Saturday 28 January 2017

Bigelow Neal - Author, North Dakota

Another entry in the series of articles on authors that appeared in Blue Book magazine. Bigelow Neal was a writer from North Dakota, known for his wildlife stories. This article originally appeared in the Bismarck Tribune, February 22, 1930.

Basic biographical facts

Born: 27 June, 1891 in Bismarck, North Dakota
Died: August 21, 1962 in Ward County, North Dakota

Army service in World War 1
Appeared in Blue Book from 1927 to 1949, at least one story every year from 1927 to 1946

Neal Bigelow - Author (1891-1962)
Neal Bigelow - Author (1891-1962)

The "Sage of Douglass Creek” is in the city. He is North Dakota's sole professional magazine writer, making his living exclusively from his trusty typewriter, the grammar of a mother and the spelling of a wife who knows her orthography.

Bigelow Neal, of Garrison, answers to this description. He is one of the new and growing school of animal story writers of whom Herbert Ravenal Sass is being exploited so conspicuously in a weekly eastern publication of large circulation.

Neal, a native of Bismarck, having been born in the northern part of town and educated in part in the William Moore school here, is in the city on business and for the pleasure of hobnobbing with Pat Byrne, a friend of years standing who has followed his rising career in letters with an interest matched only by the respect which the Garrison sage accords the reputation of Byrne as an authority on Sioux traditions and history, including the debacle of the Custer campaign on the Little Big Horn.

Won Prize on September Morn

While a pupil at the William Moore school. Neal wrote short sketches of the school for the Minneapolis Journal. then conducting a Sunday prize contest in this field though Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana. He won a button on one entry, honorable mention on another and, finally, a description of a September morn in Bismarck after a snow had adorned the landscape, brought him a handsome painting as a prize.

That painting hung in the school for some years, but it was decided that the rising reputation of Neal as an animal story teller for various magazines and weeklies made it deserving of preservation in the memorial building, and then it was turned over to Russell Reid, museum curator, who has hung it on the walls of the historical society quarters.

Most Consistent Animal Author

Neal possibly is the most consistent writer of the animal type of story in the country. More than any other member of the group he dramatizes his animals makes a character out of each, and does not rely on a set system of development of their adventures. No two stories of his mark the same beaten trail of missing a trap here, an enemy there or conclude with the end of a perfect day when sunset comes. He suggests the comparison of Frederick Remington and Charley Russell, the great pencil and oil artists of the old west. Remington painted  cowboys in red shirts rounding up bulls and steers, Russell never did that He preferred the realism of recognizing that male bovines have an antipathy for red which cow punchers respected by something more subdued than a flaming chemise.

Neal is not a trained authority on animals, but he has a trick which assures his stories accuracy. He submits them to biological survey experts who pass on the possibility of their various phases being in accord with the conduct of wild animals or their instincts.

Writes End First, Middle Last

A peculiarity of Neal's method of writing is to begin a story at the end, then write the introductory portion, and subsequently fill in the middle. The result is that the filling to this literary sandwich not infrequently turns out to be something quite different from the plot which had been sketched at the outset.

Neal prefers the prairie of the old and rugged west as his locale. He is on familiar ground there, for the atmosphere of Bismarck in his early days still was that of the prairie of the Indian and buffalo, the coyote and the herds of cattle. He is the son of Eugene s. Neal, a former Bismarck sheriff, who also followed cattle-buying in partnership with Dr. Porter, famed as the surviving surgeon of the Custer expedition which ended so disastrously on the hillside above the Little Big Horn June 25, 1876. Porter was with Reno when the Custer troops were annihilated by the Sioux,

Related to Poultney Bigelow

The elder Neal and wife live with their son at Garrison. It is possible that Neal inherits his literary bent from the mother, who was a cousin of the late Poultney Bigelow, who used to hobnob with Kaiser William of Germany, the two having been thrown together in boyhood when Bigelow’s father was minister to Germany. Julia Ward Howe also was a cousin to a grandmother of the Dakota writer.

Neal's short stories appear in the Blue Book and the American Boy and Collier's has bought one to bring out some day. He is the first man in North Dakota to claim a membership in the Authors’ League of America, and one of the few writers in this section of the middle west to hold membership in Western Writers’ association.

The Spectrum, published at the North Dakota Agricultural college, of which Mr. Neal is an alumnus, in an issue of recent date said this: “Adventure stories, stories of animals and men, of remarkable descriptions of nature and tensity of plot, have delighted thousands of Mr. Neal's readers. Will James, himself delightful author and illustrator of cowboy life, has illustrated some of them.”

Alumnus Of A. C.

Neal was educated largely at home, under the tutelage of his mother. He was three years old, when, in 1894, the family moved to Garrison and located on a large cattle ranch, where they still live. He spent six months of a winter in the Moore school here, winning his painting prize while in the seventh grade.

Subsequently he attended North Dakota Agricultural college at Fargo. At college, where Neal infers that he was “no great shucks, but made a lot of friends,” he was asked to write a book review. “Unable to understand the book. I took revenge on the author,” says Mr. Neal. “Dean Minard, graduate of Harvard and of Oxford, passed it and said that he was not so sure that my life's work did not lie in that direction."

Tried Writing On Tribune

In 1913 Neal came to The Tribune to assist in the advertising department, but he also was assigned to do local stories. The first of these was done as fiction is composed, and Neal was greatly chagrined to see the editor promptly consign it to the waste basket with a shriek of contempt. Like Richard Harding Davis, the short story master, the prize winner of the Moore school did not have the news writing gift, but he was great on short stories, so like Dick Davis he has come into his manifest destiny in the short animal tales he now is producing.                

Wife Is Big Aid

“My name at the head of a story really stands for three persons” says the modest Neal. "I furnish the imagination and the technique, my mother furnishes the grammar and some more technique, and my wife furnishes all of the spelling and gets up at 3 o'clock of mornings to make oyster stews. After a story is finished we mail it to New York or Detroit. Then we devote 10 days to meditation and to prayer. If the story comes back we write another, if it doesn’t we usually buy something.

Slumped on War Stories

During the World war Neal tried a series of short stories of army life. “All were begun,” he says, “and none was finished, and again I slumped. He talks of this period of discouragement:

"Coming out of the army I began in a more serious way and in one which produced a great deal of genuine sorrow. For some years my stories were mostly in my head and those that came out produced nothing but rejection slips. Finally my wife took a story that I had given up in disgust and mailed it to the editor of the Red Book. I think she sent it there because that was the only publication that had not rejected it several times before. In a short time I received a personal letter from Donald Kennicott, the associate editor of that magazine. He returned the manuscript and suggested one slight change. A month later I had my first check.” Karl Edwin Harriman pronounced that story a classic.

Neal’s first success produced what he terms a bad case of overinflation. He set out to get rich from his typewriter, his mother's grammar and his wife's orthography. But it took him a year and a half to turn out another salable story. A streak of luck sold him three stories in quick succession.

May Write Custer Novel

"Then Mr. Harriman and Mr. Kennicott undertook the task of teaching me the art of writing. The results of some of their instructions I sold to the American Boy and thus gained another friend and teacher in the person of George Pierrot, managing editor of the Youth’s Companion and American Boy.”

Since then Bigelow Neal has stayed put in his type of fiction. He is the only writer in the state who is devoting himself exclusively to the literary typewriter and he makes a fine livelihood from the sale of his stories.

Possibly some day he will write one of the great novels of the West, as he is deeply absorbed in the stirring events of the days of Fort Abraham Lincoln and the Custer expedition. He has uncovered phases of that unfortunate military adventure that may some day give a complete story of it.


  1. It's interesting to note that this author was thinking about a novel dealing with Custer. I'm presently reading about Custer and have read several novels about Custer's last stand.

    1. Neal had a personal connection with the Custer massacre. A doctor who was at the scene of Little Bighorn, Dr. Henry Porter, was the family doctor present at Neal's and his brother's birth.

      There is even an letter from Neal telling of a day in his childhood when Dr. Porter told him about Custer's head wound being likely either self inflicted or a mercy shot from someone else.

      What you can believe at this distance of time, I don't know. Interesting, nonetheless...

    2. I just googled Dr Henry Porter and Custer. There is even a book on about Porter and Custer's last stand. I've read about a Dr Porter with Major Reno or maybe it was Captain Benteen. Lucky he wasn't with Custer because no one survived except for a horse.

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    1. :-).

      I guess you missed the introduction where i say this is entirely a newspaper article published in 1930. Also, I didn't see anything about German lineage in the article, just a passing reference to Germany as a place where his father had been a diplomat.

      I'm glad for the misunderstanding, however, as it prompted you to comment and reach out. I will get in touch with you and we can set the record straighter.

  4. Interesting, I have never seen this and never actually saw him that I know of,but this is my great grandfather. My daughter is reading me The Last of The Thundering Heard tonight.