Bess Genevra Streeter was born February 17, 1881, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the last of eight children born to James and Mary Streeter. Bess graduated in 1901 from Iowa State Normal School, now known as the University of Northern Iowa, and taught for four years. She returned to Cedar Falls and worked as Assistant Supervisor at her alma mater, receiving an advanced degree in 1906. She married Charles Sweetzer Aldrich the following year.
Charles Aldrich had graduated with a law degree from Iowa State University and had been one of the youngest captains in the Spanish-American War. Following the war, he served for years as a U.S. Commissioner in Alaska.
In 1909 the Aldriches and Bess's sister and brother-in-law, Clara and John Cobb, bought the American Exchange Bank in Elmwood, Nebraska, and moved there with the Aldrich's two-month old daughter, Bess's widowed mother, and the Cobbs. Elmwood would become the locale, by whatever name she called it, of her many short stories, and it would also be the setting for some of her books.
Aldrich had won her first writing prize at fourteen and another at seventeen, having been writing stories since childhood. However, for two years after the family moved to Elmwood, Aldrich was too busy with local activities to write. Then in 1911 she saw a fiction contest announcement in the "Ladies Home Journal" and wrote a story in a few afternoons while the baby napped. Her story was one of six chosen from among some two thousand entries. From that time on, Aldrich wrote whenever she could find a moment between caring for her growing family and her household chores. Indeed, she commented that, in the early days, many a story was liberally sprinkled with dishwater as she jotted down words or ideas while she worked. Aldrich's first book, "Mother Mason," a compilation of short stories, was published in 1924.
In May 1925, shortly before her second book, "Rim of the Prairie," was published, Charles Aldrich died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Bess a widow with four children ranging from four to sixteen. Her writing now became the means of family support; with her pen she put all the children through college.
Aldrich's short stories were as eagerly sought and read as her novels, and she became one of the best paid magazine writers of the time. Her work appeared in such magazines as "The American," "Saturday Evening Post," "Ladies Home Journal," "Collier's," "Cosmopolitan," and "McCall's." Aldrich also wrote several pieces on the art of writing, and these were published in "The Writer."
In 1934, Aldrich was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Nebraska, and in 1949 she received the Iowa Authors Outstanding Contributions to Literature Award. She was posthumously inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1973.
Aldrich moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1945 to be near her daughter and her daughter's family and did comparatively little writing thereafter. Bess Streeter Aldrich died in 1954 at the age of 73 and is buried beside her husband in the Elmwood Cemetery. Her legacy of books and stories remains, however, continuing to fulfill her hope that as future generations read her work they will understand the joys, the struggles, and the strengths that were all a part of pioneering in the Midwest.
Carol Miles Peterson
After eighteen months on a ranch, her family moved into Red Cloud, a "scrappy western town" rich with possibility for a child with an eager mind (see "Old Mrs. Harris"). Cather remained there until in 1890, she entered the University of Nebraska as a second year preparatory student. Her earliest published fiction dates from this time, offering grim stories of immigrant loneliness in a new country; as important, while a student she began her journalistic career, working as a drama critic for the Lincoln Journal.
Following her graduation in 1895, Cather moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked in journalism, taught high school, took the first of many trips to Europe, and in 1905 published "The Troll Garden," her earliest collection of short stories. In 1906 she moved to New York, to work as editor, then managing editor of "McClure's Magazine." While on assignment for "McClure's," Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, who understood her aspirations in art and encouraged her to withdraw from journalism and "to find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world" (1908).
Cather's first novels (there were two, she said), followed: the Jamesian "Alexander's Bridge" -- and then "O Pioneers!". In a copy for a friend, Cather wrote of "O Pioneers!", "This was the first time I walked off on my own feet -- everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture.
During the next decade, Cather mined that home pasture. Under various names, Webster County and Red Cloud reappeared in "The Song of the Lark" (1915), "My Antonia" (1918), "One of Ours" (1922), and "A Lost Lady" (1923). Gradually, however, Cather's dismay over the results of "progress" in her Nebraska locale combined with her desire for artistic freedom to experiment with other locales and themes. In 1925 she explained that she did not want to become too identified with the West, for "using one setting all the time is very like planting a field with corn season after season. I believe in rotation of crops. If the public ties me down to the cornfield too much I'm afraid I'll leave that scene entirely." And leave she did, to write novels set in Michigan, the American Southwest, and Quebec. Cather's themes, too, changed during this period, as she turned from the passion of individuals aspiring to greatness and began writing of compassion of ordinary people who, confronting mortality, seek comfort in the human family.
In the end, Cather returned to her earliest memories to write again of Nebraska and, in her last book, of Virginia. But unlike the sunny themes of her early novels drawn from childhood memories, "Lucy Gayheart" and "Sapphira and the Slave Girl" are Gothic stories in which dark passions break through the apparent calm of everyday lives. For during her final years Cather felt the horror of events leading to another world war, the pain over deaths of family and friends, and the frustration from an inflammation of her hand that meant an inability to write. But she also maintained old friendships and enjoyed new ones, most importantly with the Menuhin children; and she continued to write, publishing short stories (e.g. "The Best Years") and working on an Avignon novel that remained unfinished at the time of her death. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.
Cather's life is remarkable for the faith that she kept -- to her family; her friends (she lived with Edith Lewis for thirty-eight years); her first editor, Ferris Greenslet, at Houghton Mifflin; her publisher, Alfred Knopf, to whom she went following "My Antonia" and with whom she remained the rest of her life; and most of all to her art. As her biographer James Woodress has written, she lived "a literary life," with "a single-minded dedication to the pursuit of art" (Willa Cather: A Literary Life, xvi).
Awards came to Cather during her life time -- honorary degrees from numerous universities, the Pulitzer Prize for "One of Ours," a medal by the American Academy for "Death Comes for the Archbishop," and the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for a writer's lifetime achievement. Following her death, her reputation has grown steadily and, in the last fifteen years, exploded with activity, with over a hundred articles and several books appearing each year on her. In 1990 "A Lost Lady" was included among the Encyclopedia Britannica's "Great Books of the Western World," and Cather is now widely recognized as a major American writer, and our country's foremost woman writer. But more telling than such accolades, Willa Cather's novels have never gone out of print, for her popular following has remained strong. So the explosion of critical recognition means only that the experts have realized what her readers have known all along -- that Willa Cather's novels and stories, in such apparently simple style, provide companionship for a lifetime.
He was born in 1907 "at the turn of the century when the frontier was fading," and spent most of his first 26 years in Lincoln. Already in this prairie town that grew from 40,000 to 80,000 in those years, the schools, museums and libraries were well established. These resources were available without cost to poor families such as his, and in them he found much that helped determine the direction his creative ability would take. His father, a sometime amateur Shakespearean actor, gave him the knowledge of rich and beautiful language. His mother, an untaught prairie artist, fostered in him the eye with which to see beauty. Another relative, an uncle, introduced him to the wonders of the State Museum. And Eiseley benefited from having a truly special teacher, Letta Mae Clark.
When Eiseley was five he taught himself to read in order to finish "Robinson Crusoe." His brother, Leo, had started to read it to him but had to depart when the foot-print had just been discovered. Eiseley wrote, "I began to read everything I could lay my hands on...it was a kind of vow I made to myself...to read books for the sake of reading."
That joy was his all of his life. He wrote of "the local Carnegie Library to which I used to pedal in my coaster wagon." Here, on the site of the present Bennett Martin Library in downtown Lincoln, he found such books as "The Home Aquarium: How to Care for It" by Eugene Smith. This lead him to a pond south of town (now the lake at the Lincoln Country Club) where he not only collected for his aquarium but also nearly drowned when he went through the ice.
Loren Eiseley attended public schools: Prescott Elementary and Lincoln High School. While at the latter he indicated that he wanted to be a nature writer. When he transferred to Teachers College High School at the University of Nebraska he found in Miss Clark, Supervisor of English, that special teacher that only the lucky among us find. In 1962 he dedicated "The Mind as Nature" to her, "in gratitude for counsel and encouragement in my youth."
When Eiseley was twelve his Uncle Buck took him to visit the fossil collection at Morrill Hall (the present University of Nebraska State Museum). He made "neanderthal heads" of clay and baked them in the kitchen oven. His grandmother protested that they had a "Darwin look" and suggested that he "be staying out of that building now."
But he returned again and again to look at the fossils in Morrill Hall and as a University student went on fossil digs with museum crews. He went on to attend the University of Nebraska of which he said "I never dreamed I could be more than my father until I found out I could go to the University of Nebraska for free." His bachelor's degree from there is in English and Anthropology. His advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania were in anthropology.
He later dedicated his autobiography, "All the Strange Hours," to his uncle, "without whose help my life would have been different beyond imagining.
Equally important with the schools, the library, and the museum in filling the attic that was his writer's mind was the land. Of it he wrote in "The Immense Journey"; "Some lands are flat and grass covered and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by wind or time...a sunlit, timeless prairie over which nothing passed but an antelope or a wandering bird."
In an essay, "The Flow of the River," that came out of an experience along the Platte, he wrote: "If there is magic in this planet, it is contained in water...It's substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future: It moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea."
Fossils of the oldest flowering plants in the world can be found around Fairbury, Nebraska and in his essay, "How Flowers Changed the World," Eiseley wrote of their evolutionary importance. "Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they continu ed to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard bird, might be snapping at a beetle on a sequoia limb; man might be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the world and made it ours."
The title work in Eiseley's book of poetry, "The Innocent Assassins," is based on a fossil find he made in western Nebraska. "Once in the sun-fierce badlands of the west, in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones...we found a saber tooth, most ancient cat far down in the cellars of the dead time...(a) fractured scapula, hung on the mighty saber, undetached; two beasts had died in mortal combat." (This fossil is now in the University of Nebraska State Museum.) Eiseley goes on to characterize these two ancient creatures as "designed by nature to strike and strike again" and philosophizes of people, "sometime we seem wrapped in wild innocence like sabertooths."
Loren Eiseley's work is outstanding for its richness and the beauty of his language and metaphors; for his ability to portray the long, slow passage of time and the meaning of the past in the present; for his portrayal of the relationships among all living things; for his concern about the future, his awareness of how man's idolization of the machine, an unthinking, unfeeling material thing, was changing the world.
Eiseley's later writing became more pessimistic as he reflected on the effect of modern man on the world. In "The Winter of Man" he wrote, "We have come now in this time to fear the water that we drink, the air we breathe, the insecticides that we have dusted over our giant fruits. Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that comes to us from the sea...we fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made. the hatreds we have engendered...we have come to fear even the scientists and their gifts...we fear the end of man."
It was his father who took Morris on his first extended trips by car, and thus began for Morris an avid interest in travel. His father's life is the inspiration for the novel "The Works of Love" and the memoir "Will's Boy." It is helpful to remember that by the time Morris came to discover the autobiographical raw materials for fiction and photography, his strange childhood had already receded into the past; thus he often emphasizes an imaginative reconstruction of experience -- the basis for his frequently emphasized theme of transformation in human life.
Morris attended Pomona College in California from 1930 until he left for a "Wanderjahr" in Europe in 1933, a trip which left him a number of impressionable memories -- among them a "blind Garten" in Vienna; a medieval castle in Schloss Ranna; and the prison in Grosseto, Italy where Morris was briefly detained "as a threat to Mussolini." The trip was recorded at length in "Solo" and fictionalized in "Cause for Wonder", but elements from it appear frequently in Morris's work.
Morris has given several accounts of the beginnings of his creative life, but it clear that by the mid-30's he was taking photographs and by 1936 was experimenting with phototexts, combining photographs with short prose passages. He met Roy Stryker, head of the famous Farm Security Administration photography unit, but was seen as not having an appropriate Depression-era social conscience -- declining, for example, to document suffering people or the social conditions of poverty. Morris intended his photographs, instead, to show the forces of life shining through from within objects, living structures, and artifacts.
Morris's first publication (in "New Directions," 1940) was "The Inhabitants," a Photo-text which he later expanded into a book. That same year, intending an expansive photographic project "to celebrate the eloquence of structures so plainly dedicated to human use and to salvage those that were on the edge of dissolution" ("Photographs and Words"), Morris traveled 15,000 miles by car around the United States. This formed the basis for further works, including his first novel, "My Uncle Dudley," which ended with a fictionalized account of Morris's arrest - this time in South Carolina - "as a vagrant and . . . possible spy."
In Pennsylvania in the 1940's, with his first wife, Mary Ellen, Morris met Loren and Mabel Eiseley, and thus began a warm friendship, including dusty book-hunting expeditions and long conversations about the mysteries of life. Those conversations no doubt played a part in Morris's use of imaginative scientific metaphors in such later works as "The Huge Season," "What a Way to Go," and "Love Among the Cannibals."
In 1947, Morris was back in Nebraska taking the important photographs which formed the basis for "The Home Place." After 1948 Morris took fewer photographs as he became much more involved as a novelist. Most of the works which established his reputation as a writer were written between 1948 and 1960, including "The Works of Love," "The Deep Sleep," "The Field of Vision," "Ceremony in Lone Tree," and the critical "The Territory Ahead."
In the 1960's Morris was divorced from his first wife and married Josephine Kantor. In 1962 he became Professor of Creative Writing at California State in San Francisco, a position he retained until 1975. He has continued to write novels, criticism, and social observations on a regular basis; he has also written three memoirs. In the 1970's and 1980's he published several influential articles on photography criticism, thus reaffirming his position as an important voice in American photography. The Friends of Photography published "Photographs & Words," with excellent laser-scan reproductions of Morris's photos.
Morris has achieved international reputations as both novelist and photographer. His photographs have been widely exhibited - from his first show at the New School for Social Research (1940) to shows at New York galleries, the Sheldon in Lincoln, and Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. In addition to three Guggenheim Fellowships to support his photography (1942, 1947, 1954), Morris has won National Book Awards in 1956 (for "The Field of Vision") and 1981 (for "Plains Song").
Among his many other awards are the Mari Sandoz Award (1975), honorary life membership in the Western Literature Association (1979), the Mark Twain Award (1982), and the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished service in Literature (1982). Several of Morris's short stories have been included in the short story annuals of best work accomplished by American writers. He was Novelist-in-Residence at the University of Nebraska in 1975, where the subject of the Montgomery Lectures was "The Art of Wright Morris."
Morris's most recent book is "Time Pieces," a collection of his writings on photography covering his entire career and providing essential keys to understanding both his photographic and fictional practices. He and his wife Jo live in Mill Valley, California.
Joseph J. Wydeven
After teaching in two country schools, Neihardt moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, in 1900. Here he worked with an Indian trader among the Omaha Indians and became an authority on their traditions and customs. During the period from September, 1903 to January, 1905 he was co-owner and editor of the weekly "Bancroft Blade." From 1905 to 1912 he devoted his time to writing fiction and lyric verses and gained immediate national acclaim.
In 1912, at the age of 31, he began writing his major work, "A Cycle of the West." He worked on the "Cycle" over a 29-year period, which involved 18 years of actual writing time, completing it in 1941. In 1921 he was made Poet Laureate of Nebraska by legislative action. He was literary editor of the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch" from 1926 to 1938, and poet-in-residence and lecturer in English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, from 1949 to 1966.
He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, and of the International Institute of Arts and Letters, Lindau, Germany; a member and founder of the Westerners; vice-president for the Middle West of the Poetry Society of America; and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Among his other honors were the Poetry Society national prize, 1919; gold medal, foremost poet of the nation, Poetry Center, New York, 1963; first civilian member, Order of Indian Wars of the United States, 1925; bronze bust placed in the State Capitol building, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1961; first Sunday in each August named Neihardt Day in Nebraska by the governor's proclamation, 1968; Prairie Poet Laureate of America, citation and title by Poets Laureate International, 1968; named "Poet Laureate in Perpetuity," 1982.
A unique honor accorded Neihardt was the selection of his "A Cycle of the West" by men and women of letters as one of the three thousand best books in the three thousand years from Homer to Hemingway. Neihardt was the author of some twenty-five other volumes of poetry, fiction, and philosophy.
Neihardt received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Nebraska, 1917; Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, 1928; University of Missouri, 1947; and Midland Lutheran College, Fremont, Nebraska, 1972
In his late 80's Neihardt came home to Nebraska and lived in Lincoln with the Julius Youngs while continuing his writing and personal appearances. He was working on the second volume of his autobiography at the time of his death at the age of 92.
Dr. Neihardt died Saturday, November 3, 1973, at the home of his daughter, Hilda Neihardt Petri, in Columbia, Missouri.
Sandoz has left us a Great Plains legacy of social novels, sympathetic Indian biographies, and histories enlivened by dramatic episodes. Probably her best known work is "Old Jules," the biography of her father's years as homestead locator, agronomist, and fighter for agrarian rights. The concerns of "Old Jules" appear again in Sandoz's later books--concerns for the rights of the poor, the dispossessed, and for those who face discrimination. Her writing champions the worth of the Native American, the need for just laws, and the role of government aid. Six books form the center of Sandoz's work. She referred often to these, her Great Plains Series. Though not written chronologically, the series begins with "The Beaver Man," the story of the early fur traders and Plains Indians, and continues with "The Buffalo Hunters," a work that details the destruction of the bison. Next, "The Cattlemen" traces the coming of cattle to the plains and the many struggles among cattlemen and between cattlemen and grangers. "Old Jules" tells of the struggle of the immigrant homesteaders.
Published long before most Americans were ready to listen, two books about American Indians, "Cheyenne Autumn" and "Crazy Horse," give Sandoz's impassioned view of the persecution of the northern Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux and of the near destruction of their culture. Only her death kept Sandoz from writing the seventh and last work of the series; she had completed much of the research. This unfinished work was to emphasize the importance of oil to the world and the struggle of those in the plains states to provide oil, destroying more of the environment in the process. Once again, Mari Sandoz was ahead of her time.
Sandoz was aware of the importance of women to the West and of how few of their experiences had been told. "Old Jules" chronicles many stories of the brutal abuse of pioneer women by their husbands and fathers, telling of the death, insanity, or, in more fortunate cases, determined survival of these women, Sandoz also writes of the independence and endurance of single women homesteaders in "Old Jules." In her novels, Sandoz often places women in roles that traditionally have been primarily male. "Miss Morissa" is based in part on the careers of three women who were plains physicians; Dr. Mary W. Quick, Dr. Phoebe A. Oliver Briggs, and Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix. In "The Tom-Walker" one woman is a political writer and academician while another is a labor organizer. Gulla Slogum in "Slogum House" terrorizes the community as she gathers land and influence by any means she can in her attempt to control the county.
Nature, its danger and its beauty, is often celebrated by Sandoz in lyrical passages, passages that sometimes appear unexpectedly in the midst of her usual reportorial style. She knew her land and her people and in each book her sly humor satirizes society, urging awareness of human vices that threaten the environment and the welfare of people.
Sandoz was the recipient of many accolades and awards. Her honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Nebraska (1950) read: "Mari Sandoz, distinguished Nebraska historian, biographer, novelist, story writer, authority on Indians of the Nebraska territory and neighboring states...widely known teacher in creative writing at several state universities." In 1954 Sandoz received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska for her "sincere and realistic presentation of Nebraska as it was." Also in 1954, the Chicago Corral, the parent group of the Westerners, announced that she had four books on their list of one hundred best books about the West (Stauffer "Story Catcher" 181, 202, 209). A Mari Sandoz Award, to be given annually to "a person who has made specific, significant contributions to the Nebraska book world through writing (books, stories, poetry, plays, reviews), film production, or other related activity" was established by the Nebraska Library Association in 1969. A bust of Mari Sandoz stands in the State Rotunda, State Capital Building, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Mari Sandoz died of cancer March 10, 1966, and is buried on a hillside overlooking the Sandoz Sand Hills ranch, south of Gordon, Nebraska. She worked until the last month of her life finishing "The Battle of the Little Bighorn." She died as she had lived, with spunk and grit and a determination to leave behind a blunt, accurate, and caring record of the region she so loved.