In the News: Manfred, CWS Exhibits Receive Attention in Wake of 'The Revenant'

Frederick Manfred writing Boy Almighty in 1944. The author's most famous work, Lord Grizzly, published ten years later, shares a subject with the new film, The Revenant.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2015

Researchers have long had the opportunity to explore the personal papers of author Frederick Manfred in the Center for Western Studies archives. Voices of the Northern Plains, the new core exhibits at CWS, include a section exploring Manfred's contribution to regional literature and a display of his writing desk, typewriter, and boots.

Interest in this Siouxland scribe, the very person who coined the phrase "Siouxland," has been renewed thanks to The Revenant. This new Hollywood production tells the story of Hugh Glass, a real-life trapper who was mauled by a bear in present-day Perkins County, SD, in 1823 and left for dead. The film portrays a very different tale than Lord Grizzly, Manfred's most well-known and critically-acclaimed novel on the subject published in 1954.

The following article about Frederick Manfred and his take on the Hugh Glass legend was published by the Argus Leader on December 12, 2015.

Whitney: How Hollywood left Frederick Manfred behind

By Stu Whitney, Argus Leader

Tucked in the archives of the Center for Western Studies at Augustana University is a 1965 screenplay by Siouxland author Frederick Manfred, who wrote the script at his home in Luverne, Minn., and envisioned it becoming a Hollywood film.

It's an adaptation of Manfred's 1954 novel, "Lord Grizzly," which helped immortalize the tale of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and frontiersman who survived a vicious bear attack in 1823 in northwestern South Dakota, near the current town of Lemmon.

Glass was left for dead by two of his company and then crawled 200 miles despite a broken leg and shredded torso to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River, where he confronted those who did him wrong.

If the story sounds familiar, that's because Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Glass in the major motion picture "The Revenant," an Oscar contender from noted director Alejandro G. Inarritu that opens nationally in theaters Jan. 8.

The film is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke that isn't viewed on the same literary level as "Lord Grizzly." That would have been unsettling for Manfred, who died at age 82 in 1994 without seeing his greatest work fully realized or appreciated by those who could have expanded the vision.

"He often felt that he was passed by," says Harry Thompson, executive director of the Center for Western Studies, where Manfred donated many of his papers and even his typewriter and writing desk. "There was a feeling that he was never fully given the degree of credit that he should have received because he was from the Great Plains."

Tall of stature at 6-foot-9 and full of life, Manfred was an author whose authentic and spiritual renderings of frontier life influenced those around him. He served as writer-in-residence at the University of South Dakota for many years and inspired Upper Midwest-based writers such as Pete Dexter and Tim O'Brien.

But after seeing Hollywood make a second Hugh Glass-inspired movie (the first was in 1971) without any reference to critically acclaimed "Lord Grizzly," the Manfred family feels some frustration, even if they admit to being DiCaprio fans.

Freya Manfred, the author's daughter and a published poet in her own right, calls Punke's novel "horribly written" and devoid of style. "My father was a good writer," says 71-year-old Freya, who lives in Stillwater, Minn. "The person who wrote 'The Revenant' is not a good writer."

Her younger brother, Fred, who lives in Luverne, says that he has no plans to see the movie, which he sees as a lost opportunity. In embracing the notion of bloodthirsty revenge for DiCaprio's character rather than forgiveness, as Manfred espoused in his work, he believes the filmmakers missed the essence of what makes "Lord Grizzly" so special.

"We're a little more enamored with Hugh Glass out here because he did the right thing in the long run," says Fred, 61, a former journalist now wheelchair-bound with kidney disease. "Whether it was a spiritual awakening or the way we grew up, we admire him for going through that crawl, finding the guys who left him behind and then ultimately deciding to let it go. We need more of that in the world these days."

Journey takes shape

Born in the northwest Iowa town of Doon in 1912, Manfred (then Frederick Feikema) rebelled against a strict religious upbringing and preferred to envision himself as a future big-league baseball pitcher. His voracious reading allowed him to later use regional themes and sensibilities as a basis for his writing.

After attending Western Christian High School in Hull and graduating from Calvin College in Michigan in 1934, Manfred spent two years hitchhiking to various destinations in what amounted to a personal exploration of America. He traveled as far east as New Jersey and also spent time in Sioux Falls.

That was followed by brief stints as a sports reporter in Minneapolis and assistant campaign manager for a young mayoral candidate named Hubert Humphrey, in between which he was admitted to a sanatorium with tuberculosis and met his wife, Maryanna.

Writing fiction became Manfred's calling, but he was far from an instant success. A series of autobiographical novels including his debut, "The Golden Bowl," were followed by a World's Wanderer trilogy that met with mixed reviews in the 1950s and made it tougher for him to support his family, which would grow to include a son and two daughters.

That's when the struggling author made a pair of adjustments to help reverse his course. He changed his last name from Feikema to Manfred and immersed himself in the pre-western legend of Hugh Glass, who was part of a trading corps working in upper Missouri River country in 1823.

Under the direction of General William Ashley, the corps reached the forks of the Grand River when Glass, who was picking chokecherries, surprised a female grizzly and two cubs. What followed was a brutal mauling in which the trader managed to fatally wound the grizzly with his knife, but not before suffering what appeared to be mortal wounds.

Two of the company volunteered to stay with Glass until he died. But they later decided their lives could be endangered by Indian attack and left him, taking his supplies. When a battered and bewildered Glass regained consciousness, he set out on an arduous journey to track down the men involved and kill them.

The story had been told in "The Song of Hugh Glass," an epic poem written by John Neihardt in 1921. Manfred envisioned an historical novel that singled out Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald as the men who left Glass behind and he would use forgiveness, rather than vengeance, as the primary theme.

"My plan is to show that Hugh Glass (sees) that 'the boys even had my grave dug for me,'" wrote Manfred in a letter at the time, suggesting they were doing the right thing. "He had failed to realize what a hell of a spot those boys were in. He finds that he has some sympathy for their plight, and it helps old Hugh to forgive. No one is a villain in this case."

Finding a formula

Manfred did painstaking research for "Lord Grizzly," with much of his attention focused on getting inside Glass' head for the section of the novel entitled "The Crawl."

The easy part was driving with his wife to South Dakota to study the landscape of the trapper's journey. Slightly tougher was Manfred's decision to strap a board to his leg (to replicate the broken limb) and crawl around his Bloomington, Minn., property for several days, down with the ants and grubs.

"He was obsessed with bringing authenticity to the story, and he wanted to see what the world looked like from the ground," says Thompson, who later heard of these exploits at Augustana. "He tasted the plants, insects and seeds to better understand what his protagonist went through during his quest to survive."

Published in 1954, "Lord Grizzly" received critical praise and was named a finalist for the National Book Award, losing out to "The Adventures of Augie March" by Saul Bellow. The very notion that the East Coast literary establishment had accepted his work was a personal triumph for Manfred.

"It came at a critical time for him," says Thompson. "The response told him that he was working with material that people wanted to read, the rugged story of the Old West. He had mainly been writing autobiographical and farm novels before that."

Manfred embarked on his Buckskin Man Tales, following up with novels such as "Conquering Horse," "Scarlet Plume," "King of Spades" and "Riders of Judgment." They were well-received but fell short of the success of the Hugh Glass saga, which marked the high point of his Siouxland vision.

Money issues became a concern. In 1960, Manfred had moved his family into an expansive home in Blue Mound near Luverne, a unique structure carved into the landscape and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and native rock meant to fuel the writer's creative process.

"It was a quasi-Hugh Glass existence," says son Fred of the house and surrounding scenery. "I was 6 years old when we moved in and remember romping over the hills and rocks and grass."

When construction costs skyrocketed, Manfred didn't have the money to pay the contractor and ended up in court, a messy process that led to the state park system owning the house. Manfred was ordered to leave the site behind in 1975 and today it serves as an interpretive center at Blue Mounds State Park.

"It was such a tragedy from the start," says Manfred's daughter, Freya, who has published eight books of poetry. "The agreement said that he was to be able to stay in the house until he died, but they let him stay another six or seven years and then he was forced to leave."

Legacy on hold

When the 1971 movie "Man in the Wilderness" was released starring Richard Harris as a Hugh Glass-based character called Zachary Bass, Manfred was appalled. The filmmakers avoided having to pay rights fees by changing names and adjusting events, but "Lord Grizzly" was clearly part of the inspiration.

"This movie is not the Hugh Glass I envisioned," complained Manfred, who threatened to sue the producers but accepted a small settlement instead. "Nor is it the vision of the country that I had in mind."

Most reviewers agreed, with the New York Times calling the film a "pretentious bore" and scolding the director for making Harris' character seem more like "Rasputin pulled through a meat grinder" than a conflicted hero of the American West.

With his more empathetic portrayal cast aside, Manfred returned to diatribes about Hollywood. There was talk of "Deer Hunter" director Michael Cimino bringing "Conquering Horse" to the big screen, but the epic failure of Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," one of the biggest flops of all time, rendered that project implausible.

When it came to "Lord Grizzly," Manfred had trouble getting power brokers to take his screenplay seriously. His son-in-law and fellow writer Tom Pope, who married Freya, cast a critical eye on the script that the author penned back in 1965 and sits in the Augustana annals today.

"Fred was a great guy, but he was not a professional screenwriter," says Pope, who completed his own "Lord Grizzly" adaptation but has yet to sell it. "As a novelist, doing something like that requires you to jump out of your own skin, which is tough to do."

The other problem Manfred faced was his story's overarching tone of forgiveness, a less spectacular theme than bloodthirsty revenge. It took the author several years to craft a psychological scenario in which Glass finds compassion amid unthinkable suffering, but how would Inarritu and DiCaprio bring that to light?

"So much of it happened inside the guy's head," says Jon Coleman, a Notre Dame history professor who wrote a book about the Hugh Glass legend and its treatment by popular culture. "When did he decide to forgive the guys instead of kill them, there's no event that corresponds with that. So Manfred had to give a lot of visual direction in his screenplay like 'dappled Western light' to suggest a spiritual and interior vision that doesn't necessarily make a great movie."

The reality that many good novels don't translate well to the screen was painful for Manfred to accept, but it didn't consume him. He continued to churn out books, 34 in all, while becoming a valued literary mentor in the Upper Midwest through his work at USD and Augustana.

"He had a great sense of humor," says Thompson. "In his later years, he would frequently give talks here at Augustana and sit around and tell stories of his writing. Back when we were in the lower level of the library, we had a long green couch that was the perfect length for Fred, and he would stretch out and take naps between sessions."

As moviegoers prepare to see "The Revenant" and DiCaprio brings the visceral journey of Hugh Glass out of obscurity once more, it's tempting to think that Manfred's work will be exposed to the light rather than lost in the shuffle.

"If it could possibly lead more people to read his books and recognize his contributions," says Freya, "that would be wonderful."