From the Dust Bowl to Frederick Manfred’s The Golden Bowl—
A Journeyman’s Masterpiece
By Randi Eldevik, Oklahoma State University
The time and place of Frederick Manfred’s birth ‑ 1912, on a farm in a corner of northwestern Iowa close to the South Dakota and Minnesota borders ‑ gave him several perspectives on American life, resulting in the creation of several kinds of fiction. Manfred’s most celebrated novels, the five Buckskin Man tales, take place in the nineteenth century and have a wild west (mostly South Dakota) setting: they arose out of Manfred’s awareness of the dramatic and tumultuous events that had occurred near his home during the hundred years before his birth. But Manfred’s own childhood and youth in a settled agricultural community enabled him to depict, with a more somber palette, the subdued joys and struggles of twentieth‑century midwestern farm life which he himself had directly experienced.
Manfred’s agrarian novels, dubbed the Siouxland Saga after the place‑name he coined for his own Iowan/Minnesotan/Dakotan/Nebraskan stretch of the Great Plains, have attracted less attention than his five wild west novels. In an overview of the Buckskin Man tales, critic Madison Jones proclaims three of them as Manfred’s finest achievements; because of the heights of heroic adventure they reach, Jones draws a parallel between the Buckskin Man tales and Homer’s epics.1 But another parallel serves better to acknowledge the full range of what Manfred achieved: the parallel that can be drawn between his writing career and that of the ancient Roman author Virgil, whose most famous achievement occurred in the epic genre (The Aeneid) but who also, less famously, wrote agrarian poems (The Georgics). The fierce nineteenth‑century rivalries involving Native American warriors and white newcomers to the west form the subject‑matter of America’s epic,2 and as such they captivate the imagination; yet, just as Virgil’s Georgics turned aside from epic subject‑matter to address another aspect of human experience ‑ the tilling of the soil ‑ so too do the volumes of the Siouxland Saga.
Akin to yet distinct from the Siouxland Saga is Manfred’s first novel, The Golden Bowl (1944), set on a farm in South Dakota but peopled by characters who do not belong to the intertwined Engleking and Alfredson families with which the Siouxland Saga is concerned. Displaying both epic and georgic features, and manifesting a kinship to other literary milestones — chiefly Shakespeare’s poetry and the Bible ‑ in addition to Virgil’s works, Manfred’s journeyman novel stands out as a precocious masterpiece, the premier American novel of rural life during the Dust Bowl.