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Brother Ebben in his Native Country
By Oystein Ore (Volume I7 ,Page 26)

While browsing through one of the antiquaries in Oslo some time ago I came across a curious little play, "Brother Ebben in His Native Country, or, the Voyage to America: A Play in Four Acts," by H. Allum.í It is a naïve play without dramatic value of any kind, yet a few sections deal with con temporary views on the problems of emigration to the United States.

About the life of the author, Hans Allum, {1} relatively little is known, although he must have been an unusual person. He was born at Botne, near Holmestrand, in 1777, received his training as a schoolteacher at the newly created seminary in Tønsberg, and taught in Holmestrand from 1800 onward. Later he became a deacon at Skoger, near Dram men; he was, briefly, a newspaper editor in Drammen; and finally he taught in Arendal, where he died in 1848. His chief claim to fame lies in the folk songs (stev) that he composed in the Eiker dialect. These were mainly printed on song sheets to be peddled in the streets. From the number of them that were produced, they must have been immensely popular; and the songs still survive. Among the best known are: "Jæ sku au ha løst tíaa jifte mei" (I Should Also Like to Get Married); "Naa jenta bare er konfærmera" (As Soon As the Girl Has Been Confirmed); and "Alle karfolk har saa møe aa si" (All Men Have So Much to Complain About).

Allum wrote lyrical effusions of the most varied kind, among them descriptions of the silverworks at Kongsberg and a cookbook in verse. When, as is usual, he uses the [37] official Dano-Norwegian language, his style is awkward and he is plainly ill at ease; students in Christiania wrote parodies on his verse. But whenever he expresses himself in the Norwegian dialects, as in the folk songs, his words come to life and the style is honestly homespun and juicy. He was an early advocate of general use of the Norwegian dialects, and suggested the desirability of compiling a dictionary. Allumís poems apparently did not always show good taste; at one time he wrote an epos in eight songs entitled "Satan"; it is reported that the audience fled the hall in terror before he had finished reciting the first song. A number of his publications are contributions to polemical discussions.

The principal figure in the play is "Brother Ebben" Rindal, a shipowner and manufacturer who returns to his native Norway after making his fortune in the United States; he is accompanied by his faithful friend Edmar Belton, a young Southerner. Rindal obviously expresses the views and sympathies of the author. He is outspoken and direct, scorning the empty distinctions and servile expressions of the time. In contradistinction the author heaps ridicule on Heibuk, the royal chamberlain, who seeks to obtain wealth in a marriage to Rindalís sister. Heibuk, before being introduced to Rindal, asks the poet Travelund about him:

CHAMBERLAIN. So I will know best how to handle these people, please, my friend, before we approach them, tell me a little about their ways of thinking, speaking, and acting, about their prejudices, whims, and peculiarities; in short, point out the weak sides of the fortifications. In addition to the two silver talers I have promised you for the wedding song, you may also count on my protection and recommendation.

TRAVELUND. My head and my tongue are completely at your service. I understand full well how to describe character; I might even be compared to Scribe, the newly famous Parisian. {2} The main trait in Ebben Rindalís character is his firm belief in class equality. A count and a tradesman, with your high permission, are both worth the same to him, the latter sometimes even more. [38] Should His Majesty himself visit him, he would no doubt only say, "You are welcome, my good man."

CHAMBERLAIN. (Takes a pinch of tobacco) I know these new-fashioned French ideas and revolutionary principles that the freedom of the press spreads throughout the world. They are only hobbyhorses which the bourgeoisie and rabble writers ride. Those dogs bark at the moon and would tear it down from the heavens if they could. Go on!

TRAVELUND. He is a sworn enemy of all the usual polite customs of distinguished society. He addresses knights as well as farmers, "Thou, thou." He sits down whenever he likes and lets guests stand. One may take off oneís hat to him, but he keeps his on; one may wish to talk to him and he replies sourly, "I want to be alone."

CHAMBERLAIN. Thatís enough! Now let us approach him and acquaint him with my position and name.

The emigration question comes up when a group of farmers, led by Stian Utland, apply for passage on Rindalís new ship, which is ready to be launched. Rindal discusses the question with his capable manager, Johan Helbing:

HELBING. I talked with Stian Utland yesterday; he is coming to see you today about his voyage to America.

RINDAL. Yes, he is the leader of a whole group who want to emigrate. That is not so good; I hope to change their intention to leave.

HELBING. The emigration fever seems to be spreading. The people in many of the inland districts are the unfortunate victims of a series of crop failures, and of the undue growth of their cities.

RINDAL. Deplorable.

HELBING. The poor farmers in the valleys far from towns seem to be the most pitiful.

RINDAL. Yes, their life is not too sweet. Probably one of the reasons for emigration is that too little has been done for the common man; under our many imperfect laws he suffers most and too often must fend for himself; he may even be oppressed by the rich and the powerful.

HELBING. Yes, the laws ought to favor the peasants and the great masses more, giving them more education and fewer trade restrictions. One third of Norwayís inhabitants seem to live too high, the second part tolerably, and the poor third too miserably.

RINDAL. That seems to be true. One must certainly assume [39] that most of those who go to America would have become useful to their own country.

HELBING. But some may be dissatisfied persons without true patriotism.

RINDAL. And yet they must be courageous, active people; and they have money which they draw out of the country, even precious metals.

HELBING. That may be correct, but . . . .

RINDAL. But the poor, the weak, the sick, and the old who cannot leave must stay behind and remain a burden to us and to the poorhouse. The prices on farm land will go down and . . . .

HELBING. If solely the healthy and the well-to-do went, and the emigration mounted into the thousands, then you would be right.

RINDAL. Believe me, the want may become noticeable and the effect be incalculable.

The only character whom the author seems fully to understand is Stian Utland, the leader of the emigrants. Utland is sincere about getting information on conditions in the States. He speaks a dialect of the Stavanger area, but unfortunately much of the flavor of his modest and straightforward conversation is lost in translation. Stian bows politely to Rindal and Helbing.

STIAN. May I take the liberty of asking whether you intend to travel to America on the new ship?

RINDAL. It is possible that I shall take a trip to arrange some money matters and sell my plantations and properties.

STIAN. Then you donít want to move there to live?

RINDAL. No, my good man. But you and a whole crowd of others want to leave your native country and go to America?

STIAN. Truly so. We have prepared ourselves for that. Then the new vessel to be launched will not sail for America?

RINDAL. Why, certainly, when it is ready. Do you perhaps believe that America is a paradise?

STIAN. Oh, no ó but I am only thirty-two years old and have suffered many things here. The winters are long and the summers short and the harvest freezes so often that many a time we have had only bark bread and moss porridge to eat.

RINDAL. That is bad enough. But the winters are cold also in many parts of America. Believe me, the New World is no Canaan.

STIAN. I donít expect that. [40]

RINDAL. And no land of Goshen.

STIAN. Oh no, but

RINDAL. Nor any El Dorado or Slaraffenland. {3}

STIAN. We have never heard of those countries.

RINDAL. Quite so, they are only imaginary and invented paradises.

HELBING. Do you know to what territory in America you want to go, Stian?

STIAN. I intended to go to one of the free states in southern North America.

HELBING. Good enough. But do you know that it is almost a thousand [Norwegian] miles to the southwestern free states, almost a quarter of the circumference of the earth?

STIAN. Yes, it is just as far for me as for other Norwegians who have gone there.

HELBING. The voyage sometimes lasts as long as three to four months.

STIAN. But it is not supposed to be a dangerous route. And it is said that there one can grow cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar and coffee.

HELBING. Not coffee, exactly. I am afraid you would suffocate from the heat as far south as where the coffee grows.

STIAN. Well, well, Godís plagues!

RINDAL. Listen, Stian. I have known many Europeans who after a few yearsí stay in America have wished tearfully and in vain that they were home again; although, admittedly, a few have eventually become prosperous and are happy and do not want to return.

HELBING. And I know also of many good, industrious families here who have a happy life, even on the barren Norwegian rocks, although there are other, depraved people who go hungry in the fertile valleys and on the productive coast.

STIAN. You mean the drunkards. But the icy wind whistles over the snowy mountains and ridicules our efforts in the short half summer.

HELBING. But you know full well, Stian, that among the three or four Nordic countries Norway is certainly the best to live and build in.

STIAN. Yes, south in Aggershus conditions may perhaps be good.

HELBING. You see that even Englishmen, Swiss, and Danes like to live here. [41]

STIAN. They are not farmers, but merchants and speculators; and in America it is much easier to prosper, because land there is at such a bargain.

HELBING. Oh yes, but remember that it is wild forest and wilderness. You are a good capable man, Stian, and can certainly support yourself well in your native country.

STIAN. I should like to try America too.

HELBING. But there are immense trees with strong roots, and cruel wild animals which must be exterminated before you can live safely and sow seed in the ground.

STIAN. You want to scare me. But all is not so well here either, full of mountains and many big rocks.

HELBING. In America one finds the biggest stones and mountains in the world. Everything there is gigantic and requires the work of giants.

STIAN. Yes, but there are also said to be many big plains stretching for several miles without stones or mountains. And Father Rindal also became rich there.

RINDAL. But I went to America for quite different reasons, not as a farmer, but as a seaman and later a merchant.

STIAN. But the soil is so good and fat in those countries, while farming here has made many poor.

RINDAL. I suppose you are right. In many places the soil is very rich and fertile. On the other hand, in several places it only supports wild animals when it is uncultivated.

STIAN. I am used to toil, may God only bless the work.

RINDAL. But couldnít you buy property in a better part of this country for the money you would waste on the voyage to America? Things here must become better as a consequence of our good new constitution, after Norway was reborn to a new life; already we see better prospects.

STIAN. Things are not and wonít be any better here now than before. And further up, towards the mountains, it is much worse. Lumber is worth so little compared to the heavy work, and everything we buy is so expensive because of the long roads.

RINDAL. Yes, unfortunately, it is bad for many.

STIAN. And then there is always some bigwig who travels around and buys debts from the rich, and then takes execution in critters and bedclothes and stoves and brings them to auction, so that a small debt soon becomes very large ó all this right under the nose of the authorities.

RINDAL. That is very bad, but the Storting will probably soon change it, as far as is possible. But otherwise, if you could see your way to postpone the voyage and encourage others ready to go to do the same, I shall support you and other good families. [42]

STIAN. If only more rich people meant as well as you. You bring better times around here with those factories and all the construction work, but . . . .

RINDAL. But what?

STIAN. I mean, one swallow makes no summer.

The conversation is interrupted, but shortly afterwards Rindal resumes the argument and this time he plays without reserve on all the sentimental strings in Stianís soul.

RINDAL. Still a few words, my good Stian. Do you believe it is easy to leave Norwayís soil forever? I have felt what it means to leave the country in which I was born. Afterward, the sorrow was sour and bitter. To exchange the scene of oneís childhood for unknown and completely strange regions where no relatives or friends bring consolation in suffering and sickness, that is heavy. When I heard a Norwegian sailor sing a familiar tune as he rowed past my ship, tears of regret rolled down my cheeks.

STIAN. (Wiping his eyes) But the poor, penniless man has no help or consolation from friends or relatives here either, when he is in need.

RINDAL. They always play some part in your existence. But stay here now and have dinner with us, Stian.

STIAN. (Bows) I owe Father many thanks.

RINDAL. Only the king and the pastor may you call Father, not me, since I am only a private individual.

Rindal seeks to thwart the plans of the emigrants in several ways. He changes the port of destination of the vessel from New Orleans to London, and again he has an argument with Stian.

STIAN. The compliments of the skipper; I talked to him at the ship. He had promised to take us to America, but . . . .

RINDAL. I know it, my good Stian. Obstacles have arisen. Things do not work out so quickly. Are you still of the same mind and wish to leave?

STIAN. I have sold my family farm, Utland, with all its chattels, and the others have sold what they owned. I have promised to accompany them.

RINDAL. But you know no German or English.

STIAN. No, but Student Hervig has taught the two oldest boys a little German.

RINDAL. How about when you and the other farmers talk and trade with Indians, Germans, and Englishmen, and you donít understand each other? [43]

STIAN. We are not going to be traders.

RINDAL. That I know well. But you canít succeed even as farmers and craftsmen without at least a little English.

STIAN. That has to be as it may.

HELBING. You probably donít know that the monetary situation in the free states is quite disturbed, and it looks as if there might be a bad war; it may already have started.

STIAN. Is that right?

HELBING. Yes, at present it doesnít seem to be too quiet in some of the states.

STIAN. But we may have a war here too; God directs it all.

HELBING. Oh yes, he lets things follow the laws of nature. But you have probably heard of Turkey, Spain, and Russia. Would you settle in one of those countries?

STIAN. No. There things are worse than here; nor would I live in Sweden.

HELBING. There, you see. And in the future it may not be much better in North America. In several respects Turkey, Spain, and Russia are among the richest countries in Europe and we see how much happiness people have there.

STIAN. The government in the free states is better.

HELBING. But insurrection, bloody wars, Negro slavery, and other evils are bad things, even if one is only a witness to them. Often even the best of governments cannot improve the situation, but has to suffer it in quiet.

STIAN. That is awfully sad to hear.

HELBING. Also, do you dare to undertake the long voyage over the wide ocean with your wife and children?

STIAN. Well, now, I donít quite know.

HELBING. It sometimes happens that the weaker children and women die in the middle of the ocean and then the captain must throw them overboard, into the sea.

STIAN. That is really bad.

This was not the only attempt to intimidate the emigrants. Even Rindal, whose straightforward character the author so admires, stoops to similar tactics; at one time he instructs Helbing "to tell them various things, particularly about the four unfortunate German families who emigrated to Texas, as you remember from the newspapers." He gives the captain similar orders, and this final stroke does make the emigrants waver in their determination to go. Helbing reports later to his employer: [44]

HELBING. I also come to tell you, Rindal, that six of Stianís companions, whom I met outside, have now changed their minds and do not want to leave the country, at least not immediately. They told me that Bulling [the captain] has so raged and scared them with pestilence, storm, and capsizing that they are afraid. Stian, who is at present with the captain, has also warned them and they are now looking for work here.

RINDAL. Good. Thanks for the information. I hope I have not committed any injustice against these people, who were all ready to depart. Who knows, "Peer Bødkerís luck"? Perhaps they might have done well somewhere in the New World.

HELBING. We have done what we thought right, according to our judicious conviction.

RINDAL. At least, I meant it well.

Rindal, and the author himself, have their doubts about the fairness of discouraging or preventing the departure of these earnest men. It is clear that the author finds the chief cause of emigration in the unsatisfactory economic conditions in Norway. Many of the emigrants were squatters or younger sons with little hope or opportunity for acquiring land of their own. The author seems to share some of the optimistic feeling about Norway prevailing at this period; namely, that there would be space enough and a living for all, could only the wide Norwegian moors and forest be made into farmland. In this spirit of national romanticism he has Rindal propose a considerable money prize for the most satisfactory discussion of the subject: "How is it possible to cultivate, most quickly and easily and best, the deserted swamps and moors in the wildernesses and forests among the Norwegian mountains?" The modest winner turns out to be the faithful Helbing. But the beginning of the countryís transition to the industrial era is also at hand and the author has faith in new factories and construction as a means of creating employment and a new prosperity.

Chamberlain Heibuk is often used as a target for criticism of the administration; he ridicules Rindalís efforts.

HEIBUK. Yes, it is great to be a patriot; but you yourself have not obtained your wealth in your native country. [45]

RINDAL. Norway gave me no inheritance in money, but it gave me three invaluable possessions: life, health, and a good education.

HEIBUK. I have heard that you want to sacrifice considerable sums to put an end to the emigration to America. Let the scum leave! Even so, there will be enough tramps and riffraff left. The court and the capital will laugh at this and similar projects.

The foregoing extracts are some of the sections of Allumís play that bear on emigration questions; they form, however, only a small part. Most of it is filled with minor complications about the love interests of the persons in the play. Everything ends happily when Belton, Rindalís friend who had accompanied him from the States, marries Rindalís sister and Rindal again flouts social conventions by marrying a housemaid with an illegitimate child. All depart for America, to sell their properties and return to Norway to rein vest them. They invite Stian and his oldest son to accompany them and report back about true conditions in the New World.

Later Norwegian writers, among them such prominent literary figures as Wergeland, Ivar Aasen, and Bjørnson, have analyzed emigration problems in dramatic form. {4} But Allumís play is noteworthy, in spite of its naïveté, as a first attempt in this direction. It contains a sufficient number of factual details to make it reasonable to inquire into the background events that may have inspired the author.

Allum spent most of his life in the Drammen area, and several remarks in the play point to this place as the locale that he had in mind. On the basis of Blegenís excellent account it is natural to infer that Allum was influenced by the emigration movement initiated by the return in 1838 of Ansten Nattestad to his own home in Rollaug in Numedal. {5} Earlier emigration activity had been concentrated in the coastal districts around Stavanger, while Allumís bønder [46] obviously came from the valleys of the eastern sections. Not only did Nattestad bring firsthand information from the New World, but he also brought back the manuscript of Ole Rynningís "True Account of America," to be published in Christiania in 1838, and his brother Ole Nattestadís journal, "Description of a Journey to North America," which appeared in Drammen in 1839. {6} Several emigrant groups left the Drammen area at that time, notably the Nattestad party, which, according to Blegen, assembled in Drammen in June, 1839, unmindful of the terrifying stories about America with which people had attempted to frighten them.

Notes


<1> Broder Ebben i fødelandet eller Amerikareisen: Skuespil i fire akter (Christiania, 1839).

<2> The French playwright, Augustin Eugene Scribe (1791ó1861).

<3> Slaraffenland occurs as early as the fifteenth century in German writings and is still a popular term in Germany and Scandinavia for a land of plenty where no one needs to work. It is a coined word, made up of parts that literally imply the land of slothful monkeys.

<4> See for instance Arne Odd Johnsen, "Bjørnsonís Reaction to Emigration," in Nonvegian-American Studies and Records, 6: 133ó145 (1931).

<5> Norwegian Migration to America, 1825 ó1860, 94, 102, 115 (Northfield, 1931).

<6> For the original text and an English translation of the Rynning volume see Theodore C. Blegen, ed., Ole Rynningís True Account of America (Norwegian American Historical Association, Travel and Description Series, vol. 1 ó Minneapolis, l926).

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