Sandoz, Mari (1896–1966)

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Sandoz, Mari (1896–1966)

American biographer and historian. Name variations: Mari Macumber. Born Marie Susette Sandoz on May 11, 1896, in Sheridan County, Nebraska; died on March 10, 1966, in New York City; daughter of Jules Ami Sandoz and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz; attended business college for nine months and the University of Nebraska, 1922–31 (non-continuous); married Wray Macumber, in 1914 (divorced 1919).

Selected writings:

Old Jules (1935); Slogum House (1937); Capital City (1939); Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942); Cheyenne Autumn (1953); The Buffalo Hunters (1954); Winter Thunder (1954); The Horsecatcher (1957); Love Song to the Plains (1961); The Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966); The Story Catcher (1973).

Born in 1896, Mari Sandoz was the first of Jules and Mary Sandoz 's six children. The family lived near the Niobrara River in the Sand Hills area of northwestern Nebraska. Jules and Mary, his fourth wife, were Swiss immigrants living as homesteaders. He was a trapper, horticulturalist, and locator for new settlers, and he became important in local politics.

As a child, Sandoz learned the skills of trapping and skinning animals along with the domestic chores of cooking and baking. She spoke only German until she was nine. Then she attended the local school, where she learned English. Reading instantly captivated her, especially the work of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy. "By the time I was ten," Sandoz told an interviewer, "I could bake up a 49-pound sack of flour, but would let the bread sour and the baby cry if there was anything to read." When she was nearly 14, she noted, she and her brother "had to dig our cattle out of the snowdrift of a May blizzard, and by night I was snowblind." After a six-week battle with total blindness, Sandoz discovered she "had only one eye left. But it's very useful to me, so it doesn't matter." Regardless of the physical challenge, she attained an eighth-grade education in little over four years.

Sandoz skipped high school, passed the rural teachers' examination, and taught school for five years in two Nebraska counties. She was married briefly to Wray Macumber from 1914 to 1919. Three years after her divorce, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska where she studied intermittently for nine years. She held miscellaneous jobs for support but never graduated.

Sandoz's lack of formal certification never hampered her career, which began at age ten with her first published work in the Omaha Daily News. In 1926, one of her many collegiate stories won honorable mention in a Harper's magazine contest and, in 1927, her short story, "The Vine," appeared in Prairie Schooner. The death of her father in 1928 set Sandoz to work on her first full-length biography. Despite her dying father's distaste for the writing profession ("You know I consider artists and writers the maggots of society," he once told her), she honored his request that she document the struggles of his life. Her manuscript, Old Jules, received curt rejection on first submission, which left Sandoz dejected. She burned much of her other work and swore never to write again, but soon realized that she possessed an innate need to write. She rewrote Old Jules, and it won a lucrative nonfiction prize from the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1935. The book received praise for its accuracy and for the wealth of information it contained about the development and settling of the Great Plains.

Sandoz worked for assorted state and local publications in Nebraska between 1927 and 1940. After the release of her second novel, Capital City (1939), which was banned in many Nebraska libraries, she left her home state. She taught creative writing at the University of Colorado in 1941, at Indiana University in 1946, and at the University of Wisconsin for almost ten years. In 1943, she made Greenwich Village in New York City her permanent home and immersed herself in exhaustive research and extensive writing.

Sandoz's work revealed a deep involvement with her Western environment, which she perceived as both vigorous and violent. In her first novel, Slogum House (1937), set during the pioneer days of Nebraska, she distinguished herself as a controversial author—the book's scheming, grimly ambitious main character, who exploits her children for her own gain, outraged many readers, as did the language Sandoz chose to use. As an "independent liberal," Sandoz projected an uncanny sympathy and commitment for the thought and emotions of Native Americans. Her work was frequently of epic proportion and reflected concepts that were previously non-existent in mainstream literature. Acclaimed for her talent as a researcher, historian, and biographer, she wrote energetically throughout her lifetime and completed more than 20 book-length works.

Of all Sandoz's work, her "Great Plains Series"—or "Trans-Missouri Series"—is considered her great opus. Over the course of nearly 30 years, between 1935 and 1964, she documented a succession of fascinating images of the American West in factual book-length form. The series includes her acclaimed biography of the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse; a detailed retelling of the Cheyenne people's flight from Indian Territory, Cheyenne Autumn; and three other historical studies of the Old West. Sandoz, who thoroughly enjoyed the modern media of radio, television, and movies, lived to see Cheyenne Autumn produced as a feature film in 1964, directed by John Ford and starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker , and Dolores Del Rio . On occasion, she wrote stories for children, including The Horsecatcher and The Story Catcher.

Sandoz underwent a mastectomy in 1954 and another in 1964. She died of cancer in St. Luke's Hospital in New York City in 1966. According to her wish, her body was returned to the Sand Hills country in Nebraska for burial.


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Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

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Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California