NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

The Social Criticism of Ole Edvart Rølvaag
    by Neil T. Eckstein (Volume 24: Page 112)

Ole Edvart Rølvaag, highly conscious of his old-world inheritance, possessed the dual orientation which seems necessary for objectivity and perspective in evaluating a culture; yet in his social criticism, as in his economic and political criticisms, he failed to achieve the remarkable perspicacity of an Alexis de Tocqueville, a Lord Bryce, or a Thorstein Veblen. Perhaps this failure may be accounted for by the limited nature of his exposure to the mainstream of American society. Nevertheless, Rølvaag, with some display of critical acumen, probed deeply into American domestic institutions, examining the role of women in our society, evaluating American education, and assessing our religious attitudes. His resistance to the "Americanizing" process and his conviction that the unique cultural values of the Norwegian immigrants should be conserved determined the character and tone of his social criticism.

In the fictionalized account of his earliest experiences in South Dakota as a farm hand and student, recorded in Amerika-breve, Rølvaag noted that women were well treated in America—perhaps too well treated. Per Smevik, the fictitious writer of these letters, is rather taken aback that men in America milked cows and did other barnyard chores normally done by their wives and daughters on a Norwegian farm. These early observations were not unusual. Most [113] foreign observers throughout the nineteenth century noted the unique status of women in America. As Francis Grund expressed it: "There is one particular sentiment pervading all classes of Americans, which, though something similar exists in England, is in no other country carried to the same extent, or productive of the same consequences. I mean the universal respect for women, and the protection offered them, to whatever order of society they may belong." {1} This author saw the domestic virtue of the Americans as the principal source of all their other qualities, and their belief in it as something reinforced by powerful moral and religious sanctions. In Rølvaag, the idea was quite clearly derived from his orthodox religious position.

The Norwegian immigrant communities in South Dakota and Minnesota, which formed the vantage point of Rølvaag’s observations of American society, had accepted the so-called "Victorian" codes. It was the initial absence of the restraints of family and tradition on the frontier that had led to the establishment of stricter rules of moral discipline than the immigrants had known in the Old World. According to Marcus L. Hansen, this "Puritanism" was a typical outgrowth of the acculturation experience of the immigrants. {2} The historian points out an interesting parallel from New England history, noting that John Winthrop had observed that crime and disorder began to appear very early among the Massachusetts Bay settlers. But the ministers and the magistrates conferred, and as a result a stricter code was introduced. "The next morning they delivered their several reasons, which all sorted to this conclusion, that strict discipline both in criminal offenses and in marital affairs, was more needful in plantations than in a settled state, as tending to the honor and safety of the gospel." {3} [114]

In Peder Victorious, Oline Tuftan, a young girl, kills her illegitimate child and is brought to a strict accounting for her act before a congregational meeting. Rølvaag implies that the immigrant community was under a stricter observance of the moral code than had been the case in the Old World: "As his [Peder’s] mother and he walked along over to the wagon they passed a group of men who stood talking. One of them was saying in low tones: ‘A fellow can’t fool with the girls over here — in the old country a brat or two didn’t make much difference!’ Laughing, another added: ‘Well, you’ve got to be smarter about it here, you see.’ . . . At that the whole group guffawed. His mother took him by the arm and dragged him hurriedly away. . . . What did it all mean?" {4}

Rølvaag accepted these stricter attitudes uncritically during his early period, and when they were challenged in the years following World War I, he lamented the breakdown of respect for things formerly counted holy and the widespread undermining of the home. In a speech delivered in Iowa in 1921, he attributed this lapse in morals to the hysteria of wartime, when law and tradition are denied. He was embittered by the attacks of the superpatriots upon the immigrant groups in America, and on another occasion he asserted, "There is no true patriotism unless it is built upon a love of home and fireside." {5}

At the center of the home is mother. Rølvaag was very devoted to his own mother, and he expressed his feelings upon a number of occasions, especially in his Diary. But the "mother" concept in Rølvaag seems to reach out to include "mother tongue," "mother country," and the whole maternal aspect of a national culture. In the character of Beret, he has embodied both the narrower and the broader aspects of motherhood. Her character is traced in detail from [115] her pregnancy, while on the way to South Dakota, to the deathbed scene in Their Fathers’ God, where she disposes of the estate of Per Hansa with motherly concern and equity to each child. After Per Hansa’s death, her maternal role had expanded to include paternal aspects also. She had become known as the best farmer in the settlement, bringing Per Hansa’s dreams to fulfillment. At a critical congregational meeting, she assumed the male prerogative of speaking in the church, and, much to the chagrin of her sons, spoke her mind to a bickering congregation. As a wife she had shown weakness; as a mother she continually reflected strength and endurance. Gudrun Hovde Gvaale has applied Goethe’s phrase, "das ewig weibliche," to the description of Beret, suggesting that security for this type of person is dependent upon "a mystical sense of relationship to old places and familiar landmarks." {6}

But Beret was also maternal in the broader sense of the word. She represented the mother tongue, so much so that Peder’s life was linguistically and emotionally compartmentalized in his relationship to her. According to Rølvaag, it was the mother who determined how long the Norwegian language would live in America. It was she who held the key which could open the door of cultural heritage for the next generation. Beret stood for the values of the old ways in the midst of a world of rapid changes; she retained her integrity as a person and remained a force to be reckoned with in her family and in her community.

In what had been her weakest hour, in the depths of her despair, the one source of strength was her old immigrant chest, a symbol of cultural continuity. At that time she had thought of it as a place of refuge, and, when death seemed imminent, she had even requested that she be buried in it. Later, the chest became hallowed as an "ark of covenant" when the pioneer pastor used it as an altar for the first [116] communion service in the settlement. Like an umbilical cord, the chest provided a vital link for Beret in the transplanting of culture.

In 1929, Samuel Eliot Morison, the eminent historian, wrote to Rølvaag, suggesting an interesting parallel between Beret and Ann Bradstreet: "As I have often told you, Beret is a great figure because she typified the woman emigrant of every race. Only the other day in the writings of Ann Bradstreet — the first American poetess — who came over to Massachusetts Bay about 1630, I found the following statement: ‘I found new manners at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it.’ Poor Beret was less fortunate than Ann, for she could hardly reconcile American ways to the way of God. If life in the New World was difficult for the puritan women who came out of revulsion for the old, how much more so it must have been for the immigrant women of later races, who found nothing — not even for many years economic well-being — to compensate them for the things that they had lost." {7}

Rølvaag’s class notes for his Ibsen lectures provide the richest source of information on his attitudes toward women. He observed that the early Ibsen recognized two classes of women: the self-sacrificing person, such as Agnes in Brand; and the one who leads man on to his ruin (or victory). The latter type he called "Valkyrie-like," and he suggested that Gerd in Brand was such a character. But when Ibsen was through with Romanticism, his women became harder to classify because he began to delineate individuals, not types. Ibsen’s modern women have a quality of sameness; they are all stunted in development and have not realized themselves. Rølvaag believed that the dramatist was indicting modern society for hampering their development: "Ibsen’s whole social attitude presupposes a free development of the [117] individual. The greatest possible self-realization is the kernel of his philosophy as far as he has a philosophy. . . . Ibsen’s idea of the free marriage does not do away with whatever social convention the world accepts as a symbol of the marriage bond; he simply believes that there are those living in wedlock who have never been joined spiritually; that there are some marriages which are immoral, existing simply because the marriage bond holds them." {8}

In the notes on A Doll’s House, Rølvaag asserts that he had never heard of divorce until he came to America — "I doubt very much that I knew the term — skilsmisse." In the same context, he expresses doubt as to whether women would ever be able to compete successfully with men. He did not think that they would improve our political life, although they might cause certain reform legislation to be passed. On the whole, however, their influence in politics might be negative rather than positive. He concluded this particular discussion by suggesting that the whole feminist struggle for liberation rested upon a misconception on the part of women.

In a special lecture entitled "Woman in History," Rølvaag asked how the liberation of women was going to affect society. The whole idea fails to account for the fundamental differences between men and women. Rølvaag suggested that women were not endowed with creative genius to the extent of men, and he cited as evidence of his contention the overwhelming masculine leadership in the creative arts. The feminist revolt dates from the nineteenth century, and to Rølvaag the movement is only proof of woman’s capacity for endurance — "She is more ‘long-suffering." Man destroys, but it is woman who repairs; man wounds, and it is Woman who heals: "Hence it seems to me that woman has struck out in the wrong direction in her quest for freedom and equality. She isn’t going where the finger of God points. [118] When I read history I seem to hear God’s voice speaking so plainly— to man: ‘Go and make the home!’ To woman: ‘Go and queen the home!’ " {9}

In an Ibsen lecture entitled "Closing Remarks," Rølvaag notes that the problem of self-realization versus self-surrender had special attraction for Ibsen — the problem of a woman’s life when she marries. Rølvaag suggests the solution to the problem: "When a woman marries she becomes someone else. She changes her name; she changes her home; she changes her occupation; and her new name, her new home, and her new occupation, are determined by her husband and her children. Hence marriage, regarded from the woman’s point of view, is the problem of society, focused and epitomized — the problem of self-realization in and through self-surrender. The same problem meets us all, men and women, in all the relations of life; but in none is it so obvious and so tangible as it is here." {10}

Rølvaag believed that it was a woman friend who gave him ideas on the essential differences between man and woman. "It is dangerous to be a woman," she had told him; "a woman must belong —body, soul, heart, and mind." A man may compartmentalize his life, but a woman must give herself up. "The Lord doesn’t issue return tickets to women. For women there is only departure; there is no return." {11}

While Rølvaag’s basic attitude toward women and their rights was very conservative, highly colored by his religious background and convictions, he did not believe in a false idealization. In his lecture, "Books and Folks," delivered after he had achieved some national recognition as a writer, he attacks the idea that woman as the "weaker vessel" must be regarded as holy and must be shielded from the realities [119] of life. The result of this attitude, he asserts, has been a taboo in thought and speech "as vicious as it is false." {12}

Some of the more prudish readers of Rølvaag’s books attacked him for his use of the sexual theme. Actually, his treatment of sex was very restrained, and by comparison with some of the literature being produced in the same era, almost negligible in quantity. But he believed that as the sex urge was present in normal healthy people, it should be treated in a very natural way in literature. He was equally opposed to the taboo which the genteel tradition had enforced upon American literature, and to the newer treatment of sex which he regarded as "lascivious."

By the time Rølvaag came to America, the issue of public versus parochial education in the Norwegian communities had long been settled, at least on the elementary level. According to Theodore C. Blegen, the public school was quietly accepted by the average Norwegian American in spite of the dissatisfaction of church leaders with a system that omitted religious instruction. The democratic ideal of an education made available to all at public expense appealed to the immigrant as the only practical solution to the problem. {13}

In most immigrant communities, religion and the Norwegian language were taught to children in vacation sessions under the direct sponsorship of the local Lutheran congregation; often, however, they made use of the local public school facilities. Students from church academies and colleges, as well as young men from theological seminaries, were often employed as "parochial teachers" for the summer term. While he was a student, Rølvaag spent several summers as such a teacher in Nebraska and North Dakota. His experiences at that time were put into fictional form in Amerika-breve. He discovered that it was no easy task to [120] instruct fifty lively youngsters in their Catechism and Bible history; yet he found the work interesting as well as demanding in the extreme.

In his early novel, Paa glemte veie (On Forgotten Paths), Rølvaag portrays the young seminarian, Harry Haugland, in an unfavorable light. Haugland was anxious to organize and conduct young people’s meetings devoted to the discussion of "social service," but he failed to appreciate the opportunity he had as a cultural agent in his work as a teacher. With his motto, "The greatest good for the greatest number," he believed that young Norwegian Americans should learn to express themselves fluently in English. Through the eyes of Mabel, the heroine of the story, the author is able to convey to the reader the emptiness and foolishness of the young instructor.

Rølvaag’s objection to the public school was not particularly that it omitted religious instruction, but that it hastened the Americanization of the children of immigrants by deliberately ignoring, in the process of instruction, all references to their specific cultural heritage. In Omkring fædrearven, he voices a protest against the lack of freedom in education in America. The school, in its zeal to educate for democracy, was trying to force every child into the same mold — the one-talent child as well as the child with five talents.

In Peder Victorious he satirizes the role of the public school teacher: "The beat of her kind schoolma’am heart quickened as she pored over her notes; the flush in her cheeks deepened. All that which was heterogeneous and foreign must here be moulded together so as to make one heart and one mind, seeing only the highest and wanting only the best. These immigrant children were the clay, she the potter, her country’s history the pattern after which she must fashion them. Miss Mahon, Miss Clarabelle Mahon, to be exact, derived inspiration from that history in very much [121] the same manner as the pious-minded draws sustenance from the sacred stories of the Bible." {14}

Miss Mahon, for all her lofty idealism, had her difficulties in trying to shape the minds of her young pupils. Americanism was to her a kind of religion, and, as Denis Brogan has noted more recently, the exercise of this faith carried with it the ritualistic trappings of religious piety. {15} But when she tries to pass off as gospel truth the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, young Charlie Doheny rebels and raises doubts in Peder’s mind as well. The result of this incident was the slightly irreverent drawing of Washington that Miss Mahon found on her desk the morning after the political meeting at the schoolhouse. At the sight of the picture, Miss Mahon’s sentimental idealism came crashing to the ground.

Beret was unhappy over the fact that Peder had to go to school with the Irish children, and, after a rather unpleasant encounter with Miss Mahon, she decided to transfer her son to the Tallaksen School, where he would be with Norwegian children: "A terrible misfortune that they should have come to belong to the school district west of the creek. . . How could the authorities act so senselessly? . . . Here they had mixed people as though they were of no more consequence than the swill they slopped together for their pigs. . . . No one need tell her that such government was instituted by God. . . . Oh no — it was man who ruled here. The Lord did not have much to say!" {16}

In the Tallaksen School, Peder discovered that at the top of the blackboard were written the words, "This is an American school; in work and play alike we speak English only!" On Peder’s desk was a geography book with many illustrations. One picture was of a man armed only with a sheath knife, in mortal combat with a large bear: "The title of the [122] paragraph accompanying the picture was the single word: Norway. Under the picture someone had written in pencil: ‘A Norskie.’ Slowly and deliberately Peder read the short paragraph about the land of his ancestors. Throughout the whole process of his education in the public school, this was the only information he ever got about the land from which his people had come." {17} Is it any wonder that Peder’s response to his immigrant identity and background was, "When I am grown up I am going to go so far away that I’ll never hear the word Norwegian again!"?

Rølvaag’s own educational experience in America was limited entirely to institutions established and maintained by Norwegian Lutherans. Although he spent his life in educational work, his points of contact with major American universities were very limited. His studies, after he had earned his B.A. degree at St. Olaf College, were carried on, in 1905-1906, at the Royal Frederik University in Christiania.

The Norwegian Americans were particularly active in establishing and maintaining their own secondary and higher schools. One English-speaking Lutheran church leader referred to their love of education in glowing terms: "And how they love education. How they will plan and how ready they are to sacrifice and to suffer that their children may have an education. I actually saw large families living in sod shacks on the open prairie sending a boy or girl to Concordia College [Moorhead, Minnesota]. Am sorry to say that I have not seen anything like this among the Germans." {18}

Why did the Norwegians invest so heavily in education? There can be no doubt that the primary motive was to insure a continuing leadership of pastors and teachers within the church. The first schools were heavily oriented in the direction of pre-theological studies and emphasized the [123] classical languages and literature for that purpose. But as time went on, this outlook on education was challenged by a broader view. The issue was sharpened in the Augsburg-St. Olaf controversy of the 1890’s. The founders of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, had sought to establish an institution with a much more inclusive curriculum than the narrow pre-theological course of study. It provided a general Christian education for laymen as well as for future pastors, and it opened the doors of higher education to young women as well as to young men. The advocates of the narrower view, finding a spokesman in Professor Georg Sverdrup of Augsburg Seminary, Minneapolis, labeled the education at St. Olaf College as "humanistic" and "secular." {19}

As Gudrun Hovde Gvaale has pointed out, a parallel struggle in education was going on in Norway during the second half of the nineteenth century, one that may have had some bearing upon the educational controversies among Norwegian Americans. The theological faculty at the University of Christiania was dominated during most of that period by Professor Gisle Johnson. He was the leader of the pietistic movement in Norway, and the "Johnson theology" allied itself with various lay religious movements in opposition to the teachings of Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig of Denmark and his folk high school movement. In Norway, this development in education was carried on under the leadership of Christopher Bruun. The folk high schools stressed the study of Norwegian literature and history, whereas the older "Christiania education" emphasized the study of ancient languages and German exegetical commentaries in a spirit of dry formalism. Thus the new movement opposed both the old classicism and the narrow pietism which Gisle [124] Johnson stood for. The Johnsonians accused Bruun and his associates of "secularism" and "humanism." Bruun’s own position, as outlined in his Folkelige grundtanker (1878), was called "Christian humanism." He attacked the pietists for their sharp line of distinction between the religious and the secular. {20}

Many, if not most, of the early Norwegian clergymen in America had come under the influence of Gisle Johnson, or had been taught by professors who had been directly under his influence, and consequently were in sympathy with his particular brand of orthodox piety. It is, therefore, not surprising that the educational institutions established by the Norwegians in America had difficulty in achieving a liberal and humanistic orientation. But even in those institutions, there were men who had been in touch with the more recent liberal stirrings of thought in Norway. One of these men was Professor J. S. Nordgaard, Rølvaag’s instructor in Norwegian literature at Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota. Nordgaard, who had been in Christiania for a year of postgraduate work, interpreted Norwegian culture in a manner very similar to that of the folk high school movement. Furthermore, he came from Gausdal, and it was at Gausdal that Christopher Bruun had founded one of the model folk schools.

In his commencement oration at Augustana Academy in 1901 — "Sand dannelse paa national grund" (True Culture on a National Basis) — Rølvaag clearly gave evidence of the influence of the folk high school point of view. He laid down three conditions necessary for a true culture: mother tongue, national characteristics, and the faith of the forefathers. When these are lost, he contended, all sense of nationality is lost, and one becomes a kind of international vagrant, belonging nowhere. From this oration, it can be seen that at an early date the essential features of Rølvaag’s program of cultural conservation were already clear in his mind. [125]

From his matriculation in 1901 until his death in 1931, Rølvaag was closely identified with St. Olaf College. He was perhaps too closely associated with his college — and with its peculiar mission — to develop significantly as a critic of higher education in its broader aspects. In spite of a perennially low salary and heavy teaching loads, he was a devoted supporter of the institution. The extent of his loyalty can be measured by the fact that, during a year of absence in 1924-1925, he took precious time from the writing of Giants in the Earth to assist St. Olaf in a fund-raising drive following the loss of the college chapel by fire. He highly admired two of the presidents under whom he served: J. N. Kildahl and L. W. Boe. He had looked to Kildahl as a kind of spiritual father, and his friendship with Boe was very close, in spite of the fact that the two men disagreed on several important issues. When narrow-minded critics from the church constituency attacked Rølvaag for writing "grisliteratur" — literally, pig-literature — Dr. Boe was Rølvaag’s staunchest defender. The two men carried on a confidential correspondence for many years, and exchanged many ideas on the policies and goals of higher education, particularly as these related to St. Olaf. Typical of this exchange is the following excerpt from a letter written by Rølvaag in the late 1920’s: "The more I see and hear of this modern world, the greater becomes my apprehension for all of our church colleges. Will any of them become a real ‘mother of men’? I don’t mean of mutts, I mean men! St. Olaf has perhaps the best chance provided our would-be-great men will leave her alone." {21}

Rølvaag’s capacities as a teacher were assessed in an article written shortly after his death in 1931 by one of his former students: "The thoughts drift back to hours spent in his classroom. There the Ibsen course was his favorite: it [126] supplied the stuff necessary for debates and dissertations on life in all its ramifications. Once the discussion grew warm and students were thinking, he would stand by, his eyes sparkling; now and then he would toss new fuel into the flames. The grim gospel of one great realist thus interpreted and magnified for us by another made for distressed souls and disturbed minds. New perspectives, shattered illusions. Often the inevitable gloom that settled over the class at such sessions would hang over us for hours or even days afterwards. But that was as it should be, and Mr. Rølvaag’s Ibsen class was to most of us bounteous compensation for the dull routine of the average classroom." {22}

In his lecture "Books and Folks," Rølvaag complained that more women than men study literature. The male student was much too taken up with the American mania for material success; consequently, he wanted the kind of education that would insure him that kind of success. The student was not to blame; it was an environment of distorted human values that was at work, and the product of this kind of education was a man with a narrow, provincial, materialistic outlook — a kind of George Babbitt. Rølvaag felt that it was the study of great literature which opened up "the wonderland of the human heart." He also complained of students who merely set out to earn credits, and of those who neglected their courses in favor of extracurricular activities which might insure success in practical life.

Rølvaag’s diary, begun before he left Norway, shows the influence of the devotional language of Lutheran piety, as the following excerpt from the entry of August 1, 1896, illustrates: "Strange it is indeed how consuming this longing for a better existence can be. I hope that God in His great mercy will count me as one of His children for the sake of Jesus Christ. Then, yes, then I shall obtain the true [127] happiness. Then too shall my yearning be satisfied. God grant that I soon may be able to repent of my sins." {23}

The intellectual horizon of Rølvaag’s home in Norway bad not been wide. His father, Peder Rølvaag, was somewhat autocratic and narrow-minded, particularly on religious subjects, holding firmly to the accepted brand of Lutheran orthodoxy. As Rølvaag himself later noted, the Norwegians tended to be individualistic in their religion; it was one’s personal relationship with God that mattered above all else. The social or communal aspects of the Christian faith were stressed hardly at all. The most powerful force acting upon this Norwegian religious attitude had been the great lay preacher, Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), with his uncompromising message of repentance and conversion.

Rølvaag’s initial reactions to the religious conditions among the Norwegians in America can be found in his Amerika-breve. Writing to his brother in Norway, Per Smevik (a thin fictional disguise for Rølvaag himself) confesses that there was much about church life in the immigrant communities that still puzzled him; but one thing was certain — the church was the single institution binding immigrants together in a meaningful association. Out of their meager resources, they had erected and supported churches because they understood the compelling need for their religion. But the free-church principle had its weaknesses as well. The most serious problem was that a factional spirit had entered into their life, as it had, for example, in the community in which Smevik had served some years before as a parochial teacher, at a time when the congregation had been divided into two warring factions. As a result of this split, there were now two congregations in bitter competition with one another. The controversy had set brother against brother and even husband against wife in a most unchristian fashion.

In Norway, the established state church had held together [128] the religious factions which otherwise might have set themselves up in rival sects. But, as the church historian, J. Magnus Rohne, has pointed out with reference to an earlier period among the Norwegians in America, the situation was different: "In America there was no government force that could act as surgeon’s stitches; once the wound was broken open it began to fester, and it could only heal by growth from the bottom and out. The immigrant to America, hot with issues that were being fought out when he emigrated, and receiving no new impulses from the homeland, stopped short at those issues which to him became fixed until submerged by other issues in his own American community." {24}

To the religious differences which the immigrants had imported from Norway was added in the late 1880’s the "Missourian" controversy over predestination, which left many Norwegian-American communities scarred with bitterness and hatred for years. {25} It was undoubtedly this conflict which had split the congregation in the community noted above by Per Smevik in Amerika-breve.

While still a student at Augustana Academy, Rølvaag underwent a period of emotional crises which, according to his diary, included both a disappointing love affair and a religious experience. During his senior year at the academy, the young lady broke off the relationship, and Rølvaag emerged from the episode with a firmer sense of his mission in life. He expressed his new outlook in the commencement oration in 1901: "True Culture on a National Basis."

During his college years, he thought seriously of entering the Lutheran ministry. When he finally chose to become a teacher, it was with the same sense of a divine calling that a sensitively religious person might feel for the ministry. His idealism embraced both religious and cultural elements, and [129] the two were so intertwined that they could not be separated. His religious beliefs were so orthodox that, during his first years of teaching at St. Olaf, he conducted classes in religion, as well as in such other subjects as Greek and Norwegian.

His novel Paa glemte veie appeared in 1914; it was issued by Augsburg Publishing House, an official agency of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. Rølvaag used the pseudonym Paal Mørck, but it was rather well known that the author was a professor at St. Olaf College. The plot and characters of the novel illustrate the manner in which religious and cultural elements were combined in Rølvaag’s thinking during the early period of his authorship. Chris Larsen, the richest farmer in his settlement, has atrophied both religiously and culturally because of his relentless pursuit of material wealth. He is described as a "man without a soul." His daughter, Mabel, had inherited from her dead mother a spiritual sensitivity. With singleness of purpose, she devotes her life to her father’s conversion. On his deathbed, after spending several years as a helpless cripple, Chris Larsen finally experiences an eleventh-hour conversion.

As Gudrun Hovde Gvaale has noted, the denouement of the story is its weakest point, for a "miracle" is necessary to effect Larsen’s conversion. {26} Jorgenson and Solum have also commented upon the artistic failure of the "conversion" theme: "To include religious behavior and doctrinal motivation in the account of human life is one thing; it is done and must be done in all great art. But to make the salvation of a soul the point toward which the entire rising action tends is an artistic mistake, because the act of salvation is in Christian doctrine nothing less than a miracle, and one cannot make a psychological sequence issue in a miracle any more than a person’s good deeds will earn him his salvation. Rølvaag saw his mistake in later years; he never again undertook to deal with religion in this manner." {27} [130]

The cultural issue is definitely subordinate to religious and ethical concerns in Paa glemte veie. Yet the story is also a grim commentary upon the shallow, empty lives of many Norwegian Americans of the second generation. Rapid Americanization had left them without adequate cultural resources. In the novel, Rølvaag singles out the young theological student, Harry Haugland, for his scathing satire. Haugland embodies just about all of the faults and shortcomings that the author had observed in his countrymen, who had turned their backs on their rightful heritage and had chosen instead a vapid imitation of the superficial aspects of Americanism. Haugland’s concept of "social service" is pathetic and inadequate in contrast to the life of duty to which Mabel had devoted herself.

On May 18, 1920, Rølvaag’s small son, Paul Gunnar, was accidentally drowned in a neighbor’s well, and the sudden shock of the boy’s death had a profound influence upon Rølvaag’s religious convictions: "I think it changed my entire view of life. Prior to this tragedy, I had looked upon God as a logical mind in Whom the least happening in this and in all other worlds was planned and willed. Gradually I began to see that much of what takes place is due to chance and to lawbound nature. I could not make myself believe that God had deliberately pushed my boy into the cistern." {28}

It is quite likely, however, that Rølvaag’s religious point of view would have shifted even without the crisis occasioned by the loss of his son. The shock of World War I, with its accompanying hysteria and aftermath of cynicism, had been a severe blow to Rølvaag’s idealistic cultural philosophy. Furthermore, many elements of the organized church had gone along very rapidly with the emotional excesses growing out of the war. {29} [131]

Elements among the Lutherans who wished to "Americanize" the church had been vociferous in their attacks upon individuals like Rølvaag who clung to the old language and traditions. In 1918, at the convention of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, a proposal was made to drop the term "Norwegian" from its name. For several years the issue was hotly debated in church periodicals and in the Norwegian-language press, and Rølvaag staunchly defended the retention of the word "Norwegian." {30} The proposal to change the name of the church met defeat at the 1 920 convention, largely because of the vigorous opposition of the Norwegian secular and religious press in America. The name of the church remained unchanged until 1946.

As the opposition to conserving Norwegian cultural life became more and more vocal, the "anti-cultural" tendencies inherent in Haugeanism and the Gisle Johnson theology received fresh impetus from the newer "Americanized" sectors of the church. The "Harry Hauglands" were beginning to assert themselves against the ethnocentric aspects of their religious tradition. Typical of this kind of attack was a letter signed "S" and published early in 1922 in Duluth Skandinav. The writer of the letter, presumably a clergyman, castigated Norwegian-American writers like Rølvaag for failing to produce a "Christian" literature: "On the day one of these authors gives us a book which every pastor would gladly recommend from the pulpit, on that day they will be read whether they write English or Norwegian. But when they write the kind of books they have hitherto produced, books full of sensuality, full of the things of this world, I for one am happy that there is so much spiritual and cultural poverty among us that they are not being read." {31}

Rølvaag entered wholeheartedly into the newspaper feud which followed the letter from "S." He took care to explain [132] the whole cultural problem and the role which he felt the clergy should play in alleviating the spiritual and cultural barrenness in the immigrant settlements. He incorporated the gist of these arguments into an extended essay, "Enfoldige betragtninger om 'Vor literatur,'" which he included as a section of the book Omkring fædrearven in 1922.

Rølvaag continued to be the object of criticism and abuse from certain members of the clergy. Even before the publication of the original Norwegian version of Giants in the Earth, he wrote: "I fear that I cannot in the future keep the favor of the church and be in harmony with its ministry." {32} When his famous novel was published, a deluge of unfavorable reviews descended upon him from some quarters of the church. A ministerial association in Milwaukee attempted to pass a resolution of censure against Rølvaag. This was done largely at the instigation of a pastor who had served as chaplain in World War I and who was an outspoken advocate of "Amercanizing" the Norwegian Lutheran Church. But Rølvaag also had his defenders among the pastors. His correspondence of this period reveals that he was in personal touch with a large number of these friends and shared his misgivings with them. There can be little doubt, however, that the criticism which he received cooled his ardor for the work of the organized church. Commenting upon it in an Ibsen lecture entitled "Institutional Christianity," he suggested that the church was not an unmixed blessing. Although it supported missions, charities, and education, it also minimized individual responsibility in its efforts to build a formal structure — a kind of self-contained framework in which everyone was supposed to feel and think alike. {33}

The tendency of organized religion to thwart and distort individual lives struck Rølvaag very forcibly when he visited his father in Norway during the summer of 1924: "Father has gotten old these eight years. He still discusses occult [133] religious matters as in the days of old. Say what you will, religion has served to disturb the natural development of many people." {34}

The shift in Rølvaag’s position in spiritual matters during the early 1920’s can be summarized as a movement away from Lutheran dogmatism and orthodoxy toward a more existential and inward sense of religious experience. He was well acquainted with the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard, and the anti-dogmatism and anti-institutionalism which that Danish author expressed were in harmony with Rølvaag’s thinking. To some friends he once summarized his religious attitude in the expression "Be kind to life." {35}

In a lecture "Thoughts of Thinking People," he drew heavily upon Dean William R. Inge’s criticisms of orthodoxy, and he proposed that in the future a more liberal interpretation be made of Christian belief. He criticized the traditional position for its gross materialism and literalism — "You feed on, and live in, a child’s picture book." {36} He suggested to his audience composed almost entirely of conservative Lutherans that the really effective Christian thinking of the day was being done by "modernists," and not by the dogma-bound.

Because of Rølvaag’s persistent identification with the immigrant community and its concerns, he did not develop into a critic of American religion as a whole. He seems to have had very little contact with traditions other than his own. In the writing of Peder Victorious and Their Fathers’ God, he made a study of Roman Catholicism and tried carefully to represent its point of view. Father Williams, the priest in the two novels, is, on the whole, depicted as a cultured and sympathetic person. But after the publication of Their Fathers’ God, certain minor errors were noted by careful readers — the most glaring being the inclusion of Ash Wednesday in [134] Holy Week! Rølvaag was unsure of himself when he stepped out of his own background and tradition; therefore he was reluctant to pose as a critic of religion in its larger significance in American culture.

In his mature novels, he devoted a great deal of time to the discussion of spiritual problems. Beret, with her dark, brooding religion, has been labeled by Vernon L. Parrington as a "primitive Norse Calvinist," and it is her spirit that dominates the first book of Rølvaag’s trilogy of pioneer life. {37} But her extremism was clearly a part of her illness as she struggled against insanity on the lonely prairie. Her religion offers little in the way of comment upon the social scene, for it was concerned almost entirely with the state of an abnormal mind.

In Peder Victorious and Their Fathers’ God, the second and third books in the trilogy, Rølvaag examined the role of religion in relation to the second generation. By marrying an Irish Catholic girl, Peder had violated the ethnoreligious solidarity which the author insisted was so necessary for cultural and individual fulfillment. The novels should not be interpreted as anti-Catholic, nor was he interested in making any kind of theological judgment. To be sure, Susie’s Catholicism was full of superstition, especially as we see it through her husband’s eyes. Peder’s religion contains strong rationalistic elements — as evidenced by his interest in Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. But he also displayed residual elements of basic Protestantism: by his Bible-reading and by his insistence upon stripping religion of its priestly elements. Perhaps [135] Rølvaag intended to convey to his readers that, if the ethnocultural elements were removed from religion (as some of his clerical opponents seemed bent upon doing), what survived would be defenseless against the attacks of the rationalists. Thus at best it could serve only a negative role in people’s lives, instead of being the basis for significant personal orientation and group solidarity.

Rølvaag’s criticism of organized religion in his fiction is nowhere more pointed than in his portraiture of the clergyman. There are, however, several sympathetic characterizations. The old pioneer minister in Giants in the Earth, who has great sympathy for the immigrants, is able to bring consolation and strength to them in their hardships. Pastor Kaldahl in Their Fathers’ God (a rather obvious portrayal of J. N. Kildahl, the author’s friend and spiritual guide) insists that the cultural heritage of the Norwegians must be conserved. In spite of the fact that Peder openly and vigorously disagrees with Kaldahl on some matters, he also admires the minister’s integrity and strength of character.

Rølvaag’s satiric scorn is poured out upon several men of the cloth. In Pure Gold, the fear-crazed Louis is driven — by his notions of the coming of the end of the world and by his own sense of guilt in withholding money from his wife — to seek out the pastor of his old congregation. In a state of deep but confused need, he meets, however, a matter-of-fact response from the new minister. The author uses only a few master strokes to delineate the shortcomings of this so-called man of God. When the subject of a Norwegian newspaper is mentioned, the clergyman replies curtly that he does not subsidize the foreign-language press. Clearly this religious leader was one of the postwar breed who prided themselves upon breaking with old traditions and upon "Americanizing" the immigrant church.

A more thorough study of the clerical personality is given in the portrayal of Pastor Gabrielsen in Peder Victorious. This minister wanted to be known as a progressive — even as [136] a liberal-minded person. As young Peder shows more than average skepticism in the course of his training for confirmation, Gabrielsen interprets the boy’s independence as a sign that he has a mind suited to theological speculation. He tries to explain to Peder some of the more obvious anthropomorphisms of the Bible. But the more Gabrielsen tries to accommodate his interpretations to his pupil, the more he succeeds in making himself appear ridiculous and in alienating himself from his protégé. By pressing Peder’s supposed call to the ministry, he actually drives the youngster away.

It is also Gabrielsen who incurs Beret’s anger when he announces that in twenty years not one word of Norwegian will be heard in America. Anxious to identify himself with those who favor a rapid Americanization, he introduces English into the young people’s meetings. Ironically, his early success with a youth program turns to bitterness. The younger pastor of a rival congregation is able to attract Gabrielsen’s youthful group into his church. Seeing the whole matter through the eyes of Peder, the reader is left with the impression that the ministers are engaged in an expenditure of meaningless effort. It is not surprising that Peder turns away from the church and in the direction of politics as a means of self-fulfillment.

Rølvaag’s social criticism tends to be conservative, even reactionary, his primary concern being for the ethnocultural solidarity of the immigrants. It was difficult for Rølvaag to disassociate himself from the accepted norms and attitudes of these fellow countrymen. It was only after he had experienced the bitterness of alienation that he spoke out on social issues, with some candor and detachment. Furthermore, because of his isolation from the mainstream of American affairs, he was reluctant to step forward as a social critic of the larger aspects of life in the New World. Instead, he preferred to address his judgments exclusively to the immigrant community to which he belonged.


Notes

<1> Francis J. Grund, The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations, 169 (Boston, 1837).

<2> Marcus L. Hansen, "Immigration and Puritanism," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 9:6 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1936).

<3> John Winthrop, History of New England from 1680 to 1649, 1: (Boston, 1853).

<4> O. E. Rølvaag, Peder Victorious, 32 (New York and London, 1929).

<5> Lecture notes on Norwegian immigration, in the Rølvaag Papers, archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota.

<6> Gudrun Rovde Gvaale, O. E. Rølvaag: Nordmann og Amerikaner, 357 (Oslo, Norway, 1962).

<7> Samuel Eliot Morison to O. E. Rølvaag, October 1, 1929, Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<8> Class notes for Ibsen lectures, Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<9> "Woman in History," from notes on Ibsen, Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<10> "Closing Remarks," from notes on Ibsen, Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<11> "Kegga’s Reflections," Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<12> "Books and Folks," Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association. According to Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography, 394 (New York, 1989), this lecture must date from 1928.

<13> Theodore C. Blegen, Grass Roots History, 112 (Minneapolis, 1947).

<14> Rølvaag, Peder Victorious, 86.

<15> Denis W. Brogan, The American Character, 164—166 (New York, 1956).

<16> Rølvaag, Peder Victorious, 138—139.

<17> Rølvaag, Peder Victorious, 155.

<18> G. H. Gerberding, Reminiscent Reflections of a Youthful Octogenarsan, 150 (Minneapolis, 1928), quoted in E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2:13 (Minneapolis, 1960).

<19> Nelson and Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 2: 42—43. For a more thorough discussion of the beginnings of higher education among Norwegians in America, see Karen Larsen, Laur. Larsen: Pioneer College President (Northfield, Minnesota, 1936). Laur. Larsen was the first president of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. The exclusively pre-theological nature of education at Luther College can be seen from the early graduation certificates which contained the words: "Dismissed to the theological seminary."

<20> Gvaale, O. E. Rølvaag, 21—23.

<21> O. E. Rølvaag to L. W. Boe, December 2, 1929, in the L. W. Boe Papers in Rølvaag Memorial Library, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

<22> Nordisk Tidende, November 12, 1931 (Brooklyn, New York).

<23> Quoted in Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag, 28.

<24> S. Magnus Rohne, Norwegian American Lutheranism up to 1872, 17 (New York, 1926).

<25> Nelson and Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, 1: 253—270. The term "Missourian" has reference to the so-called Missouri Synod, a conservative German Lutheran body with headquarters in St. Louis.

<26> Gvaale, O. E. Rølvaag, 307.

<27> Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, 209-210.

<28> Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, 252.

<29> In 1927, Rølvaag translated Kirken, a Norwegian play by Nini Roll Anker; his English title was The Wrath of God. The drama is a biting satire on Christian organizations for their equivocal stand during World War I. Rølvaag felt that this play expressed his own attitude on the subject.

<30> His arguments are stated in the section "Enfoldige betragtninger om den navneforandringen,’" in Omkring fædrearven, 169—200 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1922).

<31> Quoted in Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, 305—306.

<32> Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, 362.

<33> "Institutional Christianity," in Ibsen lectures, Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<34> Quoted in Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 341.

<35> Gvaale, O. E. Rølvaag, 336.

<36> "Thoughts of Thinking People," Rølvaag Papers, archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association. The passage is quoted in Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag, 356.

<37> Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, 3:395 (New York, 1930). Parrington has not misnamed Beret’s religion in spite of the fact that she was obviously a Lutheran. He suggests that the primitive Northland superstitions of the Norns provide the note of determinism. The puritan spirit was much in evidence among Norwegian Lutherans, especially the pietistic, low-church elements. Theodore C. Blegen contends that this puritanism came directly from Norway and was independent of American influence; see his Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 222 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940). For a somewhat different interpretation of the relation of puritanism and immigrant religion, see Marcus L. Hansen, "Immigration and Puritanism," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 9: 1—28 (1936).


<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>


 
To the Home Page