Frederick Manfred was dying, even though he didn’t believe it himself. Harold Aardema, his long-time friend from Doon, called me and asked if I’d like to ride up to Luverne with him and visit, so we did.
On the way up, Harold told me that he’d been a bit disappointed with Fred because his youngest brother, Ed, a life-long resident of Doon, a man who was as people once said, somewhat "slow," had recently died after a long illness. Harold lamented the fact that Fred hadn’t really paid significant attention to his younger brother during that time, hadn’t visited him as he should have. I could tell that Harold was hurt by what he thought was Fred’s inattention to his brother.
Harold knew Fred as a man, not just as a lion. I remember Harold telling me how Fred had stopped at his home in Doon and wept when his marriage broke down. Fred had just picked out a burial site in the Doon Cemetery, where he wanted to be buried, “guts and all,” as he instructed his children later. That day, on our way up to Luverne, Harold, in a mission of mercy, admitted that, in not paying attention to his youngest borther, Fred had let him down.
We spent an hour or so in the hospital, Harold on one side of the bed, me on the other, and Fred loved the visit—I know he did. But when the topic of Brother Ed came up, Fred turned to me and said, “You know, Jim, I always wanted to write a story from the point of view of someone like Ed—you know, someone not totally there. To get the voice right, you know? To get that right—wouldn’t that be something?”
Freya Manfred claims that her father told her that his brother Ed’s death affected him deeply, and I have no doubt that it did. But that day, at that moment in time, with Harold sitting just across the bed, Fred’s brother’s death seemed to me to mean very little to Frederick Manfred.
Throughout his life, he taught me so many things that I don’t know that I can possibly remember them all. But that moment I’ll not forget, coming as it did in the wake of Harold Aardema’s lament. When Fred looked at me and talked to me as a writer, I couldn’t help think of what I was already coming to understand about the process of writing fiction—how it is that sometimes writers who so carefully breathe their souls into their work can begin to love the worlds of their novels more than the worlds in which they live. Storytellers—the really great ones—can and sometimes do abide more comfortably in the neighborhoods they create than they do in the here and now.
“Writing,” the essayist and historian John Milton writes in his book, Conversations with Fred Manfred, “is the absorbing purpose of Fred Manfred’s life.”
That realization made me uncomfortable, and still does. But I wonder too, whether that very passion isn’t essential to creating really great fiction, really great art.
I know another story about Fred, about his drive, his passion, something which sometimes I believe is its own species of monomania. He gave his all to his work, everything—writing was a calling/obsession. I may well be writing these words right now because it was. He was a gargantuan figure, an immense presence, a writer first of all. If he weren’t, we all might not be remembering.
A friend of his told me this story. After fielding successive rejections and suffering the resulting pain, Fred rose up in anger. “I will not be stopped,” he told this friend. “I will not be stopped.” He was fiercely angry.
Such Promethean will, admirable as it can appear from afar, feels, in the wrong place and time, like the a cousin of whatever it was that pushed along Ahab, the Captain.
Once upon a time, one of my students, young and female, an aspiring writer, took it upon herself to visit Manfred’s house on her own. I don’t know what happened between them, but she told me, brimming with anger and bitterness, that she would never go back, accompanied or unaccompanied. He was, at the time, sixty years older—or more—than she was.
Frederick Manfred taught me some things that he didn’t think of as lessons in craft. He was, without doubt, my literary father; but I’ve come to understand, for better of for worse, that I’d never give up so much of what he did to be a writer. That too is a lesson I learned from him.