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Introduction john g. neihardt Columbia, Missouri, 1948 In 1912, at the age of 31, I began work on the following cycle of heroic Songs, designed to celebrate the great mood of courage that was developed west of the Missouri River in the nineteenth century. The series was dreamed out, much of it in detail, before I began; and for years it was my hope that it might be completed at the age of 60—as it was. During the interval, more than five thousand days were devoted to the work, along with the fundamentally important business of being first a man and a father. It was planned from the beginning that the five Songs, which appeared at long intervals during a period of twenty-nine years, should constitute a single work. They are now offered as such. 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. This period began in 1822 and ended in 1890. The dates are not arbitrary. In 1822 General Ashley and Major Henry led a band of a hundred trappers from St. Louis, “the Mother of the West,” to the beaver country of the upper Missouri River. During the following year a hundred more AshleyHenry men ascended the Missouri. Out of these trapper bands came all the great continental explorers after Lewis and Clark. It was they who discovered and explored the great central route by way of South Pass, from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, over which the tide of migration swept westward from the ’40s onward. The Song of Three Friends and The Song of Hugh Glass deal with the ascent of the river and with characteristic adventures of Ashley-Henry men in the country of the upper Missouri and the Yellowstone. The Song of Jed Smith follows the first band of Americans through South Pass to the Great Salt Lake, the first band of Americans to reach Spanish California by an overland trail, the first white men to cross the great central desert from the Sierras to Salt Lake. The Song of the Indian Wars deals with the period of migration and the last great fight for the bison pastures between the invading white race and the Plains Indians—the Sioux, the Cheyenne and the Arapahoe. The Song of the Messiah is concerned wholly with the conquered people and the worldly end of their last great dream. The period closes with the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, which marked the end of Indian resistance on the Plains. It will have been noted from the foregoing that the five Songs are linked in chronological order; but in addition to their progress in time and across the vast land, those who may feel as I have felt while the tales were growing may note a spiritual progress also—from the level of indomitable physical prowess to that of spiritual triumph in apparent worldly defeat. If any vital question be suggested in The Song of Jed Smith, for instance, there may be those who will find its ageold answer once again in the final Song of an alien people who also were men, and troubled. xx introduction But, after all, “the play’s the thing”; and while it is true that a knowledge of Western history and the topography of the country would be very helpful to a reader of the Cycle, such knowledge is not indispensable. For here are tales of men in struggle, triumph and defeat. Those readers who have not followed the development of the Cycle may wish to know, and are entitled to know, something of my fitness for the...


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