The Norwegians in America
By Halvdan Koht (Volume XIII: Page 171)
During the past year Professor Theodore C. Blegen published the second volume of his
great work, Norwegian Migration to America. The first volume had appeared ten years
earlier, in 1931. It was a work of more than 400 pages and dealt with Norwegian emigration
during the period from 1825 to 1860.
The second volume contains more than 650 pages, so that on the basis of size alone it
is a great work. But it is the historical vision of the book that makes it a masterpiece.
It presents Norwegian-American life and mental outlook with a psychological and historical
understanding which makes it a treasure for Americans, as well as Norwegians and Norwegian
One of the things that strike one first in reading this new volume is the enormous mass
of historical research which the book refers to and builds upon. There are books and
writings about all possible aspects of immigration and pioneer life -- telling how the
Norwegians came from the old country, how they made their way in the new country, about
their settlements, their labors on land and on sea, the churches they built, their
pastors, their newspapers and journalists, their institutions of learning, their
societies, and much else. There are writings about emigrants from particular districts in
Norway and about local settlements in America. There are memorial volumes and biographies.
The bibliography alone would fill a volume.
This is a testimonial to the strong historical sense which
has always been vital
in the Norwegian people and which the emigrants took with them to America. Even in the
first newspapers they began publishing over here, they felt it an obligation to gather
historical information about the emigrants, at the same time that they gave the emigrants
knowledge about the history of the American people whom they were now joining. We must
remember with gratitude the remarkable newspaperman Svein Nilsson, who in the early years
began traveling around and noting down the traditions of the first emigrants. While still
in Norway he had already shown himself as an excellent reporter with an interest in
recording materials that would otherwise have been forgotten.
The work of gathering and publishing all such historical information found its focus in
the Norwegian-American Historical Association when this organization was founded in 1925.
It is impossible not to be impressed by what this association has accomplished in sixteen
years. Some of its publications in Studies and Records are translated from writings
which had previously appeared in Norwegian. But in addition it has presented an abundance
of remarkable letters, memoirs, and articles which constitute completely new contributions
to Norwegian-American history. The greatest of these undertakings is contained in the two
volumes about Norwegian emigration which Blegen has written.
In the new volume Blegen has changed the plan of his work. He had originally planned to
carry on the history of emigration proper after 1860. But in the meanwhile Nordmanns-forbundet,
supported by Nansenfondet, had undertaken the preparation of a work on the
relation of emigration to Norwegian history. Blegen himself had done considerable work on
this topic and had dug out much new material from the Norwegian archives. But it is clear
that such research can most easily be carried on by those who live in Norway, and when
Blegen saw that the work was being handled with competence by the scholar whom
had appointed, Mrs. Ingrid Gaustad Semmingsen, he laid a new plan for his own work. In
this second volume he has now done a job which could have been done only by one who lives
in America and has himself grown up in the Norwegian-American social order. He has written
the story of "The American Transition," as he calls it in the subtitle.
This is Norwegian-American history in the full sense of the word. The task here is a
double one. It is a question of clarifying what the Norwegian immigrants have done for
America and what America has made out of them. Many writers have worked with particular
phases of this task. Blegen has fitted everything together into a broad historical frame
and pictured it from the double point of view which the task demands, frequently with new
features from unprinted sources.
He introduces us to all the material and psychological difficulties that faced the
immigrants immediately on their arrival in the new land, whether they settled within the
old American order or wended their way out to the frontier and broke new land. He sees
clearly that the change might have been keenly felt and have tragic results for many. But
he stresses most strongly the bright hopes, the courage, and the victories of pioneer
America offered the Norwegian emigrants so infinitely many more chances than they had
had at home. Above all, there was the virgin land being made available for cultivation and
settlement. Norway, too, had much uncultivated soil, but it was not easy to secure. Not
until the twentieth century did legislation, state subsidies, and government loans open
the doors for new cultivation and settlement in Norway. During the last years before the
German invasion some five or six thousand new farms were being created in Norway each
year. But in the nineteenth century it was only America that extended such opportunities.
Norwegian energy and willingness to work found their consummation in the soil
West and became powerful forces in the building up of American society. Many American
historians have pointed out the significance of the frontier and of the frontiersman in
American cultural growth. The Norwegian pioneers had their own share in this. America gave
them the opportunity and they themselves grew stronger and richer thereby.
As soon as the immigrants had surmounted the first hard struggle for existence, the
great problem arose of adapting themselves to American society and at the same time
carrying their own cultural heritage into that society. It is the unanimous testimony of
both American and Norwegian observers that no immigrant people has found it so easy to
feel at home in this country--to become what is called "Americanized "--as the
Norwegians. This has its natural cause in the fact that there was and is no social order
in Europe so basically similar to the American as the Norwegian. The Norwegians came here
filled with the spirit of liberty and with a democratic way of thinking, and- perhaps most
significant- an irrepressible faith in progress and advancement.
Most of them were farmers, and they became farmers here too. That is to say that they
were fond of the soil and its growth, and they attached themselves for life to the earth
they cultivated. They were deeply religious; that is, they felt that they had been charged
with duties laid upon them by higher powers. And they came from an enlightened people,
perhaps more enlightened than Blegen leads us to suspect. Remember that we had had a
public school system in Norway since 1739 and this system was expanded in 1827. The
immigrants from Norway were not illiterates. That is why newspapers began appearing as
early as the 1840's.
The newspapers and the church became the first and the strongest factors of unity among
the Norwegians in America. A basic cause of the fellow feeling and social life among them
was the fact that they settled in groups and created so many half or wholly
Norwegian communities. Only in that way could they preserve their native tongue. They
learned news of each other and of their kinsmen in the old country from their newspapers.
They met in their churches. And then they gathered in their bygdelag and other
societies. In that way they became a power in the land.
All of these things Blegen tells about. He tells of how the pioneers clung to old
customs in their home life and how they took up new ones. He tells of the work with
secondary Schools on the American plan and with higher institutions of learning on the
Norwegian, with all the battles that these problems entailed. He tells of the fights over
doctrine and organization in the church bodies, of political struggles and progress, of
the contribution to the Civil War. Through all of it we see how Norwegians are becoming
Americans and how at the same time they are giving something to America. It is pictured
with intelligent thoughtfulness and psychological understanding. Blegen often refers to
the portrayals that have been made in Norwegian-American novels, especially Rølvaag's.
But he takes a brighter view than did Rølvaag.
He includes the reverse influence on Norway as well, through the America letters and in
other ways. I suppose it was Bjørnson who first pointed out that the America letters
played a role in Norwegian politics by teaching Norwegians to think in terms of a
republican government. This was after he had been in America himself and had spoken here
about the Norwegian struggle for democracy. (In parentheses: from Blegen's account one
would judge that Bjørnson spoke mainly about controversial religious questions when he
was here. But this he did not do unless he was asked. Most of his lectures were on
politics.) Blegen justly limits the influence the America letters could have had in
Norway. But when one has seen in the papers of Johan Sverdrup the multitude of letters and
resolutions paying homage to him from
American societies and meetings, he realizes
that Norwegian democracy was strengthened by the emigrants. American democracy was always
a model to Norway--in 1814, in the thirties and in the eighties, to Ueland and Jaabæk, to
Sverdrup and Bjørnson. (Mrs. Semmingsen had an excellent article on this subject in Samtiden
Blegen discusses in one passage what people in Norway thought of the Civil War in
America, and he takes a little exception to the assertion that the Norwegians at home were
wholly on the side of the North. He has found a letter from the American consul in Bergen
stating that there was much sympathy with the South in Norway. But this consul was a man
who tended to exaggerate and he also engaged in much controversy; one should not take him
too literally. It is indubitable that everyone in Norway was on the side of those who
fought against Negro slavery. When even so conservative an institution as the theological
faculty in Oslo--in opposition to many of the Norwegian pastors in America--condemned
slavery, then one can judge how ordinary people must have thought. That conservative
people in Norway, as in other countries, might have considered Lincoln a dangerous radical
is another matter. Nevertheless there is one thing that might make some Norwegians,
especially seamen, feel a certain sympathy with the South. That was their vigorous
campaign of privateering, for people in Norway still remembered their own privateers from
the Napoleonic period. I once knew a Vestfold skipper who was born at the time of the
Civil War and who was named for one of the most famous southern privateers. He was
baptized Semmes. It was the romance of adventure that fascinated some. But all political
thinking was on the side of the North.
When one finally gets to the problem of what Norwegians have contributed to general
American life, he is faced with the activities both of institutions and individuals. It is
easier to measure those which have gained institutional
hospitals or institutions of learning, theatrical societies or ski clubs. Blegen has much
to tell about them. Here I must make one small annotation. Blegen says that the pioneers
of the Norwegian theater in Chicago did not play Ibsen. Nevertheless it was there that Ghosts
was first played in the world, in 1883, while the play was still banned in all the
Scandinavian countries. It was even taken to Minneapolis and other towns to the west.
What men of Norwegian stock have attained in this country may perhaps not readily be
reckoned to the honor of the entire Norwegian people. It is even likely that these men
would not have accomplished as much at home in Norway; America was the soil that nourished
them. But they did have a heritage from the Norwegian society in which they had been
reared, and that heritage was a strength to them. Some weeks ago when the American
Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, was asked who she thought was the best, the most
right-minded, and least self-seeking labor leader in this country, she at once named
Andrew Furuseth. Anyone more Norwegian than Furuseth can. hardly be imagined--stubborn and
tough as a mule, with a sense of justice that never compromised. He left as his
contribution an organization and legislation for which all seamen are grateful.
He and many others are mentioned with honor in Blegen's book. It is a remarkably rich
volume that he has given us.
One thing only do I miss in the book. That is the Norway that lives on the east coast.
It is natural that the Norwegian settlements in the Middle West should have the bulk of
the attention; there is where Norwegians have made their richest contribution to American
life and progress. But the Norwegians in the East have also done their bit. I mention the
Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn, which goes back to 1885. In every field in the East
Norwegian societies flourish. It is also significant that although both Minneapolis
tidende and Skandinaven have had to cease publication, Nordisk tidende
in Brooklyn is still flourishing. When Blegen mentions the universities that have regular
instruction in Norwegian language and literature, he omits Harvard University.
One can understand such omissions in view of the lack of printed historical material
about the Norwegians of the East. Fortunately a new source work on this subject has just
appeared, A. N. Rygg's Norwegians in New York, 1825-1925. This book supplies much
material that was previously lacking.
The omissions in Blegen's book, however, are so few that they do not in any way
diminish the gratitude we owe him for a work which in wealth of content and historical
insight is an honor to him-- and to the Norwegians in America.
<1> This review by Professor Koht appeared in Nordmanns-forbundet for
April, 1942, and is here presented in an English translation by Professor Einar Haugen of
the University of Wisconsin, with the consent of the reviewer and of the editor of Nordmanns-forbundet.