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Rasmus B. Anderson, Pioneer and Crusader {1}
    By Paul Knaplund (Volume I8: Page 23)

In any “Who’s Who” of Norwegian Americans, Professor Rasmus Bjørn Anderson will always hold a prominent place. A native of Dane County, Wisconsin, he spent the greater part of his long life of ninety years in Madison. It was a rich and varied career: Anderson was in many respects an extraordinary man. He was so versatile that he might be described by Dryden’s characterization of Lord Shaftesbury, “a man so various that he seemed to be not one but all man kind’s epitome.” And “stiff in opinion” Anderson certainly was; but there were other attributes of mankind which he did not possess-he was neither dunce nor coward, and none, no matter how kindly disposed toward him, could have called him charitable.

In intellect and character Anderson was a compound of many traits strangely mixed. An eager student, a resourceful writer, an adroit controversialist, he explored numerous fields. He could be frank as well as secretive, rash and tenacious, impulsive and yet have a keen eye for the main chance. A born crusader, he was fearless, pugnacious, and zealous. He had a robust mind, a brittle temper, a long memory for real or fancied wrongs, and a lofty indifference to public opinion. Although extremely self-centered and sometimes vengeful, [24] he could be both interesting and winsome in social inter course. On many points Anderson qualified for a niche among those labeled “irregularly great.”

The son of Norwegian immigrants, Rasmus Bjørn Anderson was born in the town of Albion, Dane County, Wisconsin, on January 12, 1846. Nine and a half years earlier, his parents had arrived in this country from Norway. After brief stays in Rochester, New York, and La Salle County, Illinois, they went to Albion in the spring of 1841. There the father bought 80 acres of land outright; he secured 40 acres on pre-emption; and subsequently he purchased another 100 acres. Mrs. Anderson was the first white woman to live in the town of Albion-a pioneer settlement with its market in Milwaukee, seventy miles away. On August 10, 1850, her husband died of cholera. The second son, Bruun, sixteen, had died four days earlier. Of the eight surviving children only Andrew, the eldest, had been born in Norway; the others were born in America.

Here then we have the setting for Anderson’s childhood and youth-hard pioneer conditions, a large immigrant family, the father’s early death. Some facts about Rasmus B. Anderson’s parents may assist us to understand him. The father, Bjørn Anderson Kvelve, was of yeoman stock. The place name “Kvelve” apparently was dropped when the family arrived in this country. Later it was resurrected and used by R. B. Anderson when he was reporting for his paper, Amerika, on the subject of his own lecture tours in the Middle West. Whether readers believed that “Kvelve’s” accounts of Professor Anderson’s lectures were written by a person other than Anderson I don’t know.

In Norway the elder Anderson had been both a farmer and the owner of a small ship. Thus he stood economically and socially above most men of his class-a fact which helps to explain why he won for his bride Abel Catherine von Krogh, daughter of a retired army officer and member of a [25] prominent Danish-Norwegian noble family. Because of the strong class consciousness then existing in Norway, the von Krogh-Anderson marriage was a mesalliance; however, there were perhaps other reasons why the bride’s family objected to their son-in-law. Bjørn Anderson Kvelve was an able and energetic man, but he was also extremely disputatious. As a young man he went to church solely for the purpose of starting arguments outside the sanctuary over the doctrine and ritual of the state church. R. B. Anderson writes that his father was “a born agitator and debater.” Although the elder Anderson never joined the Society of Friends, the son says that “his life and conduct were controlled by Quaker principles.” Lest the reader sense a contradiction between these two statements, I shall remind him that from the day of George Fox to that of Drew Pearson not all Quakers have been distinguished for their sweet reasonableness. One may therefore conjecture that a tendency to combativeness was in line with the Anderson family tradition.

Mrs. Anderson, nee von Krogh, was evidently no clinging vine. When she was but twenty-one she braved the displeasure of her family and defied the mores of her class by marrying Bjørn Anderson. Upon his death she was left with seven young children at home. She had descended from a long line of distinguished soldiers, and she showed the mettle her fore bears had displayed on battlefields in her struggle with life’s problems on the Wisconsin frontier. She won. The strength of will and the iron determination that R. B. Anderson so often displayed throughout his long life were clearly not derived only from his father’s side.

Mrs. Anderson provided her son with other desirable attributes, one of the most useful of which was pedigree prestige. Other things being equal, it was an advantage, even in a frontier community, to be wellborn. Moreover, qualities of leadership are inherited, and pride of ancestry can be an asset. His mother’s blue blood proved of great value to the [26] Honorable Rasmus B. Anderson, United States minister to Denmark, when a jealous countryman sought to belittle the minister’s reputation by circulating the tale that he had been an apple peddler. The story was true enough, but the detractor wasted his efforts; to the Danes even so humble a vocation could not corrupt noble blood.

In 1854 Mrs. Anderson remarried, thus freeing Rasmus from family responsibilities. He obtained a rather desultory education in church and country schools, and from a tutor employed by a local pastor for his own children. At fourteen Rasmus left home to work for his oldest brother, who had a store in Milwaukee. Even at this early age Anderson showed his resourcefulness. When customers failed to come in, he set out with a bag of apples and peddled them in private offices and on the streets of the city.

The brother soon sold his store, and young Rasmus realized that a grocery clerk could not attain the heights for which he yearned. After his father’s death the family had joined the Norwegian Lutheran Synod. In September, 1861, this church body opened a school at Halfway Creek near La Crosse; in the following year the school was moved to Decorah, Iowa, and ultimately became Luther College. Anderson enrolled as a student at Halfway Creek, and followed the school to Decorah. It was there that he began his career as a nonconformist. From the beginning he was dissatisfied with the school-its Spartan discipline and its authoritarian methods were galling. The fact that the president of the school, the Reverend Laur. Larsen, defended slavery created a rift between him and Anderson from the start. After the first year Anderson wanted to quit school, but, yielding to the entreaties of his mother and family friends, he finally decided to complete its six-year course. Afterwards he might study theology; and perhaps when the school secured its own building and a larger teaching staff, conditions there would improve. [27]

In the autumn of 1865 the first Main Hall of Luther College was ready for occupancy. It was a combination dormitory and classroom building. The students moved in: but soon they found that the regime of the school was unchanged. The living quarters were small and cramped. Practically all the janitor service and the kitchen and dining room work (except cooking) had to be done by the students. From six in the morning till ten at night their time was carefully regulated. Permission was required even for visits to the town of Decorah. The older the student, the more irksome he found the school’s discipline.

Finding that opening the new building had not changed the character of the school, Anderson led an insurrection of the students. A list of complaints, prepared by him, was signed by all of them. At the formal dedication of the Main Hall the students made their grievances known to the visitors, among whom were the leading men in the Synod. An inquisition followed. One by one, the students recanted and offered submission-all except Anderson. Threats and cajolery having failed to move him, he was solemnly expelled. At midnight on the day of his expulsion he was sent off the campus, escorted by one of the professors.

The rebel retaliated in a unique and characteristic fashion. He found lodgings with a friendly family and secured employment in Decorah’s leading clothing store. From its stock Anderson selected the finest suit, hat, and shoes available. Dressed in his new finery, he hired the best livery in town, and on the day after his expulsion he drove in state to Luther College. Ostensibly he went to offer a brother-in-law transportation to the railroad station at Calmar. Actually he went to revenge himself on the school authorities. Word spread that an obviously important person had arrived at the school; and President Larsen hastened to give the visiting dignitary a proper reception. A nearsighted man, Larsen failed to recognize the visitor until he shook hands with him. [28] With a vigorous “Phooey!” the president turned and beat a hasty retreat.

Afterwards, strong pressure from friends and relatives brought the nineteen-year-old rebel humbly to recant and ask forgiveness from President Larsen. The apology was accepted, but his plea for reinstatement was refused. Moreover, Anderson was denied a recommendation to any other school. The Luther College authorities, in their report to the next annual meeting of the Norwegian Synod, offered pious thanks to the Lord because they were rid of the noxious weed in their school. Thus the pardon granted Anderson proved a very limited one, and his aspiration to become a minister of the gospel vanished.

The Christian principle of turning the other cheek never had appealed to R. B. Anderson. He was rather inclined to follow the older precept of “a tooth for a tooth.” Consequently, he proceeded to have his tit for tat with President Larsen and his associates. From behind the counter of the Decorah clothing store the expelled and proscribed student conducted a campaign against Luther College. Later, when the store moved to the near-by town of Conover, Anderson repeated the system he had used in Milwaukee and went out in search of customers. Hiring a sled and a team of horses, he peddled merchandise among the Norwegian-American farmers of Winneshiek County; at the same time he exploited every opportunity to carry on his active campaign against Luther College. During these trips he also organized the Norwegian-American Educational Society. As a student he had won local fame as an orator, and the dramatic end of his college career had given him considerable notoriety. Furthermore, the aristocratic and proslavery proclivities of Luther College professors and their supporters among ministers who had been trained in Norway or at the German Lutheran Concordia Seminary in St. Louis had aroused resentment among Norwegian immigrants. Anderson’s efforts were [29] rewarded; the new organization chose him as secretary and announced that it would establish a new Norwegian Lutheran college somewhere in Minnesota. But when opponents of the project pointed out that Anderson was underage, he gave up his campaign. In the spring of 1866 he returned home.

Anderson’s mother, widowed for the second time, had be come alarmed at her son’s activities in Iowa and now urged him to take over the family farm. He secured title to it at a low price; but as he had no liking for farming, he soon leased the property to a friend for a three-year period and sought other fields of endeavor.

Close by his home, in the village of Albion, a Seventh-Day Baptist school was having difficulty attracting students from the overwhelmingly Norwegian Lutheran community. Anderson approached the president of its board of trustees, Dr. C. B. Head, and offered his services as recruiting agent. With characteristic audacity, Anderson promised to teach any subject in the curriculum. The offer was accepted on condition that his salary be limited to the fees collected from the students Anderson brought to the school. To this he agreed. He was so successful in his recruiting efforts that after the first year he was put on a regular salary.

Albion Academy prospered, and Anderson admitted modestly that the change of fortune was due to his efforts. Within three years its attendance rose from forty to three hundred. Anderson not only taught and solicited funds, he procured the contractor for a new building at the school. But many as were his activities as professor at Albion, they did not exhaust all his energy. In 1868 he served as delegate from the East Koshkonong Lutheran congregation to the annual convention of the Norwegian Synod. At this convention he attempted to even old scores by urging a vote of censure on Luther College authorities for earlier proslavery sentiments. He failed. It should be mentioned that the churchmen [30] themselves were no more inclined to forget the past than was Anderson. According to his autobiography they sought to blacken his reputation with both Albion Academy and University of Wisconsin authorities.

He had many other irons in the fire. An ardent Republican, he was chosen alternate delegate to the 1868 national convention and participated in the nomination of General Grant for the presidency. Thus he became, according to his own story, the first Norwegian American to sit in such a convention. With the aid of his friend, John A. Johnson (founder of the Gisholt Machine Company in Madison), and other interested persons, Anderson organized a second Norwegian-American Educational Association whose aim was to introduce courses in the Scandinavian languages and literature in the universities of the Middle West.

By 1868 President Chadbourne of the University of Wisconsin had become aware of the energetic and resourceful teacher at Albion, and offered him an instructorship. At first Anderson turned down the offer, but in the winter of 1868-69 he became involved in a serious difficulty at Albion and lost his position there. In retaliation he engineered a migration of students from Albion to Marshall Academy, also in Dane County. After rather protracted negotiations with President Chadbourne, Anderson was engaged as instructor at the University of Wisconsin for the academic year beginning in the autumn of 1869.

The preceding spring Anderson had taken what he called a postgraduate course in Greek, Latin, and history at the university. Heretofore his whole academic career had consisted of three and a half years’ work at Luther College at a time when its only entrance requirement was the ability to write a legible hand. But like Winston Churchill, Anderson picked up things along the way. His slender country-school education had been supplemented by some private tutoring in the classics. According to his own account, he learned German [31] while a clerk in Milwaukee, Czech in the short time he was at Conover, Iowa, and Finnish from the mate on a Lake Michigan steamer during a three weeks’ cruise, when he received an hour’s tutoring every day. Considering the difficulties of the Finnish language, this story may be taken with a large grain of salt. Albion Academy gave him a bachelor’s degree, and Alfred University, New York, a master’s, but of course neither degree was a certificate of academic achievement. However, the preparation required to teach many subjects gave Anderson a broad liberal education. His associations with scholars at the university and with men like the violinist Ole Bull and the poet and dramatist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson had an enriching and stimulating influence on Anderson’s quick and receptive mind.

In September, 1869, Anderson began his fourteen-year affiliation with the University of Wisconsin. In the following year his friend and benefactor, President Chadbourne, left. After an interim during which Professor Sterling served as acting president, “the regents,” in the words of Anderson, “committed the egregious blunder of electing the inexperienced, clumsy, and impractical Methodist preacher, J. H. Twombly, as president.” Since the historians of the university call Twombly “a misfit,” it may be assumed that Anderson’s judgment was not far from the mark. The regents soon discovered their mistake, and dismissed Twombly. About his successor, President John Bascom, Anderson has this to say, “John Bascom was a great man, a great teacher, and a great university president.”

During Bascom’s regime Anderson accomplished a prodigious amount of work. In the early years he taught a wide variety of subjects-Greek, Latin, German, ancient history, Anglo-Saxon, and others. But in the very first year he smuggled in some instruction in the Norwegian language. This program grew to such an extent that in 1875 the faculty by formal vote established a chair in Scandinavian languages [32] and literature at the university. Anderson held this chair until 1883, when he gave up academic life. But the title of professor he bore and cherished until the end of his days.

Some of Anderson’s general services to the University of Wisconsin should be mentioned. He was very active in the never-ending task of educating the people of the state about their great institution. He interpreted the university to Norwegian Americans, translated papers by Presidents Chadbourne and Bascom into the Norwegian language, gave lectures about the university, and urged immigrants to send their sons and daughters there instead of to the church schools. He took the lead in establishing coeducational classes. He donated his own books to the university library and he persuaded Ole Bull to give a concert for the benefit of a projected Norwegian library at the university. From this concert $750 was realized, a sum augmented by a gift, solicited by Anderson, of $250 from Iver Lawson of Chicago, father of the famed Chicago newspaperman, Victor F. Law son. With characteristic generosity, Ole Bull then paid all Anderson’s expenses for a trip to Norway to purchase books with the sum thus raised. Anderson also persuaded John A. Johnson to give the university $5,000 for a students’ loan fund, the first of its kind; and he did the pioneering work in obtaining for the Scandinavian department the Torger Thompson Endowment Fund. By the 1951 action of the Wisconsin governor and legislature the four Thompson farms, totaling 1,100 acres in Dane County, were sold for $90,000. This sale deprived the fund of between $50,000 and $100,000, and must be viewed with the deepest regret by all friends of the university. Not only did this act cause a serious loss, but it also killed dead as mutton any chance of future bequests like that of Torger Thompson.

Professor Anderson’s teaching activities extended far beyond classroom and campus. He lectured widely, agitated for the establishment of chairs in Scandinavian at neighboring [33] universities, and enriched American literature by his own writings and by his translations from the Scandinavian languages. He stimulated discussions and inquiries in Scandinavian history, and aided in bringing the music of Scandinavia to the attention of the American public.

Twice in the 1870’s the generosity of Ole Bull enabled Anderson to visit Norway. Introductions from Norway’s famous and beloved musician gave the young university instructor admission to select Norwegian cultural and social circles. In this period Norway experienced a great upsurge of nationalism, the organization of a strong liberal political party, and the establishment of parliamentary government. Through Anderson’s close association with two of the most ardent among the Norwegian liberal and nationalistic leaders, Ole Bull and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, he caught some thing of their zeal for everything Norwegian. In 1872 he attended the millenary celebration of Norway’s political unification. The events of the heroic age in the history of Norway then came alive as never before.

The visits to Norway and the connections thus established gave Anderson prestige. At no time did he hide his light under a bushel-quite the contrary, for at times it seemed as if he had set up a series of reflectors to intensify it. For him publicity was meat and drink. Through letters and articles in newspapers the public learned about what Anderson did, what he saw and what he thought-especially about things Scandinavian. He wrote frequently for the university newspaper, for local Madison papers, and for the Norwegian-language press in America. Ole Bull helped Anderson to establish contacts with New England men of letters, to publish in periodicals such as the Nation, and to contribute articles on Scandinavian subjects to several encyclopedias.

Anderson’s teaching and writing clearly reflected the intellectual and political currents in Norway. Defiantly he proclaimed in a small book (which by 1883 had reached its third [34] edition) that America was not discovered by Columbus- that Norsemen had first found our land. Furthermore, Anderson insisted that Columbus had heard about the Vinland voyages before he started on his own famous enterprise. Anderson’s Norse Mythology extolled the spirit of the North. Through his translations, Norwegian sagas and fairy tales and Bjørnson’s peasant stories were made available in English. In 1881 Anderson arranged a lecture tour by Bjørnson, whose fervent oratory and dynamic personality electrified audiences of stolid Norwegian Americans. The lectures were a financial success and enabled Bjørnson to pay off the mortgage on his farm in Norway, but his bitter attacks on the Norwegian Lutheran preachers of this country aroused resentment among his hearers. In later years, when Anderson became a strong upholder of Lutheran fundamentalism, he was somewhat embarrassed at having sponsored lecture tours by Bjørnson and by a lesser Norwegian man of letters, the Unitarian Kristofer Janson.
Between 1876 and 1884 Anderson published more than a dozen books. By the end of that period he decided to abandon teaching for money-making. He resigned his professorship at the university to sell insurance for the Equitable Life Insurance Company. This was not only a radical change of occupation but it was a rather daring one, for at that time Norwegian Americans were strongly prejudiced against any form of life insurance. However, this did not deter Anderson, who relates that he soon was earning ten times his university salary. By then the erstwhile Republican convention delegate had shifted his political allegiance, supporting Cleveland instead of Blaine in the election of 1884. Since Cleveland won, the mugwumpery paid off. Colonel Charles H. Vilas, a power in Democratic politics in Wisconsin, was Anderson’s friend, and in 1885 Anderson was appointed United States minister to Denmark.

This diplomatic post had unusual attractions for a man [35] with Anderson’s active mind and his historical, linguistic, and literary interests. The ancient city at the entrance to the Baltic is rich in associations with momentous events of the past. It has splendid museums, excellent libraries, and valuable archives. When Anderson served as American minister to the Danish court, Copenhagen was the intellectual capital of Scandinavia, then experiencing a great literary renaissance.

Through his translations of Scandinavian books and his own writings, Anderson had become well known in Danish intellectual circles, and as a cognate of a Danish noble family he had a pass to society. The American minister represented a country in which the Danish people were greatly interested. In the late 1880’s there was no important issue in American-Danish relations to test Anderson’s diplomatic skill-if he could be said to have had any-nor to absorb his abundant energy. The calendar of the great or near-great whom he met during his four years in Copenhagen occupies a considerable portion of his autobiography, The Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson. He dug around in the Danish archives, and in after years he claimed that among them he saw a document which proved that Columbus had visited Iceland in 1476 or 1477. Curiously enough, researchers just as eager as Anderson to find material for this important episode in the life of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea have failed to locate the precious scroll.

In the 1880’s Copenhagen was the best diplomatic listening post in Europe. The king, Christian IX, was father of the king of Greece, father-in-law of Czar Alexander III of Russia and of the Prince of Wales, and had family connections with other reigning families of Europe. At the Danish court great family reunions took place nearly every year. Moreover, Peter Vedel, for thirty-five years permanent undersecretary in the Danish foreign office, whose son later married Anderson’s daughter, was one of Europe’s best informed men on the facts and gossip of high diplomacy. But [36] Anderson picked up no tidbits from the diplomatic smörgåsbord in Copenhagen. Perhaps he was not a sufficiently good listener.

During his stay in Copenhagen Anderson made some friends; at the same time he, as usual, developed numerous dislikes-one of his most constant diversions. Prominent in his category of aversions were two men as dissimilar as Johan Sverdrup, founder of the Norwegian Liberal party and prime minister of Norway, and Alexander III, czar of all the Russias.

Copenhagen was mercifully spared a mass invasion by American tourists eager to be presented at court. How gauche some of them were may be learned from the journal of Benjamin Moran, secretary in the American legation in London, 1857-75. But though Copenhagen was not so haunted by American social climbers as was London or Berlin, Anderson had some awkward moments with his countrymen. When he presented his successor, Clark E. Carr of Galesburg, Illinois, to King Christian, the king’s daughter, the Princess of Wales, happened to be in the room. The new American minister felt moved to spring what he considered a good joke. Turning to the rather deaf princess he shouted, “We call your husband the prince of whales in America.”

The mission to Copenhagen vastly enriched the life of the immigrant’s son from Koshkonong prairie. By ability and perseverance he had reached a high position and international fame. Norwegian Americans were proud of him. In 1889 Anderson returned from his service abroad. Then he was confronted with the problem of what to do next-there was no assured position at home into which he could step. His former university post had long been ably filled by his brother-in-law, Julius E. Olson. As former head of a diplomatic mission, Anderson could hardly resume his old occupation of insurance salesman. But resourceful, as always, he turned to his true vocation, that of promoter. During the next [37] fifteen years his activities were many. He assisted in the importation of reindeer and the recruitment of reindeer herders from the north of Norway for Alaska. He promoted the sale of Norwegian cod-liver oil in America. He launched a life insurance company, but he did this without first making a careful study of the actuarial bases for insurance. Later reorganized by others, the company became the Wisconsin Life, of which Anderson was president for many years. In 1903 he founded and served as president of the Wisconsin Rubber Company, a company which bought large areas in Mexico, planted thousands of rubber trees, and seems to have had a period of perhaps fictitious prosperity. It is interesting to note that Anderson pioneered in many lines of business; the fact that several of his projects failed was often due to factors beyond his control, such as the depression of 1893 and a Mexican revolution.

To the end of his life Rasmus B. Anderson remained loyal to his original mission-to enrich intellectual life in America by advancing the study of Scandinavian culture, and to make Americans who shared his national background conscious and proud of their cultural heritage. He aided Mrs. Aubertine Woodward in her efforts to popularize Scandinavian music. He purchased a dozen works by the Norwegian painter Otto Sinding and sought, unsuccessfully, to find a market for them in this country. He was editor-in-chief of a large English literary venture, the publication of the Norroena Library, sixteen volumes consisting of translations of Scandinavian and German classics. He continued in great demand as a lecturer and magazine contributor on Scandinavian subjects. In 1896 Anderson took the initiative in establishing the Ygdrasil Literary Society of Madison, an organization founded “for the promotion of good fellowship, for mutual benefit, and advancement in knowledge, particularly of Scandinavian literature and history.” Ygdrasil is still flourishing. [38]

Over the years Anderson’s Madison home attracted many visitors from Norway. Among the illustrious guests were Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Knut Hamsun, both destined to win the Nobel prize in literature. But while the former arrived in the plenitude of his great power as poet, agitator, and orator, the latter came as a poor immigrant, virtually a tramp. Anderson claimed credit for suggesting that Knut Pedersen change his name to Hamsun, and for having helped him when he was down and out. Yet both then and later Anderson failed to recognize Hamsun as a genius and one of the world’s gifted writers.

While Anderson entertained-and picked the brains of his visitors-his patient, long-suffering wife slaved in the kitchen. Mrs. Anderson (Bertha Karma Olson) is seldom mentioned in his autobiography. Anderson, irascible and self-centered, failed to realize that she had to make more difficult adjustments than he, especially in Copenhagen. He had been a university professor; he had hobnobbed with Boston Brahmins and Norwegian intellectuals. He also had what counted in Danish society, blue-blooded ancestors. All these advantages were denied Mrs. Anderson. Her forebears were humble folk. She had been educated in a village school. Yet with dignity, grace, and kindliness she met new situations and mastered new duties; she was one of nature’s gentlewomen. But she was subjected to most inhuman trials. When her only daughter married young Peter Vedel, Anderson disapproved of the match. After the daughter had gone to live in Denmark, Mrs. Anderson was forbidden by her husband to communicate in any way with her child. Mrs. Anderson was also denied any association with her brother, Professor Julius E. Olson. At last the strain became too heavy; she died tragically in 1922.

Not until his extreme old age did Anderson mellow somewhat. As the editor and publisher of Amerika, a weekly issued from Madison, he carried on journalistic feuds for [39] twenty-five years, 1898-1922, compared with which those of Richard Lloyd Jones, William T. Evjue, or any other Madison newspaperman seem like love feasts. Senator John C. Spooner and Major Edward Scofield guaranteed purchase of Amerika with the understanding that it should give them political support. This Anderson did most faithfully. With great glee he lambasted William Jennings Bryan and, when Spooner and Robert M. La Follette parted company, politically speaking, the latter became the target for bitter attacks in Amerika. But ruefully Anderson admits that the Norwegians in Wisconsin failed to join his banner. “Without malice”-his own words-Anderson tells in his Life Story what an unprincipled trickster La Follette was, how he betrayed friends and committed many other sins against the Holy Ghost. One shudders to think what Anderson would have said about La Follette had he chosen to be malicious. Strong language was in fact Anderson’s stock in trade as a journalist. With deplorable frequency Amerika refers to Anderson’s adversaries as hypocrites, liars, and scoundrels. A good many examples of Norwegian billingsgate may be culled from its pages. Perhaps that is one reason why the paper is now so brittle to the human touch.

In religion, as in politics, Anderson’s opinions underwent metamorphoses. For many years his views on theology were in a state of flux. After his father’s death he had been baptized by a Methodist minister; later he became a Lutheran. Then he compromised on creed to the extent of teaching in a Seventh-Day Baptist school. While a university professor he flocked with the Unitarians. Upon his return from Denmark, he joined the conservative Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Madison. But soon he was “double-crossed” by its minister; this seemed a common habit of the men whom Anderson knew. He ceased to attend any church, but became the champion of a brand of fundamentalist Lutheran theology with tenets not found in any history of Christian dogmas. [40]

The only certain thing to be said of his religious views is that charity was absolutely excluded from them. For a while Anderson sought support from the pietistic and puritan factions among Norwegian-American Lutherans, but that uneasy alliance ended abruptly when he brazenly confessed his liking for beer, wine, and whiskey. In politics he took pride in being a standpat Republican; but in most other fields he was something of an Ishmaelite, showing brave indifference toward such matters as the number, armor, and weight of his antagonists.

Anderson made violent charges against Norwegian-American churchmen, teachers, newspapers, and fraternal organizations; he deeply resented their approval of modern Norwegian literature and especially of Bjørnson, Ibsen, Kielland, and the other giants among the writers of Scandinavia. Though Anderson approved of Bjørnson’s peasant stories and Ibsen’s early dramas, he denounced the later dramas of both Bjørnson and Ibsen as atheistic, cynical, and immoral. Ibsen’s social dramas Anderson called cold and lacking in poetry; he prophesied that they would soon be forgotten. President Kildahl of St. Olaf College was chastised in Amerika for having called Ibsen “Norway’s greatest son.” And on April 1, 1910, the paper advised President Northrop of the University of Minnesota to “take steps to prevent the young people who study at the University of Minnesota from contacts with the Ibsen and other anarchistic literature.” He considered it a sacrilege that Luther College had a memorial service for Bjørnson. Writing in the Wisconsin State Journal, December 12, 1920, Anderson declared most emphatically that Hamsun was unworthy of the Nobel prize.

In the pages of Amerika this crusading curmudgeon carried on constant warfare against all other Norwegian American papers. One general charge against them was their approval of Bjørnson and Ibsen. They also sinned on many other points, among which was the failure of Decorah-posten [41] to appreciate the opportunities for rubber production in Mexico. But perhaps the greatest of their sins was that they carried patent-medicine advertisements. In issue after issue Amerika denounced that evil. Anderson’s pet peeve was Lydia E. Pinkham; but oddly enough he evidently saw merits in Dr. Peter Farney’s “Kuriko” and “Ole Oid,” the advertisements for which were carried in the same issues of Amerika which denounced patent-medicine advertisements in other papers. Perhaps Anderson helped provide the means for the matrimonial capers cut a few years ago by a granddaughter of Peter Farney. And one may wonder how to classify the following-if it cannot be listed as one of the cure-alls Anderson professed to despise - quoted verbatim from Amerika:

If you want a pretty face and delightful air
Rosy cheeks and lovely hair,
Wedding trip across the sea,
Put your faith in Rocky Mountain Tea.

Amerika defended the breakup of the union between Norway and Sweden, but gravely deplored the fact that Norway declared for a monarchy. A proposal that Norwegian Americans should collect money for a present to King Haakon VII sent Anderson’s blood pressure up several points. It rose even higher when the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, questioned the authenticity of the Vinland stories. In fact Anderson’s blood pressure must generally have been above the danger mark, but inasmuch as he lived to be ninety years old, we wonder if the doctors overestimate the danger of this condition.

Amerika carried several special features, among which were numerous letters from some strongly individualistic persons with strange ideas, who obviously had the writer’s itch in an aggravated form. Many of these contributors chose Curious pen names, such as “Silvanus,” “Truls,” or “X-Ray.” [42] Perhaps the signature “R. B. A.” would have been the most fitting.

In 1922 Amerika was discontinued. Anderson was then seventy-six years old, but there was still fight in the old gentleman. His eyes remained keen and penetrating. In 1931, at a luncheon given in honor of the eminent Norwegian historian, Halvdan Koht, Anderson held forth at length and with much vigor about Vinland and Columbus. And Anderson greatly amused the honored guest by declaring, “That point may not be authentic history, but it is a good one and it must be maintained.” It should be added that Koht in his autobiography relates that he became interested in history from reading Anderson’s Norse Mythology.

As the years rolled on, Anderson’s loneliness grew - to live is to outlive. He was poor, and he dwelt alone. His good friend and neighbor, Mrs. E. B. Steensland, supplemented his monotonous diet of shredded wheat with a hot meal now and then. In his old home on Carroll Street, filled with books, pictures, letters, and mementos, Anderson sat smoking a short pipe and recalling his good fighting days. Interviewed by a local pastor for reminiscences, the octogenarian quoted from a well-stored memory the Finnish poet Runeberg’s opening stanza in Ensign Ståls Stories:

What joy it is alone at night,
To feel my thoughts returning
To youthful years, wherein the light
Of friendly stars is burning.

These lines fitted him well.

Rasmus B. Anderson was the son of a pioneer and the product of frontier conditions. In his childhood and youth members of his nationality group were generally treated with condescension - sometimes with disdain - by Americans of older stock. That anything good can come from small places has puzzled more people than just Nathanael of the Bible story. Anderson was pioneer and crusader in [43] the cause to convince parochially minded Americans that good things may come from the Nazareths of the world. With might and main he strove on the one hand to enrich the cultural life of community, state, and nation, and on the other to foster and strengthen among the people of his own national origin their sense of manliness and moral dignity. Anderson was not a man with a great soul, but he was a man of great parts, rich in ideas and in intellectual resources. Though many of his books were translated into foreign languages, Anderson was not a great scholar. The rigorous tests of scholarship he failed to apply to his own writing. But he was a great crusader, a stouthearted man, a valiant fighter. He stirred up bitter controversies but he also spread enlightenment. Above all he taught men of Norse blood not to consider themselves second-class citizens; rather they should walk upright, with great courage and self-respect, and with firm steps on life’s highway.

Note

<1> This paper was read on April 18, 1953, at a meeting of the Madison Literary Club, of which Anderson was a founder. The material for it was gathered from his autobiography as well as his other writings, especially his paper, Amerika; from reports by contemporaries; and from the present writer’s recollections of him. Where discrepancies exist among Anderson’s own accounts of his personal experiences, the earlier versions have been favored as probably more authentic than the later ones. Bjørnson’s letters from America and other primary sources have been examined. The question whether Columbus ever visited Iceland is discussed at considerable length by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in Ultima Thule, 109-122 (New York, 1940), and more briefly by Professor Samuel E. Morison in Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 32-35 (Boston, 1942).

 

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