Saturday, 31 March 2012

Frederick Manfred’s "West“

Frederick Manfred at the Land of Memories Powwow 1982/photo by Media Mike

Serendipities. What a magical life I live. A few days after my son Michael sends me for my 85th birthday the University of Nebraska’s new edition of Fredrick Manfred’s “Lord Grizzly”, Dan Rottenberg’s illuminating take on our westering ancestors appears in the BSR. Except that Dan’s story commences with the start of the railroads, while Manfred’s drama in 1800.

What a difference those first decades made. For a start, the early starters were not yet after land, but beaver, as in pelts, not rhetorical sneered at human animals. Indeed, unlike their later followers, those later Brits picked and chose squaws as the unending Indian tribe squabbles made them available. You’ll remember their French counterparts were happy with their squaws from the beginning. It was Beaver that had also brought them West first. When that European market crashes, they too settled down for land.

My son happens to have made a film career of being the Muse of Minnesota “minor” writers, revealing them indeed to be essential to an understanding what Manfred named Siouxland. You might say his calling has been to reveal the significance of “his” writers for the history of his chosen region. He left Philly for Carleton and Macalester Colleges after graduation from Boys Central in 1969. (You can sample his regional achievements at the website of his Center for International Education. Start with his DVD on Manfred, also available on Amazon.)

A scene from American Grizzly, a documentary portrait of Manfred.

Manfred (1912-94) was born Frisian-American as Feikema. He first used the Manfred moniker in 1954 with the publication of “Lord Grizzly” which made the best seller lists for his first and only time (six weeks!) It also got this often sickly journalist out of debt for a while. To effect the name change, he polled the streets of Minneapolis and among friends. He discovered that Feikema translated to Freedman. He changed his name legally to Frederick Feikema Manfred, dropping the middle name (or initial) for all his books from then on.

The story of his hero Hugh Glass grew into a nineteenth century legend, the main details of which he found in the South Dakota volume of the WPA’s regional series to give local writers employment during the Depression. As Nebraska scholar John R.Milton explains in his excellent foreword for “King Grizzly”: ”The mountain men were not saints, but their sins were forgotten by the mythmakers, who soon expanded upon the stories of these American heroes that roamed the wilderness, conquered the Indians or made daring escapes from them, slew wild beasts or (like Hugh Glass) survived hand-to-claw fights with them, and in general led a life of peril.”

This was the stuff of legend, and the mountain man became the first western American hero, to be replaced later by the cowboy. Furthermore, the freedom of the trapper, unhampered by society, has come to symbolize the American freedom that is highly touted (although not always deservedly) as the major characteristic of a democratic nation.”(p xvii.)

His writer daughter Freya Manfred has made a beguiling “obit” letter back to Daddy that truly illuminates the novel. In addition to his newspapering, he wrote twenty-two novels, poetry and a collection of letters. Especially pertinent is his 1954 letter about “Lord Grizzly”: ”I tried to conceive /of myself/ as a sort of Homer doing an Odyssey of the American Civilization, a first book of a primitive time in a civilization.”( She remembers when she was nine “surprising him crawling across our backyard on two elbows and one knee, dragging the other leg behind him in a handmade travois he’d constructed out of tree saplings, grape vines and pieces of rope.”

He was simulating Glass’s almost fatal tussle, hand to paw, with a she bear defending two cubs.” 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” of the prickly pear cactus, “difficult to extract but “worth the trouble”.” And he vowed to her he’d catch a dish with a hook made from a bone and lasso a gopher with a rawhide noose. “Are you going to eat that gopher if you catch it?” she asked. ”I might,” he said. “I bet it’s a lot better than chicken. ” (p.vii.)

He almost did die of TB at 29 in 1941, parked in a sanitarium for two years. Thirteen did die then. His doctor counseled him against a writing career. But he persevered, just like “Lord Grizzly.” Throughout his long ordeal, he fumes away at the two young protégés whom he thinks had abandoned him to die alone. And he had overlooked their treasonal sleeping their last night together when they should have been watching for Indians. He prevails against all kinds of threats—animals, Indians, hostile environments. His triumph over such odds is intellectually thrilling. Oddly, the unreadability of the two page map of his adventures adds to his sense of triumph. “Lord Grizzly” is a once in a lifetime adventure.

This is the centennial of Manfred’s birth and Siouxland is celebrating.

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