READING HERBERT KRAUSE
(c) Mark Munger 2010
When Minnesota literature is mentioned in snootier circles, the authors who undoubtedly come to mind are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, men whose works are well-known and have been studied by English majors for the better part of a century. Astute readers of fiction might throw in Ole Rolvaag, author of Giants in the Earth and other writings describing the Norwegian immigrant experience to the Great Plains at the dawn of the 20th century, as being worthy of mention. Contemporary fiction buffs would likely cite Tim O’Brien, whose The Things They Carried, may well be the best novel ever written about Vietnam, or Louise Erdrich, author of countless novels chronicling the Native American experience in contemporary America, or perhaps Minnesota’s beloved man of letters, Garrison Keillor, whose volumes of fiction, while not serious literary fare, capture the whimsy and peculiarities of small-town Midwestern life like no other. But no one outside of academia will likely drag the name of Herbert Krause into the discussion. And that’s a shame.
Krause, who wrote three sprawling novels over the span of three decades, sought to chronicle the experience of German-American Lutheran immigrants to the wilds of northwestern Minnesota in a manner and tone similar to that of Rolvaag, an author of such literary stature in young Krause’s mind that Krause sought to study under Rolvaag at tiny St. Olaf College, a Lutheran liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. That mentoring relationship never happened but the education Krause received at St. Olaf, steeped in the words and shadows of Rolvaag’s writerly success, convinced the young author to write the story of his own people.
Krause was born in Friberg Township near the small town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, on the family farm in 1905. Young Herbert was raised on Missouri Synod Lutheranism, a branch of Christianity that emphasizes man’s penchant for sin and places scant weight on man’s ability to find redemption. There was a time, during high school, when Krause anticipated becoming a pastor. But his love of reading and the draw of writing prose proved too strong for Krause, even in the face of eternal damnation.
The landscape that nurtured Krause as a young boy, Friberg’s rolling hills encompassing rock piles, bramble, thickets, lakes, ponds, streams and poor soil, was more than his playground. The land was a character in its own right in the story of Krause’s immigrant forefathers and foremothers; a harsh, unrelenting, and unforgiving oppositional setting of such stubbornness that it broke virtually anyone trying to till its rocky soil and tame its forests.
After receiving his B.A. from St. Olaf, Herbert Krause wandered off to the University of Iowa, obtaining his M.A. in English in 1935. It was while in Iowa that the thirty-year old author completed work on his first, and perhaps most poignantly written epic, Wind Without Rain, a novel he’d started while attending St. Olaf. The impetus for finishing the book was Krause’s attempt to complete a doctoral dissertation at Iowa, a project left unfulfilled throughout his lifetime. By happenstance, Krause’s poetry (a collection of which earned him his M.A. from Iowa) made its way into the hands of Editor Maria Leiper at Simon and Schuster. Inquiries followed regarding whether the young college instructor (Krause began teaching at Iowa in 1938) was “at work on a novel”. Krause managed to pull together 150 typewritten pages of the manuscript for Wind Without Rain. The manuscript was accepted for publication by Bobbs-Merrill in 1937 and released in 1939 to solid, if not earth shattering, reviews.
Wind Without Rain introduced the American reading public to a dark and foreboding landscape; the rolling hills and dense forests of Friberg Township inhabited by Herbert Krause in his youth. Krause, who had first coined the phrase “Pockerbrush” to describe his birthplace in his poetry, wrote in a lyric style that sorely tested the lazy mind but satisfied the senses in ways not oft repeated by fiction writers:
Father had an eighty, more than half in timber standing on the root, the rest under plow except for a few patches blanket-sized and tough with sod for grass, and the hay bottoms along the rice lake. Land so young the brown shells of roots forked up with the share and stumps lifted gray butts in the wheat; heavy with clay, most of it, like the high field south, burning to rock under July suns. Clearings on lower ground were better and the ten-acre piece by the meadow wallowed in thick wet loam.
The trees marched in from the ridges off south, miles of them, with here a cleared space and there a slash on the bark to show where a farm’s end might be. Far back where second growth leaved in fainter green than older wood, loops of wire lost in the kinnikinnicks told of work begun by men, fox-hearted and with eyes elsewhere than on home-building, and timber was thick and solid and the windfalls of no account. Only the creek and the willows bordering it stopped the elms and basswood from climbing over the hog fence and taking root in our barnyards. ( from Wind Without Rain)
Wind allowed Krause to migrate from Iowa City to Augustana College, yet another Lutheran liberal arts school in the Midwest (Sioux Falls, S.D.), where he became an instructor in the English Department and the founding director of the Center for Western Studies, posts he held up until his death in 1976. The book also met with critical success, including a review by Krause supporter and friend, Wallace Stegner in The Saturday Review, where Stegner praised Krause’s first work of fiction by opining that American readers had long sought “a writer who could, without compromising in the least the integrity of his observation, or softening his picture of the world, still transmute that real world into beauty.”
Eight years later, Krause’s second novel, The Thresher, a morality play set in Pockerbrush which repeated the bleak and barren world of Wind Without Rain, was published. Buoyed by the overall success (both critical and financial) of his first novel, the now middle-aged (he was 42 when The Thresher debuted) Krause awaited further acclaim from the public and his literary contemporaries. A Book of the Month selection, nearly 400,000 copies of The Thresher were sold to club members. Still, fame was elusive for the young English instructor. Only 15,000 copies of the book were sold through traditional brick and mortar bookstores, a circumstance that cast Krause into a deep depression.
Repeating his cycle of taking significant time between fiction projects, Krause spent seven years working on what would be his last novel, a deeply researched book about white Minnesota settlers and their relationships with the Ojibwe and the Sioux. The Oxcart Trail did not fare well with critics. According to Dr. Arthur Huseboe, a colleague of the writer’s at Augustana College and Krause’s unofficial biographer:
Critics were hard on The Oxcart Trail for its leisurely narrative, its banal love story, and the occasional lapses in continuity. Their objections and the novel’s relatively poor sales were irritating, to be sure, because of the exhaustive research that Krause had done in order to create a fictional treatment both fresh and authentic of a time and place that were of great significance to the winning of the West. (“Rolvaag and Krause: two Novelists of the Northwest Prairie Frontier”, Arthur Huseboe. www.2.tcu/edu/depts/prs.amwest/html/w10716.html. Accessed April 12, 2006).
According to Huseboe, editors at Bobbs-Merrill encouraged the author to avoid “over-gloomy introspection” and to make his book “a warm novel full of laughter and triumph”. Editorial comments received by Krause during the novel’s fruition claimed that the book was Krause’s “best work” and the author was (according to Huseboe) urged to submit the manuscript ahead of the agreed upon deadline.
The Oxcart Trail (1954) marked the end of Krause’s fiction writing career. In the author’s own view, the novel was a dismal failure because it sold fewer copies than either Wind Without Rain or The Thresher and received little, if any, critical acclaim. Though he continued to write throughout the remainder of his long career at Augustana, Herbert Krause never published another novel. His experience, at the hands of overreaching editors and the fickle public, convinced him to remain safely behind the walls of academia where criticism was limited and his exposure to public ridicule was negligible. And that, for those of us who have read Herbert Krause’s fiction, is a sad note. No author, from Tolstoy to Hemingway, can create a masterpiece every time out of the chute. But to have the spigot of words from a man who could write such gloriously dark and foreboding prose as is to be found in The Thresher run dry due to a lack of ego and confidence, is indeed a loss for readers:
It was dusk when the sweeps halted at last. Johnny stepped down. A glint of fading red from the afterglow struck brightly over his knee on a place worn shiny by a chain. For a moment a tinge of crimson hung about his shoulders. The snort of a horse was a crash of sound near him. Dark figures gathered about the separator and a batlike shape crouched on the feeder head. There was a moment when stillness lay heavy as a blanket over the yard.
Then across the hills rushed a sound queer to their ears. It was high pitched and like two notes of an organ played together, clear and somehow pleasant, as if it might break into melody any moment. Something like it they heard in winter when the sawmills ran, but, that was hoarse and guttural. This was a long spear of shrillness hurtling over ridge and valley, rousing up the echoes. (from The Thresher)
As a native Minnesotan, an author, and a life-long reader, I had never heard of Herbert Krause until seven or eight years ago. I was sitting in a booth in Grand Forks, North Dakota( at an art festival) hawking my books to strangers, when an older gentlemen approached and asked if I was related to Rep. Willard Munger, Minnesota’s seminal environmental legislator.
“Indeed”, I said, “I am. He was my uncle. I’m working on his biography.”
The visitor proceeded to tell me that my uncle and Minnesota author Herbert Krause had been contemporaries and had grown up within a few miles of each other in Friberg Township, a place Krause called Pockerbrush in his fiction.
“If you want to understand where your uncle came from, that whole Missouri Synod Lutheran outlook on life, the darkness, the battle of man and sin, you need to read this book,” he said, scrawling the words “Wind Without Rain” and “Herbert Krause” on a scrap of paper.
I don’t remember if the man bought a book from me. I do remember carrying that piece of paper in my wallet for the better part of two years before ordering a used copy of Wind Without Rain online. After reading Wind and Krause’s other novels, I finally appreciate that oft overused phrase, “the kindness of strangers.”
Mark Munger is indeed a native Minnesotan, a district court judge, and the author of eight published books. You can learn more about him at www.cloquetriverpress.com.