EXCERPT: Lonesome Dreamer

The following is an excerpt from Lonesome Dreamer: The Life of John G. Neihardt (August 2016) by Timothy G. Anderson, the first biography written of Neihardt in forty years. Anderson will be at Indigo Bridge in Lincoln, Nebraska to sign copies of his book on August 13 at 3:00 p.m.

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From Chapter Three: A Big-City Adventure

To the Omaha Indians who lived nearby it was Unashta Zinga, the “little stopping place,” because trains paused there to refill their water tanks. In the late 1870s, when Ford and Deborah Barber, homesteaders from Maine, decided they were too modest to let the town growing up around their cabin be called Barberville, residents chose instead to call it Bancroft. No one has ever been quite certain whether it was named for George Bancroft, the American historian and former navy secretary, or George Bancroft, a civil engineer who lived nearby while the railroad was being extended through northeast Nebraska.1 In 1900, when John Neihardt moved there with his mother and sisters, the town’s population was still nine years away from reaching its peak of one thousand residents. Nestled atop the rise of a low hill, Bancroft, like Wayne, had half a dozen churches and an opera house. Though it also had a wood-planing mill, a flour mill, and wagon makers, it was best known as a rather rough reservation town, being situated on the edge of the Omaha Indian reservation. Neihardt would remember it as “a fighting town,” where on Saturday nights arguments would spill into the streets. “It was at the edge of the old pioneer period. . . . When the West was the West.”2

 Lulu Neihardt, now twenty-three years old, secured a teaching job at Bancroft High School in 1900, and that September, Alice rented a house big enough for the whole family just a block and a half from the school. Grace was about to turn twenty-two, and John, fresh from his third term of teaching and having published his first book, was nineteen. Though Neihardt was cheered by the reviews of The Divine Enchantment, he soon found it flawed and embarrassing. Within a year of publication John burned most of the copies, just as he had burned his earlier “Stubble-Haired Boy” and “Cave Man Trilogy.” “They kept the kitchen stove going for about two weeks,” he later told a friend.3

 While he found the work he had produced so far to be substandard, he had no doubt it was the work he was supposed to do. His apprenticeship now in ashes, John wasted no time getting started on both new poetry and prose. In and around Wayne, even as he taught school and worked on The Divine Enchantment, John had continually written short lyric poems and experimented with writing short stories. Now a full-time writer in Bancroft, he focused on lyric poetry as his most promising path.

He had barely settled into his family’s new home in Bancroft when he received word that a poem he had written the summer before he left Wayne, “The Song of the Hoe,” had been accepted for publication in the Youth’s Companion. The tabloid newspaper had offered him fifty cents a line for it—thirty-six lines meant eighteen dollars—and for the first time he was a paid poet.4 The main audience of the Youth’s Companion was young people, and at the turn of the century it boasted more than half a million subscribers, more than fifteen thousand of them in Nebraska.5 John would have recognized it as the journal that published stories by Laura Everingham Scammon, mother of his Kansas City playmate Dick Scammon, as well as such well-known writers as Jack London, Sarah Orne Jewett, and O. Henry, and such poets as Edwin Markham and Katherine Lee Bates. It would soon publish a poem by another writer with a Nebraska connection, Willa Cather.6

 In “The Song of the Hoe,” published that fall, John imagined a day’s work in the potato patch as told by a hoe being wielded by a young man, with a wife and children. The idea for the poem came to him while he was hoeing potatoes, the rhythm of the work suggesting to him the music of verse, and he tried to capture the sounds of slicing, shuffling, and scraping made by the hoe. He later told a newspaper reporter he had written the first lines of it on the blade of the hoe itself, not having any paper handy.7

 

 “Chugity, chug, chugity, chink!

Now that was the sound of a stone, I think;

But there’s many a stone on which to catch

In life’s half-acre

potato-patch;

Chugity, chinkety, one more row.”

This was the merry lilt of the hoe,

All of a sultry day.

“Chug, swish;

Oh, how I wish

That the sun would tumble faster;

For I almost crack with the weight on my back

Of the hand of my sturdy master!

But ah! he has measured the length of my shade,

He is cleaning the clay from my ringing blade,

And now for the cottage that we well know.”

This was the cry of the happy hoe,

Under the fading day.8

The rhythm of motion and the accompanying sounds of slicing steel inspired John again one bitterly cold night that winter while he was ice-skating with friends. The stars shone bright enough to cast shadows but apparently not bright enough to let John see a hole where the town’s icemen had already cut out blocks to sell. John fell through the ice into the frigid water. In the poem he wrote later, “Skating Song,” the skater suffers no such humiliation:9

 

 “Clink, hiss, O flight, O bliss,

The frozen winds are slow;

The spirit of Speed from Heaven is freed,

To frolic to-night

below;

“I have breathed a god into mortal feet,

And whispered a song in their pulses’ beat,

And they shall be fleet, for flight is bliss,

Clink, clink, hiss.”

Into the empty calm we rush,

With the weight at our backs of the heavy hush;

And we fly like gods of the wingèd heel

Through the stinging air on the singing steel.10

 The Youth’s Companion bought and published “Skating Song” as well.

Being paid for two poems in such short order strengthened John’s confidence. These poems, less ambitious than The Divine Enchantment, solidified his focus on shorter lyrics. He must have believed his poetry was improving because, though he never included either “Song of the Hoe” or “Skating Song” in his later collections, neither did he burn them. In these two poems Neihardt had worked from personal observation, and he tried to build on that foundation.

In a third poem, also soon published in the Youth’s Companion, “Song of the Turbine Wheel,” John once again imagined himself as an inanimate object, this time a water turbine wheel deep beneath a flour mill, working where “nobody sees it, it never sees the sunlight, but it makes flour.”11 In this poem, written nearly a year after John moved to Bancroft, he moved beyond simple sounds and rhythms and embodied the turbine wheel to make a larger point about society: the workers responsible for progress often miss out on the fruits of their labor. The water that turns the wheel comes through with stories of green grass, blue skies, and whistling fishermen, but the turbine wheel is stuck below in the dark, working without break, without light, without a chance to enjoy the things the water has seen. It marked his first step out into the larger world, one where he found “the will of the Mill be done,” and it contained the initial rumblings of his interest in socialism. For the wheel, the real worker in the poem, there is no enjoyment, only back-breaking labor.

 

Hearken the bluster and brag of the Mill!

The heart of the Mill am I,

Doomed to toil in the dark until

The springs of the world run dry;

With never a ray of sun to cheer

And never a star for lamp!

It cries its song in the great World’s ear—

I toil in the dark and damp.12

 In each of these early poems John took his personal experiences—an afternoon in the sugar beet fields, a late-night skating party, the idle musing about the mill’s wheel—and set them to the ancient music of rhythm and rhyme. They were still the work of a beginner and easily forgettable. But “Turbine Wheel” served as a dividing line: Neihardt wrote it as a teenager, and it was published for young people. But it was also the earliest of his work that he would include when a collected volume of his poetry was published. He was now twenty years old, his rough and impoverished childhood and adolescence behind him. He was still living with his mother and sisters, but he was in a new town, one where no one remembered him as a boy.

 

Notes

1. Heritage Book Committee, History of Bancroft, 2.
2. Flaming Rainbow interviews.
3. John G. Neihardt, quoted in House, Neihardt, 16.
4. Neihardt, Patterns, 20.
5. “The Companion’s Seventy-Fifth Birthday,” Youth’s Companion, April 18, 1901, 205.
6. Willa Cather’s poem “The Night Express,” which drew on her Nebraska roots, was published in the Youth’s Companion on June 26, 1902.
7. “Nebraska Poet Wrote His First Poem on Back of His Hoe Blade,” Omaha World-Herald,
circa January 1917, NPN.
8. John G. Neihardt, “The Song of the Hoe,” Youth’s Companion, September 27, 1900, 472.
9. “Nebraska Poet Wrote His First Poem,” Omaha World-Herald.
10. John G. Neihardt, “Skating Song,” Youth’s Companion, January 31, 1901, 56.
11. Flaming Rainbow interviews.
12. Neihardt, “Song of the Turbine Wheel,” Man-Song, 42–43.

 

Want to learn more about the life of John Neihardt? Bring your questions to Indigo Bridge on August 13 at 3 pm!