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The Norwegian Pioneer in the Field of American Scholarship
By Laurence M. Larson (Volume II: Page 62)

Ninety years ago a small group of Norwegian immigrants came straggling into northern Illinois and began to establish a frontier community in the valley of the Fox River. They were the advance party of a mighty host which for nearly a century has been pouring its strength into the great Northwest. The little Fox River settlement was doubtless very much like any other pioneer community; but it had a unique importance, for it was the beginning of a new Norwegian colonial movement, which in the course of two generations pushed the boundaries of settlement northward and westward from the Great Lakes to the upper Missouri. Here the movement .was checked for a time by the broad stretches of the arid lands; but it soon broke through the barrier and continued the process of expansion to the shores of Puget Sound.

The history of this movement is a chapter in the wonderful story of the American pioneer, a race of sturdy adventurers with strong hands and strong souls, who conquered and built the American West. The life of the frontiersman is a fascinating theme, but it is one with which this paper is not concerned. The task assigned in this instance is far less romantic: it is to bring a measure of tribute to another class of pioneers, --to the men and women of Norwegian blood who have devoted their energies to the cause of learning, who have sought and found careers in the field of intellectual achievement.

In a certain sense a scholar is nearly always a pioneer. Whether he toils in the quiet atmosphere of archives or laboratories, or seeks to penetrate the mysteries of life as it unfolds itself in the great outdoors, his work is essentially pioneering. The scholar loves to travel on the advancing frontiers of truth. His delight is to explore the wonders of a new land. He finds his happiness in breaking new ground, in tilling new soil. For his is a great calling: to him. is given the duty to maintain and to extend the boundaries of the many kingdoms that belong to the human mind.

In the summer of 1925 American citizens of Norwegian birth or ancestry gathered in sundry places to take proper note of the fact that a full century had passed since the first shipload of Norse emigrants had sailed forth to build new homes in the western world. On these occasions a prominent question was always this: What have we Americans of the Norwegian race accomplished in these hundred years? The answer to this question can be found in many places, perhaps most conveniently in Norlie's encyclopedic History of the Norwegian People in America, a product of the enthusiasm of the centennial year. No doubt one could continue to write in more detail of what success our people have attained in business, in politics, in art, in the field of religion, or even in professional life; but these subjects lie without the limits of the present survey. There is, however, a series of questions that are not so frequently asked and have never been adequately answered; to these the writer wishes to address himself. What have we achieved in the field of American scholarship? What share have we had in the promotion of knowledge? What important discoveries have we made and published? What recognition have we received in the gilds of scientific thought?

When one belongs to a people who take pride in blunt frankness and honesty of speech, one cannot avoid saying in reply to these questions that we have not yet won the recognition for scientific achievement that seemingly should be ours. The Norwegian element in the New World is not without prominent scholars and brilliant men; but the number of those who have attained a wider fame in the republic of science is not yet appreciably great. Having said this, one should hasten to add, however, that this state of affairs is exactly what one should expect to find. It must not be forgotten that the Norse-Americans, as an immigrant people, have had all the handicaps of an alien folk. Nevertheless, it can be safely affirmed that among the so-called alien groups, excepting only such as have come from lands where English is spoken, the Norwegian element stands well to the front in almost every field of the national life. Until we shall have become adjusted to the intellectual environment within which we move, we cannot, of course, expect to compete with the native element on equal terms. But the Norse virtue of persistence has begun to show results. A splendid body of young citizens bearing Norwegian names is actively engaged in the pursuit of learning in all the great universities throughout the land, and the years to come are full of promise.

One often wonders why Norwegian intellect has come so late into the competition; but the reason is, after all, easily found. It must be remembered first of all that one hundred years ago the Norwegian people was not homogeneous either in race or in culture. The rural element was still Norwegian like the very soil itself, while those who lived in the cities were largely of a mixed race. Names like Grieg, Michelet, Obstfelder, Dass, and Konow, to name a few only, testify to origins that were not Norwegian or even Scandinavian. In the course of the nineteenth century these two elements were fused into a fairly homogeneous nationality; that process had scarcely begun, however, when the sloop-folk set out to sea. To a large extent the new Norway of the great West has drawn its population from the peasant class. The Norwegian farmers were not without culture, but their culture was that of the countryside. Their thoughts were rooted in the older civilization, in a vast body of customs and practices and beliefs, among which there was little room for the higher forms of modern scholarship.

Through all its history the peasant class had loved the land: the soil gave home and sustenance and sometimes even wealth; but it also gave the owner his name and his social position. Now the immigrants had come to a country where farms could be had almost for the asking. Thus they naturally followed the advance of rural settlement over the beckoning prairies of the free land. It was only when the supply of good free land had been exhausted that the children of the pioneer began to make large use of educational opportunities. Meanwhile, they were helping to build an empire in the New World. To this work they contributed thought and energy and active leadership, but their efforts were chiefly directed toward material ends. Wrestling with nature and struggling with poverty, they found but little time or strength to spare for study, and they saw but little value in any form of knowledge that was not directly related to their personal tasks or duties as farmers and citizens.

It is also important to observe that such intellectual interest as the Norwegian pioneer did possess was centered largely in the church. He recognized but one distinctly honorable profession, that of the Lutheran ministry; his chief joy was to listen to the preaching of a gifted son. There was, of course, the law; but to the Norwegian farmer's mind the lawyer was usually an educated trickster who found much profit and took keen pleasure in foreclosing mortgages and prosecuting unfortunate debtors. Nevertheless, a relatively large number of young Norsemen have entered the legal profession and have shared in its rewards, though the number of those who have risen to eminence is not great.

For some time the Northern immigrants found it necessary to recruit a corps of trained leaders in the mother country, but most of those who came to the settlements with university degrees belonged to the clerical profession. It is quite clear that many of these would, under more favorable circumstances, have developed into real scholars; however, the task of a clergyman in pioneer days and under frontier conditions was too arduous to allow him much rest from the common duties of a pastor's life.

Furthermore, such energies as could be spared, the theologians on the frontier too often gave to religious controversy. For more than fifty years there raged throughout the Norwegian settlements a series of conflicts that can be classified only as theological warfare. Almost the earliest memories of the writer are concerned with what was supposed to be religious discussion but was certainly not conceived in the spirit of holiness. One should scarcely need to argue that the things that belong to the intellectual life cannot flourish in an atmosphere of wrath. The contending parties did, indeed, establish higher schools; these, however, for a long time dragged out a pitiful existence, not only because their patrons were poor, but because their faculties were frequently torn with strife.

It is not particularly pleasant to dwell on these developments in the history of our people, but they must not be overlooked, for they help to explain why the Norse competitor has come so tardily into the arena of American scholarship. There have always been those, however, who have cherished the great thought that some day all these warring factions would be fused into a single unity living at peace with itself and with the rest of the world. Time came when this thought began to be realized, and the cause of scholarship has profited greatly by the progressive union of Norwegian churches. By this union of effort it has become possible to enlarge, to rebuild, and to reorganize the Norwegian-American colleges so as to give them a wider usefulness, a greater efficiency, and a higher possibility in the training of young men and women.

Scholars are of many kinds; but for present purposes it may be sufficiently accurate to classify them under two heads: those who find their chief satisfaction in working with the knowledge that the race has already acquired, and those whose ambitions prompt them to search for new knowledge where no one has searched before. The former is the larger and in some respects the more influential group. It includes the great majority of those who give instruction in the higher schools. They are the men and the women to whom society has entrusted the treasures of civilization. Their special duty is not to enlarge the kingdom of knowledge but to maintain it and to keep its boundaries unimpaired. It is a great duty and a vital task.

While it is quite true that not all teachers are scholars, one finds in the teaching profession many of the choicest minds, grand souls who have drunk deep from Mimir's fount. Of such scholars our Norwegian citizenry has produced its full quota. We find them in schools and colleges, in educational institutions of every grade. Many have remained in the Northwest among their own people; many others have gone forth into other sections, till to-day men and women of Norwegian ancestry are giving instruction in nearly all the important colleges of the land.

It would not be possible to list the names of even the outstanding men and women who belong in this group. But there is one name that the writer feels called upon to give prominent mention, the name of a man whose work as a teacher has been peculiarly important. It is the privilege of certain teachers to possess the gift of power and insight needed not only to instruct their classes but to inspire the individual student with faith in his chosen profession and to give him the sort of encouragement that youth so frequently needs. The writer has sat in the classroom of such a man, he has been allowed to share his knowledge, his faith, his enthusiasm. and he takes this opportunity to acknowledge a personal debt (and many others will surely join in this.) to Professor Julius E. Olson of the University of Wisconsin, who for more than forty years has kept the fires lit on the altar of Norsedom thus having gained a primacy which all should be glad to acknowledge.

The scholars of the second group are less concerned with teaching; they find their chief interest in research. One should not say that research is necessarily a higher function, for one may be a scholar of the finest type without indulging the passion for scientific investigation. Nevertheless, research is of vital importance, for out of research comes progress. The Norwegian citizens of the great Republic who have won real distinction as productive scholars form a relatively small body; but among them are men who in their particular fields of learning have gained the recognition that comes only with the production of a masterpiece.

Scholarship of the productive type began to show its first signs of life among us in 1874, when Rasmus B. Anderson published his first book, America not Discovered by Columbus. In the course of the following decade Anderson published a series of volumes, most of which deal with subjects of interest to the reader of history, and all of which called for a certain measure of historical investigation. Anderson's work is distinctly of the pioneer type; it is not always critical and the author is sometimes too aggressive in stating the rights and the achievements of the Norwegian people. But in their own day his writings were of first importance, for they broke new ground and turned the thoughts of American investigators toward fields of which they had only the slightest knowledge.

There may be those who would affirm that the real pioneer in the realm of Norse-American culture was not the enthusiastic and somewhat belligerent citizen of Madison but the more refined and peaceful inhabitant of New York, Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen. Boyesen wrote his Gunnar before Anderson had finished his study of the Vinland voyages, but the two books came from the press in the same year. Moreover, Gunnar is a story, and, as literature is generally classed among the arts, it does not belong within the limits of this discussion.

Boyesen's contributions to scholarship in the more specific sense were very slight. His essays have the excellence of form which one should expect to find in the writings of a literary artist, but they do not always reveal either insight or penetration. His right to honorable mention in a survey of this sort is derived chiefly from the fact that in a tactful and fairly effective manner he directed the attention of the American public to the culture of the Northland and to its claims to serious study.

In 1876, two years after the publication of Anderson's and Boyesen's first books, the cause of scholarship received new impetus by the establishment of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Graduate work had, indeed, been attempted elsewhere ; -- the first Norwegian to receive the doctorate in philosophy was Anton B. Sander, who took this. degree at Yale in 1877; still, it is generally agreed that organized graduate study in America really dates from the opening year of Johns Hopkins University. The founding of this new institution with its emphasis on individual study in seminars and laboratories worked almost a revolution in university work. Graduate schools were soon founded elsewhere in considerable numbers; and among the young men who entered upon advanced study in these institutions were several from the Norwegian settlements in the West.

Very few of these earlier Norse scholars, however, made any distinct impression on the learned gilds of the land. Too often they were forced to seek positions in the newer West, where facilities for serious research were uniformly poor. Albert E. Egge, whose training had prepared him for fruitful investigation along linguistic lines, ended his labors in the Agricultural College at Pullman, Washington. Agnes Mathilde Wergeland wasted her splendid talents on the desert air of Wyoming. Andrew Fossum gave his energies to the service of his countrymen in the classrooms of St. Olaf College at a time when effective teaching was the only need to which the college authorities were able to give an adequate recognition. Olaus Dahl was called from Yale to a more promising environment at the University of Chicago; but death overtook him when his task was scarcely begun.

And so the nineteenth century closed without much promise. When Marquis began to publish Who's Who, in 1899, he found only about a dozen Norwegians who had achieved something more than a mere provincial prominence. In the whole list there was only one man, Rasmus B. Anderson, who could qualify as a productive scholar. There were splendid names in the list, those of Storm Bull, the engineer, Georg Sverdrup, the intellectual chieftain of Augsburg Seminary, and Laur. Larsen, the venerable president of Luther College, all of whom might have become eminent in scholarship but had found their careers in other fields of work.

Times change, however, and sometimes they change for the better. The last twenty-five years have witnessed a tremendous advance in productive scholarship, and in this advance the children of the Norse immigrant have had their share. Fifty years ago the Norwegian pioneer had produced two books that an American scholar might care to read. To-day there is almost a library of books and pamphlets written by Norwegian-American authors in the English language. In his last volume Marquis has included sketches of at least 140 persons of Norwegian birth or blood. This is a little more than one-half of one percent of the entire number included. In view of the fact that the Norwegian element can scarcely comprise more than one or at most one and one-half percent of the entire population of the United States, and in view of the further fact that it includes only two generations of native-born American citizens, this is a most impressive showing. The list is, of course, drawn from a variety of occupations; but the academic professions have a highly respectable representation.

One would naturally conclude that our academic citizenship would be found in greatest strength in the Northwest, where the Norse population is massed and where it is therefore able to exercise much influence in public affairs; such, however, is not the case. Strong men are, indeed, finding places in the Norwegian colleges, --men like Oscar A. Tingelstad, who teaches education at Luther College, and Julius Boraas, who holds the corresponding chair at St. Olaf. There is also a fair number of our own men in responsible positions in the various state institutions of this section. At the University of Minnesota Gisle Bothne and Henry A. Erikson are respectively in charge of the work in Scandinavian languages and in physics. Among the younger men at the same institution one should mention Martin B. Ruud, who has written learnedly on such subjects as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Theodore C. Blegen of the Minnesota Historical Society is producing excellent studies in the earlier history of our people in the New World. Harold W. Foght, president of the State Normal School at Aberdeen, South Dakota, has written extensively on educational problems, particularly such as have arisen out of rural conditions. Passing to the University of Wisconsin one may mention Paul Knaplund, who has entered upon a promising career in English history, and the late F. W. Woll, who in his day was widely known as an agricultural chemist.

There are, of course, a number of other men of ability and promise who might be mentioned under this head; still, one is forced to conclude that the. strongest representation of Norwegian-American intellect is to be found beyond the borders of the New Norway. Norwegian scholarship has long since burst the territorial bonds and has sent her children out into all the leading schools of the land. Harry R. Tosdal is teaching economics at Harvard University; while Theodore K. Urdahl is doing a similar service for the Quakers at Swarthmore in old Pennsylvania. A prominent student and teacher of the classics is Andrew R. Anderson of the University of Utah, whose interest also extends to problems in the literary history of the Northern peoples. John O. Evjen, whose favorite subject is church history, has to his credit a remarkable study of Norwegian immigration into old New York in the days of the Dutch regime. Among the younger, devotees of political science one may note the names of Arnold J. Lien of Washington University, St. Louis; Charles E. Hill of George Washington University, Washington, D. C.; and Clarence A. Berdahl of the University of Illinois. At the University of Iowa Henning Larsen is making a name for himself as a student in the general field of Germanic philology.

In the sciences as well as in the older humanities one is able to list a number of interesting names. Martin Nelson teaches agronomy in the University of Arkansas. The field of botany is cultivated by Irving E. Melhus of Iowa State College and Aven Nelson of the University of Wyoming. John P. Munson works in general biology at Washington State Teachers' College. David A. Anderson has a chair in education at Pennsylvania State College. In the field of mathematics prominent places are held by Arthur Ranum of Cornell University, Nels J. Lennes of the University of Montana, and John A. Eiesland of the University of West Virginia. In chemistry there are men like John A. Widtsoe, sometime agricultural chemist in the University of Utah, and Arthur L. Halvorsen, who is occupied with industrial research in New York City. Metallurgy has a keen representative in Trygve Yensen of Pittsburgh.

One may continue the roll with Jorgen O. Nomland of San Francisco who has long served the Standard Oil Company as geologist; Magnus C. Ihlseng who has written extensively on mining engineering; Oscar H. Reinholt who for some time held a position as mining engineer with the federal government; J. C. M. Hanson who is in charge of the library at the University of Chicago; Torstein Jahr who is making a name for himself in the Library of Congress; John A. Gade, the New York architect, who has written brilliantly on themes in art and history; and the late John Koren of Boston who did notable work in statistics.

The list as given above cannot pretend to be either complete or even fairly inclusive; but even in its very imperfect form it should prove abundantly that Norwegian scholarship in America is no longer either narrow or provincial.

The writer regrets that in the limited space at his disposal he cannot discuss in further detail the work that these men are carrying forward; the number of scholars is too large and their interests are too varied. There is, however, another group whose achievements cannot be passed without a more particular mention. It is not a large group--the list includes only ten names-- but the men who belong to it are all eminent, each in his particular field. It is a list that needs but little explanation and probably no defense.

The Norwegian-Americans have to their credit one astronomer of the first class, John August Anderson of Pasadena, California. For a period of eight years Dr. Anderson taught astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. Since 1916 he has studied the stars at Mount Wilson observatory, where he holds the position of physicist. It will be recalled that two or three years ago Professor Michelson of Chicago published the results of a series of marvelous computations which opened new vistas in the field of astronomy; in the making of these computations Dr. Anderson had a large and important part. He is a leading authority on the subject of light.

In the field of philology there are today in the United States half a dozen outstanding men; -- one of these is George Tobias Flom of the University of Illinois. No American scholar has searched deeper into the sources of Germanic speech than has Professor Flom. Of special value are his many studies in various forms of Northern idioms, modern as well as medieval. But Flom is more than a linguist, he is also a student of history. From studies in primitive culture he has moved forward through the Norwegian dialects to the early history of his own people in the United States. And from all these fields he has gathered a harvest.

One cannot prepare a list of this character without including the name of Knut Gjerset, professor of history at Luther College. The publication of Gjerset's History of the Norwegian People was a major event in the annals of historical scholarship in this country. The work filled a place that had long been vacant. It superseded all earlier accounts of Norwegian history in the English language and it is likely to remain long without a serious rival. What is said of the Norwegian history applies equally to Gjerset's later History of Iceland, a volume which is in every respect a worthy companion to the earlier work.

In the field of medicine our most prominent figure is Ludvig Hektoen, the famous pathologist of the University of Chicago. Dr. Hektoen is known so well and so widely in the Middle West that it is unnecessary to do more than to mention his name. He has achieved eminence not only in the treatment of disease, but as lecturer, author, and editor. And his renown is wider than even the West; when the authorities of the National Research Council were casting about for a chairman to direct their medical section, they found their man in Dr. Hektoen.

Scholarship is not always a matter of books: sometimes it may find its finest expression in a great work of engineering. The writer therefore wishes to include in this group of eminent scholars a great engineer, the late Olaf Hoff, who died at Christmas time in 1924. Mr. Hoff carried to successful completion such notable undertakings as the Detroit River tunnel and the subway under the Harlem River; but what gives him a real claim to a place among productive scholars is the fact that he devised the methods and the plans that made these undertakings possible. Mr. Hoff was a citizen of New York.

Our most prolific writer seems to be Olaf Morgan Norlie of Luther College. Norlie is professor of psychology, but most of his energies are apparently devoted to the study and setting in order of historical and statistical materials relating to the Norwegian churches in America. In this case the avocation is far more important (at least for the future) than the vocation. Dr. Norlie's work differs from that of nearly all of his fellow-Norwegian scholars in that it is in large part written in the Norwegian language. Though his studies are extensive rather than intensive, their value and importance cannot be questioned.

Another writer who has displayed unusual productivity is Leonard Stejneger, who ranks as our foremost scholar in the natural sciences. Stejneger is curator of biology at the United States National Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington, D. C. He has written extensively on animal life in many lands. Like Olaf Hoff he was born in Norway and received his formal education in European schools.

Among the more successful workers in applied science our people has an honored representative in Magnus Swenson, who has qualified as chemist and as mechanical engineer. Dr. Swenson's activities have extended into many fields: he has served as professor of agriculture; he has devised and manufactured machinery for use in practical chemistry; he has built hydro-electric plants; he has served the state and the federal administration. But his greatest achievement was recorded at Sugarland, Texas, where he succeeded in doubling the yield of sugar from a given quantity of cane. Dr. Swenson was born in Norway but received his scientific training at the University of Wisconsin.

In the field of mathematics the most prominent student of Norse ancestry is Oswald Veblen of Princeton University. Though relatively young in years, Dr. Veblen has already added several important works to the literature of his subject and has received high recognition for scholarship, not only from his fellow-craftsmen in the United States but also from mathematicians in other lands.

The list properly closes with the name of Thorstein B. Veblen, who has long enjoyed a wide reputation for close thinking and brilliant writing. Dr. Veblen is an economist who is also very much at home in sociology. His first important work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, placed him at once in the front rank of American thinkers. He has held teaching positions in the University of Chicago, Leland Stanford University, and the University of Missouri. At present he is employed in the New School for Social Research in New York City.

These are the men to whom the writer wishes to pay a particular homage. They are the men who continue the traditions of the great work that was begun over the seas by Nils Henrik Abel, Sophus Bugge, Michael Sars, and Peter Andreas Munch. They are the men to whom we owe such claim as we have to place and to rank in American scholarship. Most of them have, it is true, found their life work outside the Norwegian sphere of influence; but that was inevitable, and it was an outcome that none should need to regret.

This last observation leads direct to a highly pertinent question: Is there nothing that the organized forces of learning among the Norsemen of the Northwest can do to promote the type of scholarship that involves scientific research? It seems quite clear that an attempt to establish a graduate school would be futile, inasmuch as the Norwegian taxpayers are helping to maintain such institutions at the state universities. And yet, there is a task that seems well worth undertaking, one which the state institutions cannot very well take up.

Much has been said in recent years about preserving the heritage of the Norwegian element. One way, and perhaps the only effective way, to preserve a racial heritage is to preserve its memorials. The most interesting exhibit that the writer has seen in recent years is the work that is being done at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, to build up a Norse-American library and to gather for preservation and display such significant relics of the immigrant years as have survived the devastating touches of time. Under the direction of men like Gjerset, Norlie, and Karl T. Jacobsen, there have been laid the foundations of an important collection of books, newspapers, official records, tools, and household furniture--in short, whatever may serve to illustrate the Norwegian type of pioneer life. It is a collection that may acquire a great significance.

The work should be carried further. Somewhere in the Northwest there should be a library with stacks and shelves sufficiently ample to house all the Norwegian literature that is still in print or can be secured from antiquarian dealers. In addition it ought to contain copies of every book and pamphlet and newspaper published on this side of the ocean by men and women of Norwegian blood. It should have room and facilities for housing documentary materials of every sort consistent with the general purpose of the collection, --for church records, for private correspondence, for personal memoirs, for anything that will help the student to understand the history of the Norwegian element in the American republic. An institution of this sort, if it could be established, would eventually come to be regarded as the only place on this side of the ocean where one could make an adequate study of Norwegian problems,--not only the problems of history but those of the earlier culture, the linguistic growth, the national literature, the economic structure, and the racial development of the Norwegian people.

To build and to endow such an institution would be a great and heavy task, but it is not beyond our strength. In a peculiar sense it would be ours; for its opportunities would prove attractive chiefly to those who might have a personal interest in things Norwegian. At the same time they would doubtless also be used by serious students of whatever ancestry. An establishment of this sort would dignify the study of Northern culture as nothing else could, and it would be the noblest contribution that we, as devoted citizens of the United States, could make to the cause of American scholarship.

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