NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

Alexander Corstvet and Anthony M. Rud,
Norwegian-American Novelists
By Albert O. Barton (Volume VI: Page 146)

Two novels written by first-generation Americans of Norwegian descent have intimate associations with the region southeast of Madison in Wisconsin, particularly the so-called Koshkonong Norwegian settlement of eastern Dane County. The author of one of the novels is a native of the district; some of the scenes of the other story are laid there. Yet two narratives could scarcely be more unlike than these. One is idealistic in theme and treatment, analytic and artistic, reminiscent of an earlier day; the other is starkly realistic, of the more recent school of writing.

In 1901 a novel, Elling, was issued by a Milwaukee publishing-house. The author was Alexander Corstvet, then principal of one of the Milwaukee schools. The book made no stir in the reading world and has long since been forgotten, but it was warmly praised by William James, the eminent scholar and philosopher, who said it was a work that the discerning would read again and again. This commendation has now and then served to draw the attention of a stray reader to the novel, to justify Professor James' prophecy concerning it. "And thereby hangs a tale" of an unusual devotion to a purpose and an ideal. For, comparatively late in life, Professor Corstvet had become a disciple of James and had imbibed the noble philosophy which animates this book.

Corstvet, now an octogenarian, is still living in Milwaukee. He was born in the town of Cottage Grove in Dane County, of Norwegian immigrant parentage. He tells an inspiring story of how, at an age when most men have long left school, he attained his ambition of obtaining an education. In a recent letter he writes:

My early schooling was scant and broken. I attended Marshall academy a couple of terms and then settled on a small farm, teaching school in winter.

At thirty-six I took the elementary course at Whitewater normal school and then taught at Albion academy one year. I finished at Whitewater at forty-one and later served in high schools at Stoughton and Burlington. Then I went to Harvard at forty-six. I had been there not quite a year when my wife died. We had four children ranging in age from eight years to eight days. It was one of the hard spots in my life. But I had sat at the feet of that wonderful man William James and had come to know his wonderful wife. I sat down with the children one year and then came to Milwaukee. I taught one year in the grades and went to Soldiers Home school (now West Milwaukee), where I stayed three years, then to South Milwaukee for three years and again back to Milwaukee for seventeen years when the age limit caught me.

My wife had often urged me to write something. When I sat with the children in Boston I began "Elling," and wrote in snatches, finishing it in Milwaukee. Such is the story of this little book.

Elling opens in Watlingsend, apparently some eastern seacoast village in the United States. At the end the scene shifts to England, where the once poor youth, Elling, has become a distinguished scholar and the husband of an Englishwoman of wealth and culture. The characters in the book are drawn chiefly from humble positions -- they are umbrella-menders, shoemakers, and the like -- and they are uniformly decent and high-minded. The author satisfies one requirement of fiction by creating in the reader a sympathetic interest in all his characters, good and bad. Though the book has its passages of diverting humor, it retains throughout a noble and sustained philosophy that never falters. Running through the story are snatches of verse written by the author; but they do not, as is so often the case where a writer attempts to combine both forms of writing, detract from the quality of the work. A few passages from the book that reveal Corstvet's style and the reflected philosophy of William James follow. For instance, this, which sounds autobiographical:

The summer was wearing away and the leaves began to flutter again. There were associations with these flutterings and the rattle of windows. It was lonesome to sit alone with these associations where love had dwelt and gone. He sat sad at the little window that had let friendly light into a happy home. The loving hands were folded in death, and the memory of Ethel was yet tender of touch. Elling felt himself an old man wandering among old memories reaching away back into his early childhood across the sea. Yet there was -- as there had always been in him -- a tendency toward faith, toward a faith that there is a great tender care somewhere in the universe and that human suffering is considered by it.

And this:

There is one person who knows what you really are; look out for that one. Fame is the echo of a life only and famous men and women know this well. A great poem may bring fame; it reveals the poet suddenly. But he was a poet before he gave himself away; he might have been a poet and never written. Yet, there would have been leaks all around his life. There seems to be a provision in nature which puts self destruction into the function of every process and institution; the greatest usefulness of things lies in making themselves useless. The extreme self-consciousness of youth disappears in an enlarged feeling toward universality. As the circle of vision widens toward this mutability of things the man becomes more benevolent and less partisan. . . . To have done one's best and yet escaped winning is often desirable enough. And to have lost -- lost manfully and gracefully -- may be a victory.

When Elling Larson, shoemaker, decided to travel, paying his way with his work, he asked his friend Jonas Munson, umbrella-mender, whether one could travel and cobble.

No; not well. He would have too much impedimenta; some tools and material were indispensable, and they were bulky. Did Elling contemplate seeing the world? Not a bad plan; there was much instruction in a moving shop. But materials must be light and few. Jonas had made trial of several such industries and had found that the umbrella had the greatest possibilities and was not devoid of actualities. If Elling should conclude to travel on the umbrella he, Jonas, would be proud to ordain him after proof of competence. The umbrella was cosmopolitan; it was found in wet countries because it rained, and in dry countries because it shone. If he wished to see the world he must go to the homes, not merely to the stations. Out among the plodding, sweating country people the world was most interesting.

When Elling gave it as his opinion that one ought to finish his education in a factory, Jonas assured him that it was not necessary; an umbrella was made much as a man was made -- not in one place and by continuous process, but in sections and by many agencies. The putting together was not everything; the whole universe made contributions to an umbrella.

William James, impressed by the beauty and worth of his former pupil's book, wrote:

Elling seems to me a work of rare distinction, with an indescribable flavor of goodness all its own. To many readers it will probably say little, but those to whom its quality speaks will read it again and again, for it is a bit of genuinely spiritual literature, a sort of Pilgrim's Progress transplanted out of theology into our social life. Wise, patient, humorously skeptical of the world's values, but never of the lasting values, shunning loud effects of style, humane -- a sort of twilight book -- it is evidently distilled from the modest personal experiences of its author, and tells veraciously life's lessons as they came to him. A most unique and original book in my estimation.

A long review of Elling in the Milwaukee Sentinel of May 28, 1908, said:

It was the friendship of Prof. James that helped him through the most trying time of his life, when the death of his wife obliged him to give up his studies and dreams.

There are not many of the well known, well advertised literary favorites who could reproduce the harmony and the charm of certain of its passages. It is worth the reading of hundreds of volumes of mediocre fiction.

In 1923 a novel of the tobacco fields of southern Wisconsin appeared with the publication of The Second Generation, by Anthony M. Rud, a young Chicago author of second-generation Norse stock. The book had ranked high in Harper's fiction contest of that year and had made some stir when it appeared. A study in changing immigrant types, it was found in the lists of many reading and study clubs. It was the author's first novel, a grimly realistic story designed to show the character-changing influence of the particular form of farm life depicted. After the first chapter, the scene shifts from Norway to the Koshkonong tobacco region of Edgerton and Stoughton. The processes of planting, raising, and cutting tobacco are painted in harsh colors.

Arrives a time in June, though, when the chores and odd jobs are unimportant: tobacco-planting time. Then rain must come. . . . On the twenty-third of the month, a half hour after midnight, rain finally arrived. It was only a slight shower, lasting a few minutes, yet with the first patter of drops on the roof

Henry Gottlieb was up and dressing. . . . By two o'clock breakfast was over and also the rain. . . . Sylvia came down sulkily and ate breakfast. Then she retired to the parlour, and lay down upon the best couch. She did not see why she had to get up, when Olaf slept. Olaf, as a hired man, had rights. . . .

Notwithstanding impatience, planting could not be started until four o'clock. Ham Lytell, although an obliging neighbor, refused to rouse his six- and seven-year-old sons until dawn. When the two boys arrived each was given a large loaded basket to swing from his neck. . . .

This work is one of the high lights of striving upon a tobacco farm. Everyone pitches in. Madge Gottlieb and Sylvia followed Les Lytell, the six-year-old. Olaf and George had Frank, the elder of the boys. Each had dropped plants on two rows. The planters following him as closely as they could, grasped the shoots, dug down their right index fingers to form holes, and then pressed in the plants, tamping soil about the roots with the fingers of both hands.

Constant bending, plucking, poking, tamping, proves a terrific strain upon the back. Sylvia gave out first, then Mrs. Gottlieb, then George. The women did not stop, however. They tied up their skirts and petticoats and walked on their knees.

The story aims to depict rather the characters presented, however, than the conditions of life about them. Einar Merssen, the first-generation Norwegian immigrant, although a good young man when he left Norway, becomes in time, as he acquires wealth in America, hard, cruel, and miserly.

Never in her wildest dreams had Frieda [Einar's German wife] imagined him worth so much. The sight of twelve thousand dollars -- or more -- of profit flowing into the family coffers each year rather turned her head. She bought a silk dress and certain other articles of attire she had not imagined could be hers. . . .

Einar recoiled in horror. It was for the purpose of saving this sum that he had married her, yet he could not oppose her on that basis. Give her eight dollars a week in addition to her keep? It was unthinkable, awful -- to Einar! He raged. Wrath did him no good whatever. The idea became very attractive to Frieda. She enlarged upon it. Certainly she was entitled to one hundred dollars a month at the very least and intended to have it. In the end they reached a compromise. Frieda received fifty dollars a month, scarcely one cent of which she ever spent. Before the agreement was reached, however, Einar gnawed half of the blond hairs out of his moustache. . . .

Einar spent his evenings after he was able to arise and hobble about poring over a large-scale map of Rock and Dane counties which he spread upon the dining-room table. On this he marked in red ink the boundaries of every farm within a four-mile radius of the town, adding a few beyond this circle -- farms upon which he had made loans, or upon which he intended to keep a speculative, watchful eye. . . . Einar had purchased one plot of eight acres, foreclosed an old mortgage originally issued by Svend Johannesen and renewed twice since, and had lent out four thousand dollars more on one-year notes. Come another year like that and he would close his grasp on two more choice bits of ground upon which improvident farmers now were tilling the soil.

Leif, Einar's son, is pictured as of a somewhat better and nobler type than his father, but he has his own shortcomings. How much the individual differences are the result of racial inheritances, environment, and the times is a question that will occur to the reader. The author does not definitely raise this question nor answer it. Strongly contrasted types of women are found in Einar's two wives, and, later, in Leif's two wives also. Mr. Rud's novel received much commendation when it appeared. One critic said, "Mr. Rud has the utter detachment from his characters which is characteristic of Knut Hamsun. Parts of 'The Second Generation' really seem like Hamsun; they have the same rootedness in the soil. Mr. Rud writes of a Scandinavian community whose grinding of its sons into richer dirt for the soil is tragedy to him. He paints in all the details of his background."

Mr. Rud has been on the staff of various magazines featuring adventure stories. Recently he sent the writer the following information concerning himself:

My father, who is Dr. Anthony Rud of Chicago, was born in Kongsberg, near Mt. Gausta, Norway, but came alone to America at the age of 12, as soon as he had completed the grammar school. He lived for five years on Koshkonong prairie, seven miles north of Edgerton, and two miles south of Rockdale, Dane county (at that time Clinton). From 17 until 20 he raised three crops of tobacco on shares, and was very successful. He worked his way through Milton prep and two years of Milton college, getting his B.S. degree in 1887. After that Northwestern Medical, the Physicians and Surgeons of New York and on to Berlin and Vienna. In 1891 he received his M.D. degree from Northwestern University Medical school and also his M.S. from Milton.

My mother is Chicago-born -- her mother being a Canadian.

I was born in Chicago, educated at St. John's military academy, Delafield, Wis., Dartmouth college and Rush Medical school. I have written magazine fiction, novels and movies.

In a certain measure Leif's experiences were my father's, somewhat dramatized. Einar is a fictional character patterned after an old bonde I knew in Iowa. Dr. Rand was very closely drawn from a real country doctor of the region north of Edgerton. Rock county and southern Dane is, of course, the scene of much of the tale. Frieda, for one, really lived there. I worked for a time on her place in the tobacco fields.

By the way of contrast, and because of their associations with the same region -- the old Koshkonong settlement -- these novels, so unlike, and yet produced by writers of the same racial stock, form an interesting study.

<<  Previous Page   |  Next Page  >>


 
To the Home Page