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Buslett's Editorship of Normannen from 1894 to 1896
By Evelyn Nilsen  (Volume XII: Page 128)

Ole Amundsen Buslett, who was born in Gausdal, Norway, in 1855 and died in Northland, Wisconsin, in 1924, has often been called the father of Norwegian-American literature. Certainly he was one of the first writers who, as Simon Johnson has said, "felt intensely that he belonged to the Norwegian-American folk group in contrast to other groups, that this group had something to do besides merely earning money, organizing congregations, and playing politics, and that this Norwegian-American group should be enticed and disciplined to raise itself as a cultural group." {1}

For over forty-five years Buslett interpreted and criticized the Norwegian Americans, in lyrics, "heaven-storming poetic dramas," and Bjørnsonian tales, appealing to and expressing the Norwegian-American immigrant's longing for his homeland and his attempts to build a bridge of understanding between the Old and the New World. Buslett's later allegorical tales, like Glans-om-sol og hans folks historie (Splendor-about-the-Sun and His People's Story) and Veien til Golden Gate (The Way to the Golden Gate), are penetrating criticisms of the social order and of the immigrant mind. His later realistic novels, like Fra min ungdoms nabolag (From My Boyhood Home), are attempts to portray the lives of the immigrants, especially of those in the fields and the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin, where he was on most familiar ground. Buslett was also interested in the preservation of historical records of the Norwegian Americans and has written a history of the Fifteenth Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, based on interviews with members of the regiment and other first-hand material. For over thirty years, too, poems and newspaper articles appeared from his prolific pen in most of the Norwegian-American newspapers.

Buslett was versatile not only in his literary production but also in his practical career, by which he earned his daily bread. For, as he said, "It never entered my mind that anyone in our Norwegian America could earn food and clothes with the pen. There were only two ways open to a writer of earning a living, pietistic writing or sensational journalism, but neither of these appealed to me. {2} He was at various times farmer, merchant, postmaster, justice of the peace, member of the Wisconsin state legislature, and editor of three Norwegian-American newspapers.

Although Buslett did not become editor of Normannen, a Norwegian-American newspaper published at Stoughton, Wisconsin, until August 15, 1894, he had had earlier connections with the paper. Eight of his poems appeared in the paper in 1892, as well as the first part of the novel Roll Hagen. From March 16 until May 4, 1892, a notice appeared, usually on the front page, that O. A. Buslett was agent for Normannen and hence qualified to receive subscriptions. With this notice went another one, that "as long as the issues last, new subscribers will receive one of Buslett's well-known original works, either De to veivisere (The Two Guides) or Øistein og Nora." Two of his poems appeared in the paper in 1893, as well as the continuation of the first part of Rolf Hagen. Buslett was known to the readers of Normannen, then, as a Norwegian-American poet, novelist, and playwright, and had had practical experience in selling the paper before he took over its editorship. He had had experience as a newspaper editor, as well, for during the previous year he had edited two Norwegian-American newspapers, Varden and Folkevennen, published at La Crosse, Wisconsin.

On August 3, 1894, there was a statement in Normannen, which was signed by Buslett, that he was taking over the editorship of the paper. His greeting was brief, but it inspired confidence:

Any long epistle on this occasion is not to my taste; if I win friends, I shall have written one by the time I give up the editorship.

Everything depends upon what happens in the interim. Meanwhile, the pen will leave its record; there is little value, therefore, in recounting all that one "wishes," "hopes," and "plans" to do; to do it is what counts.

But, although wishing and hoping are of so little practical value, these two words express the desire of the heart, and I wish for you a successful year and hope for good political candidates --the kind that have a feeling of justice, a heart as well as a sound soul, and a clear view of the needs of the time.

On October 1, 1894, there appeared on the front page of Normannen a signed statement by O. O. Melaas, the former editor, that he had sold the paper, together with its good will and reputation, to O. A. Buslett, the new editor, and H. J. Allberg, the foreman. Below this was a statement by the new publishers, Buslett and Allberg, announcing the purchase of the newspaper, the presses, type, and other equipment, and listing the subscribers and claims against advertisers. The new publishers said that since Melaas had paid his bills promptly, they were told that they had no liabilities to meet; and so they considered themselves responsible only for those they might thereafter contract.

On October 19, 1894, the name of the paper was changed from Normannen to Wisconsin normannen. The paper advertised itself as "a political, social, and literary weekly newspaper in the Norwegian language, published by Buslett and Allberg." The title was changed to Wisconsin nordmanden on October 25, 1895, when the paper was removed from Stoughton to Madison, and Jon Olafson, the Icelandic poet and editor, became coeditor with Buslett. The advertising caption now read, "a weekly newspaper in the Norwegian language." The paper continued to be published at Madison until March 6, 1896, when it was consolidated with Amerika, a paper which was then removed from Chicago to Madison.

Since this was the period of personal journalism, when a paper reflected the personality of its editor to such an extent that an editor's name became synonymous with the paper he edited, it might be well to see with what problems Buslett as editor was primarily concerned. First of all, his political views should be considered. Under Buslett's editorship Normannen became Republican instead of Democratic, as it previously had been. When the paper removed to Madison and acquired a coeditor, an editorial in the first issue published at the new location reaffirmed the paper's Republican stand. Yet being Republican "to the finger tips" did not prevent Buslett from criticizing the party, for he considered criticism in politics as well as in other fields part of an editor's duty. In fact, the editorials seem to reflect Buslett's own political opinions rather than the views of an orthodox party member.

That this is true can be seen by noting his stand on silver and even more clearly, his opinion of corporations. The editorials consistently reflect his interest in silver, and Coins Financial School, a book by William H. Harvey which "sold in thousands and tens of thousands on railroads and elsewhere for 25˘," was reviewed in Wisconsin normannen and praised for its stand on the silver question. Skandinaven, published at Chicago, was attacked for saying that the facts in the book were incorrect. Buslett quoted from the book, and then gave his own view: "Let silver have equal rights with gold." A later editorial announced that Coins Financial School would be published in Wisconsin normannen. {3} Buslett slyly poked fun at his own preoccupation with silver. On one occasion he apologized for devoting a whole editorial page to another subject, in which he was much interested, and promised that in the next issue he would write about silver again "so that it glittered." {4} In an editorial for April 26, 1895, he said: "It is not possible always and forever to write about silver and gold; a newspaperman does not often succeed in juggling them so that they disappear into his pockets, even if he writes column after column in their praise."

Many editorials reflected Buslett's views that the large corporations were "the country's greatest danger." An editorial in the issue for August 23, 1895, demonstrates his opinions on the subject particularly well. The subject under consideration was the contemplated merger of all railroads between New York and the West as well as the Grand Trunk Railroad of Canada, so that together they would have an organized capital of over three billion dollars. The opinions that Buslett expressed on the question are significant for an understanding not only of his editorial policy, but also of his literary works.

Fellow citizens! YOU who are to be drained by this huge machine which is ready to put all America into the hands of a few individuals, who possess insatiable egoism and boundless political ambition, what do you think of this?

Should it not open your eyes a little?

Should you not scratch your heads and begin to wonder whether everything is running so smoothly in this country?

We have said so often, and shall continue to say, that the capitalists who combine to form large companies and corporations will destroy this country and its institutions by grabbing everything that the people produce beyond their paltry daily bread and simple clothes.

Now the railroads have created a machine -- a locomotive -- which, in spite of all laws and government, will pull our whole society, as if it were a train, over a dangerous and unknown course.

And do you want to know when the train will stop?

Yes, when the greatest Gold King ascends to the country's throne, it will make a flag stop.

In this editorial is to be found the symbolic use of the locomotive, which Buslett later developed in the story Veien til Golden Gate. Here, too, he refers to the "Gold King" on the country's throne, a theme which recurs in Glans-om-sol og hans folks historie, in which the golden calf was worshiped by the people.

Buslett concerned himself with newspaper policies, too. His interest in the Norwegian-Danish Press Association of the United States, which would give members an opportunity to discuss common problems of newspaper policy, was shown by his charter membership in the organization and by a full-page editorial on the association, which he published on July 26, 1895. A number of editorials dealt with the formulation of his own newspaper policy. Most comprehensive of these was the one which appeared on October 25, 1895, in which the journalistic policies of the two editors, Buslett and Olafson, were stated. Their aim, they said, was to make Wisconsin nordmanden a first-rate weekly among Dano-Norwegian newspapers. To accomplish this aim they hoped to publish more news items which would elevate the tastes of the readers and to exclude sensational scandals and stories of crimes, "which could only be of interest to morally sick people." They promised to try to give the latest European news as quickly as possible, and, to facilitate this, Norwegian papers would be received at the editorial office several times a week. New columns bearing such headings as "Church News" and "From Stoughton and Surrounding Territory" (an appeasement for the change of location) were to be included. Colleagues and other readers were encouraged to contribute pertinent discussions of timely topics, but were urged to keep to the issues at hand, and not to indulge in personalities.

A later editorial called attention to the fact that Wisconsin nordmanden carried news which no other Scandinavian newspaper in America brought, unless copied from Nordmanden itself, since its news was gathered from English and German, as well as from Scandinavian, sources. The Minneapolis tidende called this claim a humbug, for, according to the Tidende, Nordmanden itself copied from other papers. {5} In an editorial for December 20, 1895, Nordmanden admitted that, of course, the editors copied articles appearing in the other Scandinavian papers, since that was a general practice among Norwegian-American editors in order to save the time involved in paraphrasing, and was legitimate borrowing. Even the Minneapolis tidende, the editorial said, got most of its news from English papers. And it might be well for the Tidende to copy from Nordmanden, too, the article continued, for then certain news items, which the editorial enumerated, would have been reported earlier, or would not have been omitted. Two other editorials in this issue attacked the Tidende, one for failure to report a fire in St. Paul,

and one for a willful misunderstanding of material found in Nordmanden.

The La Crosse tidende also had a bone to pick with Nordmanden, because the latter had challenged it to give the exact reference for a letter from Julius Goldschmidt which was said to have appeared in the New York Evening Post. The La Crosse paper upheld the Minneapolis tidende for "plucking that proud bird, Wisconsin nordmanden, of its borrowed feathers." {6}

Questions of newspaper policy, as illustrated above, could easily lead to newspaper feuds, but feuds could also be provoked by disagreements on methods of getting subscribers. Buslett accused Peer Strømme, the editor of Amerika, of using unfair tactics to persuade subscribers to Normannen to switch to another Norwegian-American newspaper. Strømme, according to Buslett, criticized the use of patent medicine advertising by Normannen, a practice which, Buslett claimed, was used by all Norwegian-American newspapers. {7} In the course of the argument, Buslett referred to Peer Strømme as "Peer Gynt Strømme," a "man of impudence and flattery and irresponsibility, {8} and on August 9, 1895, this poem appeared in Normannen:

Strømme, with the pen for a weapon!
Great, big, strong man!
The man who carries a raincoat
On a clear, sunshiny day, yes, sir!

Not only in epithets, though, did Buslett attack Strøtmme. {9} Buslett was, in this case, certainly guilty of dealing in personalities, a fault of the Norwegian-American press that he criticized repeatedly.

With Strømme and others Buslett engaged, too, in a duel on newspaper style, a duel provoked by Strømme. Buslett's views on his own style are worth quoting:

I have never praised myself for my ability as a stylist, but if there is to be a contest between Mr. Strømme and me on Norwegian style, in really genuine Norwegian, then I shall not be the last one to throw down the gauntlet.

Such promiscuous hurling of taunts about grammatical usage, I think, looks too much like wanting to appear "learned."

Pedantry I have no use for either in writing, in speech, or in living. {10}

In a later editorial he wrote more fully:

Wisconsin Normannen and Buslett use a language which people read and understand and which is just as consistent as that of those gentlemen, Lange and Strømme.

Must one absolutely have learned one's Norwegian by failing to pass an examination in Norway, or by "studying" it at Luther College in Decorah before it can be said to be Norwegian?

Even if Buslett's language does not conform to those gentlemen's rules, it is still just as correct, just as Norwegian, and just as original.

Buslett knows what he is doing when he writes. And, when his language is not identical with that of his attackers, it is not because he cannot write as they write, but because he does not wish to. He long ago tired of the Norwegian-American habit of harping on the distinguished Norwegian that some semieducated people from Norway and some schoolboys here in this country have had pounded into them.

But it appears that those who do not have any higher goal than an old-fashioned method of writing Norwegian think that they are regular fellows when by the help of this method of writing they are able to besmirch some person who has a different opinion about what is correct from what they themselves have.

It frequently happens that those who bungle the Norwegian-American language criticize the language of the great Norwegian authors.

What right has a Norwegian-American newspaperman to criticize the language of Norwegian writers and newspapers? It is obvious enough that people have better opportunity to keep in touch with trends in the Norwegian language at home in Norway than here. And it must be assumed that those men and women who carry on in their own country have better knowledge of what the language of the homeland is, than these self-important heroes of the pen over here.

Well, it is from the Norwegian writers and newspapers that the editor of Normannen has learned.

But it is supposed to be poor Norwegian.

Let that pass! It is at any rate read with fairly great attention. {11}

The question of style leads naturally to a consideration of Buslett as a critic, not of his own style, but of others. The literary reviews are on the whole disappointing, for many of them seem like advertisements, so uniformly eager was the reviewer to help the sale of the books. The notices of Norwegian books were for the most part quotations from the books themselves or reviews copied from Norwegian and Danish papers. For example, the first song of Arne Garborg's Haugtussa appeared in Nordmanden, and the notices of Bjørnson's Over ævne, andet stykke, and Ibsen's Bygmester Solness and Lille Eyolf were copied from foreign papers. {12}

The only Norwegian book carefully reviewed by Buslett himself was Ole Bang's novel, Indfald. He criticized the book first for its social and moral implications, since it encouraged free love; and then for its "reactionary" diction, since skor was preferred to skog. This "decadent" and "literary" language so annoyed Buslett, who liked strong Norwegian words like bjørk, brisk, and stein, instead of birk, ener, and sten, that he found it hard to review the book impersonally. {13}

As could perhaps be expected, many more notices of Norwegian-American books than of Norwegian ones appeared in the newspaper. Especially significant were Buslett's reviews of the books of his fellow writers, Waldemar Ager and Wilhelm Pettersen. Ager's first book, Paa drikkeondets konto (An Account against Drinking), was praised as being one of the best books on temperance. Buslett approved especially of Ager's Norwegian and the poems at the end of the book. Two-thirds of the review, though, comprised a quotation of Ole Broder Olson's preface to the book. {14} A laudatory review by M. Iversen followed on December 7, 1894.

More carefully reviewed was Wilhelm Pettersen's dramatic poem, En ny slægt (A New Race). Buslett admitted that he did not understand this poem, probably, he said, because he was not sufficiently posted on church affairs. He thought the play presented the struggle between the United and the Augsburg synods, or else took issue with them. He criticized adversely faulty rhymes (like een and lutringen, and glemmer der and stemmerne); characters who were mouthpieces of the author instead of living beings; and a lack of action in the play. There was praise, too: "This book is, nevertheless, so good that one cannot turn up one's nose at it or scorn it -- a fate which the works of Norwegian-American writers have so often suffered. The book also bears witness that Pettersen can write." {15} It is curious to notice that Buslett here criticized a fellow poet and dramatist for the very faults critics found in his own De to veivisere. {16}

R. B. Anderson's First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration, Its Causes and Results was warmly praised for preserving Norwegian-American history that otherwise would be forgotten. {17} The book was also favorably reviewed by J. A. Johnson on December 6, 1895, and on December 13, 1895, a review that had previously appeared in Nordlyset was reprinted. The review of Forællinger for ungdommen (Stories for Youth) called forth this terse criticism: "We like a good sermon and likewise a good story -- but preferably each one separately." {18}

Through his newspaper, one can also see Buslett as an author. Since many of his poems and short stories have not been printed elsewhere -- many of them were not even kept by Buslett himself -- the newspaper is an important source for an understanding of Buslett, the writer, during these years. He himself said that many of his poems were "lost" in the Norwegian-American newspapers. Waldemar Ager, his friend and critic, substantiated this when he said that Buslett himself had no knowledge of the extent of his poems. Ager also believed that the poorest of Buslett's works were collected in his books. {19}

"When the editor doesn't have anything else to fill the editorial sheet with, he writes verse," Buslett wrote in an editorial for April 26, 1895. Many of the poems that he wrote were topical, as the Christmas and New Year's poems, one entitled "Duluth," and one written in honor of R. B. Anderson's fiftieth birthday. {20} Particularly significant for an understanding of Buslett's personal development during these years were "Digtcyclus" (Poetic Cycle), "Fremsyns-manden" (The Farsighted Man), and "Tunge tanker" (Heavy Thoughts).

"Digtcyclus," printed in Normannen on April 26, 1895, traces Buslett's poetic history:

When first I met the maid of song,
Then I was young in years.
I swore that I would die for her,
And took -- the heavy cross.
What did I know, what did I know
Of life's thorn-strewn way?

Who could see that she was a coquette?
I saw only sweet smiles---
How the song should echo lightly
From now until the last rest!
What did I know, what did I know
Of song's thorn-strewn way?

"Fremsynsmanden," which appeared in Nordmanden on December 27, 1895, began with Ibsen's quotation that life was a struggle with trolls and that writing was holding Judgment Day over oneself. The poem was Buslett's judgment of himself:

Do you know the farsighted man,
So called because he was "queer?"
Yet he did not lack understanding;
The fault was in his heart. . . .
Then you can follow the thread
Home to his lonely hut,
From which he through tears
Looked toward his shining castle. . . .

Never, though, did he reach beyond
The rainbow bridge and to his goal;
As soon as he ventures the step
Bang, over the edge of the precipice! . . .

The storm trolls of daily life
Rise up everywhere,
Greedy beasts and cold
Grab and snatch in poverty's home. . . .

Pray a prayer for mercy?
Beg and bargain for peace?
Out in the winter-wet
Darkness and hurls himself down?

Or shall he proudly meet
Many in struggle, where he stands?
Be tortured to death with scorn
Under that blood-eagle he gets? . . .

Fog and winter-wetness
Lie so musty and gray
Over that estate
Which was his own true heritage.

Buslett made use of the pseudonym "Olav Busterud" in the poem "Tunge tanker," January 17, 1896, to express himself even more freely:

Here in these labyrinths
Where my soul has lost its way,
There lies an eternal winter;
Yet I belong to summer!

"Olav Busterud" also wrote "Brudte lyd fra farlige egne" (Fragmentary Sounds from Dangerous Regions), an article on credit and the social order. Here Buslett said that "a 'learned' Norwegian newspaper in America" was "a stupidity''; the public was not interested in the discussion of abstract problems. {21}

Buslett's short stories show a variety of interests. "En fortŠlling (fortalt af en Døl)" (A Story told by a Døl), which appeared in Normannen on December 28, 1894, was a Christmas story written in the manner of Bjørnson's "En glad gut." The story relates that Ole, a cotter's son, marries Else, the rich farmer's daughter, in spite of her father's earlier objections. The story was characteristically Norwegian-American in that the hero went to America to gain his fortune and, when the obstacles to Ole's and Else's marriage had been removed, Else, too, came to America to live happily ever after. The story was first printed in Skandinaven on December 19, 1882, and was later reprinted in Buslett's.  {22} The sketch "De gamle" (The Old People), appearing on March 1, 1895, told about a modern King Lear. "E æv'nty aa e digt" (A Folk Tale and a Poem), from the same issue, was as Buslett said, "Some fragments for your newspaper in the dialect of Gausdal." "En feier" (A Chimney Sweep), published on March 22, 1895, belongs to the group of temperance stories. In the story Gustav Nystul, a drunkard, lives long enough to give up drinking and to preach against it.

In an editorial on December 27, 1895, Buslett stated that most of the gathering of news and the editorial work had been done during the winter by Olafson, as Buslett himself had had "too much else to do." An editorial for January 24, 1896, gave further details about this division of work between the joint owners. Olafson tended to the editing of the paper and the routine business affairs at the office; Buslett collected money outstanding on subscriptions and sought new subscribers and advertisers. Buslett was also to write travel accounts of the communities he visited. No such accounts appeared, however.

The last issue of Wisconsin nordmanden appeared on March 6, 1896. Following is Peer Strømme's account of the consolidation of Nordmanden with Amerika:

About that time, the spring of 1896, when we thought of moving to the capital of Wisconsin, the city had a Norwegian newspaper which we had to take into consideration. It called itself Normannen and its owner and editor was the author O. A. Buslett. . . . It was all he could do to keep himself above water, and we got notice that he was willing to sell his paper to us. It was the other owners of Amerika who settled the deal with him; I do not know the particulars. But it happened thus that we left Chicago and let the consolidated newspaper Amerika and Normannen be published at Madison. {23}

That even Buslett's fellow editors looked upon him primarily as an author can be seen not only from the above quotation, but from newspaper accounts as well. At the first banquet of the Norwegian-Danish Press Association at Duluth on June 18, 1895, where the menu was arranged to suggest authors, Buslett's name was included along with Vinje's, Søren Jaabeek's, Daniel Heyre's, and Herman Wang's. {24} On July 19, 1895, the Minneapolis tidende mentioned that it was no doubt because the poet Buslett was prevented from being present at the banquet that General Chr. Brandt found himself called upon to give a talk in verse, one of the evening's outstanding toasts. Later, during the sight-seeing trip of Duluth, the editors called upon Buslett, who was then present, to give them a poem about Duluth on the spur of the moment. Buslett's comment was, "How can one commit poor verse when one is in such good company!" Yet the poem which he promised his fellow editors appeared in Normannen on July 26, 1895, and led to Peer Strømme's attack on Buslett's style.

Not only to Buslett's fellow editors, but to the readers of Normannen, then and now, does Buslett the author and the man appear most prominent. Through the yellowing pages of the paper one can still catch glimpses of Buslett's unflinching personality reacting to the life about him and grappling with the problems of his time as well as with the age-old problems of human destiny.

Buslett caught this spirit well when he wrote of himself, in Buslett's:

The halo of a saint and the splendor of a martyr I do not possess; as a human being I walked, metaphorically speaking, with straight back and stiff neck my own ways -- both before the creator and the creature. My offering -- my writing -- which I have thrown to a materialistic people, was no sacrifice; thus to expend time and life was my desire, my joy, the hobbyhorse which I rode in my childhood's longings, in my youth's dreams, in my manhood's daily struggle for bread, the same which I ride in troll-pared old age and shall ride on, when I follow my corpse to the grave. {25}

Notes

<1> Decorah-posten, March 3, 1939.

<2> Buslett's, 1:3 (January, 1922). This is a periodical which Buslett published privately, wherein he hoped to collect his writings. Only four of the contemplated thirty volumes appeared.

<3> Normannen, April 12, June 7, 1895.

<4> Normannen, July 26, 1895.

<5> Nordmanden, December 13, 1895; Tidende, December 20, 1895.

<6> The article in the La Crosse tidende appeared editorially on December 28, 1895, and was entitled "Pride Goes before a Fall."

<7> Normannen, August 9, 1895.

<8> Normannen, August 23, 1895.

<9> See Normannen for August 23, 1895, for the worst of these attacks. That they did not lead to permanent bitterness can be seen from Strømme's remarks in his Erindringer, 340-342 (Minneapolis, 1923). He mentions Buslett's frequent visits to the Strømme home, while Buslett was a member of the state legislature in 1909, and expresses his admiration for Buslett as a person and, with qualifications, as a writer.

<10> Normannen, August 9, 1895.

<11> Normannen, August 16, 1895.

<12> Normannen, December 7, 1894, January 18, June 14, 1895; Nordmanden, December 20, 1895, January 3, 1896.

<13> Normannen, March 1, 1895.

<14> Normannen, November 30, 1894.

<15> Nordmanden, January 31,1896.

<16> Waldemar Ager, "Ole Amundsen Buslett," in Symra, 8:214-224 (1912).

<17> Nordmanden, October 25, 1895.

<18> Nordmanden, December 20. 1895.

<19> Ager, in Symra, 8: 215.

<20> Normannen, December 21, 28, 1894, July 26, 1895; Nordmanden. January 10, 1896.

<21> Nordmanden, January 10, 1896. See also the editorial entitled "En grusom-hed" (Cruel Treatment) that appeared on January 17.

<22> Buslett's, 1: 23-31.

<23> Strømme, Erindringer, 340.

<24> Normannen, July 26, 1895.

<25> Buslett's, 1: 4.

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