Late Minnesota author offers regional account of story popularized in "The Revenant"
LUVERNE — “The Revenant” won the Best Drama Motion Picture category at this year’s Golden Globe Awards.
Last week, the box-office hit scored 12 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro Inarritu), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy).Upper Midwesterners who have seen this already acclaimed film may experience a niggling of familiarity with the storyline in the back of their brains. The tale of Hugh Glass is a regional real-life legend: The frontiersman sustained life-threatening injuries in an encounter with a she-bear, then was left for dead by his companions. But he didn’t die. Fueled by the need for vengeance, Glass used his survival skills to hobble, crawl and claw his way across the prairie to confront those who betrayed him.
The familiarity with the story may come from having heard the legend discussed or from visiting a monument to Glass that stands at Lemmon, S.D., in the northeast part of the state near the North Dakota border, site of the bear attack.
But it’s more likely that niggling is due to having read “Lord Grizzly,” written by Frederick Manfred, the late author who made his home in Luverne, and published first in 1954. Over the years, “Lord Grizzly” became required reading for countless youths who took regional literature or history classes.
For Manfred’s son, Fred Jr., who lives in Luverne, the success of “The Revenant” is more bitter than sweet. He wishes the version of Hugh Glass’ story that made it to the big screen was his father’s account.
But the film is adapted from a 2002 book, “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,” written by Michael Punke, a deputy U.S. Trade representative and U.S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization.
“It’s not real anger — it’s more sadness,” said Fred Jr. about what his father would think of the film’s accolades. “He probably wouldn’t speak about it or tell anyone that, but he worked so hard on that book, and it really kickstarted his over 50-year career.”
However, Fred Jr. does find some redemption in how the movie has rekindled interest in his dad’s novel, “Lord Grizzly,” as well as his greater body of work that depicts life in this region.
A writer is born
Growing up in the early part of the 20th century in rural Doon, Iowa, the prospects of Manfred — then named Frederick Feikema — becoming a writer didn’t seem very likely. According to a biography from the University of Nebraska Press, which has republished many of Manfred’s works, his father did not read and Manfred had to hide books in order to read them while working on the farm.
At 6 feet 9 inches, it was more probable that young “Feike,” as he was known then, would have a career as an athlete, and he excelled as a baseball pitcher during his years at Western Academy Christian High School in nearby Hull, Iowa. Manfred eventually went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he began to publish poems and short stories.
He earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in 1934, and then set off hitchhiking across the United States. Those travels, as well as his childhood experiences, would become the basis for his realistic novels.
Manfred spent a couple years working as a sports reporter for the Minneapolis Journal. He developed tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium in 1940, where he met his future wife, Maryanna Shorba. They had three children, Freya, Fred Jr. and Marya.
After his recovery, Manfred worked on the staff of Modern Medicine and was assistant campaign manager for Hubert Humphrey, then running for mayor of Minneapolis.
In 1943, Manfred decided to focus on writing, and his first novel, “The Golden Bowl,” inspired by his hitchhiking experience, was published in 1944. That book was followed by “Boy Almighty” and in 1947 “This Is the Year,” which appeared on bestseller lists for several weeks.
Ensuing novels “The Primitive,” “The Brother” and “The Giant” all got mixed reviews. He changed his surname to Manfred in 1952. “Lord Grizzly,” the first of what he called “The Buckskin Man Tales” and the first under his new name, was his first real success and was one of the finalists for the National Book Award in 1954.
Manfred moved to the Luverne area in 1960 and built a unique home against one of the quartzite quarries on the Blue Mounds, which he sold to the state in 1974 and is now part of the state park. He then built a home out of fieldstone on the south side of the Rock River.
For a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s, Manfred was the writer in residence at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion. He died in 1994 of a brain tumor.
In a story upon Manfred’s death, the late Art Huseboe, then executive director of the Center of Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a close personal friend, said of Manfred: “He was always looking for something new to write about. He found most of his topics within his own self, his own psyche. He was one of the most prolific writers over the longest period of time.”
Huseboe also talked about one of the high points in Manfred’s career, in 1975, when a million of his books were in circulation in inexpensive editions and a New York Times reviewer compared his works to those of a Greek epic poet.
“He said that Manfred had really created works that were comparable to Homer’s greatest works in power and sweep,” Huseboe related.
Manfred is also given credit for having coined the term “Siouxland,” referring to the parts of the Upper Midwest in which the Sioux Indians roamed.
In his adopted community of Luverne, Manfred became a legend in his own right. To mark what would have been his 100th birthday in 2012, the community had a yearlong celebration with special author, history, art and performance events. There is talk of another book series focusing on “Lord Grizzly” for the coming summer, according to Jane Wildung Lanphere, Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce director.
“To those of us who have lived here a long time, have met him and know his family, Frederick Manfred is one of those characters who are bigger than life,” she said. “We know that in order to keep his legacy alive, we need to keep his writings alive.”
During his career, Manfred often recounted the story of how he painstakingly researched and wrote “Lord Grizzly.” The South Dakota State Historical Society has a copyrighted account that was originally presented in 1983 at a Western History Association Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was in a state guide for South Dakota that Manfred happened upon a woodcut picture of a mountain man being mauled by a bear and was immediately intrigued by the accompanying legend.
“Not only had Hugh done a great thing in crawling back to safety after he was almost killed, but after he had figured out who had deserted him, he chased them down, caught them, and then … let them go,” explained Manfred. “I had read the Greeks by this time, and it struck me that we, too, in our American past had had an Achilles. Hugh Glass was our Achilles. Nay, more. Where Achilles never forgave, Hugh Glass had forgiven his deserters. That was an act that put him above Achilles. In fact, Hugh Glass had performed his heroics while completely alone. Achilles always had a contingent of Greek warriors nearby.”
After reading a number of accounts related to Glass’ tale, Manfred set off to visit Lemmon with his wife, making the journey in their less-than-reliable old Ford vehicle. They visited the monument to Glass and then Manfred mapped out what he thought was the probable route Glass had taken across the prairie. He set off on foot, directing Maryanna to take the vehicle and meet him in three or four hours. They repeated the process the following day with the next stretch of the journey.
“All the way over those two heights of land I took notes,” recalled Manfred. “I also had with me a gunnysack and some 100 small wax-paper bags. Every time I saw something interesting — a flower, some grass, what a farmer would call a weed — I would clip it, mark it on the map, and put it in the wax bag and then into the gunnysack. Why invent grasses or flower when nature was far more inventive than I might be? Why not have it accurate so that when people read the book, they would know that when I said Hugh saw this or that it was really there.”
Manfred also used that tactic with insects: When he happened upon a bug of some sort, he pinched them in his fingers and tasted them, knowing Hugh would have used them for sustenance in his arduous journey.
Back home in Bloomington, Manfred continued his research, crawling around on the hill on which he lived. He fashioned a splint and on hands and knees began to drag himself through the grass and up and down the hill.
“The perspective from that low point of view was astonishing,” he related. “Eyes a foot off the ground, I found it to be a new way of looking at life. I felt like Nebuchadnezzar of the Bible who had gone to live with the beasts of the field.”
Additionally, Manfred focused his research on the grizzly, remembering seeing the bears on his own wanderings through Yellowstone National Park a decade earlier and then observing a young grizzly’s habits at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul and waiting for it to “do something grizzly.
“One day it happened. The guard came in with some fresh raw meat. Instantly he moved from under the bench, surged up like a huge hairy amoeba, stood rampant at the bars above me, sticking his snout as far as he could between two bars to get a better smell of the meat. That motion, huge yet swift,
rising over me, towering, was what I’d been waiting to see. I now knew grizzly.”
Manfred’s research process went on through eight or nine years of note-taking, including visits with the Native Americans that were another key part of the story.
It’s that attention to detail — as well as focusing on the forgiveness aspect of the story — that sets Manfred’s account apart from “The Revenant,” according to Fred Jr.
“People who are professionals go the extra mile to feel good about what they are and what they’ve done,” he said about the effort his father put into the novel. “More important to me is that of the three entities — ‘Lord Grizzly,’ ‘The Revenant’ book, the movie — to people who know the real-life story … the gratuitous violence of the movie is not how it happened at all. He crawled 200 miles contemplating revenge, but once he got to the fort and met Jim and Fitz, he chose to forgive them. Forgive is really the key word, which covers every human being in the world. We all need to forgive at some point, so we can empathize with the idea of forgiveness, not necessarily crawling and eating ants.
“Dad tried to be as real as possible, and the movie is not the real story, but what else do you expect from Hollywood?”
Fred Jr. also takes issue with the movie’s setting, which is a mountainous area, not the plains of South Dakota.
“It was shot in Canada, near Calgary, because it’s cheaper in Canada,” he noted. “Another of dad’s books, ‘Riders of Judgment,’ was the basis for a four-hour series (‘Johnson County War’ 2002) for Hallmark, and it was shot in Canada in the same general area.”
Fred Jr. has not seen the movie and has no plans to do so. He prefers to picture the tale in his mind as his father wrote it. His father had crafted his own screenplay version back in 1964.
“He was proud of that book, especially when students in schools were reading it,” he said. “While he rose to his solitude — not just in the writing aspect as artists do, but just kind of doing his own thing — Dad clearly enjoyed going to the high school, just to sit in front of a class of young kids who were very inquisitive and just so uplifting to him. And then when he taught at USD and Augustana … he just got a lot out of mentoring … meeting people, hanging out at the post office. He was somewhat of a dichotomy — loved being with people and teaching, as well as being by himself.”
The disappointment that “Lord Grizzly” is not the film getting the critical acclaim is likely to stay with Fred Jr. and the rest of the Manfred family for a while, but he hopes people who see the movie will also pick up a copy of his father’s book and be inspired by the truer account.
“We all have our crawl,” said Fred Jr. “Everybody has a crawl in their life, and how they come out on the other end of it is a judgment that people make of us. This is a story that could have been made of forgiveness. … But it is what it is, and in the long run, it’s just an episode in our lives.”