- Lonesome Dreamer: The Life of John G. Neihardt by Timothy G. Anderson
It's an awesome responsibility to take an account of another person's life into your hands, whether to read it or write it. There may be many motivations behind a biographer's commitment to such a task. The "lives" of celebrities, politicians, agents of change, the brilliant, [End Page 113] the troubled, the notoriously weird and wonderful are perennially bestsellers, of course. Yet something of far greater value than potential copies sold was at work in the making of this "life's" work: the author's abiding appreciation for and deep curiosity about another human being's historically underappreciated complexity.
Tim Anderson's new biography of John Neihardt is as clear and caring in its narrative as it is conscientious in its research. As though tracing the braided streams of the Platte River, Anderson capably navigates the interconnected channels of Neihardt's life as a growing, changing, ever-learning body and soul, son and brother, husband and father, poet, writer, literary critic, adventurer, teacher, and committed seeker of understanding. Throughout his long and varied life, Neihardt continuously searched for, tested, and refined his ideas about the nature and meaning of human existence, synthesizing his own thoughts and feelings with those of close family and the diverse views he gleaned from other creative individuals and cultures.
Anderson constructs Neihardt's story out of its basic elements, literally and figuratively. The prologue and first chapter open with accounts of the Neihart/Neihardt family's origins, John's birth in 1881, and his early childhood growing up beneath a wide-open sky on the windswept earth, exposed to the raw forces of prairie fire, Missouri River floodwaters, and the family's struggle for survival. The next chapters recount the family's migration from Illinois to Kansas to Nebraska and John's precocious youth and formal education. Of auspicious significance is the "fever dream" Neihardt experienced at age eleven, which he interpreted as a calling away from his then-boyish interests in the material realm of science, technology, and invention toward the more mature and heroic "higher values" of intellect, spirit, and aesthetic pursuits.
From this early stage on, as Anderson ably underscores, the complexity of Neihardt's inner world quickly rivaled that of the outer one, with the intellectual influences of Tennyson and Robert Browning, Greek and Latin classics, and European epic sagas sharing cognitive space with his exploration of Hindu religion and mysticism, world history, and anthropology, all intermingled with his first literary successes and failures and his developing friendships with interesting folks living in Bancroft and on and around the [End Page 114] nearby Omaha Reservation. Anderson's descriptions of the young Neihardt's interactions with members of the La Flesche family are insightful and touching. Succeeding chapters proceed chronologically, relating inner and outer developments through Neihardt's adult life, his long companionable marriage, the fits and starts of a literary career in which he juggled creative writing and research projects with paying jobs in literary journalism and criticism, his ventures into public lecture tours and performances, and his further self-reinventions in later life, working for a ymca summer camp and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Chicago and teaching at the University of Missouri.
While previous biographies by Lucile Aly and Julius House related most of these events, what is remarkable about the interwoven structure of Anderson's narrative is how effectively it reveals the genius of Neihardt's ability to integrate the different aspects of his lived experience into a meaningful whole. It is no mean feat to live such a manifold life. Once, hearing the rhythm he made while hoeing a row in his garden, Neihardt made the moment into the poem it already was. His conception of human life as "epic strife" (as documented within The Cycle of the West) was hard-fought and hard-won through personal experience and testing. He was already effectively practicing what he preached in 1926: "Literary values are values in living...