Authors: Frederick Manfred
By Frederick Manfred
Foreword by John R. Milton
Introduction to the new Bison Books edition by Freya Manfred
University of Nebraska Press
Lincoln and London
Â© 1954 by Frederick Feikema Manfred
Foreword Â© 1983 by the University of Nebraska Press
Introduction Â© 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Manfred, Frederick Feikema, 1912â1994.
Lord Grizzly/Frederick Manfred; foreword by John R. Milton; introduction to the new Bison Books edition by Freya Manfred.â2nd ed.
1. Glass, Hugh, ca. 1780âca. 1833âFiction. 2. Wilderness survivalâFiction. 3. TrappersâFiction. 4. Grizzly bearâFiction. 5. Frontier and pioneer lifeâFiction. I. Title.
The editors at the University of Nebraska Press have asked me to write an introduction for
, which many readers and critics say is the crown jewel of your “Buckskin Man” novels. I wish you were alive to write it with me, but at least I can quote from your letters and our conversations. I want your words here with mine, because even when you were dying you told us that if you did happen to “go to some other place,” you didn't want to “float around doing nothing like some of those descriptions we hear about angels and heaven.” You said firmly, “I want an assignment!” So here's our assignment: to write this together.
This introduction will be more anecdotal than academic, because you were above all an irresistible storyteller; even when people don't agree with your philosophy or don't like a character, they can't stop reading because your stories pull them along. They want to know what will happen. I won't try to place you somewhere among the constellation of other American writers you so admired, because as a writer born in 1912 in Iowa, you chose to stay and work in your beloved Upper Midlands rather than move to New York City or another major metropolitan area. And because you wrote during the second half of the twentieth century, when the lands west of the Mississippi were just beginning to produce first-rate writers, you often said, “I had to create my own audience, and then write for it.” I also won't be quoting the literary, political, or religious establishments because you were a maverick, and although you had a liberal bent, you often said, “I don't like to adhere strictly to any one political or religious groupâthey all think they know the whole truth and that's not possible.”
Here on the Siouxland prairie, in twenty-two novels, you created an epic body of enduring literature. You believed you were doing something important, and you gratefully kept on doing it. As you said in your 1954 letter to Helen Reitsema Vander Meer, from
The Selected Letters of Frederick Manfred: 1932â1954
] I tried to conceive [of myself] as a sort of Homer doing an
of the American Civilization, a first book of a primitive time in a culture.” And you added, “I don't know why it is, but I can't do things the way other people do âem. It's got to be new and my way, or nothing. I guess I'm a natural born lawbreaker lucky enough to be working over in a safe area, letters.”
So here's our introduction, DadâO you haunt companyero!
One summer day in 1953 when I was nine, I came home to our weathered gray house above the Minnesota River in Bloomington and found my father crawling across our back yard on two elbows and one knee, dragging the other leg behind him in a handmade travois he'd constructed of tree saplings, grape vines, and odd pieces of rope. A few days later he was tasting ants (“they're tart, sweet and sour”) and grub worms (“somewhat sweet, like stale white sugar candy”) and canned rattle snake (“stringy”) and the “surprisingly moist” flesh of the prickly pear cactus, difficult to extract but “worth the trouble.” Our whole family also enjoyed roasting some thick, juicy buffalo steaks over a bonfire, and Dad vowed he would someday catch a fish with a hook carved from a bone, and lasso a gopher with a rawhide noose. “Are you going to eat that gopher if you catch it?” I asked. “I might,” he said. “I bet it's a lot better than chicken.”
Over the next weeks Dad explained that he was crawling around our yard and experimenting with unusual foods because the hero of his new novel, Hugh Glass, had been attacked and horribly mauled by a mother grizzly, then had to crawl to safety alone across two hundred miles of South Dakota prairie without a gun or a knife to kill game, or a flint and steel to make a fire. “Why didn't anyone help him?” I asked. “Because this was back in the early 1800s when the Dakotas were wild, unexplored country, and the white man's forts were few and far between, and mostly Indians lived there. And because the two young men who were assigned to watch over Hugh panicked and left him to die.”
Shortly after Dad failed in his attempts to catch and eat a gopher, he and my mother, Maryanna Shorba Manfred, drove from Minneapolis to northwest South Dakota to the isolated territory where Hugh Glass had crawled. Dad showed Mom their location on a plat map and pointed to another spot on the map where she could meet him with the car later that day. Mom watched with some trepidation as he disappeared in the distance, striding off alone across the same rugged terrain that old Hugh had encountered. She felt he was endangering himself and that there were plenty of books in the library about Indians and explorers, fur trappers and scouts, early forts and the wild Sioux country, but Dad insisted he had to get in touch with the land before he could give us his writer's view of what Hugh Glass saw and did. In March 1953, he wrote Bernard De Voto, “I've been slowly soaking up the Old West by reading [your work], plus Ruxton, Garrard, Lewis & Clark, Larpenteur, Clyman, Chittenden, etc., and lately Donald McKay Frost.” In November 1954, after
came out, Dad wrote Harvey Briet, editor of the
New York Times Book Review
, about his research:
Some haveÂ .Â .Â . wondered how I dared tackle that Crawl section in
, since at first glance it looks like an impossible thing in fact, let alone trying to describe it and make it interesting in fiction. Actually I never worried about that. I made myself a travois for a leg on my place here and crawled over the hillside to make sure it would work. Next I either drove my old â38 Ford over the route or got out and walked it, all the while collecting bits of sand, gravel, stone, ground, plus vegetation, plus pictures of animals. Next I did some reading to see what others had written on the subject and the area. As for the Indians, I went out to visit them, sought out the old boys, especially the medicine men. No, that part of it wasn't too hard. What was really hard was to make convincing the act of forgiving at the end. And it took me some nine years of waiting and watching before I caught a hint of how it should go.Â .Â .Â . I had to come around to doing some forgiving myself.
I watched Dad write
in his ten-by-fourteen-foot cabin in our back yard, a remodeled white chicken coop with two small windows and a door. As I describe in my literary memoir,
Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers
, he wrote hard three or four hours a day, five days a week, especially hard for a man who had almost died of tuberculosis. By the time he left Glen Lake Sanatorium in Minnetonka, Minnesota, in 1941, after two years of complete bed rest, thirteen of his roommates had died, and Dr. Sumner Cohen told him that writing fiction was too passionate and emotionally stressful a task for a man with half of one lung and a quarter of the other missing. He suggested Dad find part-time work “in other venues,” and he added, “Don't become a writer, or raise any children, if you want to live.”
To protect his health, Dad always went to bed early and made sure he had quiet mornings to write. My sister, Marya, my brother, Fred, and I were instructed not to shout or laugh too loud when we played in the sandbox or on the swings near his studio. If we did, we got into trouble.
! His cabin door would fly open and hit the outside wall, and he would jump out roaring, his face red with passion. “Dammit, I told you kids to keep quiet! I'm trying to write here!” When I would sneak up to peek in the cabin window (I'd better not make a sound!), he would be bent over his Remington, tapping away, his face distorted with ferocity, exhilaration, exaltation, and exhaustionâa sunny and stormy weather pattern in which we all grew up. “When you write,” he said, “you burn, you burn at 100 percent; you give it all you have, and more. That's why I hate to get sick. I can't write at 60 or 80 percent. I end up with pap, just pap.”
When the first published copies of
arrived at our home in the fall of 1954, Dad inscribed mine with the following message: “Honey, I hope this is âinteresting' to youâand not too sadâbut it is a âtrue' storyâlove, Daddy.” After returning his bear hug, I snatched the book from his giant hands and ran to my room to read it; even though it was certainly written for people at least half a decade older than myself, I couldn't stop reading until I finished. It was, just as Dad predicted, entirely “interesting,” “not too sad,” and “true.” It was poetic and utterly down to earth, gritty and harsh, yet haunting and soaring. It was wild
civilized. It was, though I didn't know it at the time, Homeric, a novel of epic proportions.
The elemental nature of Hugh Glass is described so that he becomes the father of us all. And even now, in a time of extreme political division and hatreds, Hugh Glass's act of forgiveness is the maturing of the American spirit, the final destination of the American soul. Or, as Dad said in an interview with one of his friends, writer and English professor John Calvin Rezmerski: “I ran across a reference to Hugh Glass in the
South Dakota Guide Book
and it instantly caught my eyeâthis man fighting the bear aloneâit struck me that here was the first real contact of the white man with the raw West. When I saw what Hugh Glass didâhe did a greater thing than Achilles did. Achilles killed Hector and then dragged him around Troy. So I thought we've got heroes bigger than the Greeks had.”
In December of 1954, flying high from the glowing reviews and overwhelming success of
and the knowledge that he had completed a monumental work of artâbut still intent on the “hard” task of creating his own audience and then writing for itâin a P.P.S. to Alan C. Collins at Doubleday, Dad described his first “best-seller” almost like a publicist: “Facts: the wonderful title is mine; the arrangement of the plot is my original idea; the working out of how [Hugh] came to forgive is my original idea; the research for background is enormous and very accurate; the speech is accurate down to a coughâno one can improve on it; and the material on the Indians, as J. Donald Adams says, is the best yet to appear in any book, Cooper's included. Whoever buys it is buying a masterpiece: flawless, solid, enduring.” (This P.P.S. is a surprise. Dad and Mom told me more than once that Mom thought of the title when Dad told her he was considering
The Grizzly Bear, Old Hugh Glass
The Far Country
. Dad said Mom was great at titles.)
Unlike my father and some of the better readers and critics, at the age of ten (and even at twenty or forty when I re-read
) I felt that Hugh Glass was not a fascinating, heroic character because he really lived in history or because of some abstract notion of honor. Rather, his appeal comes, as Rezmerski says in his insightful foreword to
The Frederick Manfred Reader
, “from his anger at being abandoned, his simple desire to stay alive, to fill his belly, and finally his ability to see from his experience that others were like him in their needs” and might deserve his humble attempts at empathy and compassion. The Hugh Glass I met in Dad's novel was every man or any woman “who bumbles through life trying to do right, trying to be happy, trying to make something of himself and to experience, however inexpertly, some romance along the way.”
Over the years that followed, even when publishers rejected a few of Dad's novels, they praised his superb detail, vivid characters, and strong sense of place. As Rezmerski writes in
The Frederick Manfred Reader
, Dad's work
epitomizes the literature of place.Â .Â .Â . He has done for Siouxland what Faulkner did for the south, and like Faulkner he is not simply a regionalist, though the Eastern literary establishment has often treated him like oneâby ignoring him, to his chronic disadvantage, both artistically and financially.Â .Â .Â . He coined the name “Siouxland” to refer to the region where most of his work is set, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska, especially the region where these states meet near the confluence of the Big Sioux and Missouri riversÂ .Â .Â . and it's now used to describe the region once ranged by tribes called Sioux, an area with its own characteristic pattern of social, economic, and cultural evolution.
Dad described this literary vision of Siouxland himself when, like the former newspaper writer he was, he wrote his own obituary, which was read by his friend Arthur Huseboe, director of the Center for Western Studies, at Dad's September 1994 funeral:
It has been my dream for many years to be able to finish a long hallway of pictures in fiction dealing with the country I call Siouxland (located in the Upper Midlands, USA) from 1800 to the day I die. Not only must the history be fairly accurate, and the description of the flora and fauna fairly precise, and the use of the language of the place and time beautiful, but the delineation of the people by way of characterization living and illuminating. It has long been my thought that a “place” finally selects the people who best reflect it, give it voice, and allow it to make a cultural contribution to the sum of all world culture under the sun.Â .Â .Â .
The final test of good fiction rests with how well the characters come through, their reality, their meaning, their stature, their durability, no matter what the situation may be. The characters should be so well done that the reader should not be aware of plot or the unraveling of time in the work. The reader should be lost in the story. The plot should be hidden like a skeleton is in a flying eagle.
If a “place” truly finds voice, at last the ultimate sacred force speaks. And in the USA, Western American literature does this best.
I learned so much, as a writer and as a human being, watching Dad crawl around eating ants and grub worms, his face red with gratitude at just being alive, able to follow his passion, writing. I learned to look for what is real in a work of art, the beautiful and the ugly, and how to have fun learning, exploring, absorbing everything I find, and empathizing with everything under the sun. From
alone I learned that a human being could take on the spirit of an animal if it nearly kills him or her, which is what happened to Hugh Glass after he killed the mother grizzly to save himself. I think Dad also absorbed the spirit of the grizzly while he was writing the novel. Once, during an informal taped interview Fred Jr. and I conducted after we'd moved to Blue Mound in Luverne, Minnesota, my brother asked Dad how it felt to spend so much time alone in order to get his writing done, and Dad said, “Well, maybe I don't mind it because I'm part bear, grizzly bear [laugh]. Grizzlies, male grizzlies particularly,
to be alone a lotâand the older they get, the more they are alone. But perhaps more importantly, if you're going to do anything creatively, whether it's in architecture, or writing novels, or sculpture, you can't be spending your time in the presence of other people if you want to really explore your ideas.”