Kristian Prestgard: An Appreciation
By Henriette C. K. Naeseth (Volume XV: Page 131)
In the living room of Kristian Prestgard's home, Troldhaugen, in Decorah, Iowa, there
has long hung a portrait painted by his friend, Olav Stokkestad, of Prestgard as a young
man. His eyes, blue like the beret he is wearing, are as striking as the flowing red
mustache that seems a symbol of independence and individuality. Understanding, wisdom,
kindness, humor, and love of life are in the eyes, in which the artist seems to have
caught the spirit of the youthful poet. For, though Prestgard's writings were in prose, no
one who knew him could doubt that he was a true poet.
Through the years of his editorship of Decorah-posten it was often my privilege
to chat in that living room with Kristian Prestgard, or to be aware of his kindly presence
in the adjoining study where he sat working and writing. Through the years his mustache
grew white, but it seemed still the flag of an undaunted spirit; the eyes, unchanged, held
the same warmth that the artist had captured years before.
There have been and will be many records of Prestgard's editorial and literary
achievements, and there are co-workers and friends who could write of what his friendship
meant in stimulus and comfort, of the rare quality of his mind and nature, the breadth of
his interests. These have been revealed again and again, often in his editorials and
articles in Decorah-posten, the Norwegian-language newspaper that has deservedly
outlived and absorbed other newspapers of its type. Its distinguished position is due
largely to Kristian Prestgard, assistant editor from 1898 to 1923, and editor in chief
from then until his death on January 25, 1946.
This, and other aspects of Prestgard's career, were outlined by Halvdan Koht, his
long-time friend and correspondent, in a letter published in Decorah-posten, April
26, 1945, on the occasion of Prestgard's seventy-ninth and last birthday. How Prestgard
loved the poetry of his native land and how well he knew it is evident in Norske kvad, the
collection of Norwegian poetry that he edited, says Mr. Koht.
But it goes without saying that Decorah-posten is your greatest work. I remember
the first thing I noticed about this newspaper, the rich collection of local news from
Norway which I found there. No Norwegian paper at home had anything like it .... Only in Decorah-posten
could we find news of our entire country. As an old newspaper man myself, I know very
well how much effort and thought and how wide a knowledge of the country is needed to
gather and put in order such materials. It was love for Norway which carried the work
forward. And it created love for Norway .... You like work and research, and what you do
must be well done. That stamp you have placed on Decorah-posten. That is what has
made the paper what it is.
Probably the most widely known of the works which Prestgard, despite arduous duties and
cares, found time to write was En sommer i Norge. This remarkable interpretation of
Norway, and of the American from Norway, was his account of a journey to his homeland with
a group of American journalists in 1927, thirty-five years after his migration to America.
Happily, it is available in English, in part at least, as Fjords and Faces, for
those who cannot read and enjoy the flavor of his distinctive Norwegian style.
Prestgard book in Norwegian is a collection of sketches from Norway and America entitled Streiftog.
Earlier, he and Johannes B. Wist, his colleague on Decorah-posten, had
pioneered in the kind of work now being carried on by the Norwegian-American Historical
Association and its publications, when, from 1905 to 1914, they edited the
Norwegian-language periodical Symra, with its records and interpretations of
Norwegian-American immigrant experiences and backgrounds. It was natural that Prestgard
should have been one of the founders of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.
What he did to encourage such enterprises in friendly relations with Rølvaag and others
deserves a full recording.
Fortunately Kristian Prestgard was able during his final illness to complete his
autobiography. This work will reveal more fully than his earlier writings the story of his
boyhood years in Heidal in the rich Gudbrandsdal valley, his participation in the
folk-school movement as student and teacher, the circle of unusual friends who then, as
later, were drawn to him. In the autobiography, too, is the story of his early experiences
in the Scandinavian newspaper world in Minneapolis, where he went after coming from Norway
to Chicago to report the World's Fair of 1893, and where he began an American career that
he had not anticipated. The longest period of his life, however, he spent in Decorah, and
many of those years in the house that he called Troldhaugen. From its hillside setting he
could look across the little valley town to the hills beyond, a vista that has reminded
the town's many Norwegians of their native land. Near the Prestgard home was Luther
College. The western hill back of the college, with the river below, is the scene of a
sketch in which he gives the reader a glimpse of the loneliness of the immigrant's heart,
a moment of sunset beauty.
As much a part of the living room of Troldhaugen as the Stokkestad portrait was a woven
tapestry characteristic of the Norwegian folk art that was carried on in modern Norway
largely through the efforts of two of Prestgard's cousins. Beside the gay Norwegian nisser
(brownies) pictured on the tapestry was a text:
Nisser and dwarfs
They live in the mountains,
But we shall summon them
All out to us.
We read this into our memories, his daughters and I, but as children we were not
certain what the lines meant. It seems to me now that the verse represents what my many
hours in the Prestgard home gave me; there interests that would not otherwise have
developed, understanding that could not otherwise have been attained, a sense of the whole
romantic world of Norwegian folklore, and an appreciation of the nature and achievement of
Norwegian literature were summoned from their hidden recesses and made a part of everyday
life. All this I did not, of course, realize then, but through the years I have become
increasingly aware of what I learned from Kristian Prestgard. I am grateful for this
opportunity to write of him, my small effort to repay a debt owed him not only by me but
by all who were his associates.
My most significant gain, perhaps, was the understanding of what it means to be an
immigrant, of the double ties that bind an American of foreign birth to two countries.
"These books are intended as a kind of window, through which our people may
get a little glimpse homeward to old Norway," Prestgard wrote in my volumes of En
sommer i Norge. He devoted much of his life to helping Norwegian Americans realize the
importance of remembering and understanding the homeland, whether it is one or two or
three generations removed, just as he helped immigrants fill the gap of loneliness that
removal to a new country must bring. As a thoughtless high school girl I was inclined to
smile at the letters that filled pages in every issue of Decorah-posten, letters
often naive and simple, in which Norwegian immigrants wrote about friends from Norway whom
they had seen here or had heard from or wished to trace, or letters that they wrote simply
as greetings to a paper they looked upon as a friend. I shall not forget Prestgard's
contention that nothing in Decorah-posten was more important than those letters.
They comforted the loneliness of the uprooted; they helped bring the values of a past in
Norway into a changed, new life in America and to make that America home.
For it was not exclusively the man who loved literature or followed political and
social developments for whom Prestgard felt interest and liking. The man whose life was
bounded by friends and daily routine was close to his heart as well. But the files of Decorah-posten
are clear evidence that such a reader was helped to share wider interests. In many
articles commemorating literary and political anniversaries in Norwegian history, for
instance, Prestgard gave living pictures which could not fail to create in his readers an
understanding of the land of their birth or ancestry, a pride in their Norwegian heritage.
And there were parallel discussions of American events and figures.
Norway lived not only in his writing but also in his conversation. Little stories of
his recollections of Bjørnson (notably the occasion when young Prestgard unwittingly
carried a bundle of dynamite to Bjørnson's Aulestad); of a summer walking tour through
Norway with young companions from the folk high school; of the celebration of Norway's
separation from Sweden, when he and a few other young colleagues in Minneapolis (and there
also were Swedes among them) took it upon themselves to cable congratulations to the
Norwegian government on behalf of "Norwegian newspapermen in America"; the
pathetic story of young Olav Stokkestad, whose gifts were revealed in his portrait of
Prestgard and recorded in En sommer i Norge, and who ultimately returned to an
untimely death in Norway; stories of the happy if almost penniless days in the Minneapolis
Scandinavian newspaper circle -- these and more, told with an accompaniment of rolling,
appreciative laughter, were unforgettable memories for him and for his listeners.
A high point in my recollections, certainly, is the evening when his daughters and I
went to Luther College with him to hear a celebrated Danish actor present readings from
Ibsen and others. To me, more impressive than the actor we heard was Prestgard's eloquent
delivery, as we walked home, of long passages from Peer Gynt. I shall not forget
the first, dramatic, "Peer, du lyver." And another episode, often paralleled,
lives in my mind -- when Prestgard arose front a dinner table to quote with dramatic gusto
the lines from Arnljot Gelline:
Gar d'ikke fykende,
går d'ikke rykende,
tre mann oppe på ett par ski.
As my reading in Norwegian literature widened, the breadth and intimacy of his
acquaintance with it -- from Lie to Duun, from Holberg to Nordahl Grieg -- was revealed to
me. And I came to understand something of the language movement and its part in the
development of modern Norway, to know the writers in maal who were his friends. In
his company poets and poems became familiar companions.
The rugged, heroic faces of Ibsen and Bjørnson held honored places in Prestgard's
study. There in later years he spent more and more time, surrounded by his books, his
pictures, his collection of Scandinavian stamps. Norwegian novelists, poets, historians
filled the shelves. The newspapers which were a part of his daily task were piled with the
letters on his desk. More recently, after his visit to Norway, a picture of his home
valley of Heidal and the old Prestgard farm looked down from behind the desk; and on the
shelf opposite, near pictures of the gladioli he created, stood a photograph of his wife.
In commemoration of her he had inscribed En sommer i Norge: "To the memory of
Orlaug, my wife, who for twenty-five years faithfully cherished in her heart the picture
of her home parish, but was never to see it again, these pages are dedicated."
Scholarship, the writing of poetic prose, and active editorial work -- for many men
these activities would mean a life without room for relaxation or other interests and
pursuits. But my recollections of Kristian Prestgard are filled with pictures of him as a
man of sociability. Perhaps the study or the living room was the scene of a long,
engrossing conversation with his good friend, the eminent scholar Dr. Knut Gjerset; or, in
earlier years, with Johannes B. Wist; or with Dr. Thrond Stabo, the Norwegian consul; or
other congenial companions who shared his background and interests, and were fellow
founders of "Symra," the men's dinner club, an organization renowned
alike for the quality of its discussions and the persistent reek of tobacco that clung to
the clothes of the participants after each meeting. Perhaps, on a summer evening,
Prestgard might be enjoying a game of croquet in the back yard with Dr. Gjerset and his
other neighbors from the Luther College faculty, Professors Sihler and Rovelstad; it was a
game played with skill and concentration but accompanied by talk and chuckles. Perhaps he
might be romping with the dog, which apparently understood his good-natured Norwegian
raillery; or he might play cards with his daughters and me, amazing us with the ease of
his victories, and making the game an event by the high spirits he brought to it. His
pleasure in music gave us, too, pleasure and appreciation. Even a stumbling rendition of
some favorite from Songs of the North
-- "Rav" or "I
ensomme stunde" -- won the tribute from Kristian Prestgard of a hearty, "Ja, der
Nobody who was in the Prestgard home while his wife lived could fail to realize what a
close companionship they shared, in years of many hardships. Her long illnesses never
dimmed her exuberance, and their evenings together when she was unable to take part in the
social life she enjoyed were witness to their community of interests and spirit. Great
indeed was the loneliness her death brought to a man of such loyalty and depth of feeling.
But an atmosphere of happiness continued in their home, where his daughter Gunvor became
hostess to the many friends who gathered there from far and near, and where his other
daughter and her family spent many vacations.
Endless patience and industry do not always accompany a sensitive, poetic nature, but
Prestgard had them in days of health and in his many days of illness, and during the last
years when reading and writing, so essential to his existence, were denied him. What his
daughter Gunvor did to enable him to continue his normal activities then will be told in
connection with his autobiography. I think now of the long hours he spent in securing and
arranging his remarkably complete collection of Scandinavian stamps, which he enjoyed
showing and explaining even to the uninitiated. And I think of his avocation, which might
well have been the career or business of another man. A garden of gladioli became finally
radiant acres of the superb flowers, scattered throughout the west side of Decorah. For
many summers Prestgard spent his early morning and late afternoon hours with his gladioli,
in a constant round of tending and culling, of evolving new varieties which brought him
recognition and honors, national and international. A prize creation, a beautiful white
"glad," was named Solveig for the daughter who died as a child. Each Sunday
morning during the late summer Prestgard carried great bouquets of his glorious gladioli
across the town to his wife's grave in the hillside cemetery.
His flowers were a manifestation of Kristian Prestgard's essentially poetic nature;
but, of course, it found its chief expression in his writings. He has given us evidence of
this in a passage in Fjords and Faces.
He tells of a boyhood experience brought
into vivid memory when he saw again the view of the valley from a great heap of boulders
on the ridge above his home.
One spring evening I sat here alone shedding tears of dismay because of my inability to
find proper words for expressing a sentiment that oppressed me so much I could hardly
Even now I can clearly see the scene that made such an overwhelming impression on me. A
young man, a stranger in the valley, working on the log drive, had drowned in the river.
The people of the valley, silent and serious, walked along the roaring river, flowing in a
white flux, and searched for the body. The day was dark and dreary, with low, heavy rain
clouds shedding intermittent dust-like drops that fell like tears upon twigs and branches,
upon leaves and flowers, as though not only the people, but nature itself was in grief.
Everything seemed gray, oppressively quiet, and mournful. Yes, even the forest wept. A
depressive burden seemingly rested like a pall over the valley.
I was trying to write a description of the gloomy sentiment of sorrow felt by the
people. To my deep dismay I was unable to do it satisfactorily. And so I had gone up to
the great heap of stones to cry out my woe. I have since frequently felt the poignancy of
helplessness when feelings, thoughts, visions, and sentiments urgently demanded
When Prestgard left Norway for America a second and final time in 1927, he looked, he
says in En Sommer i Norge, at the flags of the two countries, and felt that both
were his, by right of birth and of choice. He felt rich in having two countries to call
That America became his country was a fortunate circumstance for all Americans of
Norwegian descent as well as for those who were privileged to know him personally. He
exemplified the finest qualities of Norway -- the Norway whose peasant tradition and
culture lived through the centuries to flower in the national movement Prestgard
understood and interpreted so well, the Norway whose regained freedom from the Nazis he
confidently foretold and happily lived to see. In America he found happiness and a faith
in its developing democracy; and he interpreted his adopted country to those who, like
him, came to it as immigrants. Not many persons of native or foreign ancestry can hope to
equal his gifts or achievements, but to every American whose life he touched, he stands as
a symbol of what this country has to build upon and the qualities toward which it can
<1> Fjords and Faces (Minneapolis, 1937) is an abridged translation of
volume 1 of En sommer i Norge (Minneapolis, 1928).
<2> Streiftog: stemminger og skildringer (Minneapolis, c. 1937).
<3> Songs from the North; Representative Songs of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark,
edited by Valborg Hovind Stub, with English text by Aubertine Woodward Moore (Boston,
<4> Page 50. This passage is not found in the Norwegian original. En sommer i