Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 1876-1931
By Julius E. Olson (Volume VII: Page 121)
Since the last annual meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, held at Madison, Wisconsin, in September, 1931, a great loss has befallen the Association through the death, on November 5, 1931, of Ole Edvart Rølvaag. It was not unexpected; his family and friends were prepared for it, as was Rølvaag himself. During the weeks preceding the annual session of the Association, I received a number of letters from him concerning arrangements for the meeting, and in one of them he said: "Please do not put me on the program for the banquet! On the 13th of August I had the worst heart attack I have ever had. I am not over it yet, and the doctor is wondering whether I should go to Madison or not. But I am going to do my utmost to be there."
Rølvaag came to the meeting; contrary to our expectations, he spoke at the banquet, and spoke well. By this act he displayed the courage and daring of the Nordland fisherman that he once had been--an ingrained inclination to dally with danger and, indeed, to defy death, if duty called.
At this first meeting of the officials of the Association following his death, it is fitting that something be said of this distinguished member's work for the Association, and of his great achievements as a writer. The recognition he has received from the literary world of America, of the homeland, and of other countries, has brought honor not only to
him but to his people. Rølvaag was a founder of the Association. He was one of the three incorporators, and he acted as secretary until his death. The extensive correspondence he carried on in that capacity doubtless was what made the Association a going concern, ready for action. His name and his friends and associates gave our people confidence in the enterprise.
This is true despite the fact that he does not appear as contributor in any of the dozen volumes that have been published: Rølvaag was a literary man, not an historian. He knew that a competent man had been chosen as editor who would find ample material for publication. In a short period of less than a decade monumental things have been achieved through the publications of the Association--achievements that are proving of national significance and that have been critically judged as such. Rølvaag was quick to seize upon any evidence of such recognition and to proclaim it through the Norwegian press. Thus, when Dr. Blegen's work on Norwegian Migration to America received a highly complimentary review in an American historical periodical, Rø1vaag hurled it at his Norwegian readers. The words he quoted, which are taken from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, are worth recording here, "We believe that no national group that has moved from Europe to America in the nineteenth century has found a historian who has dealt more adequately with the causes, facts, and results of its transfer than Dr. Blegen and that his book is epoch-making in its thoroughness and comprehensiveness."
Thus it is evident that, though Rølvaag made no contributions to the publications of the Association, he was always alert in promoting its interests. And though it may never be revealed how many hundreds of appealing letters he wrote in behalf of the Association, his numerous articles in the Norwegian-American press on its advancement and accomplishments are an index of how dear to his heart the
work of the organization was. For the labor of love that Rø1vaag, the modern literary man of poetic mind, bestowed upon our activities in gathering and publishing the significant records of our pioneer history, the Association has been truly grateful. Rølvaag was fully aware of this; he knew that his efforts were appreciated, and he sought no other reward.
Rølvaag was vitally concerned also with the upbuilding of an allied institution still more remote from his own special field: the Norwegian-American Historical Museum at Luther College, which is under the competent management of Dr. Knut Gjerset. When a suitable building has been erected for the treasures that have been gathered, another great contribution will have been made to the elucidation of the pioneer history of our racial group. The hour is not propitious for making an appeal in the interests of this great cultural enterprise; when the clouds of financial depression shall have lifted, these demands will surely be met.
It should not be overlooked that Rølvaag played the part of a competent antiquarian when he undertook the difficult task of establishing at St. Olaf College a depository for the preservation of books, pamphlets, and other records of Norwegian-American authors and institutions. The plan was presented with Rølvaag's customary zeal and vigor, and results have been most gratifying. It was an arduous task, and the leaders at St. Olaf College will surely see to it that this work is carried on as a monument to Rø1vaag's love for his alma mater and his people. To advance this work he gave a course of lectures on pioneer history, and also published a collection of stories and poems of immigrant life.
Let us turn now to the field of activity that inspired the greatest and most profound efforts of Rølvaag's life. This phase of his career has been handled by many competent writers; their verdicts, the kindly words of praise and recognition he received during the last years of his life, touched
his heart profoundly. In this connection I may say that a detailed account of Rølvaag's works has recently been prepared for the STUDIES AND RECORDS of the Association by Professor Einar Haugen, a student and protégé of Rø1vaag's at St. Olaf College.
It was upon Rølvaag's recommendation that Dr. Haugen was appointed assistant professor of Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin. May I also note in this connection that at my suggestion Dr. Haugen was requested to prepare the article on Rølvaag for the forthcoming tenth volume of the Dictionary of American Biography.
No hut is so humble that it may not be the birthplace of genius. It has been the lowly of birth who have often, very often, been called to leadership in the great crises of life. We need only to point to Abraham Lincoln, reared, as a recent orator has said, in a "trackless, bookless, and neighborless world." Rølvaag was born in obscurity and reared in poverty, though not in dire poverty. But he was not born in a "bookless" world, as we shall see.
An author's birthplace, if he have genius withal, is likely to influence his intellectual output. This surely holds true of Rølvaag, for his early environment was of a very positive character. If he had been born and reared in the starkly monotonous regions where Lincoln was raised, he may not have become a literary man. And we may suppose that if Lincoln had been reared in Rølvaag's Nordland, he would not have been a lawyer, politician, and statesman. Is it unreasonable to assume that if Lincoln had been born and reared in rockbound, sea-girt New England, with opportunities for education and culture, he would have become a fellow poet with Lowell, Longfellow, and Emerson? Even as it was, he wrote poems during the years before the law occupied his mind. And in the maturity of his days, when the harrowing experiences of the Civil War stirred his soul to its
depths, he gave utterance to the griefs and hopes of his stricken people in the world-famous Gettysburg address, which is both in conception and structure a poem, with the cadence and stately measures of a eulogy in blank verse. Akin to this great achievement is the conclusion of the second inaugural address, which also strikes the appealing chords of a mighty poem. These two masterpieces are the high-water mark of literary expression in America. They will survive though all else wither and fade into oblivion.
Only great genius could have produced such things as these. In more places than one in The Ship of Longing and in Giants in the Earth, Rølvaag displays kinship with Lincoln's poetic moods that shows genius, not equal to Lincoln's, yet not unworthy of comparison with his. Rølvaag was a genius, as was Lincoln; but Rølvaag's life lacked a great crisis, such as Lincoln had, to stir his soul to its most profound depths and resultant expression. In this connection ! am reminded of the immortal lines of the English poet Gray:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.
Rølvaag, I believe, had the intellectual power to feel, and the linguistic facility to express, the most profound emotions, but opportunity failed him, for no great nation-wide crisis challenged his powers, as Lincoln's were challenged.
We may ask, What is great genius? It is difficult to define. Ordinarily it means a singular endowment by nature. We may approach the significance of literary genius by asking, and trying to answer, the question, What is it to create, in a literary sense? In words familiar to us all from early lessons in our religious training, "To create is to make something out of nothing or out of inadequate material." If this proverbial dictum is essentially true, it must mean that great literary genius is capable of doing seemingly
impossible things and of making seemingly impossible impressions upon human hearts and minds. The literary world has acknowledged that Shakespeare's Hamlet, Goethe's Faust, and Ibsen's Peer Gynt have accomplished this. Ibsen was surely astounded at the profundities that great critics found in Peer Gynt; but a great poet is not likely to be a competent judge of his own production.
Rø1vaag was a great literary genius. He was born in Nordland, in northern Norway, a land of marvels and a playground of mighty natural forces. It is the land of the midnight sun, where nature paints pictures of entrancing beauty upon a stern and rocky shore washed by the waters of an arctic sea, which in its wrath plays havoc with human life. Amid these scenes of indescribable grandeur, where men worked in constant danger at their daily tasks as fishermen, Rølvaag lived until he was twenty years of age, and the impressions he received during the days of his childhood and his young manhood endured with him throughout his life.
In this sparse settlement attendance at school was no easy accomplishment. A library was at hand, however, near the school Rølvaag attended, and the use that he made of it is astonishing. The first novel he read was Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, in translation of course; this was followed by Cooper's other novels and then by English, French, and German novels in translation. Then came Danish and Swedish novels, the complete works of Bjørnson and of Jonas Lie, and a variety of books of history and travel, with an admixture of shilling shockers. It is safe to say that before Rø1vaag left Norway in his twentieth year, he had read more good books than the average boy in any country in the world. His opportunity to do so was much greater than the children of Norwegian pioneers in Illinois and Wisconsin ever had.
These books fed his inquisitive mind, enriched his imagination, and created in him a desire to see the great wide world of which they told such entrancing tales. After his
confirmation in the faith he was obliged to take part in the spring fishing in the treacherous waters of the Lofoten region. During one of his first trips thousands were caught in a terrific storm in which most of those who had gone out lost their lives; Rølvaag narrowly escaped death himself. The experience sank into his soul and gave birth to his determination to escape from the terrors of such a life as soon as opportunity offered. He wrote to an uncle in South Dakota asking for assistance to come to America, and this request was ultimately granted.
In reviewing Rølvaag's achievements as an author, I shall touch only briefly on his most significant works. The first, published in 1912, is his "America Letters," which covers the period from his arrival in America in 1896 to 1900, when he was graduated from a church college. Although these letters bear the name of a fictitious author, they are evidently based on letters he wrote to his family in Norway. This is in many ways an interesting and remarkable book, portraying as it does the impressions, the experiences, and the tribulations of an immigrant with a keen mind, desirous of making something of himself, and gradually attaining the firm belief that if the Lord had created him for any special work it was that of a student and writer. The "America Letters" seems to have been neglected by the Norwegian public; I hope that some day the Association will bring out a translation of this work, to promote an interest in it on the part of our young people, who no longer read Norwegian with facility.
A few of the works following this one were rather insignificant but they aided in the development of Rølvaag's literary craftsmanship. One of these early books stands in a class by itself and should not be overlooked; it is "Our Ancestral Heritage," and was published in 1922. It is not primarily a literary product, but a series of talks or lectures on literature, particularly old and modern Norse literature.
As the title suggests, it deals not only with literary matters, but also with social conditions and historical events described in that literature, concluding with a number of controversial articles that had earlier appeared in the press. It had grieved Rølvaag deeply that he had found it impossible to find a commercial publisher for this book. He had begun to speculate upon the possibility of publishing it out of his own meager earnings, when the St. Olaf College Press suddenly offered to undertake it. In a letter to an old and very dear friend (Mrs. Kristine Haugen), he opens his heart in grateful recognition of President Boe's friendship and steadfast loyalty for making possible this welcome arrangement.
It would take a long discourse to deal adequately with the provocative and inspiring contents of this work. It is Rølvaag's pronunciamento on the possible significance of the ancestral heritage for Norwegian-American youth. It is an illuminating guidebook for them in this great field of cultural study. It reveals Rø1vaag the great teacher of literature. I do not hesitate to say that the time will come when this will be looked upon as Rølvaag's most useful work. An English translation of it would be a commendable undertaking.
The next work of importance in Rølvaag's development is that strange phantasmagoria entitled The Ship of Longing (1921). This book reveals Rølvaag's profound psychological insight, which enabled him on slight acquaintance to plumb the depths of human souls, and to construct realistic scenes from trivial incidents that he had experienced, heard of, or read about. It would seem, to judge from this work, that Rø1vaag left a record in his writings of every mood and impulse that he experienced during his life. Shadows of his real self flash through the pages, giving vivid glimpses of his experiences in the homeland. We seem to feel his joy at the approach of spring after the long dark winter, and our spirits mount as he rejoices in the glory of the midnight
sun. Even in describing the return of the hero Nils and his Nordland friends from a winter in the northern woods of Minnesota he injects a dream of fishing in Nordland waters: "The train sped along in the night as the passengers dozed in the stuffy sleeping car. A dim light from the lamp on the ceiling cast a ray under the brim of his hat as he lay dreaming of the midnight sun of distant Nordland."
This book reveals Rø1vaag the genius, the coming master in solid creative literary art, as was abundantly shown later, with masterly stroke and uncanny insight, in Giants in the Earth and the two concluding volumes of the series. The last volume reached his home from the Norwegian publishers the day following his death. His wife wrote me, sending me a gift copy, of his great disappointment in not seeing his book in the Norwegian edition. "He had looked for it every day for a week," she reported, "knowing that it was on the way. It was his wish that you should have a copy. Please accept it as a gift from him." This thoughtfulness for his friends, as he lay facing death, reveals his heart of innate kindliness.
These last works made Rølvaag's name known to the world. His fame in the homeland, where these books were first published, soon attracted the attention of an enterprising New York firm, which was eager to publish them in translation. A competent translator and interpreter was at hand to assist in the preparation of an American edition. Great critics in the English-speaking world gave their verdict, and Rølvaag's fame was secure.
While the author of Giants in the Earth was still comparatively unknown an unusual thing happened. A school edition edited by a competent school man was issued by his publisher in a series of Modern Classics. Says the editor: "Since Willa Cather, others have dealt with the West . . . Yet in none of their work is there the profound insight and imaginative grasp of the theme that gives to Giants in the
Earth so great a sense of tragic reality." This schoolbook has been read and pondered by thousands of university students, many of whom, to my personal knowledge, have been deeply moved by its inspiring delineation of the tragedy entailed in the conquest of the prairies of the Northwest.
In conclusion, I am pleased to mention that the young and alert president of the University of Wisconsin, at the commencement of 1929, conferred upon Rølvaag an honorary degree in these words:
Mr. Rolvaag: Because, as author of Giants in the Earth and Peder Victorious, you have given assured immortality to the contribution of the Norse pioneers in the Northwest; because you have become, as none before or since, the articulate interpreter of the heroism, the difficult process of adjustment to a new environment, and the social gifts to American life that enter into the tale of the Norwegians of our Northwest; because you have given voice to the hitherto silent saga of your transplanted countrymen; because, as artist, you have broken the forms of fiction and brought them into closer relation to life, mixing in new proportion the elements of episode and plot until your pages become a pageant of living men and women, and so combining the realistic and the romantic that realism ceases to be sordid and romance ceases to be sentimental; because, from your first book to your last you have grown in philosophical insight and artistic ingenuity; and because we are pardonably proud of you as an adopted son of this region, I am happy to confer upon you the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.
To this glowing tribute, which issued from a kindly heart, the flight of three brief years compels us to add that Ole Edvart Rølvaag, gifted writer, tender-hearted husband and father, loyal friend, and fearless champion of the faith that was in him, walks the earth no more.
As officials of this Association, whose purposes and achievements were so dear to his heart, we can only say: It is a lonesome world with Rølvaag gone.
<1> An address delivered at Ottawa, Illinois, on November 14, 1932, at a meeting of the executive board of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Ed.
<2> See ante, p. 53-73.
MRS. R. O. BRANDT tells about a part of her interesting career in the article that she has written for this volume. Her present address is Morrisonville, Wisconsin.
DR. C. A. CLAUSEN is associate professor of Norwegian in St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.
PROFESSOR EINAR I. HAUGEN of the University of Wisconsin is well known to readers of STUDIES AND RECORDS. His contribution to volume 6 was a study of "Norwegians at the Indian Forts on the Missouri River during the Seventies."
MR. JACOB HODNEFIELD has made contributions to several preceding volumes in this series.
MR. CARLTON C. QUALEY is a graduate student in Columbia University. He is writing a doctoral dissertation on Norwegian settlement in the United States.
PROFESSOR JULIUS E. OLSON of the University of Wisconsin is well known as an editor and writer. He began his service as a teacher of Scandinavian languages and literature at Madison in 1884.