The Sources of the Rølvaag Biography
Nora O. Solum (Volume XI: Page 150)
Speaking specifically to Mr. Lincoln Colcord in a letter of January, 1932, the sculptor and painter Mr. Carl Most said of Rølvaag, "His vision was heroic. It gives those of us who follow him in the Northwest the first great vision of the foundations as well as the possibilities of this land." There can be little doubt that this vision in Rølvaag, which Mr. Mose so aptly eulogizes and with whose nature we are all familiar, had its origin in certain instinctive conceptions of fundamental human values which in turn enabled him to evaluate almost immediately upon his arrival in America the immigrant chapter in the pioneer history of the Northwest. With a directness and a perspicacity characteristic of only the finer intellects, he saw straight into that saga. It appears to have been a clear instance of the man and the occasion finding each other. Out of what he saw came his searching but tempered appraisal and a battle for values, and when time had sufficiently matured his creative faculties, he set forth the vision in a glow of imagination so sure and bright as to illuminate it for all who care to read him.
Though it may be questioned whether any biographer can know for a certainty that the sources of information about his subject are desirably full, it can sincerely be claimed, we think, in the case of Rølvaag, that the record of his life, though of unequal completeness for its various periods, is nonetheless so copious, consistent, and clear as to make its most significant facts and implications unmistakable.
Rølvaag's life was lived principally in three places: from 1876 to 1896 in Nordland, Norway; during a brief interlude of five years, 1896 to 1901, in southeastern South Dakota;
and from 1901 to 1931 in Northfield, Minnesota. If anything approaching a biographical haze hangs over any portion of his life it is over the first and a part of the second period. So few facts emerge from the first period that the best that it seems possible to achieve for it at present is a generalized picture, suggestive mainly of what are apparently the important factors in his background. Wherever it has been possible Rølvaag has been allowed to speak for himself concerning it. Since the material coming directly out of the period was scant, consisting only of facts derived from parish records, from a genealogy of the Mathiassen-Rølvaag family of Dønnes, Nesna Prestegjeld (actually compiled by Faste Swendsen at the instigation of the uncle Gunnar Berg of Nesna in 1912), and from nostalgic outpourings in the emigrant diary, it had to be supplemented by material from such sources as the following: an autobiographical composition exercise called "A Fishing Expedition in the Winter of 1896" written at Augustana Academy, Canton, South Dakota; letters from the family in Nordland which, though written at a later date, give an insight into family traits, occupations, and the general conditions of life in Nordland; letters written to Mrs. Rølvaag; a letter written by Captain Christian Andersen after Rølvaag's death; and sketches of the home written by Rølvaag himself after he came to America, including the autobiographical fragment, "The Romance of a Life." In order to augment the information, Mr. Jorgenson visited the family home in Dønna, studying the landscape and the locality and interviewing relatives and acquaintances who knew Rølvaag as a boy and as a young fisherman on the Lofoten fishing expeditions.
The biography having been almost completely documented, there could be no purpose in any extensive rehearsal of facts already given there. Nor does it seem advisable to give a detailed account of sources by periods, inasmuch as that would involve a good deal of repetitiousness and because
in certain instances sufficient evidence for exact dating is lacking. Of greater worth and interest would be some conception of the general nature and extent of the entire body of documents out of which Rølvaag's life and thinking were reconstructed. Practically all the material is in the family archives. Exceptions would be such items as information drawn from college catalogues, from the columns of the Manitou Messenger (the St. Olaf student newspaper), and interviews.
Certainly of great value are the most personal parts of the record; namely, the diary and the correspondence. Begun on the day of Rølvaag's departure from Dønna in the summer of 1896 and kept intermittently for about three years, the diary preserves the picture of the young immigrant. It is our first original, contemporary source. Less a day-to-day register of events than an extremely personal record of thoughts and feelings, mental and emotional struggles, moods, anxieties and hopes, it is more important for its internal than for its external facts. Its value as a source of insight into the temperament and soul of the young man can hardly be overestimated. Moreover, being beautifully written, it gives early proof of literary gifts. Without it there would be a great gap in the evidence to support what many who knew him well must have suspected the depths in him to be like. The volume, a small brown book in boards and well preserved, has in all likelihood survived only by chance.
Dangerous as an uncritical reading and use of letters are, they can nonetheless be indispensable sources of information and understanding. Rølvaag's own nature, together with circumstance and chance, contrived to leave after him a substantial record in this form. Had more of the letters exchanged with the family in Norway, particularly those written during his newcomer days in South Dakota, been preserved, a much clearer light might have been shed upon that period, as well as upon his Nordland background. One
wonders just how he himself reconstructed the pictures of his newcomer experiences in the thinly disguised autobiographical Letters from America. Did he do it from memory supported by the diary? The destruction of the letters is greatly to be regretted. In the case of Rølvaag it was his fear of the family taint of consumption which prevented him from keeping more of the letters he received from home.
Elsewhere, however, at least in places, fortune has been more than kind. Rølvaag was a great letter writer. Fate ordained that his interest in the young woman whom he was to marry should develop while she lived in South Dakota' and he was a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. The exchange of letters began in 1903. Their marriage did not occur until 1908; meanwhile, he spent a year in study at the University of Christiania. The circumstance of their separation made for a continuous correspondence. Moreover, after their marriage either Rølvaag's many interests frequently took him away from home, or Mrs. Rølvaag would visit in South Dakota, thereby continuing the occasions for letters. In 1916, 1924, and 1928 he made trips to Norway. Rølvaag's share in this correspondence, the bulk of which has apparently been preserved, provides an excellent running account of his life. Letters to his children are regarded as a part of this material.
Rølvaag's professional and cultural interests not only took him away from home on many occasions, but also involved him in an extensive correspondence in their behalf. Whether any considerable portion of these letters, particularly those written prior to 1920, may be extant it would be impossible to say. Some of them undoubtedly are. Those written before 1915 would, if found, throw added light upon his part in the work of such organizations, for example, as the Nordland Society (founded in 1909) and the Society for Norwegian Language and Culture (founded in 1910), as well as upon his speaking engagements in behalf of the racial heritage, his
relationships with persons of similar or dissimilar viewpoints, his relations with the church body he served and his many activities in its behalf, and his business dealings. No letters which Rølvaag may have received relative to these matters are to be found in the family archives. Our most important supplementary material of this sort for this period consists of the letters written by Rølvaag to the Reverend O. C. Farseth between 1907 and 1913, copies of which are now in the family archives. For the years 1915 to 1920, the 129 letters received from 83 correspondents make a somewhat more impressive showing, but adequacy can hardly be claimed for the collection. One of its values lies in the fact that it furnishes a list of names of correspondents, which would provide clues as to possible places where Rølvaag letters might be sought.
From 1921 to 1931, however, the body of letter material is voluminous. The files contain letters and other communications from approximately 1,260 individuals, exclusive of fan letters received during the years following the publication of Giants in the Earth, as well as of the correspondence of Harper and Brothers, of the Augsburg Publishing House, of Mr. Lincoln Colcord, and Dr. L. W. Boe. By count there are well over four thousand letters in the files. The excluded correspondence would augment the figure considerably. The number of persons represented by two to four letters is 570; by five or more, 190. One correspondence runs to 155 letters. The number of letters from any one person can in no way, however, be regarded as a criterion of their importance. The two letters from Professor Henry Commager, for instance, or those of Professor A. C. McLaughlin would be eases in proof.
Rølvaag's own part in this correspondence is much better represented than in that for the period up to 1920. Many holders of Rølvaag letters have generously turned over the originals to the archives or have allowed certified transcripts of them to be made. Acknowledgment of the letters having
already been made in the biography, information concerning them will not be repeated here. Used critically, the entire body of letter material not only furnishes data of many degrees of importance, but gives an insight into the breadth and richness of Rølvaag's interests and contacts and makes for a more complete knowledge of the world in which he lived. Its discussion at greater length can, I think, be justified on the basis of a hope that individuals having or knowing about the uncollected letters may interest themselves in their preservation.
Registrar's records would be one logical source of information about the subjects Rølvaag studied in college and about his academic achievements. Here, however, one is not dependent upon that single source. Material of the sort which in many households would have been destroyed because it seemed to have no value has somehow been preserved and provides a vivid record of his struggles, activities, and progress as a student. Notebooks from the Augustana Academy period and on through St. Olaf College and the University of Christiania days in 1905-06, school exercises, early compositions in Norwegian and much blue-penciled or red-inked ones in English, and book reports, essays, orations, and debates have been preserved. Among this material is an essay later reworked and expanded into the Fourth of July address which he delivered at Lime Grove, Nebraska, in 1903.
It is not, on the other hand, startling to find material he used as a teacher. College catalogues are not always reliable sources of information about the courses taught, and hence they must be checked against class books, letters, and other supplementary sources. How much of the material that he actually prepared for classroom use has been preserved cannot be estimated, but gathered together from scattered places there is a goodly quantity of lecture notes in outline and in full. Of special value is the material indicating the subject matter of his literature courses, how he interpreted literature,
and its growth in his mind. By length and content it is possible to some extent to tell how early or how late in his career he taught the particular material. Especially significant are his Vinje, Lie, Bjørnson, and Ibsen lectures, and his lectures in Norse immigration.
Somewhere too must be mentioned a type of source which for want of a better name one must call miscellany. It consists of scattered notations on persons, places, and incidents, of philosophic reflections, of bits of poetry (sometimes verse), of suggestions for stories and anecdotes, and of a general assortment of memoranda concerning speaking engagements, meetings, and other matters. These are to be found here and there in notebooks, in class books, on letters from his correspondents, on scraps of paper, and in a complete file of Augsburg Publishing House calendars from 1908 to 1931. One or two glimpses into it will prove suggestive. In an Augsburg calendar for 1916 is a memorandum to make an effort to find Iver Olsen in Minneapolis. He had sailed to America in a little boat. Notations on actual episodes which he probably thought he could use in one way or another are illustrated in "Da manden var i livsfare. Spring Grove";
"Da Preus fik de hundrede dollars";
"Pontoppidan som ikke var ind-blæst."
As already stated Rølvaag began making public speeches as early as 1903. From then on until the end of his life, talks, sermons, and addresses are numerous. Outlined or written out in full, they show the careful workman. The sermons, preserved in these manuscripts and providing evidence for his early religious views, constitute an important part of the record, along with the manuscripts preserving his views on purely cultural and secular subjects. If translated, such early pieces as the New Year's sermon delivered at Garret-son, South Dakota, in 1908, and the address to the Young
People's Society of Dønna, "Storheten av at være menneske,"
probably delivered in the summer of 1906, would be interesting to many. The first exists in two handwritten manuscripts, one of seven pages and the other of twelve; the Dønna address consists of twenty handwritten pages. A large portion of the secular material deals with the various aspects of the cause to which he devoted his life, namely, the preservation of the racial heritage; much, though not all of it, is in Norwegian. The remainder deals with such subjects as idealism, literature, and the art of writing. Much of it is in English.
Not having been intended for print, and except in the instances where portions of it have now been reproduced in the biography, the bulk of the foregoing exists only in manuscript. Rølvaag did, however, write a great deal for publication. This material is of two general kinds: noncreative; and creative, including poems, short stories, descriptive sketches, and full-length novels. Being a man inspired by a cause and therefore identifying himself with many agencies in the interest of that cause, Rølvaag wrote numerous articles over a period of years for Norwegian newspapers and periodicals, and for a short time edited a page for the society called For Fedrearven (For Our Racial Heritage). Many articles are controversial. An examination of the sources would show the variety of ways in which this interest was capable of manifesting itself, as well as the extent and intensity of his preoccupation with the subject. An examination of "Dette og hint"
in "For Fedrearven," published in the columns of Visergutten beginning February 3, 1921, would be illuminating. The controversy over the location of archives seen in "Skal bygdelagene bygge ved Universitet i Minnesota?" in Skandinaven for January 21, 1914, would undoubtedly provide an interesting background for studies in the history of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. To this body
of material belong single articles and articles in series in such publications as Lutheraneren, Skandinaven, Decorah-posten, Duluth skandinav, Reform, Nord Norge, Samband, Norden, Tidens tegn, and others. "De der vest og vi her øst" appeared in Tidens tegn in the issue of March 22, 1924. In addition there are articles in English in St. Olaf student publications (the Viking and the Manitou Messenger in the St. Olaf Library) and for recent years in such scattered sources as high school papers, the Twin City newspapers, the Chicago Daily News, the American Magazine, the Scholastic, the Editor, Scandinavian Studies and Notes, Norwegian-American Studies and Records, and others. To both Norwegian and English material would have to be added a long list of book reviews. A detailed enumeration of articles and sources would no doubt have bibliographical value but could not be undertaken here. Whether the material of this sort in the family archives is complete is again questionable; nonetheless the quantity is large, and gathered together, as it has been, into scrapbooks it makes an impressive bulk. The original manuscripts of this material, as is natural, are not in the archives. They probably were never returned. To the foregoing noncreative material must be added the textbooks which he edited or which he helped to edit and to which he himself was a considerable contributor.
The creative record takes us back to stories and poems written during the Augustana and St. Olaf College periods. More was written than was published, though the amount of material actually rejected is not large. His first novel "Nils and Astri," not published, was begun when he was a junior at St. Olaf. The manuscript consists of three cloth-bound notebooks. Its content and the circumstances of its writing have been quite fully discussed in the biography. Though his efforts in poetry are much less impressive than those in prose, he nonetheless wrote many more poems than ever saw publication. The same is true of his short stories. Of great
interest and help to the biographers are the many outlines of stories planned but never executed, and the experiments with ways of handling material. These are to be found in notebooks, on loose sheets, and on scraps of paper. With the exception of Giants in the Earth, all the manuscripts of published creative material are in the Rølvaag library. The whereabouts of the manuscript of Giants, if it is extant, is not known to the biographers.
Loosely designated, the material in the family archives comprises one hundred and ten volumes. When it is explained that volume denotes anything from a composition notebook to scrapbooks of substantial size, and that the series includes all the manuscripts of published books, but that it does not include the letter files, this figure is at least slightly useful as indicating the bulk of the material. And from this body of documents it is possible to follow Rølvaag's development practically from the time he came to America until his death.
<1> The time the man was in danger of his life. Spring Grove.
<2> The time Preus got the one hundred dollars.
<3> Pontoppidan which was uninspired.
<4> The greatness of being a human being.
<5> This and that.