Patti Smith and Mari Sandoz, Kindred Spirits
In her wonderful memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith honors inspiration she gained from another writer during her formative time living in the Chelsea Hotel:
I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine. I decided I wanted a similar tattoo.
Such an insight about Crazy Horse is just the thing that attracted readers to Sandoz, a daughter of Swiss immigrants in the sandhills of western Nebraska. Like Smith herself, Sandoz overcame huge obstacles to become a writer. Her own father once told her, “You know I consider writers and artists the maggots of society.”
Sandoz grew up on a farm near the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, and they were part of her childhood. “I remember the stern faces of the Sioux when in the swift heat of temper my father whipped us,” she recalled later. “These Indians still consider the whites a brutal people who treat their children like enemies …”
One day, walking home with a bundle of wood, she came upon an old Sioux man and stopped to watch as he danced alone. The old warrior called her “granddaughter” and told her his story.
Later as a colleague and friend of WPA folklore director Ben Botkin, Sandoz blazed new trails in her interviews for her biography of Crazy Horse. She was considered for the job of state director of the WPA Writers’ Project in Nebraska.
Rudolph Umland, a young WPA editor in Lincoln, saw Sandoz as a mentor and respected the toughness she showed from her youth on the farm. Years later he still remembered her stories of growing up poor, wearing dresses made from flour sacks and old men’s shoes laced with twine.
“She knew what it was like to be made fun of,” Umland wrote. “No woman bent on being a literary person ever had the cards stacked against her more … She once showed me a knot on her hand that came from a bone broken during one of [her father’s] beatings.”
In the 1930s, her book about her father, Old Jules, won the prestigious Atlantic Press nonfiction prize. Sandoz became a leading Nebraska author, and hosted social gatherings of younger writers in her Lincoln apartment. The topics ranged from writing dialogue to demonstrations of Polish dances she had learned as a girl.
Sandoz belonged to no group or movement, but savored these discussions with younger writers.
“There were an awful lot of young creative people around,” she said of 1930s Lincoln in a 1961 interview. “We were angry over the suppression of ideas in America.”
By the 1960s, Sandoz was living in Greenwich Village, not far from where Patti Smith later took up residence in the Chelsea. Sandoz’s spirit was honored by Umland and his colleagues in the Nebraska WPA guide, which ranked her Old Jules among the most important pieces of prose from Nebraska since Willa Cather’s novels. “Mari Sandoz treats epic material boldly,” says the guide, “with scrupulous honesty.”