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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Manfred, Frederick
(January 6, 1912–September 7, 1994)

–novelist, poet, and essayist—was born Frederick Feikema on January 6, 1912, on a farmstead near Doon, Iowa. The gently rolling slopes and wide horizons of the northwest Iowa plains created a landscape that permeated his writing and a place he immortalized as Siouxland.

    Strongly influenced by his Frisian/Saxon ancestry and the Calvinist theology of his par ents' Christian Reformed Church, Feikema graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1934, followed by six active years traveling and working east and west of his home at such varied jobs as harvest hand, carpenter, basketball player, factory worker, and sports reporter. In 1940 he became a patient at the Hennepin County Tuberculosis Hospital, where he was to stay for two years. In October 1942, after his release from the sanatorium in March, he married Maryanna Shorba. Always determined to be a writer, in 1943 he made the decision to write full time. In 1944 he published his first novel, The Golden Bowl, a saga of Dust Bowl grit and wind.

    In a remarkable outpouring of industry and creativity, Feikema published seven novels between 1944 and 1951. Most of them contain autobiographical elements; internal monologues for which he coined the word "rumes," which he transferred to his characters and their situations; and the rural mid-western settings that give his novels a convincing if often stark and oppressive power and an earthy directness that sometimes shocked his readers.

    By 1947, when his third novel, This Is the Year, introduced its tragically stubborn farmer-hero to readers, Feikema had progressed from the Webb Publishing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, to the more prestigious New York firm of Doubleday and Company. His eighth and most successful novel, Lord Grizzly (1954), was the first of his Buckskin Man stories, atavistic westerns that celebrate male strength and rugged self-reliance.

    With Lord Grizzly, Feikema began publishing under the name Frederick Manfred. Perhaps because his new name sounded less exotic to reviewers and readers, or perhaps because the novel's title was so intriguing, but more likely because the book was indeed the "heady mixture of history made into first rate fiction" that the New York Times praised, it became a national best seller. Manfred retells the true story of Hugh Glass, a hunter and tracker attacked by a grizzly bear in 1823 on the bluffs of the Missouri River. Desperately wounded, abandoned by his companions, he literally crawls back to life, energized by the desire for revenge. Manfred's survival saga, told in three carefully staged parts, describes Glass's wrestle with the bear, his agonizing crawl back to strength and civilization, and his showdown with his former friends. No one who reads the story of Hugh Glass's transformation from the mortally wounded solitary victim surrounded by buzzing death flies to the defiant and terrifying Lord Grizzly can forget it.

    Between 1957 and 1966 Manfred published four more Buckskin Man novels: Riders of Judgment, Conquering Horse, Scarlet Plume, and King of Spades. His World's Wanderer "rumes," initially published individually between 1941 and 1951, were revised and published in an omnibus volume as Wanderlust in 1962. Altogether he published 23 novels as well as collections of poems, essays, and letters. Despite this admirable record, he never re-created the prominence achieved by the publication of Lord Grizzly, although critics count The Chokecherry Tree and Green Earth among his finest work.

    Marginalized as a regional writer–except for his Buckskin Man westerns, as a rural mid-western writer, without the allure of the South or the sophistication of the East–Manfred lacked the national appeal of such fellow midwesterners as Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wallace Stegner. His novels' many strengths may be outweighed by their weaknesses, which by 21st-century standards often include essentialist chauvinism, moralizing earnestness, distracting linguistic inventiveness, and a lack of irony. Their strengths, however, remain a testament to Manfred's dedication to his craft. He captured the beauty of the Missouri and Big Sioux river valleys, whose grassy bluffs resembled "long windrows of huge sleeping mountain lions" below the "creamy folds and rising towers of gold" of wind-driven clouds. His characters' enduring connection to the land, from the untamed wilderness of his buckskin-clad pioneers to the plowed fields of his farmer-heroes, is a permanent reminder of the power of the regional novelist to preserve a sense of place.

    Manfred died on September 7, 1994, 50 years after the publication of his first novel, having made his home in his immortalized Siouxland almost all of his 82 years.
Sources Manfred's papers are housed in the Manuscripts Division of the Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Other sources include John Calvin Rezmerski, ed., The Frederick Manfred Reader (1996); Robert C. Wright, "Frederick Manfred," in A Literary History of the American West (1987); Freya Manfred, Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers (1999); and Clarence A. Andrews, A Literary History of Iowa (1972). A complete bibliography of works by and about Manfred, as well as links to other Web sites, is on the University of South Dakota's English Department's Web site at www.usd.edu/engl/manfred/.
Contributor: Holly Carver

Cite as: Carver, Holly. "Manfred, Frederick" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017