is well worth seeking out)

John G Neihardt spent 28 years of his life writing five epic songs of poetry that cover the period of time from 1820 - 1890 (the expansion west due to the fur trade to the massacre at Wounded Knee). He did a tremendous amount of original research and spoke to as many people, from as many walks of life as he could, in person, collecting oral histories from Indians, old Indian fighters, farmers, Cavalry men. People that he knew and grew up around.

The West as Neihardt saw and knew it, fired up his imagination in an original way. The full Cycle of the West won't be for everyone but it is unlike anything else. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks is also worth reading (highly recommended).


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