Dakota Life: Wrestling with the West

Frederick Manfred

Hugh Glass legend has attracted more than one storyteller. Frederick Manfred might have been the best.

Editor’s note: Capital Journal Managing Editor Lance Nixon interviewed Frederick Manfred in June 1993 as a graduate student at the University of North Dakota and later interviewed Arthur Huseboe about Manfred. Parts of those interviews are included in the closing sections of this story.

It’s hot summer, one of those years early in the 1950s. Area rancher Jack Alexander is just a boy then. He looks up one day to see a car drive into his Uncle Ethan’s ranch yard on the north side of the Cheyenne River in South Dakota, on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation. A tall, thin man climbs out – tall tall.

“I happened to be there when that guy came driving down,” is the way Jack Alexander talked about it at a History and Heritage Book Club gathering in Pierre in 2012. “He was a tall, skinny guy. Like my uncle said, he was dressed like an Easterner. He wasn’t a native of that reservation country, that’s for sure.”

Turns out the man really was an Easterner, at least as West River, South Dakota, sees it – all the way from Minneapolis. His name was Frederick Manfred. He told them he was writing a book.

“He wanted to know if we could show him where the Cheyenne River was. Well, it wasn’t 500 yards from their house. He wanted to know if he could get his feet wet in it,” Jack Alexander told the book club gathering in 2012. “My Uncle Ethan was kind of a wise guy. He said, ‘Well, it ain’t too crowded over there.’ Of course in those days there wasn’t anybody within 35 miles of that country. Fred Manfred took his shoes off and rolled his pant legs up to his knees and he waded out in the Cheyenne River,” Jack Alexander recalled in 2012.

It was a setting probably not unlike the watercolor painting of the Cheyenne River breaks by Pierre artist James Pollock that the Capital Journal used to illustrate this story. And the reason he wanted to wade in the Cheyenne River, the writer Frederick Manfred explained to Uncle Ethan and his family, was research.

“That’s the area where he had envisioned Hugh Glass hit the river,” Jack Alexander told the Capital Journal after that book club discussion in 2012.

Earlier, the tall man from Minneapolis had already hiked across a part of western South Dakota, stopping to nip off the tips of flowers or to capture beetles and ants and put them in little wax paper packages. He’d been doing the novelist’s version of what some scientists today call “ground truthing” – figuring out if conditions on the ground in western South Dakota really were like he thought they might have been for a man clawing and scrabbling his way along the broken country between life and death; because he’s writing a novel about Hugh Glass.

Rendezvous with historyHugh Glass was a trapper and mountain man who earned his place in South Dakota history in 1823 when he was wounded by a grizzly bear, left for dead by the other trappers in his party, and crawled and hobbled some 200 miles back to civilization.

Hugh Glass is back in the news because of a new film that takes his legendary crawl as a departure point – director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s based on a novel by the same name by Michael Punke.

The Hugh Glass episode has long been famous in South Dakota history, including some bare-bones accounts that give just the facts. One such text is on a sign on state Highway 73 close to Shadehill Reservoir, near the place where Hugh’s troubles began. The sign reads, in part:

Hugh Glass, a member of the Ashley Fur Party under Major Henry, going up the Grand River in August 1823, a habitual “loner”, while hunting, was attacked by a grizzly bear near the Forks of the Grand River. Horribly mauled, he could not be moved, a purse was made up, two men, probably Fitzgerald and Bridger, were left with him and they probably, believing him dead, took his gun and accoutrements and left him. He, however, was not dead and dragged himself to the stream, sustained himself on seasonal fruit and meat, obtained when he drove off some gorged wolves from a buffalo calf they had downed and by some means and by an uncertain route appeared at Ft. Kiowa, below the Big Bend, 190 miles as the crow flies from the Forks of the Grand River. That much is verified history. He was killed by the Aricara Indians on the ice of the Yellowstone River near the mouth of the Big Horn in the winter of 1832-33.

Going westThe sign along state Highway 73 credits Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt in an epic poem from 1915, The Song of Hugh Glass, for making the trapper’s exploit known. But Neihardt is only the first of many to try to popularize the legend of Hugh Glass.

The South Dakota Historical Society Press currently is at work on a Hugh Glass biography by James D. McLaird that will be released in the spring of 2016, staffers said.

And writers such as Bruce Bradley, in 1999, and John Myers Myers, in 1976, have also written about Hugh Glass. Earlier, at perhaps the end of the 1940s or start of the 1950s, the writer who became known as Frederick Manfred stumbled across the story while researching another novel he was working on by looking for information in the South Dakota Guide, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

“And looking in the South Dakota Guide I ran across this woodcut. It’s of Hugh Glass wrestling with the bear – the knife, blood spilling – and this caught my eye,” Manfred told University of South Dakota English professor John Milton during a series of interviews recorded as Conversations with Frederick Manfred.

Seeing that woodcut was the start of something. Scholar Arthur Huseboe said Manfred’s notes suggest he spent 10 years researching Hugh Glass before the novel was published: “In the winter of 1944-45 Manfred started a Hugh Glass tab in his notebook and entered items from time to time from his wide reading.”

Manfred first told Milton he’d read 60 books preparing for the novel, but he later upped the count and said it was at least 100. He walked across western South Dakota, having his wife, Maryanna, go ahead with the Ford to meet him at certain agreed-upon rendezvous points.

He collected ants and plants and bugs in small wax paper bags. He ate some of the ants. Took photographs. Lay down in the grass. Climbed Thunder Butte to look down on the country Hugh Glass would have crawled across. Later, back home in Bloomington, Minnesota, he rigged “a stoneboat kind of thing” for his leg and crawled to the top of the Minnesota River bluffs, just to see how it would have felt to be Hugh Glass.

His preparation also included visiting the Lakota, Arikara and Mandan peoples in South Dakota and North Dakota.

East vs. WestHugh Glass appealed to Manfred, he said later, because he had begun to feel “a thinness in my own heroes.” Hugh Glass struck him as a truly American hero, bigger than Achilles, and that his grappling with the bear was “the first real contact of the white man with the raw west.”

In the same way, Lord Grizzly, the novel that made Frederick Manfred famous, was his own wrestling with his calling as a writer. It helped define him – ironically, considering the West River ranchers who met him spoke of him as “an Easterner” from the Twin Cities – as emphatically a Westerner.

And Manfred seemed to be seeking some re-definition of himself at that very time.

His first books were published under the name Feike Feikema from 1944 to 1951. He switched his pen name and his legal name to Frederick Manfred in 1952, after he had already written about half a dozen novels.

Lord Grizzly was his first novel under that new name and it is arguably his best. It was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 1954.

It was the biggest success of Manfred’s career and it was also his venture into the set of novels for which he is best known today, his “Buckskin Man” novels. The others are Riders of Judgment, Conquering Horse, Scarlet Plume and King of Spades. The idea behind those loosely aligned novels, Manfred told Milton later, was to write a set of novels to explore this part of the country from about A.D. 1800 on through the eyes of Sioux warriors, fur trappers, Black Hills adventurers and cowboys.

Later, Manfred was so intent on being a Western writer that he criticized one of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner Wallace Stegner for not being clearly a westerner – even though Stegner was sometimes called “the dean of western writers.” Manfred told Milton: “Stegner hasn’t really made up his mind whether he is West or East. He makes too many apologies for what he is. He shouldn’t do that.”

Stegner graciously replied that Manfred was partially right about not knowing whether he was East or West. “Let us say that I would prefer not to be limitedly either, and regret to see writers I admire patrolling merely regional frontiers. On reading and rereading Manfred I have sometimes wished that he were not as regional as he rather belligerently is.”

Western, small town, ruralIn an interview with a University of North Dakota graduate student in June 1993, just a year before Manfred died, the writer was still “belligerently regional” – with an added edge of anti-urban sentiment. He said some of his books had trouble even finding a publisher “partly because the bunch that reviews books in New York, where the powers are, I think they felt that I was alien to them, that I didn’t play the games that they played and so on. I was like Faulkner, lighting my own lamp and burning my own way. When he got the Nobel, he had everything out of print except for Cowley’s Portable Faulkner. Everything else was out of print. That’s the Americans for you.”

Asked what he thought of Faulkner, Manfred replied: “Well, one of our great ones, no question about that. But there’s some question as to who wrote it all. I think two-fifths of it was written by Jack Daniel’s. But when he was on, he was wonderful. Like Spotted Horses, the leaner version of The Bear – not the long one, but the short version – and Light in August was pretty clear. I couldn’t read Absalom, Absalom! I thought it was just a waste of time to try to figure out what he was doing there.”

Asked whether he was a “regional” writer, Manfred replied: “Well then, then Cervantes is regional when he writes about La Mancha. And Steinbeck is, writing about the Salinas Valley, Faulkner is, writing about down there. And Hardy is, about Wessex. And in a kind of curious way, Shakespeare is, too. He writes about the royalty in London. That’s provincial, too. I think almost everybody living east of the Hudson River is very provincial.

“That’s the Easterners’ way of putting you down. It’s very funny, too. The guys on top of the heap in New York are not born and raised there. They come from places like Golden, Colorado, and Minneapolis and so on. Then they become New Yorkers in their minds and they get a kind of disembodied way of looking at literature. They start cutting us guys up, you know, because we don’t do what they did, become sophisticated with an international jet-set kind of mentality. To me that’s utterly ridiculous. I don’t read them then.

“New York has not produced a single writer of its own except for Malamud, and in a way you can’t claim him to be a New Yorker because he comes out of that Jewish ghetto in New York. That’s provincial. That’s an isolated little spot inside of New York. He’s not really a New Yorker.

“I was doing that one time with a bunch of guys from New York. They said, Well, what about Melville? Well, I said, he was raised near Albany, which was a little small town at that time. And he lived in Pittsfield when he wrote Moby Dick. And he finally went to New York in his old age when he decided he was a failure. He worked for the government, then, in the customs house.

“And then they try to list some other ones, but if you look at it closely, they really are small town. Like Hemingway. Well, he was born in Oak Park. That was a sort of dormitory town to Chicago, but it really was a small town. Faulkner was born in a small town, Steinbeck in a small town. Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, although at that time St. Paul was a small place. But that’s why he never became great, because he was exposed to too much city.”

Manfred claimed his best writing was done after he moved to rural Luverne, Minnesota, in 1960.

“You get to see the whole stratification of society in a small town. You get to see all the different grades there. The upper crust, the banker and the preacher and the mayor and then down below that are your other stratifications, and then down below that are your plebians and your lowly worker types. So that’s the world in a microcosm.”

Summing upAfter Frederick Manfred died in September 1993, the work of assessing the writer and his 32 books began, and it continues today. Critic Arthur Huseboe, for one, said at the time that he thought the books are here to stay because Frederick Manfred got the country right.

“Here, geography is unavoidable. You can’t get away from it,” Huseboe said. “You can’t get any closer to the land than Hugh Glass got to it, than the Indian people got to it. Fred said that the land here chose the people, it selected them. This land kicked all the lazy, ne’er-do-well people out, sent them to California and Oregon.”

Well. But wouldn’t those lazy, ne’er-do-well people, now that they’re all at ease out on the West Coast, like to read about those strong, enduring people back in the region Manfred called “Siouxland”? Why aren’t Manfred’s novels more widely read?

“I think some of his novels are going to be around for a long, long time,” Huseboe said. “Fred had a hold of something so vital and elemental and true about this land, it’s going to represent our part of the country for as long as anyone cares about this country.”

But the Manfred novels that will be read the most, Huseboe said, are the Buckskin Man tales — not so much the rest of his work that deals with the drainage of the Big Sioux River where Minnesota and Iowa meet South Dakota and Nebraska.

“The farm novel hasn’t been a viable novel for storytelling for 50 years or more. We’ve gone from being a rural, agricultural people to being an urban people. But Fred continued to find those people fascinating. Any good novelist would — they are fascinating.”

Tall man from Minneapolis ...Some time after Frederick Manfred stopped and asked to go wading in Uncle Ethan’s stretch of the Cheyenne River, a parcel arrived in the mail. Jack Alexander showed it to the Capital Journal in 2012 – the 35-cent Cardinal Pocket Book edition of Lord Grizzly, a re-print from October 1955.

There was a note inside to Jack Alexander’s cousin, Maxine, who was already married. It read, “A little token of remembrance to Maxine Sylva and her family for the fine time we (Waring Jones and I) had in your lovely valley last July 22, 1955 – cordially, Frederick F. Manfred (The tall man from Minneapolis).”

But whatever the family thought, he was definitely not an Easterner, but a Westerner — small town, rural.

It might have had something to do with following the trail of Hugh Glass across western South Dakota in the early 1950s.

Load comments