Norwegian-American Fiction, 1880-1928
By Aagot D. Hoidahl (Volume V: Page 61)
It has been said that the literature of a people is a reflection of their life. This is particularly applicable to Norwegian-American literature. In the earlier period of Norwegian immigration, it consisted of a series of guide books full of detailed information and advice; and of hundreds of lyrics showing a slavish imitation of Norwegian poets. Shortly after the Civil War appeared a number of novels and short stories also exhibiting a marked dependence on European models. It was not until near the close of the second decade of the twentieth century that Norwegian-American authors were comparatively free from the old-world influence. The cheap sentimentalism of some of the earlier novels gradually gave way to the more sturdy and fundamental treatment found in Dorothea Dahl, Ager, Simon Johnson, and Rølvaag. The first novels pictured life and manners in Norway; but as time passed, the scene shifted to America, and we have, as one writer puts it, a "transmutation of pioneer life." The facts which the novelists used were found in the columns of the "newspapers, in individual memorabilia, in letters to the home country that are gradually coming to light, and in inexhaustible contributions of pioneers to the press of both this country and Norway."
Not to be overlooked or underestimated is the influence of the temperance movement on Norwegian-American writers. At a time when interest in Norwegian-American literary productions was at a low ebb, this movement served as a medium through which writers could get their works into print. One is not surprised, then, to find a marked didacticism
present in many of the short stories and some of the novels until recent times. Very few of the Norwegian-American literary productions thus far are masterpieces. The novels and the short stories are honest, candid, sometimes painfully realistic accounts of life -- a series of plain stories of everyday happenings among the Scandinavian settlers in America -- of their sufferings and struggles; of their joys and further hopes. The strength of the stories is in their homeliness, their realism, and their unadorned pictures of actual conditions and experiences. In estimating the cultural production of the Scandinavians, Alfred O. Fonkalsrud says that, while the books "suffer disadvantage from representing a transition period between European and American artistic circles, they nevertheless valuably bring out the characterizing points of this transition period--reflecting European movement of thought and feeling, while at the same time picturing American environment."
The first writer to gain wide recognition was Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, born in Frederiksværn, Norway, in 1848. In 1854, when his father, an army officer, was sent inland to a military post, the family went to the home of the mother's father at Systrand by the Sognefjord. Here the boy lived a happy adventurous boyhood, and here he learned old folk tales and dreamed about the nøck, the hulder, and other spirits of the North. After receiving his secondary education at Systrand and Christiania, he studied at the universities of Leipzig and Christiania. During his vacations he made many walking tours, and in that way became familiar with much of the country between Christiania and Systrand. His father, by this time a professor of mathematics at the Naval Academy, had been in the United States, and being much impressed by the opportunities the new world offered to young men, advised his son to spend a year there before beginning his study of
philology. So it was that in April, 1869, Boyesen came to New York, traveled through New England and the West, and finally stopped in Chicago, where in 1870 he became assistant editor of Fremad. From childhood, Boyesen had wanted to write, but his father had given him but little encouragement, because he said, in order to be successful in literature, a person must be able to write another language as easily as his own. As Boyesen had chosen English as his other medium of expression, one can easily see of what value a year in America would be to him.
During the winter of 1870, while teaching at Urbana College, Ohio, Boyesen wrote Gunnar, rather for pleasure and self-expression than with expectation of literary success. In the summer of 1871, through Professor Ezra Abbot of Yale, Boyesen met Professor Child, who became interested in the young man and invited him to dinner. Here Boyesen read a part of the manuscript of Gunnar. William Dean Howells, -- who was present, became so interested in the story that he invited the young author to his home that he might hear the conclusion. The result was that Gunnar appeared in the Atlantic Monthly during the year 1873, an unusual honor for a first book and especially for a book written in English by a man who had been in this country less than two years. Boyesen himself was somewhat surprised by the kind reception of his novel.
In 1874 Boyesen traveled through France, England, Norway, and Germany for a year. In Paris he met and became a friend of Turgenev, to whom Gunnar was dedicated on its publication as a book in 1874. On his return to America, he taught some years at Cornell; and while there, he wrote A Norseman's Pilgrimage, 1875; Tales of Two Hemispheres, 1876; Falconberg, 1879; and Goethe and Schiller, 1879. In 1880 Boyesen went to New York, and in 1881 was appointed to a professorship at Columbia University, a position he held until his death in 1895. Between 1880 and 1895, Boyesen
wrote ten novels and volumes of short stories, two books for boys, three volumes of criticism, a history, a book of essays, and one of poetry, -- certainly a great amount of writing in a period filled with the duties of a teacher and a lecturer. In the field of belles lettres, his earliest work is the best. His Gunnar, Idylls of Norway, A Norseman's Pilgrimage, and Ilka on the Hill Top, he never surpassed.
Gunnar, 1873, an idyll, presents the dreams of beauty and the romance of a little goatherd in a remote sæter (chalet) in Norway. This love for beauty is intensified through stories told by the grandmother. Later the lad is sent to an art school. The love story is told simply and well, and the pictures of peasant life are excellently drawn. It is in this book that Boyesen makes use of the stories of the hulder, the nøck, and the trolls, which he had heard in the home of his early boyhood. Gunnar revealed him as a romanticist of great promise. Under the influence of Howells and Turgenev, however, he decided to paint life at its meanest, its most commonplace. This, he said, was the function of art, -- to help the reader to a knowledge of self, even if it "lessened his happiness." The fact that Gunnar is still read while A Golden Calf and The Mammon of Unrighteousness are forgotten, shows wherein Boyesen's real power lay.
There is no question of Boyesen's ability as a teller of stories. His books are alive; they possess humor and deep emotion, and they reveal a sound, fresh outlook on life. His works, however, lack unity, proportion, and in some cases, probability. Boyesen's American stories do not ring quite true, possibly because he never quite succeeded in capturing the American point of view. Where he deals with customs, habits, and life in Norway, he is successful. His stories for boys on Norwegian themes are among the best of their kind -- spirited, wholesome, strong in plot and workmanship. His one drama, Alpine Roses, 1883, based on the story, Ilka on the Hill Top, was produced in New York and achieved a
success. Some of his best works outside the field of belles lettres are his Goethe and Schiller, Ibsen, and Essays on Scandinavian Literature.
A number of the earlier novels written in Norwegian by Norwegian-Americans delineated life in the fatherland. Among these were Hun Ragnhild, 1876; Familien paa Skovset (The Family from Skovset), 1889; and Trang Vei (Narrow Way), 1899, by Bernt Askevold. None of these is outstanding. Another of the early novels was Ole K. Gløerson's Sigurd 1879, a story portraying the religious unrest that found expression in the followers of Hauge and Grundtvig. One feels that in this book the spiritual unrest of the people is overdrawn and that too much of the book is devoted to the description of various religious hangers-on. The book is neither well proportioned nor well told.
Of women writers of prose only a few are worthy mention. Drude Krog Janson published three novels, En ung Pige (A Young Girl), 1887; Ensomhed (Loneliness), 1888; and En Saloonkeepers Datter (A Saloonkeeper's Daughter), 1894. Ingerid Berrum published Familien paa Stjerneklip (The Family from Stjerneklip) during the later eighties. The novel was not particularly successful because her conception of life in a Norwegian mountain neighborhood was so far from reality. Ulrikka Bruun published Menneskets største Fiende (Mankind's Greatest Enemy), 1877; Lykkens Nøgle (The Keys of Happiness), 1880; and Fiendens Faldgruber (The Pitfalls of the Enemy), 1894, in the interests of temperance. The first Norwegian-American woman to write both in English and in Norwegian was Dorothea Dahl. Her volumes of short stories, Hverdagslivet (Everyday Life), 1915, and Returning Home, 1920, are simple, sincere, well
told tales of little everyday happenings. Her strength as a writer lies in her ability to delineate the characters of ordinary people. The best short stories are "The Talking Machine" and "The Old Bookcase." Her novel Byen paa Bjerget (The Town on the Bluff), 1925, gives the story of Drummond in Dakota Territory, from its beginning until the organization of the church. It also traces the fortunes of the Otto Lervang family from the nineties until after the World War. The book is an intimate picture of the life of the times told in a leisurely manner.
Belle Hagen Winslow is one of the two present-day Norwegian-American women novelists who were born in Norway but who have done all their writing in English. In 1920 appeared White Dawn, a story of Norway in the year 1000 and of the people's conflicting beliefs in the White Christ and in the jøtuls and frost giants. This spiritual conflict stands out clearly in the betrothal and marriage of Øyvind the skald, a boy of humble birth, and Gunlaug the heiress. After great suffering, Øyvind wins his fight against the spirits of darkness and finally gains peace and happiness with his family. The unconvincing treatment of the supernatural in the story makes the tale seem incoherent and improbable, though the love element is well handled.
In her second book, Where Man Is King, 1921, Mrs. Winslow relates the love story of Einar Ilstad, head of the Ilstad Transportation Company of Bergen, Norway, and Anita the dancer, whom he met in a city in the southwestern part of the United States. Marrying her, he took her from her gay, though carefully chaperoned, life of the theater to the stiff, conventional society life of Bergen. Back in his old home, Einar seemed to become another person altogether. At last, unhappy and half-ill, Anita left for America. Einar followed and eventually all differences were
cleared up. The book is a conventional love story fairly well told.
Very early in this period, we find Norwegian-Americans interested in distinctly American topics. The first good example of this interest is Kristofer Janson's Vildrose (Wild Rose), 1887. This is the story of Aslak Rud, who, after the death of his wife, took his baby daughter, Gunhild, and settled somewhere in the depths of a forest in Minnesota. Here Gunhild eventually made friends with the Indians, especially the lad "Flink Hjort." Curious about the life beyond the forest, Wild Rose stole away from her father and finally reached St. Paul. The rest of the story tells of her various adventures until she returned to her old home. The story is melodramatic and, in some places, improbable. The character of Wild Rose is not so realistically painted as that of the Indian youth. The story of the Indians, especially the Norway Lake episode in the Sioux War of 1862, is very well done. Præriens Saga (Saga of the Prairies), 1885, is a group of stories treating of early pioneer life, hardship, religious controversies, and claim jumping.
Undoubtedly the most colorful Norwegian-American figure in this period is Peer Strømme (1856-1921), humorist, novelist, editor, teacher, globe-trotter, and political speaker. Although a prolific writer, he has left but a few volumes. Of these, at least one bids fair to become a Norwegian-American classic. Hvorledes Halvor blev Prest (How Halvor Became a Preacher), 1893, gives an excellent picture of an early Norwegian settlement and of the early school life at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The story is entertaining and full of the kindly humor characteristic of Strømme, the man. The pictures of college life and manners, especially the
opening of the school year, the day before Christmas vacation, and the boys' dreams of the future, are well drawn. He continues the story of Halvor in Unge Helgeson (Young Helgeson), 1911, a book which compares very favorably with his first novel. Strømme's optimism and enjoyment of life are but two of many qualities that endear him to his readers. His writings also include his Erindringer (Reminiscences); a slender volume of poems, Digte; a number of critical essays; a group of interesting travel letters; and a number of translations.
Another book that promises to stand with the best work of the period is Husmands-Gutten: en Forttelling fra Sigdal (The Cotter's Boy: A Tale from Sigdal), 1889, by Hans Foss. It ran serially in Decorah-Posten and was so popular that it was responsible for six thousand new subscribers in one winter.
It is the story of Torstein Hovland, Gunhild his wife, and Marie their daughter; and of the bonde Torkil, his wife Randi, and their son Ole. Most of the book deals with the love story of Marie and Ole, who, in spite of the difference in their social status, eventually marry and leave for America to build a home. Husmands-Gutten is by far the best of Foss's early works.
His latest book, Valborg, 1927, is a detailed account of the trip made by the Holmen and the Solvang families in two prairie schooners through Wisconsin and
the Red River Valley. We are given glimpses of choral societies, seventeenth of May festivals and other social activities; of newspapers and works oŁ Norwegian authors; as well as the toil of clearing the land and the building of homes. One feels that the book is an authentic representation of life in a midwestern settlement.
In this period, O. A. Bustett, the pioneer poet, "turned from the lyric, the heaven-storming poetic drama, and allegorical tale to bald prose narrative, to deal with the life of the early immigrant in the fields and lumber camps of Northern Wisconsin, where he is on thoroughly familiar ground. Here he has done his best work."
Sagastolen (The Seat of the Saga), 1908, is his first attempt at presenting the life of the lumbering town. One autumn noon after many weary days of tramping, Ole Busterud reaches the home of his old friend, Torstein Aasen, somewhere in the lumbering district of central Wisconsin. During Ole's visit, the two friends pass much of their time in tramping and reminiscence. Their discussions range from the status of the Norwegian-American press to dime novels and Poe; from the blighted romance of Aasen's youth to speculations on the future. The last part of the book is devoted to Ole Busterud's account of life in the Middle West after an interval of about thirty years. It presents a picture of a group of people dabbling in socialism, communism, and free love. The first half of the book is much better in construction and plot than the second half.
Feien til Golden Gate (The Way to the Golden Gate), 1916 [ ?], is a romantic Vale of a new midwestern community, the love story of Rosa-lira, daughter of Aasmund Skaaning, and Haakon Hellaway, son of "Mother" Hellevei. His last novel, Fra raindoms Nabolag (From My Boyhood Home), 1908, is a story of Wisconsin in 1868, especially of the lumbering in the vicinity of Iola, Waupaca, Scandinavia, and Stevens Point.
Among the writings of Nils N. Rønning, the Norwegian-American editor, are Bare for Moro (Just for Fun), 1913; Da Stjernene sang (When the Stars Sang), 1925, a group of short stories; and a novel, Gutten fra Norge (The Boy from Norway), 1924, issued in English as Lars Lee, 1928. The book opens with a portrayal of the religious life of a certain section of Norway in the 1860's, bringing out especially the effect the so-called "Readers" had on adolescent minds. Among the young people who rebel against the religious restrictions and life in general is Lars Lee, who hopes to find religious peace, and opportunity to better himself materially in America. During his early years there, Lars Lee and the other settlers live through one hardship after another, unusually severe blizzards, grasshopper plagues, prairie fires, and even a number of Indian encounters. Gradually life for them all becomes brighter, happier, and safer.
Of interest, too, in the same field is a volume published in 1914 by M. Falk Gjertsen, Harald Hegg- Billeder fra Prærien med Skildringer af Norsk-Amerikansk Folkeliv (Pictures from the Prairie with Sketches of Norwegian-American Life). It pictures vividly the social, religious, and political life of the Northwest.
A first English novel of promise is The Second Generation, 1923, by Anthony Rud. It is a study of Einar Merrson, who, after an illicit love affair, leaves Norway and settles in America. It shows the gradual degeneration wrought by his love of money and of land. The story receives its name from Leif Merrson, the illegitimate son of Einar, who, as one of the second generation, fights for and obtains an education, eventually gaining social and professional standing. At times, the book is too grim and sordid to be enjoyable, but it is nevertheless interesting. Another single volume of promise is the group of nature stories, Under Vestens Himmel (Under Western Skies), 1918, by Olai Aslagson, translated by Peer Strsømme and published in 1923. The stories of the
coyote, of the prairie tragedy, of Bess the mare, and of Sport and Midget are not easily forgotten, so extremely vivid are they. They are "the creations of a man who knows and loves nature, intimately."
James A. Peterson has published two novels of Norwegian-American life: Hjalmar, or the Immigrant's Son, 1922; and Solstad: The Old and the New, 1923. The first is a combination of two stories, that of Peter Aspelund, and that of Hjalmar Sunmere. We are given pictures of the daily life and the interests of the immigrants and of the part played by the Norwegians in the Civil War. The second book, Solstad, is the story of a baby, later named Arne, who was washed ashore from a schooner wrecked somewhere on the northern coast of Norway. After the death of his foster mother, Arne was bound out to Knute Solstad, a rich farmer in the neighborhood. Knute had a daughter, Gunhild, a trifle younger than Arne. The years passed. Arne learned to love Gunhild. After his term of service was at end, Arne left Norway for America, where he hoped to gain enough wealth to buy land and build a home for Gunhild. He was successful and a few years later returned to Norway for his promised bride. Fate played the proper cards, for he returned to America not only with Gunhild but also with "Nora of the Mill," who proved to be his mother. A few years later Solstad and his wife came to America to visit Gunhild and her family. It was not long before Knute, too, became imbued with the American spirit and asked to be taken to the county seat so he could flake out his "first papers" and vote for "Mr. Linkin." In this book are pictured the usual trials and difficulties of the early Norwegian-American settlers. One feels that these are authentic and yet one is not particularly excited by them. This is probably due to the looseness in the construction of the plot, especially in the weaving of the stories of Nora and Arne.
Simon Johnson, at present on the staff of the paper Decorah-Posten, has also made a name for himself as a novelist. "He knows the prairies of the Dakotas and the life there," and in his last work has given a panoramic picture of the trials of pioneer days when the Indians were a menace.
In 1881, at the age of seven, Simon Johnson went to Hillsboro, North Dakota, then a small settlement. As he was forced to work on the farm, he received practically no schooling. To compensate for this, he read Norwegian literature and began to set his thoughts down on paper. The observations of nature gathered during those years at the plow furnished Johnson with many prairie pictures for his later writings. It was in 1905 while on a homestead that he wrote Et Geni (A Genius), published in 1907. It is the story of Sigurd Vaagen, an exemplary, studious young man who, shortly after his arrival from Norway, lived alone on the prairie while finishing an invention. On its completion, the firm which had agreed to buy it rejected it; and, crazed with disappointment, Sigurd began to drink. It was not long before drink overmastered him and brought about his ruin. It seems to the writer that in this story Johnson overemphasizes the importance of heredity.
One can easily guess that the book was written in the interest of prohibition. While the book lacks unity, it does show Johnson's ability to delineate character. Lonea, 1909, is the story of the little cripple "Jul" Fagervold, who worked early and late taking care of the younger children in the family. The book is really a collection of beautiful, well written stories rather than a novel.
Johnson's next novel I et nyt Rige (In a New Kingdom), 1914, is available in English, having been translated by C. O.
Solberg in 1916 and published under the title From Fjord to Prairie. It sketches pioneer life in the Northwest in its beginning. In a new settlement are Bernt Aasen, a young man of courage and foresight; the staunch, religious Grandfather Engh, his son Thor and his family; the clumsy, weak-witted "Per Trot" (P. J. Pederson); the unfortunate, patient Brovang family; and the ambitious Franz Flagstad and his group. We read of their toilsome, dangerous trips after supplies and of their attempts to retain a little of their old culture by social and religious meetings. We read of the heavy snows, the hostile Indians, the destruction of crops, the coming of more settlers, the organization of the church, and the building of the railroad. Johnson's next book was Fire Fortællinger (Four Stories), 1917 The first three are character sketches, and the fourth describes the Non-Partisan League movement. In these stories, Johnson expresses himself simply, sincerely, and with conviction.
Fallitten paa Braastad (The Braastad Bankruptcy), 1922, is a voluminous novel by Johnson dealing with the struggles and ambitions of the Norwegian people on the North Dakota prairie. Tragedy in various guises stalks through the lives of the pioneer Jens Braastad, his wife Lisa, and their two children. Jens, a sturdy, industrious worker, does not realize the price that the drudgery and the loneliness of prairie life demand of his sensitive and rather weak wife. Neither of the parents understands the children; and part of the tragedy comes in that they are unable to bridge the gap between themselves and their American children. Henry is aloof, moody, restless, and dissatisfied. Louise, on the other hand, is more amiable and of a more equable temperament. The story closes with Louise's promise to marry Olaf Nelson, one of the most promising young men of the community. Johnson's next book, Frihetens Hjem (Home of Freedom), 1925, continues the story of Olaf and Louise and their efforts to build a home of
culture. Henry marries but remains more or less unstable and unreliable. Lisa's mind weakens, and for a time, she is an inmate of a sanatorium. After the marriage of the children, Jens casts all discretion to the winds and makes love to a young girl of the community. Much of the life of the last thirty to forty years is portrayed, especially the times of the World War, with its yellow paint, its "bombastic patriots," its farmers' party, and its tragedies. The book closes with the days of returning peace.
One interesting venture, the first of its kind in Norwegian-American literature, the writer believes, is the trilogy of immigrant life by "Arnljot " -- Johannes B. Wist. He published the first of the group, Nykommerbilleder: Jonas Olsens første Aar i Amerika (Immigrant Scenes: Jonas Olsen's First Year in America), in 1920; the second, Hjemmet paa Prærien (The Home on the Prairie), 1921; and the third, Jonasville -- et Kulturbillede (Johnsville -- a Cultural Sketch) in 1922. The contents of the first two books are indicated by their titles. The last presents the religious controversies of the eighties, the trivialities of local politics, including the county seat fight, and the change in the social and cultural life of a Norwegian-American community. As an immigrant, Wist became welt acquainted with the life of both the town and the city.
In 1922 he published Reisen til Rochester (The Trip to Rochester), a book full of a humor suggestive of Mark Twain. It is an account of the author's trip to Rochester with Bonifacius Bonifaciusen in a 1913 model Ford. The book relates with gusto the adventures of the inexperienced chauffeur and his rather timorous passenger.
One of the most influential men in Norwegian-American belles lettres today is Waldemar Ager, editor and writer.
Mr. Ager was born in Fredrikstad in 1869, and came to Chicago in 1885. Since then, he has been connected with Norwegian-American newspapers in one capacity or another. For a number of years, he was too busy with his editorial work to do much creative writing. Paa Drikkeondets Konto (To the Account of the Liquor Evil), 1894, is a group of sketches and poems written against the liquor traffic. His next book I Strømmen (In the Crowd), 1899, begins as an excellent .romance but ends as a moral tract. The book shows that Ager has the gift of sympathetic characterization. Hverdags-folk (Everyday People), 1908, is a series of town and country sketches. The characterization, especially of children, is sympathetic and understanding.
Fortællinger for Eyvind (Stories for Eyvind), 1906, was translated into English by J. J. Skørdalsvold in 1907. In these stories Ager reveals touches of real art. They are told in the first person, supposedly by Ager to his little son. As the story teller progresses, the child fails asleep, and the speaker allows his thoughts to wander over various topics that interest him. The first story begins thus: "When you are tired of playing, when your little feet need rest, your eyelids become heavy, and you climb upon my knee, and lean your weary little head against my shoulder, then I'll tell you stories." Ager's purpose in writing the book was to criticize the liquor traffic, but one forgets the didacticism and enjoys the stories as stories.
Ager's next book, Kristus for Pilatus (Christ before Pilate), won in 1910 the literary prize of the Norwegian Society of America. In 1911, encouraged by the award, Aschehoug and Company of Oslo, one of the leading publishing houses of Norway, for the first time risked printing a Norwegian-American novel. The leading character is the Reverend
Walther Welde, an idealist and dreamer, who, as the story progresses, realizes "the untenable position he occupies in a congregation and a society in which selfishness and cowardice have the upper hand."
It is a copy of Muncazy's famous painting in his study that keeps his conscience painfully alive. Is he for Christ or is he, like Pilate, washing his hands? "Like Ibsen's Brand, Welde is also driven upon the lonely heights, but where Brand would not compromise, Welde could not. Both suffer the same fate, one because of the hardness of his heart; the other on account of his yielding heart."
Ager's clear-cut portraits of Pastor Mosevig, pastor of the opposition church of Ellem; of Jørgine; and of the people on Garfield Avenue, -- all are unforgetable.
In his next two books, Ager went back to the short story. Fortællinger og Skisser (Stories and Sketches), 1913, and Udvalgte Fortællinger (Selected Tales), 1918, contain a group of old stories as well as some new. Here are the sympathetic, restrained picture of "Den gamle Prest" (The Old Preacher), the tragedy of "To tomme Hænder" (Two Empty Hands),
the story of bashful Johan Arndt and his distrust of life insurance, and that most beautiful picture of the Irish foster parents and their little "Norskie." The last book is really a collection of Ager's best short stories.
Paa Veien til Smeltepotten (On the Way to the Melting Pot), 1917, puts the problem of Americanization in story form. As Ager sees it, the process should be allowed to take its natural course, that the heritage of the foreigner may become a part of America's culture.
Ager's next book, Det vældige Navn (The Mighty Name), 1923, is a supposed vision from the World War. The volume reveals a lapse from
standard that has been more than made up in Gamlelandets Sønner (The Sons of the Old Country), 1926.
Frederik, the eighteen-year-old son of Konsul Christian Berg of Bergen, quarrels with his father and leaves for America. On board ship, he meets Hans Pedersen, an employee of his father. The two are together on the long voyage across the ocean and up the Mississippi River to a little lumber town in Wisconsin. Here Frederik and Hans secure work at the sawmill. Ager pictures vividly the life of the lumber towns, the camps, and logging operations. When the Civil War begins, Frederik, his friends Isak and Ole Brekke, and many other Norwegian-Americans join the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment under Colonel Hans C. Heg. Of the war pictures, the battle of Chickamauga and the life in Andersonville prison are the best. Frederik is injured and invalided home to his Gunda; Isak dies in Andersonville prison; Hans Pedersen returns to be married; and Ole Brekke, thanks to his military record, is enabled to marry the girl of his choice. This book shows Ager's sharp insight, his sense of humor, his sympathetic understanding, and his ability to make "unexpected and illuminating turns of speech."
These qualities are also illustrated in Ager's latest book, Hundeøine (Dog Eyes), 1929, a story of a Norwegian immigrant's life in Chicago. This novel is announced for publication in English by Harper and Brothers.
With the appearance of Exodus, 1928, Jon Norstog, the so-called "North Dakota poet and peasant," enters the field of novel writing. The book Exodus is described by the author as a conflict between the old and new kultur, between the nations within the nation, between our country and the rest of
Sigbjørn Djuve, a newcomer, comes to the home of Nils Reine in Wisconsin. The first part of the book consists of a series of philosophical discussions between Sigbjørn and the people he meets on his trips through the various settlements. The rest of the book tells about an automobile trip through Wisconsin with Dr. Halvor Huvestad, relates some pioneer history, and describes Djuve's greed for money and land. This greed affects him both physically and mentally, but nature helps him to regain his mental and physical equilibrium. The story closes with the coming of his beloved Ruth from Norway. The theme of the novel and the characterization are excellent, but the book is ill-proportioned and verbose. It is interesting as coming from the pen of a man who has written mostly lyrics and Biblical dramas.
Thirty-four years ago, a young man in a lonely fishing hamlet in northern Norway left his work as a fisherman and came to America. Today that man is the author of Giants in the Earth, a book hailed by reviewers and critics as one of the outstanding novels dealing with American life. Ten years after his coming to America, Rølvaag had acquired a college education. Since his graduation from St. Olaf College in 1906, he has been a member of its faculty. He has written seven novels and a book of essays, and has collaborated on some textbooks for teaching Norwegian.
While a senior at college, Rølvaag wrote his first novel, the manuscript of which he still has and which, he says, is not bad for a first attempt. Rølvaag's first published book, brought out in 1913 under the pseudonym Paal Mørck, was Amerika-Breve fra P. A. Smevik til hans Far og Bror i Norge (America Letters from P. A. Smevik to His Father and Brother in Norway). The book tells in an interesting way of the immigrants, their impressions, and their experiences. At first, the letters reveal Smevik's dissatisfaction, but it is not long before he is urging his family to join him. His last letter to Norway
closes: "And when you see Norway's coast sink into the sea, whisper a last farewell from me. I shall never do it myself."
Paa glemte Veie (Forgotten Paths), 1914, is a story of a young woman who offers her life to win her father to God. The book shows Rølvaag trying his hand at a sustained plot, and his trend toward realism. It was not until six years later (1920) that Rølvaag published his next book, To Tullinger (Two Fools), a picture of today, a grim tragedy of the love for gold, and some of the "fanatical phases" of the World War. Rølvaag's analysis of the degenerative effects of avarice on his two main characters is unforgetable. In this work he has shown his ability to build his story from one climax to 'another, up to the final one, and to create atmosphere. From the moment Lars displays the first ten-dollar goldpiece, and a covetous expression appears on Lizzie's face, one has a premonition of the outcome of the book. In his translation of To Tullinger, under the title Pure Gold, 1930, one feels that Rølvaag has succeeded well in bringing over into the English language the spirit of the Norwegian idiom. In 1921 came Længselens Baat (The Ship of Longing), a group of "film pictures," Rølvaag calls them; in reality, a group of powerful portrayals of life both in Norway and in America.
The book that brought Rølvaag to the notice of the American public, however, was Giants in the Earth, 1927, published as two volumes in Norway, I de Dage (In those Days), 1924, and Riket Grundlægges (The Founding of the Realm), 1925. The story of Giants in the Earth is a simple one. "Per Hansa, farmer from Norway, brings his wife and children and chattels out of civilization into the great reaches of the Northwest. In company with others of his race, he stakes out a quarter section of land and begins cultivation. What befalls him is more or less in line with the accepted hardships of pioneers. 'There are famine and cold, superstition and ignorance. By the time the tale is done, a great section of the prairie has
become a new granary of mankind." "No one who had not dwelt in a lonely immigrant community, shared its anxieties, sorrows, and rewards, and studied its human elements, could have written so convincing and searching a book." "Although there is no woven plot, the story mounts steadily in interest, and every incident is perfectly chosen to reveal the psychological drama. It will also give, I believe, a true picture of a great chapter of American history." Time and again, critics refer to the "comic gusto" and "epic force" of the book. All agree that Rølvaag knows his Norwegians and that he feels their "immensities of spirit, their great appetites for land." "Giants in the Earth is proof that there never will be a novel which can embrace all America," writes Laurence Stallings. "The racial variants and backgrounds that interweave our patchwork civilization cannot all be woven into the pattern of one book."
In 1929 Rølvaag published Peder Victorious, a book in which he continues the story begun in Giants in the Earth. This volume traces the growth of Peder Victorious from youth to maturity. With dominant psychological interest, the book is as realistic as Giants in the Earth. We feel with the characters their emotions toward one another and toward their natural environment. These two books have been said to constitute an epic of pioneer life and help to explain why the religious, intellectual, and cultural life of the Middle West is what it is.
The best known Norwegian-American woman writer is probably Martha Ostenso. She left Bergen when a child, and for the next few years lived in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Canada. A summer vacation spent near the northwestern frontier gave her part of the material for her first book.
Besides this, Miss Ostenso's experience as a teacher in communities predominantly Scandinavian furnished her with local color.
Her first novel, Wild Geese, which won a large prize and became a "best seller," is a story of a farming community in the Northwest. Caleb Gare, a malevolent figure of tyranny and greed, who dominates the story, is able to intimidate all his family except Judith. The story deals with his greed and his treatment of his family, and ends with retribution to Caleb and the burning of his acres of flax. The book is melodramatic, and at times the style is awkward. Stuart Sherman says: "She is not verbally fastidious nor a sensitive stylist. She is a little blunt, and quite downright and factual . . . like the saga writers. What she lacks in subtlety, she makes up in strength. She conspicuously excels . . . in conceiving and thoroughly dramatizing character and in the fundamental work of composition."
Miss Ostenso's second book, Dark Dawn, 1926, is also a tragic drama of a farming community of the Northwest. Lucian Dorrit, an idealistic youth of twenty-one, finds himself married to Hattie Murker, a beautiful, unloving, domineering woman. At the end of five bitter years, "a belated dark dawn" breaks for Lucian. The book shows some of the same power and some of the same defects as the preceding novel. It lacks humor and is not at all pleasant reading; but it is "dramatic in its clash of character on character." 2, In her following book, Miss Ostenso seems to be nearer to fulfilling the promise of her first book.
The Mad Carews, 1927, is a story of northern Minnesota, where the Carews have acquired a great deal of land. "Legend has it that the Carew men always take what they want; and when the inevitable
crash comes after their misdoing, then the women pay the price and help them to start their mad careers anew." Bayliss Carew married Elsa Barker of the Hollow, and she had the courage to hold her ground; incidentally, she held her husband.
The book is vividly written and embodies a wealth of detail. The novel is melodramatic, but melodrama is inherent in the situation. Miss Ostenso's latest book, The Young May Moon, 1929, deals with contemporary life.
We hear much nowadays about regional literature -- about life in Iowa and Arizona, in the Carolinas and Montana. To the regional literature of the Middle West belongs the greater part of the Norwegian-American belles lettres. These books are realistic, often stark portrayals of pioneer life, with droughts and blizzards, loneliness and danger from Indians, church services and establishment of schools; local politics and railroad building. Much of the work is of little value, however, except as cumulative evidence of the fecundity of Norwegian-American writers. There is an evident lack of continuity and great unevenness both in quantity and quality. Humor is lacking, too, and descriptions of nature are scanty. This is probably due to the nearness of the writers to the events about which they write. Without the proper perspective they can see nothing but the grim relentlessness of that life. The writer of the future must pay more attention to these things as well as to construction, greater "inclusiveness," and experimentation.
Present-day writers, such as Gustav Melby and Jon Norstog in poetry; Waldemar Ager and Dorothea Dahl in stories of everyday life; Simon Johnson, Johannes B. Wist, and O. E. Rølvaag, writing of the pioneer and contemporary life of the Norwegian immigrants; and Martha Ostenso, exponent of present-day tendencies of realistic writing, "have struck
the pace of high endeavor. They have marked out the field, and blazed the trail for a generation of writers."
In discussing Norwegian-American literature, Julius E. Olson, professor of Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, writes: "One of the functions of literature is to inform posterity .... The part that the Norwegian immigrants played and are playing in the Making of America is gradually being revealed in ever clearer outlines in historical accounts . . . and in poems and novels." The value of the larger part of Norwegian-American literature lies in the aid it will give the historian of the future in studying the "constituent races" of America- in the "adequate account of the part the immigrant race from Norway contributed to the resultant formation."
<1> Julius E. Olson, "Literature and the Press," in Harry Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions to America's Making, 125 (New York, 1921).
<2>Alfred O. Fonkalsrud, The Scandinavian-American, 109 (Minneapolis, 1915).
<3> Michael A. Mikkelson, "Hjalmar H. Boyesen," in Symra, 2:60-76 (1906); Waldemar Ager, "Norsk-amerikansk Skjønliteratur," in Kvartalskrift, 10: 53 (April, 1914); Charles Dudley Warner, ed., Library of the World's Best Literature, 5:2272-2274 (New York, 1897).
<4> The novel is reviewed in American-Scandinavian Review, 9:61 (January, 1921).
<5> Other books by this author are Amerikanske Fantasier (An American Fantasy), Chicago, 1876; Vore Bedsteforældre (Our Grandparents), 1882; Et Arbeidsdyr (The Beast of Burden), Minneapolis, 1889; Bag Gardinet (Behind the Curtain), Minneapolis, 1889.
<6> Johannes B. Wist, "Peer Strømme," in Symra, 1: 144-158 (1905); Einar Josephsen, "An Outline of Norwegian-American Literature," in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 50-55 (April, 1924); Ager, in Kvartalskrift, 10:48 (April, 1914). The volume of Erindringer (Minneapolis, 1923) was compiled by a committee after Strømme's death. Some of Strømme's best lyrics appear in Ludvig Lima's collection of Norsk Amerikanske Digte (Minneapolis, 1903).
<7> Olaf M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America, 300 (Minneapolis, 1925).
<8> Foss also wrote Kristine, en Forttelling fra Valders (Christina, a Tale from Valders), 1886; Den amerikanske Saloon, 1887, which was translated by J. J. Skørdalsvold under the title Tobias, A Story of the Northwest (Minneapolis, 1899); and Hvide Slaver (White Slaves), 1892.
<9> Olson, in Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 135.
<10> Sagastolen is reviewed in Kvartalskrift, 5: 29-30 (April, 1909).
<11> Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 96 (January, 1924).
<12> Olson, in Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 135.
<13> For a review of this novel, see "Nytid," in Norsk Tidskrift, 1: 110-112 (December, 1907).
<14> See the review by N. N. Rønning in Ungdommens Ven, 25: 710-711 (December, 1914) and another in Kvartalskri/t, 5:26-28 (October, 1909).
<15> American-Scandinavian Review, 9: 61 (January, 1921).
<16> D. G. Ristad, "Simon Johnson," in Nordmands-Forbundet, 20: 152-155 (May, 1927).
<17> Olson, in Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 135-136.
<18> Idar Handagaard, "To norsk-amerikanske digtere," in Nordmands-Forbundet, 21:96-98 (March, 1928). This article, the second in a series, deals with Waldemar Ager.
<19> Josephsen, in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 52.
<20> See Oscar Gundersen's review of Kristus for Pilatus, in Kvartalskrift,
7:9-11 (April, 1911).
<21> See Kristian Prestgard, "The Tragedy of the Immigrant," in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 5, p. 38-49 (May, 1924), translated by Knut Gjerset.
<22> Josephsen, in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 52.
<23> This book was also published by Aschehoug and Company of Oslo.
<24> Peer Strømme, "Waldemar Ager," in Symra, 3:137-148 (1907); review by Arne Kildal, in Nordmands-Forbundet, 19:494-496 (November, 1926); Handagaard, in Nordmands-Forbundet, 21:96-98 (March, 1928). See also reviews in Nordmands-Forbundet, 12:362-366 (August-September, 1919); Skandinaven, 53: 42 (July, 1919); 61: 6 (January 4, 1927); Josephsen, in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 52.
<25> Minneapolis Journal, April 1, 1928.
<26> See reviews of Giants in the Earth by Laurence Stallings, in McCalls Magazine, 55: 27, 135 (November, 1927); Allan Nevins, in Saturday Review of Literature, 3:896 (July 11, 1927); and C. R. Walker, in Independent, 119:44 (July 9, 1927).
<27> Isaac Anderson, "Scandinavian Immigrants in Recent Fiction," in American-Scandinavian Review, 14:246-248 (April, 1926).
<28> New York Tribune, November 8, 1925.
<29> See the review by L. M. Field, in Bookman, 64: 632 (January, 1927).
<30> Independent, 119: 509 (November, 1927).
<31> Book Review Digest, 23:562 (1927 Annual Number, published in February, 1928).
<32> Olson, in Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 125.