Ole Edvart Rølvaag
By John Heitmann (Volume XII: Page 144)
"Rølvaag is one of our major prophets," asserts Professor Theodore C.
Blegen, "and everything that can be related about him is of historical
interest." With this opinion I fully agree. But when Professor Blegen, as well as
several others, have expressed the thought that, because I had known Ole Rølvaag for a
longer period of time, and probably more intimately, than other persons in the United
States, I ought to write extensively about him, somewhat in the nature of a biography, I
have begged to disagree.
Ole Edvart Rølvaag has, however, reflected a measure of luster on Norway and its
people. For that reason those of us who are of Norse descent, especially in thc United
States, owe him due appreciation. And for the purpose of retaining him and his
accomplishments in grateful remembrance, it might be well to present a few revealing
incidents about his life and his activities, about his family and kinsfolk, and
principally, perhaps, about the surroundings and the conditions in which he was reared and
grew to manhood. In doing so I shall, however, endeavor to restrict myself to matters
hitherto scarcely mentioned in what has been written about him.
Though Ole Rølvaag greatly appreciated America, he entertained at all times a lively
interest in everything pertaining to Norway. The northern part of that country,
colloquially known as Nordland, was particularly close to his heart, especially that part
thereof known as Dønna, an island on the rim of the Arctic Sea, where he was born. In
fact, he remained to the end of his days a spiritual denizen of Nordland. He even retained
in its native purity the local dialect of the island of his birth. Ole Rølvaag and the
Norwegian bishop, Dr. Anton Chr. Bang, are the only sons of that island, whom I have
known, who had maintained that ability after permanently settling elsewhere, in places and
in positions affording no occasion for the use of, and no opportunity to hear, the native
tongue. Both of those men possessed, however, great natural gifts and remarkable
The name Rølvaag was originally the name of a narrow bay or inlet on the northwestern
point of the island. When people, centuries ago, settled on the strip of soil near the
inlet, they adopted its name as the name of the farm. Every farmstead, every little
settlement throughout Norway, has a distinct name. The people occupying these farms are
commonly known by the name of the place. The inhabitants of Rølvaag, consequently, were
known by that name, and they adopted and used it as their own. In that manner it became a
Dønna, one of the largest islands on the northern coast of Norway, is situated within
about five miles of the Polar Circle, and faces the Arctic Ocean. It is crescent-shaped
and indented with numerous fiords, bays, and inlets. Little farmsteads with comfortable
homes are found at every bight and bay, and on every point and headland on the island. The
interior, consisting mainly of ridges, marshes, and mountains, with numerous lakes,
affords splendid grazing land and pasture for the cattle, sheep, and other animals kept by
practically every family.
At one time the northern part of the island was heavily timbered with pine. Trunks of
large, charred pine trees and massive roots are found in every marsh and peat formation,
at depths varying from four to ten feet. The forest was evidently destroyed by fire, but
no one, to my knowledge, has been able to determine the time or the cause of the
conflagration. The southern half of the island is more mountainous than the northern, but
has some rather fine stands of pine, oak, and birch. The crest of its main mountain seen
from a distance, has the appearance of an upturned face. The mountain is therefore known
as the man on Dønna -- the Dønna man.
Owing to the fact that the island is surrounded throughout the year by open water,
tempered by currents from the extended arms of the Gulf Stream, the climate is temperate
and invigorating. Snow seldom falls before Christmas. Practically all common cereals,
including rye and winter wheat, are grown. Even tobacco is known to have matured on the
During most of the three months of May, June, and July, the sun sails on the horizon
night and day without setting. This constant and excessive light, combined with the summer
heat, causes swift and luxurious growth and intensifies the coloring of leaf and grass and
flower. A great variety of wild flowers with rich, vivid coloring grow in abundance,
covering practically every uncultivated spot with a gorgeous blanket. Even the sod roofs,
which cover most of the houses, glow in the flaunting colors of the rainbow.
Though farming and fishing constitute the principal occupations of the people, they
also engage in numerous other activities. There is no isolation from the outside world,
but, to the contrary, a constant meeting and mingling with people from all parts of the
country. Though people use their own vigorous and melodious dialect, they have so many
dealings with people from other parts that they are familiar with, and easily understand,
any other dialect.
A never-ending flow of boats, steamers, and craft of all kinds come and go. People
travel freely from place to place. They come from the south and from the north for fishing
purposes. Herring in great quantities is usually caught in some of the fiords on the
island, and at such times steamers and other vessels come, sometimes by the hundreds, to
purchase the herring and to sort, salt, and prepare it for shipment and export.
Every spring a number of vessels loaded with codfish, bought and salted at the Lofoten
Islands, come to Dønna, and the fish are prepared for export by drying and pressing them
on the many level rock formations on the island. This drying process gives employment to a
number of people for several weeks. During the winter most of the men are away at Lofoten
or other fishing stations, where they mingle with thousands of people from most parts of
the country. When summer comes, a number of men fish for herring along the coast. Every
season has its special activities.
A semipublic women's seminary, with upwards of a hundred students from neighboring
districts, was maintained on the island until it was merged with another school some years
Every summer a marked, in the nature of an extensive fair, is held at Biorn, on
the southern part of the island. There people by the thousands from all parts of the
country gather to exhibit their wares, to buy and sell, and to enjoy all kinds of
amusements. At one of these fairs Ole Rølvaag and I saw creditable performances of Figaro
and Charley's Aunt. These were, by the way, the first theatrical performances
either of us had seen.
As a rule the Lapps seldom come to the coast. But until a few years ago a number of
Lapps came nearly every winter, swimming thousands of reindeer to the island for grazing
purposes. Their picturesque apparel and their peculiar brogue when attempting to speak
Norwegian were of unending interest, especially to the children. Their ability to speak
two languages was a source of wonder and aspiration.
A few miles to the northwest of Dønna lies a cluster of islands by the name of Aasver.
People used to say that there were as many islands as days in a year. An official survey
by the government revealed that there were altogether 998 islets and islands. Between
Dønna and Aasver are several splendid fishing banks. Each and every one is known by a
separate name. Ole Rølvaag mentions some of these banks in The Boat of Longing. There
he was in familiar surroundings. There he had struggled since childhood. He knew not only
the name, but the exact location and the depth of every ridge, and the shape of every
formation at the bottom of the sea. To be a good fisherman it is necessary to know the
places at the bottom where the fish may be found.
Fishing along the coast is not a sport, but a vocation for earning a living. Whenever
fishing is reasonably good, it is necessary to keep at it day and night, at all seasons of
the year. The nets, setlines, or other fishing rigs must be attended, irrespective of
weather. The life of fishermen there and elsewhere along the coast is a constant struggle
with the sea and the elements. The stress of existence is at all times apparent, whether
they struggle in storms and darkness, or are gently rocked on a shining sea in the
splendor of the midnight sun.
As an organization within the state church of Norway, the northern half of the island
forms a separate parish by the name of Dønnes, constituting a part of the parson's
district of Nesna, at which place the clergyman resides. Prior to the era of steamships,
the parson had to make semimonthly trips between Nesna and Dønna, a distance of about
twenty miles of open, storm-swept sea, in an open boat. Petter Dass -- the brilliant
preacher, poet, and business organizer, who is known as the father of Norwegian poetry,
whose secular songs have been sung by the people of Norway up to the present time, and
whose magnificent hymns grace the hymnals of the Church of Norway -- was the parson of the
Nesna district for several years prior to 1672. In one of his descriptive poems he makes a
humorous reference to these stormy trips, a rough translation of which follows:
The Dønnes tour did never fail
When Sjona-fiord took to blowing,
The outward way gave storm-filled sail,
But homeward heavy rowing.
The mention of Petter Dass brings to mind the fact that Ole Rølvaag was a great
admirer of that remarkable man, whose memory is not only greatly beloved, but who has
become almost a legendary figure, especially among people along the coast of northern
Norway. Whenever I heard Ole Rølvaag recite poetry, it was either that of Petter Dass or
of Henrik Ibsen.
The church at Dønnes was built in the twelfth century and, consequently, is one of the
oldest churches in the country. It is also one of the largest churches of that period.
Being built of soapstone, with walls at least three feet thick, it stood practically
unchanged until the year 1868, when some repairs and changes were made, including an
addition, surmounted by a tall tower, at the front of the church. The church is situated
on top of a large, rounded hill, located a short distance from the once spacious
residential buildings on the large farm bearing the name of Dønnes. Surrounding the
church, on the broad and leveled top of the hill, is the old cemetery. About sixty years
ago it became necessary to dedicate a new burying ground. In this new cemetery Ole
Rølvaag's parents, as well as mine, have found their final resting place.
Dønnes, which in Rølvaag's book The Boat of Longing is called
"Dunjarness," was in fact the central point or heart of the community. All
official meetings of the various managing boards of the community were held there in
splendidly appointed offices in one of the main buildings on the farm, maintained free of
charge by the owners, the Coldevin family. Here, at the church, the children were
baptized; here each and every marriage was performed; and at that place the people of the
island found their final resting place.
Services were, as a rule, conducted at the church every other Sunday, and then the
people gathered from far and near. They came in horse-drawn carriages, they came on foot,
and they came in boats from the several islands. They came not solely for the religious
services, but also to transact business, to discuss work to be done, to plan and arrange
fishing expeditions, and to settle numerous other problems of common interest, while the
young people came with hopes and plans for the future and with dreams of love.
The Dønnes farm has a fine setting with a mountain in the background, wooded knolls
and hills on each side, and in front a wide vista of broad acres and distant mountains.
The sea cannot be seen. The old residential complex consisted of three main buildings,
approximately of the same size, alike in appearance, and all having two stories. They
formed three sides of the large square court or farmyard. The fourth side opened into an
avenue of large trees. The center building was occupied by the owner of the farm and the
young people of the family. The building to the left was principally for the use of the
servants and thc hired help, but one large room on the main floor was, on Sundays, set
aside for the use of the congregation prior to and after the close of the church services.
The building to the right was occupied by the old folks, who had surrendered the farm and
retired from active work. This structure also contained offices and reception rooms for
the clergyman, and offices for the various official meetings of the community boards. All
these buildings, which were erected nearly five hundred years ago, burned to the ground
one dark autumn night a few years before Ole Rølvaag left his native island and emigrated
to the United States.
On the main farm at Dønnes more than three hundred acres were actually under
cultivation. Its grazing and pasture land, including the several parcels occupied by
renters, amounted to several thousand acres, how many I do not know. The extensive estate
was owned by the large and wealthy Coldevin family, which had occupied the place for
hundreds of years. By the rule of primogeniture, this farm, and a vast amount of landed
property in other districts, was inherited by the eldest son of each generation.
It is reliably reported that, when one of the old wealthy landowners passed away and
was to be buried, a witty and disaffected compatriot wrote his appraisal of the deceased,
with white chalk on the black coffin, in a stanza that may be roughly translated as
The Dønnes daddy at last is dead
And placed in this coffin for resting.
The greatest skinflint the earth has had,
All men, and e'en God, are attesting.
Bad, like a Jew that is uncircumcised,
Evil he did, and never at good got started.
And people of Dønna with joy are advised
That now he in fact has departed.
Ole Rølvaag has several references to the Coldevin family in The Boat of Longing. At
the time the book was written the enterprising Isak Coldevin was running the farm. He and
Ole were about the same age, and they were well acquainted. Isak had traveled widely and
studied agriculture and related sciences in foreign countries. Being very democratic and
forward-looking, he encouraged the building of roads on the island, the planting of a
variety of trees, the raising of new crops, and improving the strain of cattle.
Furthermore, he set aside large tracts for experimental purposes; established a large
modern creamery and cheese factory; and operated motorboats with refrigerated compartments
that made daily trips to the outlying farms and the numerous islands to gather the milk
and bring it to the creamery. His subsequent bankruptcy and the attendant division of the
large farm was, in a measure, a calamity. On the other hand, it enabled the many renters
of parcels of land to buy and become owners of the tracts they occupied.
At the time of Ole Rølvaag's youth there were only two school buildings on the
northern part of the island: one at Glein, and one at Snekkevik. The Rølvaag children, as
well as those from our home, attended the school at Snekkevik. The distance between
Rølvaag and Snekkevik is about seven miles, and the children traveled on foot, back and
forth, morning and night, every day during the terms of school. Their route passed
directly between the church and the Dønnes farm buildings.
In secular affairs the northern part of Dønna island, together with smaller adjacent
islands, had its own community organization, corresponding closely to our county
organization. Somewhat more than a hundred years ago, the wise, forward-looking fathers
decided to establish a community library for free use by all the inhabitants. For some
years thereafter one of the Coldevins was appointed librarian, and the library was kept at
his home at Dønnes. Not many books were circulated. People probably felt reluctant about
asking the Dønnes people for anything, even though the books were, in a sense, their own.
After some years my father was appointed librarian, and the library was moved to our home.
The choice of our house was probably made because it was quite centrally located, and
possibly also because not many men were willing to assume the responsibility and the
trouble of having charge of a public library. At that time no one received compensation
for performing public duties in the community. After the library was moved, the
circulation was greatly increased. As far back as I can remember, it was principally my
brother, Hans, three years older than I, and myself who had charge of the books.
Though the library was small, it contained an excellent collection of books. Not only
were the books of the authors of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark to be found, but a majority
of the well-known names of world literature were represented, not only in fiction and
poetry, but also in history, biography, art, travel, philosophy, and the sciences. There
were also a number of religious books. All the books were read -- and studied. The demand
of the borrowers far exceeded the capacity of the collection.
The last time I saw the old circulation records was in the summer of 1925. It was like
being projected back into the days of my youth. Forgotten names and forgotten incidents
suddenly leaped into mind. And it was somewhat of a revelation to be reminded of the fact
that some of the old-timers, hardheaded fishermen, read every book of geology and history,
while others were principally interested in fiction and philosophy. One name that appeared
frequently was that of Ole Rølvaag.
Per Rølvaag, Ole's father, had a small face with finely chiseled features, a high
forehead, and large, penetrating eyes. Being slender of build, he appeared to be slightly
below medium height. He was sparing of words, usually keeping his own counsel, though he
could, on occasion, express himself clearly and fluently. Being inquisitive, he was
usually well informed, and possessed a great fund of knowledge. Though always asking
questions, he volunteered few answers. He had a keen, analytical mind, and always abided
by his own judgment. He read much, but was independent in his thinking. In the community
he was regarded by everybody as a highly intelligent and honorable man, and was greatly
respected by all. But he refrained from taking any interest in, or assuming the burdens
and responsibility of, public affairs. Perhaps he was not urged to do so, because people
knew that, if Per had formed an opinion on any subject, it was useless to argue with him.
He was a driving, industrious personality, fearless and persevering. Moreover, he was
proficient and dexterous with his hands, an excellent carpenter, and expert in making
various kinds of tools.
Ole's mother, Ellerine, was tall, slender, and graceful. In her youth, she was reputed
to have been one of the brightest and most beautiful girls of the community. She had a
strong, well-formed face, with deep blue, wide-open eyes. Her winning ways, her friendly
attitude, her gracious willingness to be helpful and accommodating, and the sweet smile
that usually graced her countenance won the friendship and silent admiration of all who
knew her. She was genial, quiet, and unassuming. She laughed easily, but seldom had much
to say. Few women of the community were held in higher favor. Her husband respected her
opinions, and he usually sought and, as a rule, followed her advice. Ole, as well as all
her children, had a fondness bordering on adoration for their mother.
Ellerine Rølvaag came of a talented, powerful, and stalwart family. All the male
members of the family were very tall, bulky men, with extraordinary physical strength.
They were, however, good-natured and accommodating. Not until they, for one reason or
other, became irritated or angry, did they display their exceptional power. My father
related that once, when he and others, including one of the men of that family, sailed to
Bergen with a shipload of cod-liver oil, the large oil barrels became so jammed in the
hold that the men were unable to get the hoisting hooks fastened. Bernard, a cousin of
Ellerine Rølvaag, who was a mate, stood looking at the bootless efforts until he became
irritated. He lowered himself into the hold, knocked out a bung from one of the barrels,
put two fingers in the bunghole, and pulled the barrel up from the wedged cargo.
Another story relating to the physical prowess of the family is told about Ellerine
Rølvaag's uncle, Andreas. He had rented his warehouse for the storing of some hundreds of
barrels of salted herring. When the owner came, aboard a steamer, to remove the herring,
he refused to pay more than about one-half of the agreed rental. Andreas evidently became
angry, but he did not argue. He merely opened the seaward door of the warehouse, took a
barrel of herring from the pile and heaved it into the sea. The owner stood speechless,
looking at the performance, but, when Andreas had pitched three barrels through the door,
he had a change of heart and humbly agreed to pay. All the members of the family were
highly regarded, not on account of their size and physical power, but because they were
gifted, efficient, and reliable.
Ole Rølvaag maintained that his first-born son had the build and physical
characteristics of the grandmother's kinsfolk. Ole was, therefore, of the decided opinion
that, had the boy been allowed to grow to manhood, he would have inherited some of the
brawn and ability of that powerful family.
The name of Ole Rølvaag's eldest brother was Johan. He and I were of exactly the same
age. We started to school on the same day, sat side by side, were promoted from one class
to another at the same time, and we stood near each other when we were confirmed. Ole,
being a little younger, was at no time in the same class. But he attended the same school
and had the same teacher, a man by the name of Beiermann, who had a great gift of oratory
and possessed a considerable fund of knowledge.
Johan Rølvaag was endowed with exceptional intellectual ability. He was a splendid
companion. Much as he and I were together, much as we discussed and debated, there never
was a single rift in our friendship. Though he was generally cheerful, he had an
occasional tendency to become depressed. At times he would fall into deep dejection,
especially in raw and rainy weather, and at such times he was as silent as a sphinx. As
soon as the sun shone again, his dismal mood vanished, to be succeeded by a feeling of
deep joy. In other respects he had a proclivity to shifting moods. Any form of adversity,
any temporary disappointment, had a tendency to dash his hopes. Physical activity did not
appeal to him. He lived in thoughts. His mental faculties were always active. He was not
adapted to a fisherman's life of struggle with storm and hardship. But despite longing and
aspiration, he was not able to get away and "over the high and barricading
His father was greatly surprised when he noted that Johan at a tender age had not only
learned to read but mastered many of the religious lessons. Soon he became aware of his
son's retentive memory and ready wit. He probably accepted such ability as natural. At
least he expected the same performance by his other children. But their interests centered
on many subjects, and it was, at times, difficult to get them to take an interest in their
lessons. This was a deep disappointment to their father, and gradually he came to the
conclusion that all his children, with the exception of Johan, the first-born, were
nitwits. And when Per had formed an opinion, it was usually considered infallible.
From childhood Ole Rølvaag was, as a consequence, told that he never would amount to
anything, because his mental powers were far below par. Apparently this characterization
did not worry him. Among his schoolmates he was considered a scrapper who sought rather
than tried to avoid a fight, and he was lighthearted, frolicsome, and all alive.
Ole looked upon his brother Johan as an oracle, and this brother in turn thought well
of Ole. Johan admired in Ole the very qualities which he lacked, such as physical courage,
combativeness, and readiness to take his stand and assert his opinions. Johan told me that
their mother considered Ole the most versatile of her children, and with almost prophetic
vision he declared more than once that Ole was the one of the family who would go
farthest, because, as Johan particularized, he had courage, imagination, will power,
patience, and keen mental faculties.
Ole was not much of a lad the first time I remember his coming to our home, in company
with his brother Johan, for the purpose of borrowing books. From that time on he came
often. From their home to ours was a long distance, probably at least eight miles. There
was no road part of the way, but only winding paths across marsh and moor and rocky
ridges. And yet, nearly every week they came carrying books, tramping in treklomper -- wooden
shoes, no, wooden slippers with leather covering for the fore part of the foot but with
open heels. My mother saw to it that the boys always got something to eat when they came.
Yes, for that matter, there probably were few, if any, who left our home without first
getting a cup of coffee or some such refreshment. Now and then, when the weather turned
inclement, or when the winter days were too cold and short, the two Rølvaag boys stayed
overnight at our house. They had the standing permission of their parents to do that. My
brother and I urged them to stay, and it always meant an enjoyable time. We had a large
room to ourselves. The youngest in this group was Ole, the oldest was my brother, Hans.
To our home, because of the library, came book catalogues and publication announcements
from all the publishers and exclusive bookstores in the larger cities. One of our favorite
pastimes when we four were together was that of greedily reading about and wishing for the
many wonderful books not to be found in our collection. We also played games, solved
puzzles, sang new and old songs, and endeavored to learn new melodies with the aid of a
musical instrument called the salmodicon, a long, boxlike affair with one string.
At other times we read aloud from one book or another, and then discussed and elaborated
upon what had been read. To the best of my recollection, the books most frequently used
for that purpose were: one on geology by the Norwegian scientist Helland, called The
Building of the Globe; another on astronomy by the speculative French astronomer,
Flammarion, called Inhabited Celestial Worlds; and a poetic-philosophic work by the
brilliant Dane, Kierkegaard, called Either-Or? As a rule we took turns at reading
aloud, but it was my brother, Hans, who attempted to explain what the rest of us found
difficult to comprehend.
The acquisition of new books for the library was always a subject of absorbing
interest. At times it happened that well-to-do patrons made donations to the library.
Books bought here and there by men who had been away for some time were frequently brought
as gifts and added to the collection. Nearly every year the managing board of the
community made an appropriation for the benefit of the library. All this, however, did not
begin to satisfy our wants. One night between Christmas and New Year's, when the Rølvaag
boys were at our home, we were, as usual, discussing the needs of the library and the
possible means whereby new books might be acquired. Although Ole, in the presence of his
brother, offered few suggestions, at this time he said with some hesitation and in a
piping voice, "It is probably best to write to King Oscar." Although said in all
seriousness, it was at once taken as a joke by the rest of us, and we laughed with the
joyous heartiness in which only youth can indulge. Probably Ole laughed the most,
apparently well satisfied with his little witticism.
King Oscar II, at that time the king of Norway and of Sweden, was a very humane and
learned monarch. Subsequently we talked about Ole's suggestion and some time later,
knowing we could suffer no loss by it, my brother and I in deepest secrecy dashed off a
letter to the king, merely asking him to suggest a plan for acquiring new books for our
library. Needless to say we were amazed when we received a reply stating that the king had
read our letter with appreciative interest and had decided that a shipment of books should
be forwarded with all possible dispatch. And the books came. As my memory serves me, we
received over a hundred volumes. As soon as we had the books catalogued and ready for
circulation, we sent word to Rølvaag. We felt that the boys should have the first choice.
Johan came alone. The first books of the royal donation that he took home with him were
Goethe's Werther, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Runeberg's FŠnrik StŒIs
sŠgner (The Tales of Fanrik Stall).
At the age of about sixteen, the year after his confirmation, Johan Rølvaag wrote a
novel entitled "Perlen i havet" (The Pearl in the Sea). One Sunday, as we
were leaving church, Johan whispered that he had something to show me. It was "The
Pearl in the Sea." We went to one of thc near-by wooded knolls and began reading.
Soon we went to our home for lunch, and then we proceeded to the Dønnes mountain, where
we remained the rest of the afternoon, and far into the night, reading and crying.
"The Pearl in the Sea" was a tragic tale. The only impression of the book now
lingering in my memory is that it had a certain resemblance to Werther.
Years after Johan had passed away, I asked Ole Rølvaag whether he had seen or read
"The Pearl in the Sea." He assured me that he had not. In 1925 I also asked Per
Rølvaag if he had the manuscript, and whether he had read thc first book written by his
first-born son. He had read only one book written by Johan, he told me, but that was a
detective story. He could not remember having seen "The Pearl in the Sea."
The last talk I had with Per Rølvaag was in July, 1925. His son, Ole, had at that time
acquired renown as one of Norway's eminent authors. His books, I de dage, and Riket
grundlægges (subsequently issued in the United States with the title Giants in the
Earth), had been published by one of the largest publishing houses of Norway, had
immediately been acclaimed by the critics, had enjoyed an exceptional sale, and had had
several printings. It was a great pleasure for me to be enabled to congratulate the
author's aging father upon his son's success.
"Oh, well," Per smiled wanly, "it isn't anything to be ashamed of, but
it does not amount to much. But then, I couldn't expect much more of Ole, he didn't have
much sailing equipment."
Knowing that it was useless to try to contradict Per, I reminded him of the fact that
his son not only had gained honor and renown as a brilliant author, but also by his own
efforts had acquired an extensive education, and had created for himself an honorable
position under adverse conditions in a foreign country.
"Oh, yes, that may be so," Per smiled cunningly, and added, "Everything
seems to come too easy for you folks in America. It doesn't seem to take much learning to
become a teacher or a preacher in that country."
However, he eagerly asked many questions about thc United States, St. Olaf College, and
the nature of his son's labors, not only at the college, but in his other activities. But
he did not utter an appreciative syllable about his son.
Shortly thereafter I related to my mother this conversation with Per Rølvaag. She
laughed. "Don't pay any attention to Per," she said, whereupon she
assured me that Per in fact felt not only happy about, but quite proud of, his son's
success. He came frequently to my mother's home, and there the two elderly people
exchanged thoughts, opinions, and reports about their sons who were so far away in the
new, and to them unknown, world. My mother also stated that Per felt quite convinced that
the wisest thing he had done, while Ole was young, was to taunt him for his lack of
ability. This put Ole on his mettle, he said, and made him feel that he had to prove that
he had more sense than he was given credit for. It was will power and obstinacy, Per
thought, that constituted the motive power of Ole's progress. "And after all,"
Per had said more than once, "Ole became the foremost of my children, the one in whom
I have had the greatest joy."
Some two or three months later I had occasion to recount to Ole Rølvaag my
conversation with his father. It did not surprise him. But a shade of sadness fell upon
his mind. He had vainly hoped the tribute paid him and his books in the press of Norway
might have produced a change in his father's attitude and opinion. But in all probability
his father had considered it merely a random hit or paid publicity.
A door leading to the chambers of memory had been opened, and we entered. Incidents
previously placed on the shelves of oblivion were taken down and dusted off. We were young
again, carried back to the days of our boyhood. Back once more to the present, Ole
affirmed that, after all, his father's want of faith in his ability was one of the things
for which he should be grateful, because it had always been a spur to action, an urge to
greater efforts. Long ago he had come to realize that it was necessary to utilize in the
best possible manner the talents God had given him, not alone to convince his father, but
in order to convince himself that his faculties might be developed, and that he was not
quite as slow as his father seemed to believe.
Realizing that most men, no matter how dense they might be, considered themselves
pretty smart fellows, he came to wonder whether he himself was in that class. This gnawing
misgiving, bordering on mistrust of himself, was one of the principal reasons for his
emigration to America. Far away from the influence of his family, away from its sorrows,
doubts, and defeats, he wanted to try to build his life in his own way. The silent desire
that from boyhood had lain in his consciousness as a hidden dream was that of becoming a
poet and a writer of stirring tales, like those of the Dane, Ingemann, or the American,
James Fenimore Cooper. One of the serious obstacles he had to overcome was a persistent
feeling of indefinite shortcoming. And he maintained that he never would be able to
overcome this inferiority complex.
After this revealing conversation I told him what my mother had related about his
father's affection and true feelings and opinions. Ole looked intently at me, apparently
unable to speak. Tears trickled down his cheeks. Struggling with emotion he at length
inquired, "Did your mother really tell you that?" When I assured him that
she had, he exclaimed, "This is the greatest news I have ever gotten from the
old home." The realization that he had won the approbation and respect of his father
caused him deeper joy than all the praise of the world.
In the later editions of Giants in the Earth, the author mentions my name among
those to whom he expresses appreciation. This he ought not to have done, because I had
strictly forbidden the mention of my name. The following may partly explain his reasons
for so doing.
After moving up to his summer home at Big Island Lake in the spring of 1926, he wrote
some letters urging me to make him a visit. My wife and I had been there several times. We
liked the attractive and interesting place, and always greatly enjoyed the cordial
hospitality of the Rølvaag family. One Saturday morning we managed to get started.
Arriving at the Rølvaag cabin shortly after noon we found him in bed, apparently
seriously ill and cheerless.
While I sat at his bedside, he talked quietly and with resignation about his fading
hopes and expectations. Among other things he mentioned his contract with Harpers for the
publication of his books I de dage and Riket grundlægges, about which he
had previously written me. Now his high hopes of that venture had been dashed. Should the
book at any time, if ever, appear in English translation, he would not live to see it. The
realization of that hope he would not be privileged to enjoy. Asked why, he stated that
the contract with Harpers provided that the manuscript be submitted not later than August.
Now June was practically ended, and he had heard nothing as yet from the person who had
agreed to translate a large part of the book. He had written time and again, but had not
received a word in answer and not a word of the translation. Now it was too late. He had
therefore given up all hope of getting his books translated and published. He would
necessarily have to check and probably correct and rewrite parts of the translation
himself. That would take time. And Mr. Lincoln Colcord would need at least one month for
reading and suggesting necessary verbal changes and corrections, after the manuscript had
been submitted to him. Thereafter all of it had to be retyped before it could be sent to
Harpers. The project was therefore hopeless. And moreover, now the dreaded illness had
caught him in its relentless grip.
All this sounded anything but cheerful, but, from my knowledge of Ole, I could think of
only one thing to do that might possibly relieve the tension. I started laughing as
heartily as I could. He looked at me, and at length managed to smile and ask whether his
disappointment was anything to laugh at.
"What else can I do," I said, "when I find that you are such a silly
chump as to allow yourself to become ill from imaginary hopelessness."
"Imaginary hopelessness," he repeated with a show of indignation, as he rose
to a sitting position in bed. "Have you really lost your senses?"
"Well," I said seriously, "you ought to know there are a number of
people who could translate any part of the book for you. If you will show me what you wish
to have done, I will translate the whole thing for you, and do it in a hurry."
"No, no, no! Will you really do that!" he exclaimed. He jumped out of the bed
and started to dress, evidently so overjoyed that all thought of illness and
disappointment vanished from his mind. Quickly we went out. Mrs. Rølvaag looked at him
with apparent misgiving, but refrained from making any comment.
For some little time we discussed the part of the book that was to be translated.
Thereafter we went out on the lake to fish, and, by the way, we caught more than enough
bass for supper. That evening I suggested that he write to Harpers requesting that the
time for submitting the manuscript be extended a month or more. This he did at once, and
the postponement was granted.
After returning home, I usually translated a subdivision of a chapter every night. The
stenographer typed my penciled scribbling, and nearly every day I mailed the author the
The work progressed swiftly and agreeably until we came to the day the child was to be
baptized. The name of the child, as it appears in the original, is "Peder
Seier." The meaning of the Norwegian word "seier" is
"victory." Not having seen the translation of the first part of the book, I did
not know that all the names had been retained in their Norwegian form, even pet names like
"And-Ongen" (duckling), "Store-Hans" (big Hans), and
"Permand" (Peter darling), awkward name forms that had no meaning to anyone not
familiar with the Norwegian language.
Late one night, while working away, the name "Peder Seier" appeared. I had
neither time nor opportunity to confer with Rølvaag. It was, however, plain that the word
"Seier" meant nothing to the American reader. To translate the word to
"Victory" struck me as unfortunate. The name was of great significance,
not only because it is symbolical of the basic idea of the book, but principally because
of the emotional trepidation it produced in the mother during the baptismal ceremony. To
explain the meaning of the name in a footnote I considered ineffective. After a moment's
hesitation I wrote "Peder Victorious."
When the author received the translation of that chapter, the name
"Victorious" caused not only surprise but doubt. He wrote at once saying it
seemed not only improper but unnatural to use an adjective as a proper name. Besides, all
other Norwegian names had been retained in the translation, and why not "Peder
Seier?" I had neither time nor inclination to answer and argue the matter with him.
No one knew better than I that many things in my hurried translation needed correction or
revision, and his own opinion must necessarily prevail.
The next day I received another letter from him. The name "Victorious" was
troubling him. I felt an undercurrent in his written words to the effect that he rather
liked the name, but was doubtful about its propriety. Then I wrote to him, explaining my
reasons for using the adjective "Victorious" rather than the noun
"Victory," and why the name "Seier" should not be retained. One or two
days later he called me by telephone to discuss the name. I suggested that he ask Mr.
Colcord's opinion, and in doing so send him my letter. No, that could not be done, because
Mr. Colcord was unable to read Norwegian. I agreed to write my opinion in English. Shortly
thereafter Ole Rølvaag wrote me that Mr. Colcord has approved "Victorious."
"The name will therefore be retained," he wrote, "and meanwhile I presume
I'll have to thank you for being an Anabaptist.''
For this little nightwork of mine he considered it necessary to express appreciation.
"You must be able to understand," he said, "that my
conscience refused to leave me undisturbed until I got your name into the book."
The last time I talked at some length with Ole Rølvaag he gave somewhat detailed
outlines of three new novels he intended to write as soon as he found the necessary time.
One of them, he said, would be necessary in order to complete the original plan he had in
mind at the time of writing Giants in the Earth. That he was not allowed time to do
so, must be considered a distinct loss to American literature.