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Introduction to the Bison Classic Annotated Edition alan birkelbach A Cycle of the West is an epic poem about the exploration of the young United States. Specifically, it covers the period from 1822 to 1890, beginning with the groups of men who led the American fur trade and ending with the event that closed the West—the Wounded Knee Massacre. This period, speaking from a geographic and historical sense, extended the unformed, and mostly unmapped, nation from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. A Cycle of the West is a uniquely American story. John Neihardt started writing it in 1912 and completed it in 1941. It is separated into five parts, or songs: The Song of Three Friends, The Song of Hugh Glass, The Song of Jed Smith, The Song of the Indian Wars, and The Song of the Messiah. The songs are in historical sequence. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, the Cycle does not follow one specific event or character. Instead, the focus is on the larger view of the nation’s frontier, each song a slightly different facet and viewpoint. The last two songs are especially poignant as they concern the struggle of the Native Americans during the onslaught of the invading white conquerors. The songs contain elements necessary to great epics. It opens, in The Song of Three Friends, with the larger-than-life characters Will Carpenter, Mike Fink, and Frank Talbeau. The description of these characters is so broad as to be almost comic and serves as a metaphor to the naïveté and enthusiasm of the early West. Neihardt speaks of: Will Carpenter, Mike Fink and Frank Talbeau Were they—each gotten of a doughty breed; For in the blood of them the ancient seed Of Saxon, Celt and Norman grew again. The Mississippi reared no finer men, And rarely the Ohio knew their peers For pluck and prowess—even in those years Then Neihardt proceeds to describe the men in detail in even more hyperbolic terms. Carpenter “brought the steelyard down / With twice a hundred notched upon the bar.” Fink is described gloriously with “Now above his head / He lifts his arms where big thews merge and flow / As in some dream of Michelangelo.” And Frank Talbeau’s boxing might is described by Mike Finn with “And Och, the face of me! I’m tellin’ fac’s— / Ye’d wonder did he do it wid an ax!” But before the story of the three friends is done, there is violence and death. The youthfulness and indestructible optimism of the frontier is gone. This loss of innocence and trust becomes a personal and focused issue in The Song of Hugh Glass—and becomes even darker and more profound in The Song of the Messiah. While the three friends may have been an easy and familiar access point into the narrative, it was simply to introduce us to the larger canvas. Neihardt published the songs one by one as he finished them, but he maintained that the original vision was of a single work. The complete edition of A Cycle of the West was first published in 1949 by the Macmillan Company. The first Bison Book edition was in October 1963. As is true with most other epics, a reader cannot approach A Cycle of the West intending to read a factual account. That isn’t the way epics work; like The Iliad, it is an impossible task to prove or disprove the total accuracy of the story. While some of the information in the Cycle is measurable and verifiable , especially the geographic locations, other portions of the narrative are based on second- or thirdhand accounts—or in the case of the Hugh Glass story, based on one version x introduction to the bison classic annotated edition of the story out of several. (While there is certainly room to debate which version of the Hugh Glass story is “truest,” the most accurate statement is that there is no first-person account extant of the story of Hugh Glass. While the man Hugh Glass did exist, he never put his story down on paper. Any versions of the story are strictly secondhand, if that. Consider the recent movie The Revenant. The cinematography faithfully captures the raw and untamed nature of that period. On the other hand, the events that actually occurred in real life did not happen in the snow-covered Northwest. The story within the movie, as compared to various “factual” versions, seems to...


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