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The Novels of Peer Strømme {1}
    By Gerald Thorson (Volume 18: Page 141)

Hans Anderson Foss’s “The Cotter Boy: A Story from Sigdal” produced a new wave of interest in the development of the Norwegian-American novel. Not only did this work enjoy a popularity among interested readers, but it was a stimulant to potential novelists. Among these was Peer Strømme, at that time a pastor among the Norwegians in the Red River Valley. “For many years,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “I had wondered if I shouldn’t write such a story with a truthful rendition of the settler’s life. H. A. Foss had tried his hand in that direction, but his narrative was, I thought, planned to be more farfetched and sensational than true to life.” Strømme’s novel, Hvorledes Halvor blev presi (How Halvor Became a Minister) first appeared in Superior Posten in l892, several years after he had left the ministry; and like Foss’s story, it had a tremendous success, bringing many new subscribers to the paper. {2}

But Strømme’s novels are not like those of Foss. Strømme had more artistic ability, a clearer insight into the immigrant’s life, a greater awareness of literary values; and his writing, much more faithful to his subject matter, shows a sensibility for literary movements. Whereas Foss’s only influence seems to have been the peasant novels of Bjørnson, Strømme’s writings reveal a knowledge of American and British writers, especially Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, [142] two authors whom he greatly admired and frequently quoted. Strømme had read Bjørnson’s novels, but he evidently was not much impressed with them. In How Halvor Became a Minister his point of view is expressed by his leading character: “A Happy Boy was all right; but it was nothing in comparison with another novel which he ran across and which he read with such avidity that it made him breathless. It was a hair-raising story named The Settlers on Long Arrow.” {3}

For Strømme liked a good story; and his fancy lay more in the direction of the fast-moving stories of Dickens, with their emphasis on plot, than in quiet romances set in a Norwegian mountain district or in a pioneer American settlement. “It is true,” he said, “that I read Oliver Optic’s sensational stories and all sorts of cock-and-bull stories; but I also became acquainted with Scott and Dickens and Thackeray. Charles Dickens became my favorite author and still is.” {4} Strømme did not, however, achieve an imitation of Dickens in his own writing: his stories show more the influence of the literature that was coming out of the American West in the days when he was a student in college. The tall tales made popular by Mark Twain, whom Strømme called the greatest of all humorists, are more evident in his work than anything else.

Strømme showed great admiration for Mark Twain’s style, for his humor, and for his travel accounts; and he was familiar with practically all of his works. It was Mark Twain’s humor that found its way into his own writing and gave it its special flavor. Strømme gave frequent lectures on humor, and an essay of his on Mark Twain shows the importance he placed on it: His goal is to make people better, wiser, and happier by making them laugh, and because of this he is well received among nations, because to laugh is good for both [143] body and soul. We are not talking about the laughter which, as Goldsmith says, only indicates an empty brain . . . but of the healthy laugh that follows when we see the truth in a new and uninvited statement. Sense of humor is a person’s birthright; it is a good help for carrying this life’s burdens and for protecting us so we don’t tire ourselves to death on our journey. I for my part can agree with the man who demanded a divorce from his wife because she entirely lacked a sense of humor. With such a person life would be miserable.” {5}

Good literature was entertainment. Unlike Foss, Strømme believed that literature should be used not to teach, but to entertain. A writer must not be didactic, for the insertion of moral teachings would destroy his poetic style. Strømme’s novels are practically devoid of didacticism; and they furnish a refreshing contrast to the earlier Norwegian-American novels. They show, in part, why he was known among his countrymen as the Mark Twain of Norwegian America. {6}

Foss’s novels were romantic; Strømme’s were realistic. But it was a realism flavored with the impossible situations of the yarn spinners and decked with the romantic embellishments of the local colorists. When Strømme called Foss’s novel sensational, he was referring not to the purposeful inclusion of suspense, which none of Foss’s novels have, but to the lack of reality, the Horatio Alger formula. Strømme strove to avoid this in his own writing, attempting instead a faithful rendition of actuality.

Like Foss, however, Strømme was not primarily a novelist. He was a, man of many talents and broad interests, and he expended these in many fields. His name was known through out Norwegian America, and his popularity rivaled that of the church leaders of his day. [144]

I

Peer Olson Strømme was born in Winchester, Wisconsin, on September 15, 1856, the third of thirteen children born to Ole and Eli Haugen, recent immigrants from Norway. {7} Here his first impressions were molded in a Norwegian frontier home; the Norwegian community placed its stamp upon his future development. For Strømme’s early associations with Americans were few, and the Norwegian Lutheran church and its pastors had more to do in shaping his early life than any other group. Singled out by the pastors and by the community as an especially brilliant lad, he was encouraged to attend the Norwegian Lutheran school in Decorah, Iowa. He spent seven years at Luther College, taking its classical course, with emphasis upon languages and literature. There his interest in literature was stimulated, and he was introduced to many of the world’s masterpieces. “It was Prof. [J. D.] Jacobsen, more than all others put together, who gave us an eye and an understanding for literature’s great treasures.” {8}

Strømme was graduated from Luther College in 1876, destined for the ministry. “But no investigation had ever taken place as to whether the young man concerned was called or particularly fitted to be a teacher in the church. One graduated, and it was only as a matter of course that when one who had done nothing scandalous was finished with Luther College, he should study theology. On the examination certificate it read: ‘Dismissed to the theological seminary.’” Strømme spent three years at Concordia Theological [145] Seminary in St. Louis, a school maintained by the German Lutherans of the Missouri Synod. In 1879 he was ordained into the Lutheran ministry, having accepted a call to be pastor to the Norwegian settlers in the newly opened land in the Red River Valley. There, at Hendrum (1879-81) and Ada, Minnesota (1881-86), he served several congregations, ministering to the needs of the pioneers in all sorts of weather, and was elected superintendent of schools for Norman County (1881-86). Part of his reputation seems to have been built on his fondness for fast horses. In 1886 he left the Red River Valley, having accepted a call to serve a Norwegian parish in Nelson, Wisconsin. {9}

Strømme did not remain long in Wisconsin, however. Looking for an opportunity to get out of the ministry, he accepted a teaching post in mathematics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in the fall of 1887, and there he apparently taught mathematics, English, German, Norwegian, and history. At the end of the first semester he resigned to become editor of Norden, a Norwegian paper in Chicago. During the years that followed, Strømme held editorial positions on several newspapers. He also edited two literary magazines and served as correspondent for several other papers. {10} For the literary magazine, Symra, of Decorah, he wrote short stories, poetry, and critical reviews. He translated at least a dozen books for the John Anderson Publishing Company of Chicago and the Lutheran Publishing House [146] of Decorah. The translations were from Norwegian to English, English to Norwegian, and German to Norwegian. {11}

Strømme was an active political campaign speaker. A Democrat, he was not always well received among his countrymen on account of his political views, but throughout the years he gave hundreds of speeches in the far-flung Norwegian communities of the Midwest. He also campaigned for Cleveland in 1888 and 1892 and for Bryan in 1896, in addition to taking part in local and state contests. In 1908 he was engaged by the national Democratic party to tour the Southern States on behalf of John A. Johnson, Minnesota’s governor, who was Democratic nominee for president. In 1898 he ran for state superintendent of schools in Wisconsin but was defeated. He claims also that President Cleveland had promised him a position as governor of Alaska in 1892 but that Rasmus B. Anderson worked against his nomination. He served as vice-president of the Chicago Democratic Club, and in 1892 he was elected president of the Chicago Scandinavian Democratic Club. {12}

It is as a traveler, lecturer, and newspaper correspondent, then, that Strømme’s name reached the Norwegian settlements. His greatest contribution to Norwegian America undoubtedly was his travel letters, written for various news papers-especially the accounts of his world travels that were published in Normanden of Grand Forks, North Dakota. {13} That is not to say that his novels were of little importance. One of them, How Halvor Became a Minister, [147] enjoyed a wide popularity, going through at least two editions, appearing serially in two newspapers, and later being translated into English. But Strømme’s popularity did not come, as he thought it did, because of this novel, nor, as he hoped it would, because of his translation into English of Bishop Laache’s Book of Family Prayer. {14} He was primarily a world traveler, a lecturer, and a newspaper correspondent. Although he had a wife and six children, he apparently found it difficult to settle down to any one position, and Ole Rølvaag’s criticism of him in For fædrearven, October 6, 1921, is to the point: “Strømme was a man of great talents. The vital error of his life, or perhaps the fatal weakness of his character, was this that he never surrendered his being fully and single-mindedly to a ruling life task. In the pulpit he was a pastor; he was a public orator of high rank and gave spirited lectures; in the classroom he was a teacher of accomplishments; he was a journalist, wrote for the papers and edited various publications; he is to this date the finest translator we have had among Norwegians in this country, and he wrote poems as well as novels. But he was never gripped by any one of these tasks to such a degree that he staked all, surrendered all to it, gave his life to see it accomplished or died in heroic defeat. Strømme had it in him to become something much greater than he really was. He lacked the iron will and the unlimited devotion to a single task. In the final analysis that is the spirit which raises talent to the high point of victory.” {15} Peer Strømme died in Madison, Wisconsin, on his sixty-fifth birthday, September 15, 1921. [148]

Peer Strømme’s novels, then, were written in the midst of a busy life. He was not primarily a novelist, but the fiction that came from his pen is the work of a man who was well acquainted with the Norwegian Americans for whom he wrote. Each novel is set in a locality that Strømme knew, and to a large extent all are somewhat autobiographical, following closely events from his own life. Each of the novels contains Strømme’s own peculiar brand of humor, and yet each one shows a somewhat different phase of development, a different emphasis, a different intention. But taken as a group, these three novels give us good pictures of Norwegian-American life, and they form an interesting insight into the personality of the author himself.

II

In the fall of 1 1892, after Strømme had purchased Superior Posten, financial problems immediately arose. To Rasmus B. Anderson he wrote: “You know I bought this paper, which was a foolhardy thing to do, as I had no capital. Paid what little money I had on the paper. But the outlook is excellent. Subscriptions coming in all right. But I found myself compelled to pay so many old accounts at once, that I am bankrupt before fairly beginning here. Next week I publish the first pages of my original story, on which my hopes center.” The job had been a hurried one, he said, and he “had to write it in the few hours I had free from the work of editing and translating, advertisements, reading dunning letters, and hiding from my creditors." {16} The first installment of the story appeared in the November 24 issue of the paper, and it is clear that Strømme’s chief purpose in publishing it was to obtain readers for the paper: in an editorial in the same issue he stated that the paper was being sent to several people not on the list of subscribers, but if they would send in their payment they could read the rest of the story. In the [149] issue of June 8, 1893, the story ended with chapter 16, and although it was stated that Halvor’s adventures would be continued in the next issue, no more installments appeared. Shortly afterward, Strømme sold the paper. Whether he had written more of the story then is not important, for when it appeared in book form later that year it contained only two additional chapters.

How Halvor Became a Minister tells of the son of Søren and Signe Helgeson, Norwegian immigrants in the Springville, Wisconsin, settlement, somewhat north of Muskego. The settlement, recently begun, is, of course, Winchester, near Neenah, Wisconsin. The ground is cleared, homes are built, and a Norwegian Lutheran church is organized. These are pre-Civil War days, when Norwegians first began to move into the vacant lands in Wisconsin, and the background of the novel is based on historical facts. Authentic names are used: here, for example, are the pioneer pastors, Preus, Duus, and Brandt; the traveling lay preacher, Elling Eielson; the Luther College president, Laur. Larsen; and the pioneer editors, Fleischer, Langeland, and Johnson.

Here is sketched the pioneer social and religious life: building the church, confirmation, the country school, the wed ding celebration, the charivari, funerals, and the saloon-all vital elements in the early Norwegian communities. Here, too, is the Civil War, and Halvor’s father joins the men of the community as they go off to battle. But always these are presented with humor, sarcasm, irony. Strømme writes to entertain; he does not preach. When he writes of the saloon, for example, he tells about Ole Findreng, a Civil War veteran who gets drunk and hangs himself. Ole’s neighbor, Myran, who did all the treating that night, later reflects on how lucky he is “that this happened just now when Ole did not owe him more than a dollar or two. He would be magnanimous and let the widow off from paying this debt.” {17} [150]

The congregation gets a church and a pastor; but before long contention arises because some of the members feel that the Synod pastor is too worldly. They try hard to find some thing which will bring about his dismissal. “But to depose him for preaching against drunkenness, or miserliness would not look well. . . . It must be on account of false doctrine or a wicked life. Preferably on account of false doctrine; that seemed to be the most proper reason. But it was hard to catch Pastor Evenson in that. . . . Luckily, however, the great controversy about slavery arose at this time. Pastor Clausen had just resigned from the Norwegian Synod, be cause that body would not declare that under all circumstances it was a sin to be a slave or to keep slaves. Among the congregations everywhere there was great excitement. The ministers were compelled to take a stand. There was talk of hanging Professor Larsen, because in an explanation demanded by ‘Emigranten’ he had said that he had heard good reasons for the right of a state to secede from the union. Klemmetsrud and his friends were much interested and pleased; for this was something to hold to. They read ‘Emigranten’ and ‘Skandinaven’ and were sure that everything Fleischer, Langeland, and Johnson, and others wrote was the gospel truth. And there it was in black and white that the clergymen of the Norwegian Synod approved of and de fended slavery, an institution which many of the members of the congregation had risked their lives to abolish.” Since Evenson is a Synod pastor, the members are sure he, too, is a defender of slavery. A church meeting is called: “It was testified under oath that the Reverend Mr. Evenson had told the old man that he was too old to be saved. It was proved that he had refused to allow one of the first members of the congregation to partake of the sacrament of the altar, and that in general he had been stubborn and self-willed, so that it was patent that he had forgotten that he was not his own master but a servant whom the congregation had hired for [151] four hundred dollars a year plus festival offerings and fees for ministerial services, the amount of which was to be determined by the means and inclination of the giver. Thus ended the investigation. The new congregation erected a church edifice beside the old one, in which place it stands today as a monument to the late sainted Klemmetsrud.” {18}

Halvor is considered to be ministerial timber, and one very hot Sunday in church, “Halvor sat squeezed in between his father and another man and suffered intensely. It was so roasting hot and so muggy, and he needed so desperately to scratch his back, but could not get to do so, squeezed in as he was. The minister seemed never to get through with his sermon. At last the boy’s sufferings became so great that his patience gave out completely. He began to cry; and then at last he was allowed to go out.” {19} But to the older folks, it is quite clear that the young son of Søren Helgeson had been greatly affected by the sermon: such a young man should be educated for the ministry. The next year Halvor goes off to Luther College, and Strømme relates many an amusing incident of school life. Halvor next studies at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and in a final chapter Halvor is a minister in the Red River Valley.

Strømme’s second novel continues the adventures of Halvor, this time as a pastor among the Norwegians in the Red River Valley. Just when Strømme wrote Unge Helgeson (“Young Helgeson”) is uncertain, but not until the year following his editorship of Vor tid was the novel published as a serial. The monthly installments began in January, 1906, and continued until the September issue. That winter Vor tid reported that many readers had written in inquiring about the rest of the novel and that the editor had written to Strømme about it, but that he had received no reply. Shortly after Strømme joined the staff of Normanden in [152] Grand Forks, the story was again published, this time in Normanden. {20} In June, 1911, when it came out in book form, it contained only one chapter that had not appeared in 1906. {21}

“Young Helgeson” relates the pastor’s many adventures as a minister in the 1880’s. The humor of the previous novel continues in this one but the tone of the book is more satirical.

Pastor Helgeson has been in the community three years, and now the town is being organized. The Norwegians dream of calling it St. Olaf, like the “big towns” of St. Paul and St, Louis, instead of New Something-or-other. But the town is finally christened Noraville. The pastor ministers to his people in all kinds of weather, dissension arises in the congregation, and a new Conference church is formed. Helgeson takes part in community affairs: he speaks at the Fourth of July celebration “in place of the governor,” he joins in moves to incorporate the town, he enters into local political discussions, and he has conflicts with the saloons. When the pastor opposes the liquor bill, people complain that he has no right in “politics,” and since Murphy and Johnson’s saloon is the finest building in town, the community votes wet.

Here, as in the first novel, we have a historically accurate background: the great blizzard of 1879-80; the organization of a town; a Fourth of July celebration; frontier journalism; the saloon; the introduction of politics; the establishment of local government; and the church struggle over predestination, which was at its height in the 1880’s.

The first novel, however, was almost entirely Norwegian-American in content. “Young Helgeson” shows more of the American influence in the life of the Norwegian pioneer. In How Halvor Became a Minister there are no American characters; in “Young Helgeson” there are several, and we [153] get more of the Norwegian settler’s entrance into American life, especially his interest in politics. Probably the best section of the book is chapter 5, which presents a humorous description of the congressional battle in the “bloody fifth” district between two Republican candidates, C. E. Kindred and Knute Nelson.

For satirical comment, Strømme singles out a newspaper editor, politicians, and an Augsburg man. The local editor, Mr. Bronson, comes to town to begin a newspaper, although “he has already gone bankrupt doing the same thing in a half dozen other towns.” He is always in debt, and no one ever pays for a subscription. In the first issue Mr. Bronson predicts that Noraville will be the largest town in the Red River Valley. He has no definite convictions, and he is easily bribed by politicians. As a result, he is constantly going from one side to the other in the community and political wars.

Frontier politics are satirized, especially the politicians from St. Paul, who come out to bribe the people and to win the Norwegian vote for the Yankee office seekers.

During the nineties, Strømme had written many articles in various papers opposing Georg Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal, two of the leaders of Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis. He would write letters to the editor, signing them with the name “Peter Vraadal,” who was supposedly an Augsburg student. {22} In this novel Peter Vraadal comes to Noraville to hold prayer meetings and to establish a church. He is a “minister-like” person, with a solemn and serious expression on his face and a long, dripping nose. His first question, always uttered with a great sigh, is “Do you believe in God?” The people are all “moved to tears” by his “burning prayers.” He has a plentiful supply of Augsburg’s writings on the evils of the Synod, published for simple folk, and he himself has memorized parts of them so that to the lowly farmer he sounds very eloquent and learned. Augsburg, he says, is a [154] better school than Luther because at Augsburg there are only two men to a dormitory room, while at Luther there are four. The Bible says that a man must speak to others about his salvation, and it is always possible with at least two. But the Bible also states that man must have time to be alone in his “inner chamber”; and when there are only two in the room, he can always ask the other to leave; but when there are four, this is impossible.

In the final chapter of the novel, Pastor Helgeson goes to Norway, and people there are constantly amazed that he can speak Norwegian. He explains that in America there is also a Norway, with good Norwegian schools and Norwegian teachers from Norway. There are even many people born in America, he says, who use no speech but their parents’ Norwegian dialect. But “that this could be true, people in Norway seemed to have difficulty in believing.” {23}

Strømme intended to write a sequel to these two novels, where the chief character was to be the son of Pastor Helgeson, but the story never appeared. {24} Instead, for the subject of his third novel, Strømme went to the Norwegian colony in Chicago. He had spent several years in Chicago as a news paper editor, and he was well acquainted with both the Norwegians and the Americans there. This novel, Den vonde ivold (“In the Clutches of the Devil”), first appeared in 1910.

In November of the preceding year, the literary magazine, Eidsvold, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, carried the following announcement: “The well-known literary man, Peer Strømme, of Madison, Wisconsin, has joined Eidsvold’s editorial staff. His intention is to move his family to Grand Forks. At the present Strømme is working for the Norwegian America Line. In a few weeks, when he has finished this work, he will give more time to editing Eidsvold. This will make the publication’s readers and friends happy.” The same [155] issue carried an article, “Cook og Peary,” and a poem, “Digteren,” by Strømme. For the January, 1910, issue he wrote a review of Jon Norstog’s Svein, and in the February issue he reviewed Simon Johnson’s Lonea. No other articles bearing his name appeared, and suddenly in March the magazine appeared without his name on the masthead. The reason: a story which had appeared in the preceding issue. To clarify the situation and to rectify the magazine’s good name, the editor, Kjetil Knutsson, wrote: “I have now taken over Eidsvold as owner and editor. ‘In the Clutches of the Devil’ and such things will, in the future, not appear in the publication. My efforts will be expended to furnish a monthly magazine which, in all confidence, can be sent to all intelligent Norwegian homes on both sides of the ocean.” The February issue had contained only the first chapter of the novel. The author was listed as Halfdan Moe, and Strømme was not mentioned in connection with it. That readers objected to the novel can be seen in an article by A. H. Lindelie. “What do Eidsvold’s readers want with such swinishness?” he wrote. “It is not art, and if it is, it is filthy art.” {25}

However, in November of that same year, “In the Clutches of the Devil” appeared in book form, published by Normanden. Peer Strømme was listed on the title page as translator, and the copyright was in his name. In the preface Strømme wrote: “The first chapter of this book was printed a short while back in one of our magazines. But then there was an uproar because some of the readers thought it was actually filthy. I don’t think it is; and I have therefore completed the translation. As a matter of fact, I find this auto biography to be a useful sermon about how hard is the way of transgressors.” {26}

By way of announcement, Normanden carried a notice on [156] its front page: “It is very bold, and it is not milk for children. It is the autobiography of a man who has gone to the dogs and who tells, without beating around the bush, how it happened that he became so bad. Next, it is a description of the newspaper world in Chicago, with its bright and especially its dark sides. It doesn’t deal with things which one is accustomed to bring up in women’s societies.” {27}

The book contained a foreword by Ole S. Benson of Alpena, Michigan, dated 1910: “This story-if it really can be called a story-has now been in my possession for a half dozen years. The manuscript was delivered to me by the author, Halfdan Moe, shortly before he died at the sanitarium in Dunning, Illinois, some miles north of Chicago. Only now have I been able to decide to allow it to be put into print. He had thought to call his book something like ‘The Chicago Bohème’; but I like better the title which I have chosen and under which the story now is delivered to the reading public.” {28}

The names Ole S. Benson and Halfdan Moe are probably fictitious, and the novel is an original story by Peer Strømme. External and internal evidence point to his authorship. The practice of denying authorship is, of course, a common one, and to pose as the translator of the manuscript of an unknown, deceased author is a good method of concealing the facts. In fact, Strømme had done practically the same thing when he published How Halvor Became a Minister in Superior Posten. In an introduction to the first installment of it, he wrote that the story was not his, but that of the Reverend Halvor Bakken, a pastor in Morris County, Minnesota. A few years before, Strømme wrote, he had roomed with Pastor Bakken while attending a meeting of the Minnesota district of the Norwegian Synod. “One evening, in an unguarded moment, he told me that he had attempted to [157] write a story which he had thought to publish.” He later sent the manuscript to Strømme, who thought it was good. “Pastor Bakken is a clever man,” he wrote, “but he is some what awkward in his handling of the Norwegian language; therefore, I have rewritten most of his story so that I now am entitled to call it my own. There are some things here and there in it that I would rather have deleted if I had had complete freedom in the matter, but that I haven’t done.” {29}

That Strømme had previously considered the Norwegian colony in Chicago as a topic can be seen in the comment he wrote in Superior Posten. How Halvor Became a Minister was then appearing serially in the paper, and he wrote that before long he would begin another story, with the title “From the Fashionable World.” He added, “It is an attempt to create a picture of life among our prominent countrymen in Chicago, and we believe it will be interesting.” It is not likely that he had then planned the story which he finally wrote, but he was at least aware of the possibilities that existed for a novel based on life in Chicago. {30}

“In the Clutches of the Devil” is the story of Nils Holmsen and Halfdan Moe, Christiania university students who immigrate to Chicago. The way in which Strømme re counts their life is unlike that of his previous novels; for, although the humor is still present, the dominant tone is one of pessimism. It is a novel of decadence, imitative of Hans Jæger’s Fra Kristiania-Bohémen (“From the Christiania Bohème”). This book had been reprinted in America, and apparently Strømme had read it. He had probably also read or heard about other works of the same type, for these novels of decadence were representative of a popular movement in [158] the 1880’s and 1890’s in Scandinavia. {31} No Norwegian American before had attempted anything like this, and Strømme was aware that the novel would not be well received. “Readers-if I ever get any-will naturally realize that in view of the stupid and prudish public I am forced to avoid some things or employ all sorts of weakened circumlocutions and ambiguities. Otherwise, I would fall out with the superior authorities and their foolish laws.” {32}

The story opens with a Chicago newspaper account of the suicide of Nils Holmsen. Reading the account is Halfdan Moe, who, the paper states, is one “whom drink and other horrors have completely ruined.” The preceding evening the two men had discussed suicide. Nils followed up the discussion by taking his life, but Halfdan, who is dying of tuberculosis, instead sells the revolver, goes to a sanitarium, and writes his memoirs. Newspaper men in Chicago hold a burial service for Nils. They sing and speak. All this is related by Halfdan, the protagonist, who is a Norwegian, supposedly writing in English. But at the funeral the newspaper men sing in English, and Moe states that “I was the only Norwegian in the group; therefore, I recited in English the beautiful poem, which is called ‘Revelry of the Dying.” Later, he states, “If I were able to translate this song into Norwegian, I would like to do it; but I can’t.” The funeral ended, the newspaper men decide that it is best to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” {33} [159]

Halfdan and Nils were friends in Christiania, where both were Latin-school students, living across the street from each other. Moe, who “throughout my long days and nights had been almost out of my mind with bitter madness from the thought that I wasn’t like the other young men and that I, according to the nature of the thing, could never hope to win any man or woman’s love,” hears the story of Nils Holmsen, an illegitimate son of a young girl in Telemark and a medical student from Christiania. Strømme shows how the childhoods of both of these men led to their later degeneracy. Nils grows up realizing he has been sold to the devil, that he has no right to be in the world, that he belongs to no one. Moe, on the other hand, comes from a well-known family in Norway, a family which had given the country many lawyers, preachers, doctors, and scandals. Moe’s father was of the latter group, a debauchee and reveller. His mother came from a good family, but “she had no soul worth speaking of.” Moe grows up with a bitter hatred for his parents.

Moe tells Holmsen of his antireligious ideas. Together they read and discuss Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Zola, and many modern writers, who open up new worlds to them. They discuss free love, and Moe tells Holmsen that “it is only when we do something we don’t desire or which we are ashamed of that we can be said to be fallen.” They discuss their future, wondering what profession they should follow. Moe, with a touch of typical Strømme humor, wonders what he should become: “But what should I be? . . . a minister... I wasn’t handsome enough-nor dumb enough.” They decide to become literary men, and they get infrequent jobs translating “some bloodcurdling American dime novels” into Norwegian. Although they do not earn much, people begin to look upon them as two up-and-coming young men with talent. But then “America fever” seizes them. One day Holmsen says to Moe: “Why in the world don’t we go to America? There’s a country that has come out of this childishness. I [160] just read about Chicago in an American paper.” From Moe’s uncle, who is happy to see them leave the country, they receive money for the trip.

Chicago was for many years the cultural center of Norwegian America. In 1900 there were twice as many Norwegians in Chicago as in Minneapolis, and of the 30,000 Norwegians in Illinois, 22,000 of them were in Chicago. Many children of the upper middle classes of Norway came to America in the 1880’s, especially those trained in professions. Chicago offered many opportunities, but young men with university educations did not always fare well in the new land, and many returned to Norway. In 1881 a man from Chicago wrote to Morgenbladet that there had come to Chicago an extraordinarily large number of young persons who did not belong to the working class. It was not the place for such people, the writer stated. In Chicago they would have a difficult future, he said, and he warned them against going there. {34}

But many “black sheep” did come. “There were many such ‘black sheep’ in the wave of immigration of the 1880’s. Norwegian Americans recognized them and complained from time to time about the practice of sending them to America.” {35} Nils and Halfdan are two such “black sheep” who did not heed the warning in the Christiania paper and who came to a bad end in Chicago. They arrive in Chicago the day Mayor Carter Harrison is killed. They are overwhelmed by the city, and Nils remarks: “I believe more strongly than ever that I am going to like it especially well in Chicago. Here, at any rate, we won’t be bored to death.” On the street they meet Ole Benson, a Norwegian from Michigan, who takes them to his club, feeds them, and introduces them to some newspaper men. The two Norwegians are immediately impressed by the men: “There was no such thing as [161] hypocrisy or pretense. They all spoke freely about everything possible and were natural and democratic. Never before had I met such a genuine goodness. If the world had been full of such people, I could have desired to live forever.”

As a newspaper man, Strømme was well acquainted with several of the leading reporters and literary men in Chicago. He was a member of the Chicago Press Club, and one year he was elected to its board of directors. “From my member ship in the Chicago Press Club,” he later wrote, “I have had much joy and happiness. That I also have had much benefit from it can be debated. I know no man who finds it easier than I to learn quickly the things that are not worth learning.” {36}

The experiences of Nils and Halfdan in Chicago are based on Strømme’s own experiences. They decide to live in the Norwegian colony on the west side of the city, and there they get books to translate for the Viking Publishing Company. The translations they make are “the worst American dime novels, hair-raising detective stories, and foolish and sickly sentimental novels of the better-class life for the de light of the half-wanton schoolgirls.” These translations are similar to those Strømme had made for the John Anderson Publishing Company, novels about “Old Sleuth’ and ‘Alkali Ike’ or some such; or else some of these innocent rural-life novels, of which George Ade says that nothing in the world happens until one comes to page 72, where John finally decides to sell the milk cow.” {37} Nils writes some sketches on the various foreign colonies in Chicago for a Sunday paper, and this leads to his appointment as Scandinavian reporter for one of the large dailies.

But things go wrong. The two men live a hand-to-mouth existence, spending most of their time in saloons. They join [162] up with a group of Norwegian freethinkers, among whom is Marcus Thrane. They associate with a group of newspapermen who call themselves Bohemians. Finally, Nils is arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, assaulting a policeman, and talking indecently to the judge. Not long after, he takes his life; and Moe goes to a sanitarium, writes his memoirs, and dies.

Strømme wrote no other novels: he spent most of the remainder of his life traveling, lecturing, and writing accounts of his travels. But all three of Strømme’s novels concern the Norwegians in America. They are not merely social documents; yet they are authentic and realistic panoramas of a foreign culture group. Strømme’s chief concern was to tell a story, and in each of these books he does that well, though in each he creates a different dominant mood. Yet each novel reveals his characteristic humor, and in spite of the influence in “In the Clutches of the Devil” of the literature of decadence of Scandinavia, Strømme’s buoyant optimism is present in his fiction. Strømme was one of the first Norwegian-American novelists to display a definite literary art; his work shows the influence of both Scandinavian and American writers; and, like Mark Twain, he himself can be found again and again in the pages of his novels: they are interesting and valuable testaments of the author’s own personality, taking their place among the best that Norwegian America has produced.

Notes

<1> This article is a part of chapter 4 of a study of the Norwegian-American novel, now in the process of being written. The preceding section of this chapter covers the novels of Hans Anderson Foss, whose Husmands-gutten was published serially in Decorah-posten (Decorah, Iowa), beginning December 3, 1884 In 1885 this novel appeared in book form; it was extremely popular, and has since appeared in several editions, including a translation into landsmaal in 1950.
<2> Peer Strømme, Erindringer, 321 (Minneapolis, 1923); Superior Posten, beginning November 24, 1892. The author prefers to use English titles for the novels discussed. Of those mentioned in this report, however, only How Halvor Became a Minister was published in an English translation.
<3> Peer Strømme, How Halvor Became a Minister, 67 (Minneapolis, 1936).
<4> Strømme, Erindringer, 28.
<5> See Normanden (Grand Forks, North Dakota), January 19, 1910; Olaf Stromme to Gerald Thorson, June 26, 1947; Albert Barton to Mrs. Esther Chase, February 7, 1932; R. J. Stromme to Gerald Thorson, March 10, 1948; N. N. Rønning, Fifty Years in America, 211 (Minneapolis, 1938); Symra, 3:103 (Decorah, Iowa, 1907). The letters cited, or copies of them, are in the possession of the author.
<6> See his article on Waldemar Ager in Symra, 3: 137-147 (1907).
<7> Rasmus B. Anderson states in the Milwaukee Journal, September 21, 1921, that “Peer Strømme belonged to the third generation, both of his parents having been born in this country.” This is an error. Although Strømme’s grandparents did come to America, both of his parents had been born in Norway. They met and were married in Winchester, Wisconsin, in 1852. For an account of Strømme’s life, see his Erindringer. He adopted the name “Strømme” while he was at Luther College.
<8> See Katalog for det norske Luther College i Decorah, Iowa (Decorah, 1872); Luther College through Sixty Years, 1861-1921 (Minneapolis, 1922); Strømme, Erindringer, 94.
<9> Strømme, Erindringer, 97; Twenty-fifth Anniversary 1921-1946: First Lutheran Church, Ada, Minnesota, 3 (1946). An interesting account of Strømme’s early years as a pastor is found in Erindringer, 136-206, and in State Historical Society of North Dakota, Collections, 233-240 (Grand Forks, 1925). The latter is based on Strømme’s account in Erindringer.
<10> Olaf M. Norlie, ed., School Calendar 1824-1924: A Who’s Who among Teachers in the Norwegian Lutheran Synods of America, 691 (Minneapolis, 1924). Strømme was on the editorial staff of Norden (Chicago), 1888-92; Dagbladet (Chicago), 1889-90; Posten (Superior, Wisconsin), 1892-93; Amerika (Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin), 1895-98; Minneapolis Times, 1899-1900; Minneapolis Star, 1900; Politiken (Minneapolis), 1904-05; and Normanden (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 1909-21. He edited the magazines Vor tid (Minneapolis), 1904-05, and Eidsvold (Grand Forks), 1909-10. He was correspondent for the Chicago Times, Syd Dakota ekko (Sioux Falls), and Decorah-posten.
<11> These works, as they appeared in translation, include Byron A. Dunn, Fra Atlanta til havet (Chicago, 1902); General Nelsons speider (Chicago, 1902); Kampen om Atlanta (Chicago, 1902); Paa General Thomas’s stab (Chicago, 1902); Paa streiftog med General Morgan (Chicago, 1907); William Evans, Hvorledes sjæle vindes for Guds rige (Chicago, 1899); James W. Gerard, Mine fire aar i Tyskland (Minneapolis, 1918); E. Kr. Johnsen, Paul of Tarsus (Minneapolis, 1919); O. Klykken, Our Homes and Our Children (Decorah, Iowa, 1909); and N. J. Laache, Book of Family Prayer (Decorah, 1902).
<12> Strømme, Erindringer. 306, 316.
<13> Strømme went to Norway during the summer of 1890, and was in Europe in 1906, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915. In 1915 he was a war correspondent in Berlin. He made two trips around the world, in 1911-12 and 1913-14. Accounts of all the trips after 1910 can be found in Normanden. A compilation of some of these articles is in Breve fra Peer Strømme paa reise rundt verden som “Normandens” korrespondent (Grand Forks, 1911).
<14> “Hvorledes Halvor blev prest,” which appeared in Superior Posten, November 24, 1892-June 8, 1893, and Normanden, May 18, 1910-August 31. 1910; Hvorledes Halvor blev prest (Decorah, 1893; Grand Forks, 1910); How Halvor Became a Minister, translated from the Norwegian by Toga Bredesen Norstog (Minneapolis, 1936). On Strømme’s translations, see footnote 11. The original title of the prayer book was Biskop Laaches husandagtsbok.
<15> Strømme, Erindringer, 321, 383. The translation of the Rølvaag criticism is from Theodore Jorgenson and Nora Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag: A Biography, 301 (New York, 1939).
<16> Strømme to Anderson, November 19, 1892, in Anderson Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison; Strømme, Erindringer, 321.
<17> Strømme, How Halvor Became a Minister, 60.
<18> Strømme, How Halvor Became a Minister, 73, 84.
<19> Strømme, How Halvor Became a Minister, 65.
<20> Vor tid, 3:48 (January, 1907). The second time that the story was published, it ran from October 26, 1910 to March 15, 1911.
<21> Unge Helgeson (Grand Forks, 1911). In the foreword, Strømme states that a story, “Paa vestens vidder,” was begun in one of the newspapers a few years before, but never finished. However, the title in Vor tid was “Unge Helgeson.”
<22> See Erindringer, 302-305; Norden, September 15, October 6, December 22, 1891; Folkebladet (Minneapolis), April 12, 1893.
<23> Unge Helgeson, 152.
<24> Normanden, March 8, 1911.
<25> Eidsvold 1:207, 223-225, 242 (November, 1909), 2:50-56, 83, 261 (February, March, April, 1910).
<26> Halfdan Moe, Den vonde ivold (Grand Forks, 1910). The quotation from Strømme is on page 6.
<27> Normanden, December 7, 1910.
<28> Moe, Den vonde ivoid, 7. Moe’s tentative title was obviously an imitation of Hans Jæger’s Fra Kristiania-Bohémen (Christiania, 1885).
<29> Posten, November 24, 1892. No pastor named Halvor Bakken is listed in Rasmus Malmin et el., ads., Who’s Who among Pastors in All the Norwegian Lutheran Synods of America, 1843-1927 (Minneapolis, 1928). In this discussion of Den vonde iv old I have tried to point out that there is nothing in the book with which Peer Strømme was not acquainted, that it does not read like a Norwegian translation of an English original, and that what humor there is in the book is Strømme’s.
<30> Posten, December 22, 1892.
<31> It is interesting to note that two of the novelists of this movement came to Chicago: Ame Dybfest and Sigbjørn Obstfelder. It is likely that Strømme knew these men; it is also possible that he based part of his story on their lives.
<32> Moe, Den vonde ivold, 7.
<33> The song they sing is five stanzas of an anonymous poem, “Revelry of the Dying,” the first stanza of which is as follows:
“Time was when we frowned on others;
We thought we were wiser then.
Ha-ha! Let them think of their mothers
Who expect to see them again.
So stand to your glasses.-steady!
The thoughtless are here-the wise.
A cup for the dead already;
Hurrah for the next that dies!”
<34> Ingrid Semmingsen, Veien mot vest: ulvandringen fra Norge 1865-1915, 242 (Oslo, 1950); Morgenbladet (Christiania), November 23, 1881, quoted in Semmingsen, Veien mot vest, 189.
<35> Seinmingsen, Veien mot vest, 187.
<36> Strømme, Erind ringer, 256. .
<37> Moe, Den vonde ivold, 66. The humor in the statement is typical of Strømme. Furthermore, George Ade was frequently mentioned by Strømme in Erind ringer.

 

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