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J. R. Reiersen 's "Indiscretions"
    by Einar Haugen (Volume 21: Page 269)

A figure who flits in and out of most accounts of Norwegian immigration to America, but who apparently has not been treated in a special biography, is Johan Reinert Reiersen. {1} This sextonís son from southern Norway was many things to many men, and it should be worth the time of a researcher in Norwegian-American history to dig into his life and find the mainsprings of his adventurous career. New interest in him can hardly fail to be kindled by the most recent publication in which he appears, Elise Wærenskjoldís engaging volume entitled The Lady with the Pen, ably edited by C. A. Clausen. {2}

Clausen remarks that Reiersen, during his first twenty-nine years, "had managed to accumulate considerable experience and a controversial reputation." The latter was to some extent based on the fact that he "had been expelled from the university [of Christiania] Ďfor some youthful indiscretion.'" This expression echoes the term used by Reiersenís staunch collaborator, admirer, and fellow emigrant, Elise Wærenskjold, in a letter written thirty years after his death to R. B. Andersonís newspaper, Amerika. {3} The passage may have [270] struck an answering chord in Andersonís heart; he himself had been expelled from Luther College for "youthful indiscretions." But our own curiosity is undeniably awakened by this term when it is used about Reiersen, whose reputation in Norwegian-American sources is so unassailable that one feels him to be enrolled in a kind of fraternity of founding fathers. {4}

One gets a little closer to the real man in Ingrid Semmingsenís Norwegian account, which to readers not versed in the language may be less familiar than it deserves. She writes that Reiersen was "a highly gifted man, and he was no doubt honestly convinced of the urgency of the reforms he advocated. He was ambitious also, but he lacked persistence, and behind the flowery language he employed, there was concealed a certain softness. He was not an orderly man, whether in financial affairs or other matters, and his enemies who were numerous found it easy to detect irregularities in his conduct which they could pick at. Contemporary newspaper editors repeatedly insinuated that his activities had not always been entirely honorable. His life would not bear the full light of day, wrote Den constitutionelle. But aside from his violation of the election laws in 1841, they mention nothing concrete, and it appears as if these insinuations were a link in the campaign against him, conducted in order to blacken his name and make him unacceptable." {5}

It appears from Mrs. Semmingsenís footnotes that her chief source for this somewhat unvarnished view of Reiersen is [271] J. B. Halvorsenís Norsk forfatterlexikon. {6} Halvorsenís account was decidedly unflattering, and would surely have given grounds for a libel suit had Reiersen been alive to institute it. Not only was the "youthful indiscretion" rather more harshly pin-pointed as "various dishonest tricks (ukæderlige Streger)" but a letter published in 1860 in the Copenhagen newspaper Berlingske tidende was quoted, a letter which reflected unflatteringly on Reiersenís activities as a promoter of emigration. It was written by a Dane named J. S. Smith, who had returned from Texas and had written that "under a mask of friendship he [Reiersen] robbed me and many others of every penny we had, and when he had wheedled out of us all we owned, he ran away. This man wrote big books about the glory of his colony and thereby lured many hundreds to go to America. The outcome was that when the heat of summer came, and they all began to clear away trees and cultivate the soil, the local fever (Klimatfeberen) appeared and killed off many, so that most of the people went back home."

One needs only read the letters of Elise Wærenskjold, whose husband was murdered, whose crops failed, and who knew poverty, to realize that the brave optimism with which she defended Texas and its settlements on every possible occasion was not in all respects consonant with the underlying reality.

But to return to the "youthful indiscretions" of Reiersen: there is a source that underlies Halvorsenís report, one that he calls "K. Knudsenís Handwritten Account." This apparently has not been utilized by any scholar of Norwegian emigration. Since Halvorsenís day it has become easily accessible, having been published in Oslo in 1937 as Knud Knudsens livsminner.

Who was Knud Knudsen? To anyone interested in the fortunes of the Norwegian language he is a figure of [272] eminence, one of Norwayís two opposing giants in the linguistic struggle of the mid-nineteenth century. (The other was Ivar Aasen.) As early as 1845, the year of Reiersenís emigration to America, Knudsen was making himself heard as an advocate of language reform. On behalf of the common people, from whom he had sprung, he demanded the gradual substitution of spoken Norwegian forms for the official written Danish. He was the son of a poor cotter, and had won an opportunity for higher education solely by his extraordinary diligence and his good head. He became the untiring spokesman of practical, down-to-earth measures for educating the entire people. Ceaselessly he attacked the traditional classical training of Norwegian schools and the entrenched privileges of the wellborn, among which he reckoned their exclusive possession of the "correct" upper-class language. In short, he was not a man to lack sympathy with reform movements, or with their leaders. As he was a friend and mentor of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, his influence became decisive in advancing liberalism in linguistic as well as political matters.

What has this to do with Reiersen? Only that Reiersen and Knudsen were near-contemporaries and, for a time, friends; that Reiersen was Knudsenís first teacher of foreign languages; and that an affair involving Knudsen led to Reiersenís rejection by the university and his departure from Norway in 1832. Knudsen writes in his memoirs: "In our part of the country it was quite unheard of for any common manís son to take the university entrance examination. But strangely enough this happened in my artium year to three young men, and all three of them came from the same school, Ole Reiersenís in Holt." As any reader of Elise Wærenskjoldís letters will know, Ole Reiersen was the schoolteacher-sexton father of Johan Reinert Reiersen, with whom he emigrated to Texas in 1845. One of the two other pupils of humble origin who took the university entrance examination with Knudsen in 1832 was Johan Reinert, who was just two years [273] older than his childhood companion and schoolmate, and had for a time tutored the latter "in the little he knew." But Knudsen was proud of the fact that in the examination the last had become first: He, the youngest, got a grade of laudabilis (about equal to A), while Johan Reinert got two marks lower, non contemnendus (about C). Their wealthy patron, Jacob Aall, was said to have remarked that if Reiersen had spent more time on his Cicero and less in the Storting (parliament) gallery, he would not have suffered this misfortune. {7}

Worse was to come. Reiersen actually never matriculated at the university because of an episode which, according to Knudsen, was only one of many escapades. Reiersen, conversing with another student, learned that the latter was on his way to the post office to claim a money order for $30. Reiersen hurried ahead of his fellow student and signed for the money order; but instead of writing the claimantís name, or his own, he signed Knud Knudsenís. This deception was quickly exposed, and a few days later Reiersen fled to Copenhagen to avoid the legal consequences. Knudsen reports other episodes that demonstrated a certain light-fingered disregard for other peopleís property; none was particularly serious, but they served to block Reiersenís career as an academic citizen in Christiania. {8} It was as if the spirit of free enterprise had begun to fire him, well in advance of any ideas about emigration.

Knudsenís anger over the imputed blot on his own reputation was such that he roundly condemned Reiersen as an "obvious thief and liar." He also deplored that this young man, who had been so pious that on his confirmation day he had "wept beyond all measure, more than any other person I have seen on such an occasion," by 1832 "had completely given up his Christianity." Even so, Reiersen still could have been meticulous in his conduct, for "an honest [274] freethinker is worth more than most of our Christians-in-name-and-habit." But Knudsen reported that Reiersenís further life merely illustrated his sad turn into moral corruption. "In Copenhagen he made a living for a time by translating novels, or whatever it was." Interestingly, Halvorsenís bibliography gives a list of these translations, among which a goodly number were novels by Bulwer-Lytton (including The Last Days of Pompeii) and by the German-Norwegian romantic writer Henrich Steffens. Not only this: While in Copenhagen Reiersen edited an impressive variety of magazines, four in all, at least one of which survived his departure. "Later he even succeeded in establishing a family. With his father-in-lawís money he is said to have set up a kind of boarding house, the Restoration, with a reading society, Læsesalon. But the end of it was that his father-in-lawís fortune was used up, leaving nothing permanent to live on. Then he went (or fled?) to Hamburg." {9} There he was rumored to have perpetrated a regular swindle, after which, with his wife and children, he returned to his parents in Norway. Knudsen then met him again, presumably in 1838.

Reading this sordid account of manipulation and malfeasance, one is surprised that Reiersen was able to return to his native land, and, in the leading city of his region, Christiansand, enter upon a highly promising career as journalist and politician. He established his own personal publication in 1839, when he began issuing Christianssandsposten; he continued it until his first trip to America in 1843; others kept it alive for four more years. His vigorous and well-written attacks on established interests quickly made him notorious throughout the country, and earned him both praise and contumely. Anyone who reads Blegenís and Semmingsenís accounts will gain the impression of a man with self-confidence, a touch of brass, and a vast fund of idealism. Surprisingly, Knudsen grants that "for a time" Reiersenís paper "was held to be the best newspaper outside the capital." [275] We recall that Elise Wærenskjold quotes his bitter enemy Adolf Stabell as saying that "Reiersen was the ablest editor in Norway." {10}

Knudsen counters this recognition of Reiersenís "excellent gifts" by deploring his "lack of character." He says, "In the course of time he printed shameful attacks on named, or almost-named men, probably for high pay. But before he thus disgraced himself and the paper, he had won such support in the city that the people would have sent him to the Storting. This would have been his certain death as a Ďpublicí personality. For then several charges of thievery would have been brought up against him. He found a way out, just the same, pretending after the election that he had voted for himself and thereby had made himself ineligible as the representative of the city." Moreover, "Some time after this, Christianssandsposten became unprofitable. Then he left for America, like so many others whose welfare and future have suffered shipwreck." {11}

Our good schoolmaster here expresses a judgment doubtless often passed on those who emigrated by those who stayed at home. The lines are reminiscent of the ironic words put by Ibsen into the mouth of Peer Gynt when he advised Huhu, the mad Malabar interpreter, to "emigrate to serve your country." But they also throw some light on the unconcern with which many Norwegians saw their fellow citizens depart for America, and their lack of interest in the emigrantsí further careers. One would never suspect that the Reiersen of Knudsenís autobiography and Halvorsenís biographical dictionary was one of the heroes of emigration.

In any case, Knudsen was almost certainly wrong in describing Reiersenís first trip to America as a second flight from failure. We do not know precisely what Reiersenís inner motives may have been. But we do know that he was entrusted with the task of selecting a settlement site in America [276] by a group of serious prospective emigrants, including such scions of well-to-do families as Christian Grøgaard, Wilhelm Wærenskjold, and above all Elise Tvede, the daughter of Reiersenís former pastor in Holt, who was to become Reiersenís substitute editor and a great personality in her own right. We also know that on his return to Norway he wrote an account of his journey which, in the words of Theodore C. Blegen, "ranks among the more substantial contributions to the advertising of America among Norwegians in the period before the Civil War." {12}

Historians of migration have been inclined to see the attacks made on Reiersen during his lifetime as expressions of narrow-minded officials whose oxen were being gored. But it is impossible to overlook entirely the testimony of one who knew him as well as Knudsen did. Reiersen was clearly nowhere near so scrupulous in his dealings as a man in the public eye needed to be if he were to maintain his following. From the beginning there was combined with his brilliance of personality a lack of judgment which later found expression in the enthusiasm with which he promoted land areas that proved to be poor, and in the uncritical praise of freedom which he lavished on a slaveholding state.

Knudsenís probity was such as to make his memories of Reiersen merely painful. Reiersen on his part probably looked back on Knudsen as a plodding pedant, the born bachelor whose adventures were limited to the classroom and the study. Yet these two men had much in common. Both came from humble antecedents and were endowed with unusual natural gifts. Both, each in his own way and without understanding the otherís approach, rebelled against the conditions of their lot and the privileges which the upper class had arrogated to itself. They were parishioners and pupils of Pastor Nicolai Tvede, whose daughter Elise was a pioneer in the liberation of Norwegian women and one of the "first ladies of Texas." [277]

As we saw above, Knudsen was proud to note that he was one of three poor menís sons who won their way from Holt to the University of Christiania in the year 1832. One was Knud Jørgensen (1810 53) who lived a short but meritorious life as teacher, pastor, and dean. Knudsen praises him as "one of the best I have known. {13} It is tempting to designate his career as "average" in comparison with the two controversial figures who were his classmates. Both Reiersen and Knudsen were fighters on behalf of freedom, and were not afraid to make enemies. In the end, Reiersen left for a new country where his adventuresome spirit found its consummation. Knudsen remained in Norway, and he lived to see many of his ideas bear fruit in the democratization of school and language. His judgment on Reiersen is interesting, but hardly final. We can agree that there is room in an expanding world for the qualities of both adventurer and pedagogue. Each of them made his mark and will be remembered for what he was.


<1> See Theodore C. Blegenís sketch of Reiersen in Dictionary of American Biography, 15:487.

<2> The Lady with the Pen: Elise Wærenskjold in Texas (Northfield, 1961).

<3> Amerika (Madison), September 12, 1894; Clausen, ed., The Lady with the Pen, 12, 157.

<4> Andersonís student exploit is described in David T. Nelson, Luther College 1861ó1961, 76ó78 (Decorah, Iowa, 1961). On Reiersen, see Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825ó1860, 177ó184 (Northfield, 1931); Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, 118ó134 (Minneapolis, 1955); Johan R. Reiersen, "Norwegians in the West in 1844: A Contemporary Account," in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 1:110ó125 (Minneapolis, 1926); Lyder L. Unstad, ed., "The First Norwegian Migration into Texas: Four ĎAmerica Letters,í" in Studies and Records, 8:39ó57 (1934).

<5> Veien mot vest: Utvandringen fra Norge til Amerika, 1825ó1865, 208 (Oslo, 1942). Den constitutionelle was published in Christiania; the name of the latter was changed to Oslo in 1925.

<6> Vol. 5, p. 526ó529 (Christiania, 1896).

<7> Knudsen, Livsminner, 52, 85, 86. A student took the artium examination at the conclusion of his final year of preparatory school.

<8> Knudsen, Livsminner, 88.

<9> Knudsen, Livsminner, 87, 88, 97.

<10> Knudsen, Livsminner, 98; Clausen, ed., The Lady with the Pen, 158.

<11> Knudsen, Livsminner, 98.

<12> Norwegian Migration, 1825ó1860, 247.

<13> Knudsen, Livsminner, 87.

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