Sandoz, Mari

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Born Marie Susette Sandoz in 1896, Sheridan County, Nebraska; died 10 March 1966, New York, New York

Also wrote under: Marie S. Macumber

Daughter of Jules A. and Mary Fehr Sandoz

Mari Sandoz grew up in northwest Nebraska, in a frontier area at the edge of Native American country. Despite little formal education and much opposition from her father to a literary career, Sandoz's life was dedicated to writing. In both fiction and nonfiction she depicted the difficulties of frontier life and its violence, the harsh beauty of the country, the changes that have come to the area as Native Americans have been pushed aside and whites have imposed their way of life, the effects of political and social corruption upon the lives of the people, and the relations between ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans.

Sandoz's first published book was Old Jules (1935), a biography of her father; three years of research and two years of writing went into it. The book's subject is a vigorous frontiersman, opinionated and cruel as well as creative and foresighted; Sandoz's mixture of fear and admiration for him are ably conveyed. In his story Sandoz epitomized the recent history of her part of the West. Five other works later joined Old Jules as parts of the Great Plains series. Crazy Horse (1942) is a biography of the Oglala chief, stories of whom Sandoz had heard in her girlhood from old traders, frontiersmen, and Native Americans; Cheyenne Autumn (1953) tells of an epic flight of the northern Cheyenne Native Americans. The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Cattlemen (1958), and The Beaver Men (1964) study aspects of the economic history of the West, evoking people, landscape, and events and showing their interactions through several hundred years. Two projected volumes were never written; one, the introduction to the series, would have dealt with stone-age people, the other with the impact of oil upon the history of the region. Sandoz considered this series the contribution upon which her reputation would rest. As history the books are flawed by lack of documentation and by fuzzy handling of dates and chronology; as evocative recreations of their time and place they are unsurpassed.

Sandoz's fiction uses similar materials. Of her novels, only Capital City (1939) is set in the present. One of many antifascist novels of the period, it analyzes a thinly disguised Nebraska and is flawed by its lack of a clear central character and focus.

The four novels set in the past are firmly rooted in historical fact. Slogum House (1937), the story of a woman who ruthlessly uses her family to build an empire, vividly depicts frontier violence. Murders, prostitution, and the castration of a man she perceives as an enemy are incidents in the growth of the central character's power. The Tom-Walker (1947) follows three generations of war veterans (of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II) from their return home, wounded in body and spirit, through their disillusioning attempts to adjust to a corrupt society. Miss Morissa (1955), the story of a young woman doctor who makes a life for herself on the frontier, is dedicated to three actual women doctors of the period. Son of the Gamblin' Man (1960) is a fictionalized biography of painter Robert Henri, son of a frontier gambler and community builder. Through her imaginative recreation of the complicated relationship between father and son, Sandoz mirrored the development of a section of Nebraska.

In her later years, Sandoz received many honors, both as novelist and as historian. Her brutally realistic depictions of frontier violence and lawlessness and her penetrating analyses of Western history give her a secure place among those who have tried to understand that region both as it actually was and as a mythic force in the American consciousness.

Other Works:

Winter Thunder (1954). The Horsecatcher (1957). Hostiles and Friendlies: Selected Short Writings (1959). Love Song to the Plains (1961). These Were the Sioux (1961). The Far Looker (1962). The Story Catcher (1963). Old Jules Country: A Selection from Old Jules and Thirty Years of Writing Since the Book Was Published (1965). The Old Jules Home Region (1965). The Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966). Sandhill Sundays, and Other Recollections (1966). The Christmas of the Phonograph Records: A Recollection (1966, reprinted 1970).

A collection of Sandoz's work is housed at Love Library of the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln.


Pifer, C .S., Making of an Author (1972). Stauffer, H.W., Story Catcher of the Plains (1982). Stauffer, H. W. and S. J. Rosowski, eds., Women and Western American Literature (1982). Stauffer, H. W., ed., Letter of Mari Sandoz (1992). Villager, L. R., Mari Sandoz: A Study in Post-Colonial Discourse (1994). Wilkinson, J. L., Scribe of the Great Plains: Mari Sandoz (1998).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1987).

Other references:

American West (Spring 1965). Great Plains Quarterly (Winter 1992). PS (1966, 1967, 1968, 1971).