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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. {1} Another Prestgard book in Norwegian is a collection of sketches from Norway and America entitled Streiftog. {2} 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 {3} -- "Rav" or "I ensomme stunde" -- won the tribute from Kristian Prestgard of a hearty, "Ja, der var musik."

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. {4} 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 breathe.

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 expression.

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 his own.

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 strive.

Notes

<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, 1907).

<4> Page 50. This passage is not found in the Norwegian original. En sommer i Norge.

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