Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (viii)

On that first visit to Dordt College, I took Fred to the Dordt College chapel, which was being built just then. Construction crews were still all around, and the dust on the stage was a half-inch thick. Everywhere you looked there was canvas drop cloths, but the place was closed up and warm, cavern-like and spacious, a work-in-progress.

Down the center aisle we walked together, this huge man looking up and around, as if the unfinished ceiling was lined with stars. Together we stood, center stage, looking out over open stretches where eventually the pews would sit, and he was astonished, almost speechless.

“If you would have told me, when I was growing up,” he said, more reverentially than I could have guessed, “—if you would have told me that someday my people would have a beautiful place like this, right here in Siouxland, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

It was the “my people” that struck me, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Through the years, I heard him, time and time again, refer to his ethnic and religious roots in very, very loving ways. 

"You won't find a bad preacher in my novels," Fred told me once upon a time. "They were good to me," he said. "They were the only ones around with libraries, and they'd lend me their books." I never did a study, but the chiselers and the crooks and the hypocrites in the Siouxland novels aren't preachers.

That night, the novelist Frederick Manfred came to the Schaap’s house for dinner, for the first time, the first of many. For several years after, I took van loads of students up to his house, just as I had gone when I was an undergraduate myself.

Fred was never happier than when he could entertain. My students found him and his passions astonishing.

Nothing pleased Fred Manfred more than similar kinds of visits to his alma mater, Calvin College, especially in the last decade of his life. He would talk about those trips for weeks ahead of time and weeks afterward. He felt lionized at Calvin, and the joy was almost too great for him to bear.

His Calvin pedigree was precious to him. He loved to tell the story of how, once when he was living in St. Paul, he’d attended a lecture at the University and asked a question of the speaker, an academic whose name or topic I don’t remember at all.

The man had immediately pointed. “You went to Calvin College. I can always tell questions that come from Calvin College alums. They ask questions nobody else asks.”

The unique shape of those Calvin questions he would have attributed, I’m sure, to Prof. Harry Jellema, the legendary professor of philosophy, a man he lionized himself.

He cherished his Calvin education, and was equally proud of the fact that he done very poorly in his freshman English class, failed it in fact, because he hadn’t written to the standards of course or the instructor, but then, neither was he particularly interested.

The Manfred oeuvre includes tales from his Calvin years. The best way to read those stories is in the trilogy Wanderlust, a fictionalized memoir (he called the form a “rume”) that includes more than his college experience. Those stories were published separately in three volumes: The Primitive (1949), The Brother (1950), and The Giant (1951). He is not a quick read.

His work flow went like this: start the morning up by reading through everything he’d written the day before, editing inflexibly, then go on for four hours or so, that’s all. He was more than happy to trumpet his skills as an editor, but then, even rebellious Calvinists can be woefully short-sighted. Almost everything he wrote was a tome.

Frederick Manfred, like another Calvin College novelist alum, Peter De Vries, was likely as much reviled as beloved by those who didn’t leave his and their ethnic and religious roots. Undoubtedly, the break he made from those he called himself “his people,” left scars. On the other hand, when Feik Feikema became Frederick Manfred, he also carried with him the longings of what was then, certainly, a clannish people for the kind of high profiled place Manfred gained in American culture, an aspiration to be truly and successfully “an American.” Lord Grizzily was much admired; for its success, Manfred was nominated for—and just about won—the Pulitzer. In his own way and in his own time, Feike Feikema “made it,” and many of his people were proud of him because of the way he step-laddered out of the ethnic ghetto.

But he came along at a time when leaving the tribe behind was neither simple nor sympathetic. Life among the Dutch Reformed, mid-20th century, was stifling to some, comforting to many—a significant force, an tribal identity one couldn’t leave without some heartache. We’re not talking simply about wooden shoes or tulips or scripture texts in the language of the old country, embroidered and framed and hung from a nail in the parlor; Frederick Manfred had those hangings, and he loved his heritage—no question. But that heritage has an undeniable faith component that Mr. Abma wondered about, as did others, even those within the clan who very much admired the novels Feik was writing.

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