NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

First Sagas in a New World: A Study of The Beginnings of Norwegian-American Literature {1}
    By Gerald H. Thorson (Volume 17: Page 108)

At the close of the Civil War American literature began to take on a new look. New authors appeared; local-colorists were plentiful. Bret Harte wrote his Luck of Roaring Camp in 1870; Edward Eggleston published The Hoosier School master in 1871; and Mark Twain brought out Innocents Abroad in 1869, followed during the next decade by Roughing It and Tom Sawyer. The age was pre-eminently one of fiction; the story of the common man was becoming popular. There was an abundance of folk songs and of poetry, much of it in dialect.

American literary masterpieces were coming out of the West. In the East the old guard remained, but even there new tastes were evident. William Dean Howells was beginning his work as editor, critic, and author; and with him the old lingered on. The new, however, was thrusting forward. American literature began to travel in new directions. In the midst of this change there appeared a branch of fiction that was apart from the general movement, and yet followed the same pattern.

In the 1870's a few men who were acquainted with literary trends on both sides of the Atlantic began to encourage the growth of a Norwegian-American literature. The group of immigrants to whom they spoke was not a large one. In 1860 there were only 43,995 Norwegians in America. By 1870 there were 114,246 of the first generation and 161,206 in all, and [109] in 1880 the number of first-generation Norwegians had in creased to 181,246, with 300,301 in all. {2} But the voices raised were loud, and they made themselves heard. The small band of settlers had settled chiefly in the Middle West; there were many Norwegian communities; and the people continued to conduct their affairs in their native language. Further, they were a people who loved to read. Scores of newspapers came into being, and these publications served not only as a common voice in a new land but also as a medium in the development of the new literature.

That a distinct literature should develop so early among so few is in itself a strange phenomenon. Together with all the difficulties of making the adjustment to a new environment, the small group had many internal differences: the common-school question, church problems, and politics. Still the immigrants, held together by a natural bond of language and of love for the homeland, continued to develop their own cultural interests. As early as 1861 Luther College was founded in Decorah, Iowa; in 1869 Augsburg opened in Mar shall, Wisconsin; and St. Olaf was established in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1874.

During the 1870's a distinct Norwegian-American literature had its beginnings. Like the American literature of the period, it told the story of the common man; in ballads, poetry, and fiction the settlers wrote about themselves. Most often they saw themselves in their old home, but they were conscious, too, of their new surroundings. They had no Egglestons, Twains, nor Bret Hartes, but their writings did come out of the West; their foremost spokesman encouraged them from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. In the East, too, they had their critic; and curiously enough he was closely associated with the dean of American letters, his development closely resembling that of William Dean Howells. For chiefly to two men - Rasmus B. Anderson and Hjalmar H. [110] Boyesen - this literature owes its beginnings. Their influence has been recognized, but never fully investigated. Boyesen's Gunnar (1873, 1874) is usually considered the first novel by a Norwegian immigrant in America, and Anderson's publications of the 1870's aroused considerable interest among the pioneers.

But the efforts of these two men went much further, and this makes their work even more significant. Actually neither produced anything that can be called a part of Norwegian-American literature; what they did was to bring before their countrymen in America the richness of Scandinavian writings, and in this way they encouraged local production.

There were, of course, many popular ballads, some as early as the 1830's and 1840's, others appearing during the great post-Civil War influx of immigrants. Most of them were oral and were not published immediately. Travel literature appeared very early. In 1838 Ole Rynning published his account of America, Sandfærdig beretning om Amerika, in Christiania. In the following year Ole K. Nattestad published Beskrivelse over en reise til Nordamerika in Drammen, Norway. Ole Munch Ræder brought out his account of America in the Christiania newspaper, Den norske rigstidende, in 1847-48. Peter Testman had published his description of his travels in America in Stavanger in 1839. Many other similar books of travel and description appeared in the following decades. The innumerable America letters that the immigrants sent to Europe were also important. {3} [111]

Not until the 1870-s, however, with the appearance of several Norwegian-American newspapers, was there a real effort to produce any literary work. The newspapers were widely read; they found their way into most of the pioneer homes. In their pages space was given to novels, stories, poems, and articles; news stories on leading authors in America and Europe; and columns on literature. Each issue of the various papers carried advertisements for books and magazines.

Fædrelandet og emigranten of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was established in 1864 by a merger of two papers dating back to pre-Civil War days. The editor from 1868 to 1878 was Frederick Fleischer; he was succeeded by F. A. Husher. Skandinaven, founded in Chicago in 1866, was guided by John Anderson, Knud Langeland, Victor Lawson, and Svein Nilsson. Budstikken, established in Minneapolis in 1873, was edited by Paul Hjelm-Hansen until 1876. He was succeeded by Jon Bjarnason and later Luth Jaeger. Decorah-posten in Decorah, Iowa, and Norden in Chicago also began publication during the 1870's, but their major literary influence did not come until later.

During the 1870's Skandinaven published a magazine entitled Husbibliothek, similar to the Sunday supplements, that contained articles of interest, stories, and poetry. Though most of its contents had little importance, it did carry works by Boyesen, Bjørnson, and Dickens. For hjemmet, a periodical of the same type, was founded in 1870 in Decorah, Iowa, by three Luther College faculty members; in it the first novel of Norwegian-American life was published.

Fædrelandet og emigranten made a practice of running novels in installments. These parts were so arranged on the pages that the reader could cut them out, save them, and later bind them in book form. While many of these novels were unimportant ones, such works as Bjørnson's En glad gut, C. J. L. Almquist's Nybyggerne paa Grimstahamn, Anthon Bang's Brødrene, and Stowe's Onkel Toms hytte [112] appeared. As early as 1871 three stories by Kristofer Janson, a popular Norwegian author, were printed: Fra Norge, Per og Bergit, and Liv. The poetry of Rasmus O. Reine and of other Norwegian Americans, many of them anonymous, was published. There were a few literature columns, but in general they contained little of value. Reviews of the following books suggest the level of attainment: The Resources of California, Politics for Young Americans, Among Our Sailors, The Land Dealers, and Western Railroad Guide. The editors recommended Anderson's Norse Mythology because it had been much discussed in the American press; however, they stated, they had not yet seen the book and were therefore unable to say anything about it. {4}

Skandinaven took a more active part in literary matters. There were, of course, numerous poems by Norwegian and Norwegian-American authors. Serialized novels in Skandinaven did not begin until 1873, but the level was a little higher than that of Fædrelandet og emigranten. Most of these novels were translations from the English, and among them were works by Cooper and Dickens. {5} There were many articles on Norwegian, American, and continental authors; and the literature columns were devoted to some of the best writings. In the book advertisements the works of all the leading Norwegian and Norwegian-American authors were featured. Considerable publicity was given to the writings of R. B. Anderson and H. H. Boyesen.

The development of a Norwegian-American literature can be traced best in Skandinaven, and its columns carry the names of those who were responsible: two Norwegians and three Norwegian Americans. Through their writings and through the publicity given to them in the press, a definite literature began in the 1870's. The five were Kristofer [113] Janson, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Bernt Askevold, Hjalmar H. Boyesen, and Rasmus B. Anderson.

As early as 1870 an article appeared in Skandinaven en titled "Originalitet i literære arbeider." The author ("V.F.L.") stated that no piece of writing was worth anything unless it had originality. A work could show this, he said, through new materials or through a new method of handling old materials. Such writing was, however, extremely rare in the press. The initials "V.F.L." suggest that the piece on originality was written by Victor F. Lawson, although Lawson did not become an editor of Skandinaven until l873. {6}

Frequently poetry was contributed to the newspapers by subscribers. According to Waldemar Ager, whose classic, oft quoted survey of Norwegian-American literature appeared in 1914, the dreams of the pioneers were expressed in poems about "the home they left" and "the home they found." {7}

In the early 1870's both Skandinaven and Fædrelandet og emigranten found space in their columns for the verse of Captain Endre T. Thorsen of Chicago. Captain Thorsen ex pressed the typical longings of the pioneer for his homeland: "Kirkegaarden," "Ved stranden," and "Tilbageblik" deal with life in Norway. But his favorite topics seemed to be versified eulogies of Scandinavian personalities and heroes, or lyrics dedicated to some particular day in Scandinavian history. "Sang til Harald Haarfager" and "Hellig Olav" praise two of Norway's famous men; and "Carl den 15des fødselsdag" celebrates the king's birthday. Each year, apparently, he composed a new poem in honor of Norway's independence day. He wrote about places in Scandinavia: "Oslo," "Trondhjems domkirke," and "Island." The local scene did not entirely escape him, and we have "Vinteren i Chicago," "Indianerforfølgelsen," and "Niagara." {8} [113]

Thorsen's chief concern was to remind the immigrant readers of their homeland, apparently so that he could raise contributions for a statue of Harald Haarfager, to be placed on his grave in honor of Norway's one-thousand-year celebration as an independent nation. As the leader of this drive among Norwegians in America, Thorsen's name appeared frequently in articles and advertisements. "It is good to see that our countrymen in America have not forgotten old Norway, and that thoughts about the dear fatherland are not extinguished by distance," he wrote. {9} In "Mindet" he told how this memorial would help to unite the Norwegians:

This monument with love and thanks

To Norway's splendid king we build.

The name of Harald shall live on

With all millennial honors filled. {10}

Evidently the captain's verses were popular; Skandinaven quoted an article from the Chicago Tribune signed "Dixie." This writer described a meeting of Scandinavians in Chicago; many there had inquired about Captain Thorsen's works and had wondered if they had been translated into English. "Dixie" said the captain had published a few poems in newspapers; they were, however, examples of how not to write -just nonsense. To this quoted piece Skandinaven appended one signed "Mange Normænd" that objected to "Dixie's" criticism, saying that Thorsen's poems had appeared in all the Norwegian-American papers and in papers in Norway. "The greatest contemporary Norwegian poet, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, has spoken about them with kindness in a letter which was recently published in Skandinaven, the most circulated Scandinavian paper in America." {11} [115]

Captain Thorsen's verse is important for its subject matter; it brought back memories of Norway to the Norwegians in America. In this way Thorsen worked hand in hand with Boyesen and Anderson.

A volume of poems by Rasmus O. Reine, En liden samling af psalmer og religiøse digte, was published by Fædrelandet og emigranten in 1871. Reine was born in Telemark, Nor way, and immigrated to Waupaca County, Wisconsin, with his parents in 1846. By 1870 he was a regular contributor of religious verse to Fædrelandet og emigranten. The work of this man had little or no influence; his book is important as the first published collection of poems by a Norwegian American. {12}

When Rasmus B. Anderson of the University of Wisconsin returned from a trip to Norway in 1872 he wrote a series of articles, "Breve fra min reise til Norge," that were published in Skandinaven og Amerika early in 1873. He wrote about Christiania, the university, the newspapers, and Bjørnson. {13}

In October, 1873, Skandinaven og Amerika began a series of articles on Norway, "Lidt om Norge," written by Bernt Askevold. Askevold had just arrived in America and had gone to Decorah, where he later became an editor of Decorah-posten. That same year one of his poems, "Amerikansk-normannisk folkesang," appeared in Skandinaven og Amerika; and the year 1874 found him a frequent contributor of verse to For hjemmet. {14}

Askevold was impelled to write the articles about Norway because he didn't believe that Anderson had gone to Norway with a "genuine Norwegian heart." He disagreed with Anderson's opinion about the amount and type of reading Norwegians did. Anderson had stated that few people [116] read Wergeland any more, but Askevold said that this was true only of Norwegians in America. "Norwegians, even in the country, read much." He wrote about Wergeland, Bjørn son, Ibsen, Lie, Vinje, and Aasen, and appealed to the Norwegians in America to read the literature of Norway. He later discussed Norway's newspapers, politics, and schools, and then returned to the literature: "Let us, who have emigrated from old Norway, remember it with thanks and love; let us also do what we can toward its intellectual advancement. Let us, above all, not forget it. . . . Let us not forget our ancestral language and literature, because we know that big America does not have one book in its entire field of literature that can be compared with what little Norway has on its bookshelves." {15}

But the articles that brought the greatest response in 1873 were written by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. "From the time the first installment of En glad gut (A Happy Boy) appeared in Emigranten on January 21, 1861, up to the year 1876, which witnessed the beginning of his attack upon the church, Bjørnson was the popular idol of the Norwegians in America. {16} Book advertisements in the Norwegian-American press always mentioned at least one of his books; his poetry appeared frequently; and there were occasional articles about him and his work. His idyllic tales of the Norwegian countryside were constant favorites. By 1873, therefore, Bjørnson had an established popularity, and readers were eager for anything new from his pen.

When R. B. Anderson went to Norway in 1872, the owners of Skandinaven og Amerika asked him to see Bjørnson and secure him as a correspondent. According to Anderson's report, "Bjørnson accepted this engagement with the greatest enthusiasm . . . not only to correspond exclusively for [117] [Skandinaven og] Amerika, but also to send his poems, stories, and dramas for publication in [Skandinaven og] Amerika before they appeared elsewhere. This contract I brought with me to America." {17}

Early in 1873 this announcement appeared: "Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Scandinavia's, if not the world's, greatest contemporary author and poet, is the paper's regular Norwegian correspondent. Everything new in literature from his hands will appear in Skandinaven og Amerika before it appears in any other paper, in Norway or elsewhere. . . . Bjørnson's correspondence is at hand, and no Norwegian American should fail to read it." {18}

Bjørnson's first letter, dated at Christiania, January 6, 1873, appeared in the daily edition in February. In it he discussed the Norwegian book market and reported on the latest publications of Kristofer Janson, Jonas Lie, Magdalena Thoresen, Camilla Collett, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Olav Skavlan, Ernst Sans, Gustav Storm, and Kristian Elster; and on Norwegian music and composers. He said: "A good literature is a noble art, a great concern in a people, and therefore I am happy that just as this Christmas season's books bear marks which distinguish themselves with morality, truth, intellectual strength, love for freedom and home, . . . . so will the influence of books and art, both in the present and future, be good, and the renown our kinsmen receive from them will be an honor for the Norwegian people to day. {19}

Later he wrote about many other things: the Storting, the government, the king, and political affairs in Norway. To ward the end of the year he made a trip to Italy, and he reported on that. From time to time some of his poetry appeared, supposedly for the first time, in print. The letters [118] were discontinued at the end of the year, but during that year Bjørnson had become even better known among the Norwegian Americans. That his articles were widely read is evident by the great number of letters received by the paper from readers favoring and opposing his views, especially those on politics. In fact, he brought on a discussion that continued in Skandinaven well into 1874. The Norwegian Americans of the early 1870's considered Bjørnson to be a true representative of their native land.

Thus through Skandinaven og Amerika the names and works of all the leading authors became familiar, and with the increasing prominence of Norwegian writers in European literary circles, the immigrant in America was filled with pride. By 1874 this interest was applied to the work of Norwegians in America: what could be better than a Norwegian literature in America? A recording of a new saga in a new world?

The year 1874, therefore, stands out as the red-letter year of Norwegian-American literature. The sudden outburst of activity seems today almost unbelievable. Boyesen's Gunnar, written in English for an American public, appeared in book form. Anderson published two books, America Not Discovered by Columbus and Den norske maalsag, which aroused considerable comment in both the American and the Norwegian-American press. Nicolai Severin Hassel wrote two novels: "Alf Brager, eller skolerlæreren i Minnesota" and "Raedselsdagene: Et norsk billede fra indianerkrigen i Minnesota" for For hjemmet. "The tales are freighted with heavy religious moralizing, but are authentic in their Norwegian American flavor and, so far as is known, mark the initial attempt to deal specifically with the immigrant scene in a Norwegian {20} J. Valdemar Borchsenius published a collection of lyric poems entitled Ved Øresund og Mississippi. Boyesen and Anderson carried on a correspondence that [119] resulted in better literary reviews in the press. And the newspapers themselves took a renewed interest in literature. An editorial in Skandinaven, looking toward the new year, stated that increased attention would be given to literature, especially that of Norway and Denmark. Serial stories would continue, and an attempt would be made to include only the best available. {21}

Anderson and Boyesen were largely responsible for this rise of interest. Realizing that stimulating the reading public, both American and Norwegian, to an awareness of Scandinavian literature would strengthen their own positions, they proceeded to promote the works of Norwegian authors, then their own books, and finally, the writings of other Norwegian Americans.

Laurence M. Larson has dated Boyesen's arrival in the West in 1869 as the beginning of a new chapter in the intellectual history of the Norwegians in the United States. He states that Boyesen's name "is not only the first but remains the most prominent one throughout a large part of the chapter." {22} Boyesen's pastoral stories of Norway, written for an American public, found their way to the Norwegians in America. As a professor at Cornell and Columbia, Boyesen did much to advance the cause of Scandinavian literature in the English-speaking world, and he worked for the same thing among the Norwegians in America. This can be best observed in his letters to Rasmus B. Anderson. {23}

On March 28, 1874, Boyesen wrote to Anderson describing his activities and his work at Cornell. He added: "By the way, without reference to myself, why don't the Scand. papers devote some space to Literature. I mean reviews & notices; what they have at present is next to nothing."

Anderson's reply must have been agreeable, because on [120] April 18 Boyesen wrote: "Your remark about the Scandinavian papers leads me further to explain what I meant by what I said in my last letter, & I hope I dare confide this little grievance to you. It seemed to me somewhat strange that while The Nation, The N.Y. Tribune, The Boston Globe, & in fact all the leading American papers comment favor ably upon my writings & honor me with frequent reviews, the Scandinavian papers have so far entirely ignored my doings. And still it is as a Scandinavian that I write, & I am conscious of having contributed not a little toward making our Literature known here, and toward procuring a market for it among the American public. . . . Excuse my wearying you with a letter so altogether personal. I do it because I think you have it in your power to influence the current of popular feeling among our countrymen. I don't mean in my own case particularly, but in the way of awakening scholarly & literary tastes among them."

On May 22 Boyesen wrote: "I heartily thank you for your willingness to bring me before the Scandinavian public, & should unhesitatingly accept your proposition, if I were not afraid that it would look like an unwarrantable effort on my part. . . . "Gunnar" I should hardly wish elaborately reviewed, until it appears in book form, which will be in a few months & if you will then introduce it to my countrymen, I shall feel under great obligations to you."

Although nothing on Boyesen appeared in the weekly edition of Skandinaven until June 16, 1874, an article must have appeared in one of the other editions (daily, semi-weekly, or monthly) because on June 15 Boyesen wrote to Anderson: "A thousand thanks for your kind & appreciative communication to 'Skandinaven.' Your praise was exceedingly gratifying to me, because it was not the usual bombastic & unmeaning phraseology in which Skandinaven so frequently indulges whenever it makes an attempt in literary criticism."

The article that appeared June 16 was not signed. It [121] mentioned the work Boyesen had done, his article on Bjørnson and Janson in the North American Review, and "Gunnar," which had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and was soon to be issued in book form. It told of Boyesen's trip to Europe in the summer of 1873 and about how he met the Russian writer, Turgenev, in Paris and wrote an article on him for Galaxy. Boyesen's poetry in the Atlantic Monthly was mentioned, and the comment was made that in his writings Boyesen referred to Norse mythology, history, literature, and folk life, and that in his article on Russia he mentioned Bjørnson and Ibsen. Then the writer in Skandinaven went on to say: "It can do nothing but cheer all of our countrymen that the Norwegians have such a capable representative among the American authors. I would recommend his writings to all who can read English, but especially to those who disdain everything that is called "Norwegian", so that they could therefore learn that Norway has a saga, a literature, a song, and a nature that it is worth while to know and to love." {24}

The message was significant because it defined the point of view that eventually led to a distinct Norwegian-American literature. Boyesen and Anderson became the chief figures in this development, not because they were the first to recognize the wealth of literary material on immigrant life nor because they were the first to use it in their own writings. Their chief concern was for the recognition of Scandinavian literature among Americans and for the instilling of a pride in their heritage among the Norwegian Americans.

Rasmus B. Anderson took a more direct part in this movement than did Boyesen; and he wrote prolifically. In his lifetime he published a total of thirty-nine separate volumes and thirteen pamphlets, not counting reissues and translations. His first writings came out in the 1870's. {25}

Anderson had a boundless energy; besides his teaching [122] duties at the University of Wisconsin, he was constantly writing for newspapers and giving speeches. His personal correspondence was vast: he exchanged letters with many people, among them Boyesen, Askevold, Julius Baumann, Jon Bjarnason, Bjørnson, William Cullen Bryant, J. C. Dundas, Timothy Dwight, and Professor Fisk. {26} Both his actions and his writings were frequently criticized by his countrymen, but he never wavered in his purposes.

Of great importance in Anderson's career was his friend ship with Ole Bull. While in America, Bull was a frequent visitor at the Anderson home, and Anderson said that it was he who introduced Bull to Mrs. Thorpe and her daughter Sara, of Madison. Sara later became Mrs. Bull. Anderson traveled to Norway with Bull, promoted his concerts in America, and served with him on the Leif Erikson monument committee, together with Hale, Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell. Ole Bull was popular among Americans and Norwegian Americans, and his influence on Anderson and the position that his friendship gave to Anderson should not be underestimated. It was through Ole Bull that Anderson met Bjørnson. {27}

Beginning in July, 1874, and continuing through the next three years, an anonymous "Frithjof" began to write book reviews for Skandinaven, discussing both American and Scandinavian authors and the publications of Norwegian Americans. It early became apparent that Frithjof was from Madison, Wisconsin, that he had a wide knowledge of Scandinavian literature, and that he was well acquainted with many prominent people. {28}

In one article Frithjof wrote of a trip east during which he saw "my friend Professor Fisk at Cornell University," visited at Longfellow's home, and met Boyesen in Boston. About [123] the only Norwegian American who could be identified with this traveler was Professor Anderson, although in this same article Frithjof spoke about Anderson in Madison. In July, 1876, Frithjof wrote that he had attended a meeting of liberals at Baraboo, Wisconsin, and there he had been invited to speak on Romanism. In the Anderson scrapbook for 1876 there is a copy of the program of the Liberal Conference at Baraboo. The speaker on Romanism was Professor H. B. Anderson of Madison. {29}

Anderson used this pseudonym frequently. He brought before the readers of Skandinaven the importance of Norwegian and Norwegian-American authors (including himself). Frithjof's first book review, in 1874, discussed Getting On in the World, or Hints on Success in Life, by William Matthews. Writing about Boyesen's Gunnar after it had appeared in book form, Frithjof called Boyesen the American Bjørnson, and pointed out the many poetic pictures of Norway that furnished the background of the story. Frithjof found a few minor errors in the book, and he thought Boyesen over emphasized the Norwegian desire to drink but, he said, "We should . . . do honor to ourselves and to our nationality by buying Boyesen's book immediately." He wrote often on Boyesen, always referring to the honor that he was bringing the Norwegians in America. Besides reviewing the novels, Frithjof also listed all of Boyesen's writings that had appeared in American magazines. Then he added: "Didn't I say that Scandinavian themes were beginning to be fashionable here in America? If you don't believe it, look at the January issue of Scribner's Monthly. In addition to Boyesen's writings there are two other articles on Norway. . . I have still more books here on Scandinavia which I will write of later." {30} [124]

Other Norwegians in America were beginning to write their own sagas. In poetry and prose the story began to unfold. When J. Valdemar Borchsenius' collection of lyric poems was published in 1874, Skandinaven hailed it as the first book of poetry written and published by a Scandinavian in America. Reine's book had appeared earlier, but Borchsenius' Ved Øresund og Mississippi is important for its subject matter: an immigrant's journey to America, his thoughts of the homeland, and the places and situations in which he now found himself. This book was reviewed both in Skandinaven and in Fædrelandet og emigranten. {31}

Skandinaven printed several poems by J. C. Dundas. He was a physician, a descendant of Norway's famous poet, Peter Dass; he had studied in Christiania, Copenhagen, Vienna, Helsinki, and Berne; and he had worked as a surgeon in the East Indies, England, Holland, and China before settling down as a general practitioner in Cambridge, Wisconsin. His lively personality made him a popular figure. "Til Ole Bull" and "I fjeldet" praised two of Norway's out standing personalities, Bull and Bjørnson. Dundas deserves mention chiefly because he was a frequent contributor. {32}

In 1876 two more Norwegian-American novels were written. Bert Askevold published Hun Ragnhild, a story of the Norwegian countryside. This novel, like many that were to follow, carried the readers back to the scenes of their childhood. In the same year Tellef Grundysen wrote "Fra begge sider af havet," the story of a family in southern Minnesota. It enjoyed an immense popularity among the Norwegians in America. In 1877 it was published in book form, a second edition being printed in 1882, and a third in 1896. As Dr. Blegen has pointed out, Grundysen's novel and the two earlier novels of Hassel are significant not only as the first [125] Norwegian-American novels, but also because they deal with the American scene. {33}

In 1876, also, Kristofer Janson's three-act drama, Amerikanske fantasier, was issued in Chicago by Skandinaven, which hailed its publication as a red-letter day for Norwegians in America: it was the first time that a Norwegian author had published a book in America. Fædrelandet og emigranten, however, remarked that the title was the only good thing in the book: it was well chosen, being "a caricature of American conduct. . . . It appears almost as if the author thought there was truth in his fantasy. The work is written in a light and pleasing diction, but the expressions in it often fall flat." {34}

That same year Skandinaven announced that Janson, "the famous Norwegian author, poet, and . . . teacher, has been engaged as a correspondent for Skandinaven." The editors were sure that this could "do nothing else but please our readers. . . . With the exception of Bjørnson we know of no Norwegian poet who has penetrated so deeply into the heart of the people as Janson has." {35} In his "Brevsending til Skandinaven," which ran in the paper that year, Janson wrote about affairs in Norway. Janson lived in America from 1881 to 1893, but in the 1870's he was not working for the creation of a Norwegian-American literature; as a prominent Norwegian author, he helped to stimulate an interest in the literature of the fatherland.

Rasmus B. Anderson continued his literary columns in Skandinaven under the name of Frithjof. He referred often to books being published in America on Scandinavia. He had read in a London newspaper that Scandinavian literature was becoming fashionable in England. To show that [126] Scandinavian topics were also popular among Americans, he listed eight English books published in America on Scandinavia. His review of Bayard Taylor's Egypt and Iceland was headed, "More American Literature about Our Beloved Norway." In the article he wrote: "But tell me now, dear reader, is not all this entertaining? Have you waited for ten years that someone here in America would join you in speaking about your old fatherland? Have you waited for the land which barely gave you daily bread to possess an atmosphere of higher thought which would go as a purifying and refreshing north wind among the sickly German and English literature? . . . Asathor and Hercules shall purify America's, England's, and Germany's literature." {36}

The greatest book published in America on Iceland was Samuel Kneeland's An American in Iceland, according to Frithjof; in reviewing this book he urged that every Scandinavian community in America have a reading society. He mentioned with pride that Norwegian Americans had progressed so far that a book by a Norwegian author was to be published in America: Kristofer Janson's Amerikanske fantasier. But the greatest literary production of the period was The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris. Frithjof hailed this book by the British poet as a national epic, worthy of attention. He also encouraged Norwegian Americans to write. As early as 1874 he wrote, "It would make me happy soon to be able to announce books by many Norwegian-American authors." {37}

In 1875 an article signed "P. T." stated that Skandinaven, with the publication of Anderson's Den norske maalsag, had "opened the way for the development of an independent Norwegian-American literature." In August of 1875 Frithjof took up this theme. He had just read the manuscript of Askevold's book, and he urged all to subscribe to this [127] "interesting account of life home in the mountains." He wanted the ministers to take the lead in encouraging such writings; of four hundred subscribers to Anderson's book, he said, only three were ministers, and of one hundred subscribers to Askevold's forthcoming book, there were only two. {38}

An answer to this appeal to the pastors soon followed, signed by Bjørn; he replied that the pioneer writers had contributed to For hjemmet, but their writings were worthless. Preachers had little money to buy books, he said, especially for something as uncertain as this new literature. {39}

In reply Frithjof expressed the hope that the preachers, with their education, would be the leaders in the development of this culture. Since Bjørn and he had first written, he said, there had been forty-four new subscribers to Askevold's book, three of them ministers. {40} Anderson wrote reviews and articles under his own name, but under this pseudonym, Frithjof, he made his most definite pleas for the creation of a Norwegian-American literature.

Bernt Askevold, meanwhile, was not silent. In Budstikken in 1876 he discussed the possibilities for a literary movement among Norwegian Americans. Most Norwegians, he said, came to this country for economic reasons; they tried to become Americanized quickly, forgot their motherland, and associated with the native born. The church, however, was an influence in the preservation of Norwegian culture among the immigrants. Askevold traced the rising interest in Norway: communication with the homeland strengthened the ties; the formation of Norwegian-American societies brought the countrymen closer together. "This Norwegianness, which evidently is a lively development, is also an affair of considerable future significance; it causes me to believe that here is a possibility for a Norwegian-American literature in the Norwegian language." [128]

Askevold believed that there was already a Norwegian-American literature (books and papers had been published in America in Norwegian, he said, and the clergy had provided some fine religious articles), but he wanted the language and culture to continue in America. The greatest hindrance, he felt, was the desire of the Norwegians to be Yankees. He suggested that more Norwegian schools be established, as they would provide many readers for a Norwegian-American literature. Norwegian should be spoken in Norwegian societies, which were the logical centers for literary interest. The newspapers, too, could play an important part. He made special mention of Skandinaven, but added that it was losing its high place among Norwegian-American newspapers: although it had done good work, it did not take a serious view of literature. What he hoped to see in the future was a literary magazine which was affiliated with magazines in Norway and Denmark and which would contain both literature and criticism. {41}

The method Askevold proposed for interesting his countrymen in such an undertaking was just that which Boyesen and Anderson were attempting: to awaken their memories of Norway, to call attention to Norway's popular literature, and then to solicit readers for Norwegian-American literature.

In the development of this last project there are many influences and many persons to be considered. The role of the press must not be underestimated. A study could be made, moreover, of the backgrounds of the immigrants, of the accomplishments of the John Anderson Publishing House, and of trends in America and in Scandinavia in relation to Norwegian-American literary developments.

It is clear, however, that a Norwegian-American literature grew up because of the efforts of several people to create an interest in the literature of Norway, which was then [129] beginning to command respect both on the continent and in America. Most of the credit goes to Boyesen and Anderson. While their interest was basically personal (Boyesen wanted to promote his own works and Anderson sought a professor ship in Scandinavian), their efforts brought the beginnings of a Norwegian-American literature. Askevold, however, looked to the future; he was one of the first Norwegian-American authors, and he was the first to see the possibilities of literary development among the Norwegians in America. Askevold alone envisioned the flowering that was to come in the 1890's, followed in the next century by the greatest of all of the pioneer literary giants, Ole Rølvaag.

Notes

<1> Research for this paper was completed at the University of Wisconsin under a Torger Thompson Fellowship. To Dr. Einar Haugen, under whose direction the work was carried out, I am indebted for the final form of this paper: his guidance and insight were invaluable.

<2> Olaf M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America, (Minneapolis, 1925).

<3> See Theodore C. Blegen and Martin B. Ruud, ed., Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads (Minneapolis, 1986); Einar Haugen, "A Norwegian-American Pioneer Ballad," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 15:119 (Northfield, 1949); Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 104 (Northfield, 1940); Blegen, ed., Ole Rynning's True Account of America (Minneapolis, 1926); Blegen, ed., Peter Testman's Account of His Experiences in North America (Northfield, 1927); Gunnar i. Malmin, ed., America in the Forties: The Letters of Ole Munch Ræder (Minneapolis, 1929); Frontier Parsonage: The Letters of Olaus Fredrke Duus', Norwegian Pastor in Wisconsin, 18551858, translated by the Verdandi Study Club and edited by Theodore C. Blegen (Northfield, 1947). The last four comprise volumes 1 through 4 of the Travel and Description Series of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<4> Fædrelandet og emigranten (La Crosse, Wisconsin), August 11, October 6, 1870, March 16, July 13, November 2, 1871, February 8, 1872, May 28, 1874, May 6, June 10, September 9, 1875, April 6, 1876.

<5> Skandinaven (Chicago), January 4, 1876, February 6, 1877.

<6> Skandinaven, July 20, 1870.

<7> Waldemar Ager, "Norsk-amerikansk skjønliteratur," in Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift, 293 (Decorah, Iowa, 1914).

<8> Skandinaven May 11, 18, June 15, 20, 1870, May 24, July 12, August 2, December 13, 1871, April 14, May 19, 1874, June 19, 1877; Fædrelandet og emigranten, May 12, 1870, March 7, June 20, 1872, May 7, 21, 1874.

<9> Fædrelandet og emigranten, July 21, 1870.

<10> Fædrelandet og emigranten, February 15, 1872. This is a free translation of the first stanza.

<11> Skandinaven, August 3, 1870. The Bjørnson letter mentioned has not been found.

<12>Fædrelandet og emigranten, May 11, August 3, 1871. Reine's book is in the Luther College library and in the library of Dr. O. M. Norlie, Northfield, Minnesota.

<13> Skandinaven og Amerika (Chicago), January 29, 1873.

<14> Skandinaven og Amerika, October 21, November 15, 1878.

<15> Skandinaven og Amerika, October 24, November 8, 1873.

<16> Arthur Paulson, "Bjørnson and the Norwegian-Americans, 188081," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 5:84 (1930).

<17> Rasmus B. Anderson, Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, 160 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1915).

<18> Skandinaven og Amerika, January 5, 1873.

<19> Skandinaven og Amerika, February 15, 17, 1878.

<20> Blegen, American Transition, 588.

<21> Skandinaven, November 17, 1874.

<22> Laurence M. Larson, The Changing West and Other Essays, 82 (Northfield, 1937).

<23> These letters are in the possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

<24> Skandinaven, June 16, 1874.

<25> Einar Haugen, "A Critique and a Bibliography of the Writings of Rasmus B. Anderson," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 22:255 (March, 1937).

<26> Letters from these various individuals to Anderson are in the possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

<27> Anderson, Life Story, 107, 159.

<28> Skandinaven, July 14, 1874.

<29> Skandinaven, February 23, 1875. The Anderson scrapbooks are in the possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

<30> Skandinaven, August 25, October 20, 1874, August 3, 1875, January 18, December 5, 12, 1876, February 27, 1877.

<31> Skandinaven, November 10, 1874; Fædrelandet og emigranten, December 24, 1874.

<32> Skandinaven og Amerika, June 9, 1878; Skandinaven, February 20, October 9, 1877.

<33> Larson, The Changing West, 66. Included is an excellent article on "Tellef Grundysen and the Beginnings of Norwegian-American Fiction," p. 4966. See also Blegen, American Transition, 588.

<34> Skandinaven, March 7, 1876; Fædrelandet og emigranten, March 16, 1876.

<35> Skandinaven, February 15, 1876.

<36> Skandinaven, October 12, 1875, December 12, 1876.

<37> Skandinaven, November 3, 1874, January 11, March 7, 1876, March 13, 1877.

<38> Skandinaven, May 18, August 31, 1875.

<39> Skandinaven, September 21, 1875.

<40> Skandinaven, October 5, 1875.

<41> Budstikken (Minneapolis), November 14, 21, 1876.

 


 
To the Home Page