To my mind, Frederick Manfred was deeply influenced by modernism, the prevalent intellectual worldview of his time and the cultural and intellectual milieu of, at least, the American Depression. After leaving college he traveled to the East coast, where the rough shod farm kid with the Calvinist pedigree walked in on the substantial political questions of the day, questions which were, during those years, sometimes answered better by socialism and communism than capitalism.
In New Jersey and later in Minnesota, he met what his own people would have called “leftists.” They were bright and they were influential and they were many. His many years of cloistered Christian and Reformed education did not stand up well against the prevailing modernist views of faith and spirituality—that Christianity was little more than a remnant primitive mysticism that would, soon enough, disappear among the masses, just as it had already disappeared among the enlightened. That never happened, and Fred died before the advent of our post-modern milieu, when spirituality, in all its manifestations, is flowering, sometimes madly.
His father, Frank Feikema, may well have prompted the most beautiful writing Fred Manfred ever did, a loving elegiac biography in Prime Fathers.
But what remained in him of the faith in which he grew was the beloved, yet searing memory of his deeply religious mother, whom he idolized, a woman named Alice Van Engen. His mother’s vibrant and gracious spirituality must have glowed like a dawn, if you listen to him. She is in his novels. Her death ends Green Earth, and offers his readers—and his people—an explanation of how he considered himself liberated from the cultural and spiritual strictures of his tribe, a tribe he never really stopped loving, strangely enough—and respecting.
In his daughter’s memoir, Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, Freya Manfred remembers the way her father always extolled his mother’s beauty and grace. But she also remembers her father—and quotes him—admitting that his mother’s early death (he was 17 when she died) was something of a blessing: “’. . .I’d have had an awful time explaining my vision to her or going up against her,’ he said, ‘because she never yelled at me. If I did something wrong, or she thought I hadn’t been entirely honest, she’d just look at me sadly and I’d feel terrible, deep in my guts.’”
The caricature of stern Dutch Calvinism would have no currency if it weren’t, in part, true. Fred Manfred remembered and undoubtedly experienced dour religiosity, preening self-righteousness, and outright hypocricy amid the Siouxland Dutch, and Fries, from which he’d come. But it wasn’t sharp tongues that kept him wondering about God, even arguing, I believe; what never left him was, instead, the loving embrace of his Godly mother, what she was and what she represented.
His liberation comes in the final powerful pages of Green Earth, when, on her death bed, Ada (his mother) tells Free (read Feike) that she wants him to be a writer even if she’ll never see him in heaven someday. She wants him to be true to what he is.
But to know that he himself felt, in a certain way, blessed by her early death, for the reasons he gives, can’t help but make us question whether the liberation he celebrates in Green Earth is purely fiction and not memoir at all. No one will ever know. Only two characters are privy to that death bed scene—Free and Ada, son and mother.
Most critics of the work of Peter De Vries maintain that even though you could take the boy out of his boyhood Calvinism, the ambience of that world—its powerful religiosity—never really left him. The same can be said for Frederick Manfred.
Elsewhere in her memoir, Freya Manfred remembers how, close to his death, her father once asked her a question she thought strange: “What do you suppose God will have me do when he gets me into the other place?”
To which his daughter replies: “I didn’t know you thought there was another place.”