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Theodore C. Blegen
    by Carlton C. Qualey (Volume 21: Page 3)

To the good fortune of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Theodore C. Blegen served as managing editor for its publications until his resignation in 1960. During the thirty-five years that he held this post, forty-one volumes were issued. The credit roster of the association lists many names, but Dean Blegen’s will, by common consent, head it, for he set the standards of selection and of editorial work. That these publications rank high in the field of immigration history is a matter of general agreement among scholars. In the writings put out by some immigrant-American historical societies, the variance in quality is apparent. Much of their product is colored by attempts to demonstrate the pre-eminence of special national stocks in American history. Anyone who is aware of the pressure groups that exist within the Norwegian element in America will recognize the significance of Dean Blegen’s achievement. His independence from control by sectarian and filio-pietistic elements among the Norwegian Americans, his diplomatic ability, which carried the day in many a difference of opinion, and his devotion to high standards of historical scholarship enabled him to create for the Norwegian-American Historical Association a remarkable reputation as a learned society.

To those who discount background as an important factor [4] in conditioning character, I would direct attention to the Blegen family of Augsburg College, Minneapolis, and of Saga Hill, Lake Minnetonka. The affection and intellectual discipline that characterized the home of a classical scholar were supplemented during vacations in that remarkable extension of the Augsburg faculty community at Lake Minnetonka, called Saga Hill. Theodore Blegen has himself described this summer colony in a charming article in Minnesota History. {1} The intellectual competition afforded by a father who was a professor, by a mother who had been a successful businesswoman before her marriage in a day when such a career was unusual, by two sisters and three brothers (one of whom is an eminent classical archaeologist), and by faculty neighbors and their children must have contributed to "bending the twig" toward a scholarly career. To this gifted family environment was added a rugged physical inheritance.

Dean Blegen’s undergraduate studies at Augsburg College and at the University of Minnesota were followed by graduate work at Minnesota that led to a doctorate in history. He did high-school teaching at Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then served an apprenticeship under Solon J. Buck at the Minnesota Historical Society in the arts of editing and meticulous research. He succeeded to the position of superintendent of the historical society and taught at Hamline and Minnesota universities, eventually becoming a full professor at the latter. A Guggenheim fellowship year in Norway, 1928—29, proved stimulating and productive. Dean Blegen’s career reached one of its peaks in his election to the presidency of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1943. From 1940 to 1960 he served as dean of the graduate school in the University of Minnesota. [5]

Clara Woodward Blegen, a woman in her own way as able as her husband, has accompanied him in all his efforts during his adult years, bearing two handsome children, Theodore and Margaret. Those who know the Blegens realize full well how significant she has been in her husband’s career. It has been a fortunate partnership.

Although Theodore Blegen’s deanship increasingly took up his time after 1940, he continued as an active and productive historian, notably in his direction of the publication program of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, in important service on the executive council of the Minnesota Historical Society, in consultative functions for other state historical organizations, and, during World War II, in editing the GI Roundtable Pamphlets issued by the Historical Service Board of the American Historical Association for the Information and Education Division of the army. From 1940, however, his energies and genius were devoted primarily to building up the Minnesota graduate school, to serving the university on innumerable committees and in countless capacities, to giving major service to the Association of American Universities and to the Land Grant College Association, and to consultation on graduate education in New York and other states. He has received recognition in the form of honorary degrees from Hamline University, Carleton, St. Olaf, Luther, and Augustana (Rock Island) colleges, and the University of Oslo, Norway.

For recreation, Theodore Blegen has turned to folk ballads, Sherlock Holmes, golf, fishing in northern Minnesota, and stimulating conversation at the university faculty’s Campus Club. {2} [6]

It would be difficult to determine in which field Dean Blegen has made his most significant contribution. On January 29—30, 1960, the University of Minnesota and its department of history honored him with a conference on immigration history, attended by scholars in that field from all parts of the United States and from Norway. It was a well-deserved tribute. The area chosen might easily have been Minnesota history, or, even more appropriately, graduate education. But the field closest to his heart was probably immigrant history, especially that of the Norwegian Americans. His own two basic volumes, Norwegian Migration to America, are generally considered model studies in the field.

Dean Blegen’s contributions to publication, as well as his fields of major activities, can be classified thus: state and local history, immigration history, and educational policy. A list of his works in Norwegian-American history appears at the conclusion of this discussion, and so this need not be a bibliographical article. Even at this short perspective, however, some estimate may be attempted.

His long service for the Minnesota Historical Society made it inevitable that he contribute to the field of state and local history. In an eloquent essay entitled "Inverted Provincialism," he refutes those who depreciate local studies. "This inverted provincialism considered itself urbane and cosmopolitan. It was little interested in the values of folk culture. It rejected the near-at-hand as local and insignificant. It cultivated the faraway, without fully understanding it because it did not understand the near-at-hand, without sensing, too, that the faraway may in its inner meaning be near-at-hand. Imitative because it lacked self-confidence, inverted provincialism in many instances established molds and patterns for our educational and institutional development that have been hard to break. . . . In history it devoted itself to the polite and reputable themes. It lifted its eyebrows at those who turned aside from the Monroe Doctrine, the tariff, and presidential administrations to find life and blood and significance [7] in social and cultural themes, whether on national, regional, or local levels." After pointing to numerous manifestations of growing interest in folk studies and regional history, Blegen concludes: "And so I come back to the matter of knowing ourselves — the key word of the Greek philosophers — and the society in which we live, without self-deception and with confidence as we look to the future. In such knowing, starting with community and homeland, we have the basis for knowing the universal." {3}

In the field of "grass roots history," Blegen’s contributions have been notable. They are so many that it is difficult to select the most important, but few would question inclusion of the classic essay, "The ‘Fashionable Tour’ on the Upper Mississippi." Here he brings to vivid life the era of the Mississippi panoramas: the travel movies of the mid-nineteenth century, which promoted steamboat tours to the Upper Mississippi region, and the people who took the tour and told about it. At this writing, the best brief histories of Minnesota are those done by Theodore Blegen. A masterpiece of succinctness is the essay in the World Book Encyclopedia; and his Building Minnesota, although directed to high-school students, is the best short history for general readers as well. The files of Minnesota History contain numerous examples of Blegen’s skill in lifting the ordinary into proper perspective. His leadership in the state and local fields and his teaching of Minnesota history brought to print innumerable studies. {4}

The centennial of the coming of the first shipload of Norwegian immigrants to America led directly in 1925 to the organization, on October 6 of that year, of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Theodore C. Blegen became [8] managing editor, and with the strong co-operation of the novelist O. E. Rølvaag and of other Norwegian-American leaders, he issued the first publication in 1926: volume 1 of Studies and Records. To date, twenty volumes in this series have appeared; it contains articles, documents, translated immigrant letters, and bibliographical essays, forming a vast kaleidoscopic picture of the coming of Norwegians to America. Five volumes in a Travel and Description Series were issued, including travel accounts and frontier reminiscences and letters. Sixteen special publications, including Blegen’s two studies of Norwegian immigration, complete this impressive list. In addition, many of his articles were contributed to other state and national historical publications in the field of immigration history, and two of his volumes were issued by the University of Minnesota Press. One of these was Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, in which Professor Martin B. Ruud was Blegen’s collaborator. It contains the immortal "Oleana" ballad, now increasingly popular. The other volume is one of the few collections of immigrant letters conveniently available, Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home. {5}

In the latter volume, Blegen expressed most clearly and effectively his views on immigrant history, notably in the brilliant first chapter. He writes: "The immigrant’s image of America, portrayed with a thousand details in letters, is interesting not only as a record of what was thus transmitted directly to vast numbers of people in Europe in the nineteenth century, but also as a propelling force in emigration itself. There has been all too often an air of impersonality in accounts of American immigration. The coming of thirty millions of people was a movement of such magnitude that, to many, it has seemed futile to try to disengage personalities from the mass. Many writers have forgotten the individual man in the surging complex of international circumstances. World forces pushed people out of their accustomed environment; world [9] forces pulled them westward with magnetic power. But the pivot of human motion is individual life. Migration was a simple individual act — a decision that led to consequences —and the ‘America letters’ were a dynamic factor, perhaps the most effective single factor, in bringing discontent to a focus and into action." {6}

In the field of immigration history, Blegen’s reputation will probably rest most solidly on his Norwegian Migration to America, 1825—1860, and Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition. {7} Much of the material was collected during his Guggenheim fellowship year in Norway. The first volume emphasizes the background in Norway of the beginnings and early decades of emigration. Blegen’s concern is with economic and social conditions. The book contains a skillful linking of expulsive factors in Norway and attractive conditions in America, effective use of illustrative letters and newspaper information, and exciting chapters on emigrant gold seekers and emigrant songs and poems. It is a model study of its kind. In the second and longer volume, Blegen deals with the problems of acculturation in the United States. The distribution of settlement, the impact of the frontier on the immigrant, the dynamics of religious change, the problems of communication presented by the contact of Norwegian and English, education issues, immigrant newspapers, slavery and Norwegian immigrants, the migration of culture, and almost innumerable aspects of Norwegian-American life are presented. The book gives a vivid cross-sectional analysis of an immigrant-American nationality group in process of transition from the old-country culture, through the Norwegian-American phase, toward a new amalgamation that is still in process in the American population.

Apart from the immense amount of factual material presented in Blegen’s total output, his principal contribution is methodological. Starting with the premise of thoroughness of [10] historical training, indefatigability in research, and boundless enthusiasm and drive, Blegen proceeds to demonstrate the importance of artistic presentation. It is not enough to collect and to record. It is necessary to re-create. To do this it is essential to bring the reader into the world of the immigrant, and the best way to do this is to repeat for him the words of the immigrants themselves. They were common folk, untrained in literary expression, but often possessed of an artlessness of description and sincerity of sentiment that carried their own message. Certainly these people were their own best spokesmen, and Blegen recognized this and let them speak. Blegen enjoys writing and experimenting with words. In the truest sense he is a creative writer.

It was appropriate that Theodore Blegen should round out his career as dean of the graduate school of his own beloved University of Minnesota. The key to his conception of the character of this position lies in his definition of scholarship, on which we are fortunate to have his views, expressed in the last year of his deanship. In a talk delivered in 1959 and entitled, "Some Thoughts on the Nature and Meaning of Scholarship," Dean Blegen gave this definition: "Scholarship means quality and excellence applied to studies, training, ideas, and problems." He went on to list its characteristics: curiosity, patience, imagination, endurance, and freedom. He concluded by pointing out its relevance to individual fulfillment and to social welfare: "In speaking of scholarship as a double resource —a resource for us in our individual lives and for the society of which we are a part — I want to strike as hard as I can at the idea that scholarship is just an abstraction or an ivory-tower concept, remote from everyday life. Measurable excellence in learning is the heart of scholarship, and it is of vital concern to everybody. From home to business and profession, from politics and community affairs to church and schooling, from reading to recreation — everywhere, we as people and citizens must draw upon knowledge and understanding, on memory [11] and reasoning — if we are to play our roles in life well and richly." {8}

At the conference on immigration history, January 30, 1960. Dean Blegen responded to tributes with the following valedictory to his university and in fact to all institutions of higher education:

"What a fascinating place, adventure, career, and life is a great university! A university with its range across a hundred important sciences and arts; its probing researches; its teaching of youth in the successive waves of generations; its informed interweaving of past and future; its basic and applied service to state and country and world; its intoxicating play of ideas; its controversies and troubles and triumphs; its comradeship and warmth as a community of scholars!" {9}

To these eloquent closing words, it seems appropriate to add an injunction given him by the famous author of Giants in the Earth, O. E. Rølvaag: "Only the best is good enough." This has been Theodore Blegen’s creed.


* This list is based on a compilation made by Zephyra Shepherd. A more extensive bibliography of the writings of Theodore C. Blegen is included in immigration and American History: Essays in Honor of Theodore C. Blegen, 157—161 (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1961). K. O. B.

Books and Pamphlets

Ole Rynning’s True Account of America. Minneapolis, 1926. 100p. Translated and edited.

Peter Testman’s Account of His Experiences in North America. Northfield, Minnesota, 1927. 60p. Translated and edited.

The America Letters. Oslo, 1928. 25p.

Norwegian Migration to America, 1825—1860. Northfield, 1931. 413p.

The Civil War Letters of Hans Christian Heg. Northfield, Minnesota, 1936. 260p. Edited.

Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads. Minneapolis, 1936. 350p. Edited, with Martin B. Ruud. [12]

Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition. Northfield, 1940. 655p. The appendix, John Quincy Adams and the Sloop "Restoration," published separately, 1940. 29p.

Grass Roots History. Minneapolis, 1947. 266p.

Frontier Parsonage: The Letters of Olaus Fredrik Duus, Norwegian Pastor in Wisconsin, 1855—1858. Northfield, 1947. 120p. Edited. Translated by the Verdandi Study Club of Minneapolis.

Frontier Mother: The Letters of Gro Svendsen. Northfield, 1950. 153p. Translated and edited, with Pauline Farseth.

Land of Their Choice: The immigrants Write Home. Minneapolis, 1955. 463p. Norwegian edition: Amerikabrev. Oslo, 1959. 408p. Edited. Foreword by Ingrid Semmingsen.

Articles and Documents

"The Historical Records of the Scandinavians in America," in Minnesota History Bulletin, 2:413—418 (May, 1918).

"The Competition of the Northwestern States for Immigrants," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 8:3—29 (September, 1919).

"Colonel Hans Christian Heg," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 4:140—165 (December, 1920).

"The Early Norwegian Press in America," in Minnesota History Bulletin, 3:506—518 (November, 1920).

"Cleng Peerson and Norwegian Immigration," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 7:303—381 (March, 1921).

"A Typical ‘America Letter," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 9:68-. 75 (June, 1922).

"Official Encouragement of Immigration to Minnesota during the Territorial Period," in Minnesota History Bulletin, 5:167—203 (August, 1923). With Livia Appel.

"The Norwegian Government and the Early Norwegian Emigration," in Minnesota History, 6:115—140 (June, 1925).

"Norwegians in the West in 1844," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 1:110—125 (Minneapolis, 1926).

"Minnesota’s Campaign for Immigrants," and "Illustrative Documents," in Swedish Historical Society of America, Yearbook, 11:3—83 (1926).

"Den norske utvandring som den gjenspeiler sig i sange og digte," in Nordmands-forbundet, vol. 22, no. 4, p. 109—112 (April, 1929).

"Guri Endreson, Frontier Heroine," in Minnesota History, 10:425—430 (December, 1929).

"California gull og brasiliansk kolonisajon," in Nordmands-forbundet, Christmas annual, 1930, p. 45—48.

"An Early Norwegian Settlement in Canada," in Canadian Historical Association, Annual Report, 83—88 (1930).

"Immigrant Women and the American Frontier," in Studies and Records, 5:14—29 (1930).

"Leaders in American Immigration," in Illinois Historical Society, Transactions, 145—155 (1931). [13]

"Cleng Peerson," in Dictionary of American Biography, 14:390.

"Johan R. Reiersen," in Dictionary of American Biography, 15:487.

"Ole Rynning," in Dictionary of American Biography, 16:273.

"Norwegian Immigration," in Dictionary of American History, 4:152.

"Oleana," in Dictionary of American History, 4:171.

"An Official Report on Norwegian and Swedish Immigration, 1870," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 13:46—65 (1943).

"The Ballad of Oleana," in Common Ground, 5:73—77 (Autumn, 1944). "An Immigrant Exploration of the Middle West in 1839," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 14:41—53 (1944).

"Behind the Scenes of Emigration: A Series of Letters from the 1840’s," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 14:78—116.

"The Saga of Saga Hill," in Minnesota History, 29:289—299 (December, 1948).

"The Second Twenty-Five Years," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 17:149—158 (1952).

"Adventures in Historical Research," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 39:3—6, 47 (Autumn, 1955).

"The Immigrant Image of America," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 19:1—14 (1956).

"The America Book," in Illinois History, 12:145—147 (March, 1959).

"Singing Immigrants and Pioneers," in Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie, ed., Studies in American Culture, 171—188. Minneapolis, 1959.


<1> Parts of the first paragraphs of this essay are adapted from my article on Blegen in Norwegian-American Historical Association, News Letter, no. 9, p. 3 (May, 1960). Blegen’s study, "The Saga of Saga Hill," in Minnesota History, 29:289—299 (December, 1948), was subsequently expanded to a mimeographed volume, Minnetonka Family: The Saga of Saga Hill (Minneapolis, 1952).

<2> See Theodore C. Blegen and Martin B. Ruud, ed., Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads (Minneapolis, 1936); Lincoln in World Perspective (n.p., n.d.), a reprint of an address delivered at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, February 12, 1943; Lincoln’s imagery: A Study in Word Power (La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1954). Dean Blegen is a member of the Norwegian Explorers (the Minnesota chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars), author of The Crowded Box-Room (La Crosse, 1951), and editor, with E. W. McDiarmid, of Sherlock Holmes: Master Detective, and Exploring Sherlock Holmes (La Crosse, 1952, 1957). He was made an honorary member of the Professional Golfers Association for having shot a hole in one.

<3> Grass Roots History, 5, 18 (Minneapolis, 1947).

<4> The ‘Fashionable Tour’ on the Upper Mississippi" was first published in Minnesota History, 20:377—396 (December, 1939), and reprinted in John T. Flanagan, ed., America Is West: An Anthology of Middlewestern Life and Literature, 361—373 (Minneapolis, 1945), and in Grass Roots History, 121— 134. For the sketch of Minnesota, see World Book Encyclopedia, 11:4512— 4521 (Chicago, 1944). Building Minnesota was published in New York in 1938.

<5> Minneapolis, 1936, 1955.

<6> Land of Their Choice, 7.

<7> Northfield, 1931, 1940.

<8> University of Minnesota, Medical Bulletin, 31:89—93 (November 1, 1959).

<9> University of Minnesota, Alumni News, March, 1960.

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