Mari Sandoz (1896–1966) was a popular author in the early- to mid-twentieth century whose works of both fiction and non-fiction focused on life in the Rocky Mountain West. Sandoz’s work represents some of the most widely read literature concerning the American West and has done much to influence several generations’ understanding of the region as a whole. Today, Sandoz is survived by her literary works and is still widely considered to be one of the American West’s preeminent authors.
Born on May 10, 1896, Mari Sandoz was the eldest of Swedish immigrants Jules and Mary Fehr Sandoz’s six children. As the eldest child, Mari was responsible for the toughest ranch work as well as caring for her younger sisters and brother. Despite these duties and constant, grim discouragement from Jules, she learned to read and write by lamplight. As her knowledge expanded, she increasingly yearned for a different life. Jules attempted to suppress these tendencies in his eldest daughter, but it was no use, as she had inherited his fierceness, his independence, and his bravery.
For a period of about five years in her late teens, Mari taught in a one-room ranch schoolhouse in order to augment the family finances. At the same time she continued to stay up and study by kerosene lamp after correcting papers, giving herself enough of an education to get into the University of Nebraska. Of course, Jules disapproved. He thought Sandoz ought to get married, work hard on a ranch, have children, and live the life dictated by what he understood as society’s norms. Yet Mari finally slipped away to Lincoln, living a hand-to-mouth existence doing whatever menial work she could find while attending classes at the University of Nebraska. She could not be accepted as a qualified student because she had no high school diploma, but that did not keep her from receiving an education or from writing and sending out manuscripts.
Emergence as Author
Mari Sandoz’s first book, Old Jules, detailed her grueling childhood and early poverty and won Atlantic Magazine’s $5,000 nonfiction prize in 1935. Ostensibly, Old Jules was a portrait of her Swiss father, an immigrant to northwestern Nebraska. Jules Sandoz was a rancher, tough pioneer, fine shot, brave outdoorsman, and a friend to the Indians. But as a husband, he was demanding and autocratic—he went through four wives—and as a father, he was cruel and vicious. Jules retained some measure of charm, however, despite his fierce independence, and he commanded great loyalty and love from his children. Old Jules was not only a biography of Mari’s father but also a picture of the whole family and pioneer life on the region’s primitive ranches at the turn of the century.
Mari’s bent had always been towards the history of the Rocky Mountain West or of the Plains Indian tribes, whom she had come to know at the Sandoz ranch. In fact, later in life she was formally inducted into the tribe of the Oglala Lakota. Inevitably, Mari submitted her first manuscripts to local journals and publications, where their appearance helped give her confidence. Gradually, her stories appeared in national magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post. Simultaneously, she obtained the position of associate editor of the Nebraska History Magazine, working with the Nebraska Historical Society.
When critics deemed Old Jules a “true American epic,” Mari quickly began writing another manuscript, and two years later her first novel, Slogum House, was published. In 1939 her second novel, Capital City, attacked the Fascist movement in the United States, garnering mixed reviews. Nevertheless, Capital City gave her the courage to break work-a-day ties with her home state and move to Denver in 1940. Sandoz sought to concentrate on research for a biography of Crazy Horse, an Oglala who was one of the most famous American Indian chiefs. In writing Crazy Horse’s biography, she also sought an opportunity to break free from all former associations and precepts.
During the two-and-one-half years of Sandoz’s residence in Denver, she lived in an apartment house at 1010 Sherman Street named the Thomas Carlyle, which was next door to the Robert Browning and across the street from the Mark Twain, forming an appropriate literary cloak for her own poetic and distinctly American work. Even after she left Colorado, Mari returned nearly every summer to stay between a month and six weeks at the Lazy VV Ranch, four miles north of Nederland in the scenic Colorado Rockies.
Mari Sandoz was well-known for several personal preoccupations in addition to her successful writing career. She was extremely and publically interested in extrasensory perception (ESP) and was known for her fascination by what she held to be the psychic powers of several friends and members of the Oglala. Mari also denied all religions and remained firm in her belief that “religion was mankind’s necessary emotional crutch,” worthy of no more than a historic or an economic assessment. During World War II she was staunchly pro-Allies and donated widely to the Foundation for American-Soviet Friendship. By 1950 the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities suspected that she might have belonged to the American Communist Party, although such reports were never accurately verified and plagued most authors, actors, and public personalities at the time.
In 1950 the University of Nebraska awarded Mari Sandoz an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature. After the Lazy VV Ranch was sold in 1951, Mari’s visits to Denver became shorter and generally focused on researching, signing autographs, or lecturing. In 1954 the governor of Nebraska created an annual Mari Sandoz Day, while the state’s Native Sons and Daughters gave her an Award for Distinguished Achievement. Mari Sandoz died on March 10, 1966 due to complications from bone cancer.
Works by Mari Sandoz
- Old Jules. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
- Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942.
- Cheyenne Autumn. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.
- The Buffalo Hunters. New York: Hastings House, 1954.
- The Cattlemen: From the Rio Grande across the Far Marias. New York: Hastings House, 1958.
- Son of the Gamblin' Man: The Youth of an Artist. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1960.
- These Were the Sioux. New York: Hastings House, 1961.
- Love Song to the Plains. Harper & Row State Series. New York: Harper & Row, 1961; Lincoln.
- The Beaver Men, Spearheads of Empire. New York: Hastings House, 1964.
- The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Lippincott Major Battle Series. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.
- Slogum House. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937.
- Capital City. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939.
- The Tom-Walker. New York: Dial Press, 1947.
- Winter Thunder. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.
- Miss Morissa: Doctor of the Gold Trail. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
- The Horsecatcher. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957.
- The Story Catcher. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.
- “The Kinkaider Comes and Goes: Memories of an Adventurous Childhood in the Sandhills of Nebraska.” North American Review 229 (April, May 1930):431–42, 576–83.
- “The New Frontier Woman.” Country Gentleman, September 1936, p. 49.
- “There Were Two Sitting Bulls.” Blue Book, November 1949, pp. 58–64.
- “The Look of the West—1854.” Nebraska History 35 (December 1954):243–54.
- “Nebraska.” Holiday, May 1956, pp. 103–14.
- “Outpost in New York.” Prairie Schooner 37 (Summer 1963):95–106.
- “Introduction to George Bird Grinnell,” The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. New York: Cooper Square, 1962.
- “Introduction to Amos Bad Heart Bull and Helen Blish,” A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Short Writing Collections
- Hostiles and Friendlies: Selected Short Writings of Mari Sandoz. Edited by Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959 and 1976.
- Sandhill Sundays and Other Recollections. Edited by Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
Adapted from Caroline Bancroft, "Two Women Writers: Caroline Bancroft Recalls Her Days with Mari Sandoz," Colorado Heritage Magazine 2, no. 1 (1982).