Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Foreword by Arthur R. Huseboe
Introduction to the Bison Books edition by John Calvin Rezmerski
University of Nebraska Press
Lincoln and London
© 1964 by Frederick Feikema Manfred
Foreword © 1983 by the University of Nebraska Press
Introduction © 2012 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Manfred, Frederick Feikema, 1912–
Scarlet plume/Frederick Manfred; foreword by Arthur R. Huseboe; introduction to the Bison Books edition by John Calvin Rezmerski.—2nd ed.
ISBN 978-0-8032-4364-4 (pbk.: alk. paper) 1. Dakota Indians—Wars, 1862–1865—Fiction. 2. Indians of North America—Minnesota—Wars—Fiction. 3. Indians of North America—Wars—1862–1865—Fiction. I. Huseboe, Arthur R., 1931– II. Rezmerski, John Calvin. III. Title. IV. Series: Manfred, Frederick Feikema, 1912– Buckskin man tales.
ISBN 978-0-8032-5307-0 (electronic: epub)
ISBN 978-0-8032-5308-7 (electronic: mobi)
John Calvin Rezmerski
is a favorite of many of Manfred’s readers, and Manfred himself regarded it as a very important accomplishment in the development of his craft as a writer, in the scheme of his fictional record of the region he called Siouxland, and in the elaboration of his philosophical, religious, and moral ideas. It is a pivotal work in which he takes on several challenges, among them using fiction to illuminate history in a manner faithful to the historical record, representing a female character (and female consciousness) as the central point of view, counterposing the diverse points of view of characters from two different cultures, and developing a way of treating sexual themes in a manner that is explicit, poetic, and sociologically significant. In his earlier books
The Golden Bowl
This Is the Year
, the sexual episodes were presented almost diffidently or guardedly, and in both those novels (and more especially in
), the plots and characters depicted were drawn from a world with which Manfred was directly familiar. In
, he successfully personalized a historical character about whom very little was known. And in
, he studied, explored, and elaborated central elements of a culture with which he was not personally familiar. In
, he was ready to synthesize all those elements, along with the adoption of a female point of view, the need to be faithful to the historical record as it was available to him, and the freedom to be as frank about sexuality as D. H. Lawrence was, all combined with a tragic plot. We might add (though he didn’t say so himself) that he took a very large artistic and professional risk by depicting the brutal side of Yankton life, after showing it so heroically in
In an interview that I conducted in preparation for publication of
The Frederick Manfred Reader
, Manfred talked about the public and critical responses to his books over the years. When we got to
, I told him about a conversation I had had with a former colleague who taught American studies. I had mentioned that I had just finished reading
, and he asked me, “What other books of Manfred’s have you read? What do you like best?” At the time, I had only read five or six of his books, and I replied that I had liked
, and after that my favorite was
. My colleague said, “Oh,
! That’s just a pot-boiler.”
If I had known Fred better at the time, I would have argued that I didn’t think he’d ever written a pot-boiler. Instead, all I could say was, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, it’s all full of senseless violence, and it’s got all that sex stuff in it, just to attract a readership without having to put anything of quality into the book.” At that point I excused myself and went away thinking, “Hmmm. So here’s a guy who’s a respected professor, a kind of pioneer in American studies, who regards himself as an expert on the literature of the American West and a fan of Manfred’s earlier work, and he has missed the point of the book.”
I told Fred about that, and about another conversation I’d had with a Lutheran minister who wasn’t bothered by the sexual aspects of the book but who objected to it because of its critical attitude about missionaries. Fred laughed and reminded me of his brief preface to
, in which he tells about an aunt’s objections to his books, and about how an uncle spoke to him privately, praising him for telling things as they really were. In those days, good Christian women had to hold the line, and they had their rules about language, but the language of men handling animals needed to be different and frank. While Fred’s books may have bothered his female relatives, his uncle respected their honesty.
I said, “These guys’ attitude toward
is the attitude of your aunt.”
“Yep, exactly,” Fred said. He added that while there were some harsh reviews of the book, on the whole reviewers were kind to it. I decided to check on the critical response then, and just recently I updated my notes with a web search for reviews and criticism relating to
As he said, comments were all over the map. Favorable comments tended to be very general in character: “Excellent,” “A tender love story,” “This was without a doubt the best book I’ve ever read,” “What I like about
is the broad sweep, it’s [
] thematic and moral target.” Negative evaluations were more often focused on specifics and rooted in traditional critical concerns or philosophical positions. Some charged him with inconsistency of tone, language, or point of view, or with faulty narrative strategy. Others attacked him for excessive description of violence (one even called him “sick”), or for lack of success in his attempt to represent a female point of view, or for showing the Indians as unredeemable savages, or for “ridiculous” sex scenes. Still others, however, praised the book by association. The
New York Times Book Review
, for example, compared its importance with Hal Borland’s
When the Legends Die
, Mari Sandoz’s
, and Oliver La Farge’s
. On the other hand, one particularly sarcastic reviewer compared it to a comic book.
One of the criticisms readers have brought up in various formulations is that
is too melodramatic. I asked Fred how he felt about that criticism, and he threw the question back at me. Did I think it was melodramatic? I said that I thought the criticism was half right but that because the values of both of the cultures depicted in the book often encouraged people to act melodramatically, rendering the cultures faithfully demanded that a writer include that element and say, “Well, if there’s melodrama here, then here it is,” and proceed from there.
Fred answered that he had read diaries and letters and interviews of people caught up in the 1862 war; they were full of accounts of atrocities and moral dilemmas that he felt he could not use in the novel because they were too extreme. He said, “So my defense is that my account is really sort of placid, compared to the real dope. So to hell with the melodrama [charge]. I myself don’t mind melodrama as long as it’s well done.”
It is most encouraging that many reviewers and critics who search for faults to pick at—and some not given to fault-finding—nevertheless consider
to be a very significant accomplishment among many others in Manfred’s body of work. It is one that must be taken seriously and appreciated for its daring, imaginative leaps grounded in the historical record, even if (as has more recently become clear) the record is often biased and faulty, frequently inconsistent, and sometimes stripped of its supportability by better evidence that has more recently come to light. The amount of official and unofficial documentation available is staggering, considering that the time from the first attack in the outbreak to the execution of the accused Indians was only four months (though the military campaign against the Sioux went on for years, and the period of confinement and removal of the tribes lasted much longer). During the 150 years since that awful autumn of 1862, some records that were held and sometimes embargoed by federal, state, county, and city libraries, museums, courthouses, and private citizens have been made available for public examination. Researchers have uncovered much information that contradicts earlier accounts. Interviews and reports by doctors, lawyers, and religious workers have finally come to the attention of historians and other scholars, revealing that many of the more easily accessible accounts are exaggerated, inaccurate, or based on unreliable testimony. It now seems that many accounts of atrocities, including rape, torture, disembowelment, and the murder of children, were completely fabricated. This is not to deny the hundreds of deaths that occurred or to say there were no atrocities, but it has become plain that much of the information that Manfred based his story on was not dependable.
What is dependable, however, is that Judith Raveling’s story is founded upon a composite of events in which several women were involved. Some of those accounts have been published. Others have not. Fred’s research was far-reaching and various, orthodox and unorthodox. His investigations took him to the Minnesota Historical Society, local historical museums, and the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology. He read diaries, memoirs, and letters by the missionaries Stephen Riggs and Bishop Henry Whipple, General Henry Sibley, and Governor Alexander Ramsey, as well as captivity accounts from various periods, including those by Fanny Kelly, Abigail Gardner, Lavinia Eastlick, Sarah Wakefield, and others. Those stories clearly influenced the structure and settings of his novel, but perhaps most important to him were two particular documents. One was a report by a Dr. Workman, who had examined the captive women who were freed by the Dakotas at Camp Release, a copy of which was furnished to Manfred by a descendant of Workman’s, to whom he had been directed by a man he met at a centennial observance of the Lake Shetek massacre. The report was full of information that Fred said was “three times worse than what I [previously] had. You talk about melodrama—it was sitting in there, terrible stark stuff. But I felt it didn’t make good fiction the way it was sitting in there.” Fred thought the state historical society ought to have a copy of it, so he called his friend Russell Fridley, director of the society, who told him to bring it to him. “So I showed him the . . . packet,” Fred said. Fridley paged through it and called the manuscript department, asking them to bring down a manuscript that turned out to be a carbon copy of what Fred had shown him. That gave him faith in the contents.
The other document that pushed Fred to proceed was a letter Sibley had written to his wife about a woman at Camp Release who had fallen in love with her captor and who wanted to return to live with the Indians rather than return to her husband. In an interview with John Milton, editor of
South Dakota Review
, he said, “I wanted to know about that and so I read some more in the area. And I did finally dream on several occasions of a white girl with an Indian. Some of them were kind of along the nightmare side.”
I think it is fair to say that dreaming became for him a kind of unorthodox research that influenced the creation of the book. When he visited the Bureau of Ethnology, investigating their resources, he encountered a picture he was tempted to steal. “Of course, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “But that picture just emblazoned my mind. And Scarlet Plume came off that picture. And now I began to dream about that picture.”
Around the same time, his house at Blue Mounds was under construction. Not knowing there were steps missing, he fell down the shaft of a spiral staircase, severely injuring himself. He spent a long while recuperating, undergoing a period of memory loss. He had completed seventy-five pages of
, but when he recovered, he was unable to find the manuscript.
He began the work all over again, with a clearer notion of Scarlet Plume’s character and with a decision to assign Judith the point of view of the narrative, forcing him to think in greater depth about the psychology of a traumatized woman trapped in a bewildering setting, fighting her way out of a religion she only half believes in, and undergoing a sexual awakening while making a desperate attempt to return to her home, only to discover that she has come to admire the culture of her captors more than she admires the culture in which she was raised. It was a story that offered little comfort and little to admire for readers who had been raised in an atmosphere of contempt for people they had been taught were ignorant and bloodthirsty savages, or for the squeamish, or for adherents of conventional Christianity. And it was about a woman who repeatedly demonstrates an intense and explicit fascination with her lover’s phallus. Hardly what readers were likely to expect from a writer who had previously given them accounts of the difficulties of dust-bowl farming, of long confinement and near death in a tuberculosis hospital, of a rough-hewn hero obsessed with revenge, and of a young warrior on a mythic quest.
But despite what were perceived as flaws in its conception, point of view, and dependence on flawed history, and despite critics’ assertions that it was an uncomfortable mixture of western, historical, thriller, and romance, it succeeded with the public.
The success of
is, we might suppose, based on at least three elements likely to please the expectations of a mass audience in America: a female hero with great personal strength and integrity; a strong and mysterious romantic interest; and an ongoing struggle in an environment of hostility and violence. A tragic ending probably helps, too, especially when it prompts the main character to pursue a new life.
Judith Raveling engages our sympathies right away: she is beautiful, a good mother, interested in improving her life, aware of the issues of the day, alert to her environment—and she recognizes the flaws in her neighbors and in their motives. She is not one to dither but is ready to take action to protect her children and herself, however futile that action might prove. That she survives the attack on her home is partly due to luck, partly to intelligence, but also due to her strength of character. In terms of a label that might be used today in media coverage of her situation, Judith is a
There’s more to it than that, of course. Through most of the story, her survival skills are not on a par with her survival impulses. Those she undertakes to protect do not thrive. Her desire to escape is repeatedly thwarted. She is sexually abused repeatedly. She is scorned for her ignorance and for her appearance.
Even her lucky breaks are spoiled. Having escaped from her young husband’s sexual insensitivity, she then finds herself sexually disappointed by her new husband, the old chief Whitebone. Practically from the beginning she feels the stirrings of desire for the virile young Scarlet Plume, but alas, she is now Scarlet Plume’s stepmother. She senses his interest in her, but he discreetly keeps his distance, even as her admiration for him grows and grows, and his physical attractiveness fascinates her more and more. And though her long blonde hair makes Whitebone consider her a sort of goddess, there are others in the band who would like nothing better than to wear her blonde scalp.