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Symra: A Memoir
    by Einar Haugen (Volume 27: Page 101)

The periodical Symra was launched in 1905, the year of Norway’s independence from the union with Sweden. The editors and publishers were Kristian Prestgard and Johannes B. Wist, and the place of publication was Decorah, Iowa. The editors declared their intention of "building bridges of understanding and fellowship” not only between Norwegians "who stayed at home” and those "who left,” but also among Norwegians in America. The magazine was subtitled "An Annual for Norwegians on Both Sides of the Sea,” whose purpose would be "to sharpen the awareness of our historical memories in this country and of Norwegian history, literature, and culture in general.” By this stress on their common heritage, the editors hoped for a "unification on a national basis (paa national Grund)” of the Norwegians in America.

This appeal can be appreciated against a background of factional strife among Norwegian churches and societies in America, an activity that especially characterized the last decades of the nineteenth century. The founder of Decorah-Posten, B. Anundsen, had made it a keystone of his journalistic policy not to engage in [102] religious, social, or political controversies. Symra was printed in the Lutheran Publishing House, which has now become the chief building of the Norwegian-American Museum "Vesterheim.” Wist and Prestgard were both editors of Decorah-Posten, and they remained solely responsible as editors, publishers, and owners of Symra’s first eight volumes. From 1905 to 1908 these were annuals, from 1909 to 1912, quarterlies. But in 1912 the Symra Company was organized under the presidency of Dr. Trond Stabo and became the publishers of the last two volumes, which were issued bimonthly. Professors Knut Gjerset of Luther College and P. J. Eikeland of St. Olaf College were added to the editorial staff But it was of no avail: 1914, the centennial of Norwegian independence from Denmark and the first year of World War I, sounded Symra’s knell. Before expiring, however, the Symra Company published at least two valuable books as well: Digte (Poems) by Professor Agnes Mathilde Wergeland in 1912 and Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift 1914, edited by Wist. The latter volume has remained a classic of Norwegian-American historical writing, the only large-scale survey of the cultural institutions created by Norwegian immigrants, containing essays by leading writers on the Norwegian-American press, church, schools, societies, literature, politics, and the teaching of their culture in American universities.

The name "Symra” was clearly derived from the modest, but classic collection of poems so named by their author, Ivar Aasen, published in Christiania in 1863. This collection contained most of the poems that made Aasen’s New Norwegian language singable and that enshrined his name among the common people of Norway. One stanza of his opening poem ("Fyrestev”) explains the name:

Symra teiknar til Sumars Bil;
urn Vaaren tidla ho blømer; [103]
men fleire Blomar maa korna til,
naar Kulden or Markom rømer.

The "symra” heralds the summertime;
early in spring she blossoms;
but other flowers must also bloom,
when the frost has fled from the fields.

In his dictionary of the New Norwegian (landsmaal) language, Aasen defined "symra” as "a spring flower,” mostly used in compounds, where it could designate the blue or the white anemone (geitsymra, kvitsymra) or the primula (kusymra). He derived it from the word for "summer” (sumar), an etymology accepted by other linguists, suggesting that "symra” meant "a flower that heralds the summer.” While the usual Norwegian names for these flowers have remained blåveis, hvitveis, and primula, the dialect word symra has won status since Aasen’s time as a poetic term.

It was no doubt in full awareness of these facts that the editors gave the name Symra to the periodical which Theodore C. Blegen has described as "beyond question the best literary magazine that the Norwegians in America ever published.” It was a suggestive and hopeful name for the fledgling yearbook, reflecting the ethnic loyalty of Kristian Prestgard, who set his mark on the whole enterprise. Prestgard was born in Heidal, one of the tributaries of the upper Gudbrandsdal valley, in 1866. His dialect background and his education at Norwegian and Danish folk high schools combined to make him a strong believer in the New Norwegian language movement which Aasen had initiated. These schools were hotbeds of influence and agitation for the increased involvement of farm youth in the cultural life of the nation. The influence of the Danish bishop N. F.

S. Grundtvig extended into Norway through the folk high schools, which opened possibilities to young [104] people for careers not directed to academic or commercial life. Prestgard had studied at Askov High School in Denmark and had taught at Seljord High School in Telemark, Norway, before he emigrated to America in 1893. Even though a journalistic career among his countrymen in America required that he speak and write Dano-Norwegian, his sympathies were ever with the movement to make that language more Norwegian and thereby approach the New Norwegian of Ivar Aasen.

Prestgard’s influence was especially striking in the choice of Norwegian authors who were asked to contribute to Symra. The first volume is opened by a poem of greeting from Norway which was written in New Norwegian by Anders Hovden and includes another poem by the same author. There is a short story in New Norwegian by Hans Seland, another well-known champion of the new language. The other Norwegian authors wrote in Dano-Norwegian, but they were all prominent members of the New Norwegian movement: Bernt Støylen on "Norwegian Hymn Writers” (mostly on Elias Blix, whom he cites in New Norwegian); Halvdan Koht on "Modern Norwegian Historical Writing”; and a short story by Ivar Kleiven. There is no question about the distinction of these writers, but it is also more than apparent where the editor’s contacts were in Norway and where his heart was anchored. There is no representative of what might be called the urban line in Norwegian literature, including the great four (Ibsen, Bjørnson, Lie, Kielland), who were still alive, nor of such contemporaries as Bojer, Hamsun, or Kinck. The same policy is apparent in most of the later volumes, which add to the other names such New Norwegian figures as Sven Moren, Jørgen Løvland, Hans Reynolds, and Kristofer Janson. After the first four volumes, however, there were few contributions from Norway, aside from articles by the indefatigable Halvdan Koht, one of them a tribute to Ivar Aasen in 1913, the centennial of his birth. [105]

The bulk of Symra’s contents, however, were American-Norwegian, and in the ten years of its life it became the organ of that entire generation of writers who distinguished themselves by their literary and historical contributions in America. The editors themselves were men of literary distinction and taste, and they attracted contributions from a wide circle of writers. Prestgard was chiefly an essayist and critic, who in 1906 published in Decorah a comprehensive anthology of Norwegian poetry from 1814 to 1905 called Norske kvad. This mammoth book of 720 pages contains poems, portraits, and well-written biographical sketches of forty-three poets, great and small, with especially strong representation for Wergeland, Welhaven, Munch, Moe, Aasen, Vinje, Ibsen, and Bjørnson. Prestgard’s most distinguished work in later years was a reminiscent travel book on his return to the home sod in Gudbrandsdalen, En sommer i Norge; this two-volume work was published in Minneapolis in 1928. To Symra he contributed sketches on the New Norwegian poet Per Sivle, on Bjørnson’s national anthem, on Asbjørnsen and the "rediscovery of Norway” in its folklore, on Jørgen Moe, and on the suppression of Danish in German Schleswig. His 1909 article on the so-called "Bygdelag” movement, then in its infancy, expressed his fears that such societies of Norwegians from the same area in the homeland would still further split the immigrants. He called for a concerted effort on their part to gather historical materials, to cultivate connections with their own folk culture in Norway by assisting in the publication of books on local traditions, and finally to find some means of uniting with other Norwegians in this country, so that they could "stand together as our kinsmen at home did in the stirring days of 1905.”

The national pathos which was Prestgard’s contribution to Symra was offset by the personality of his fellow editor, Johannes B. Wist. Wist was born in 1864 at [106] Inderøy, near Trondheim, and he knocked around a good deal before and after his emigration to America in 1884, until he became an editor of Decorah-Posten in 1900. During the Symra period he edited the solidly packed volume of historical essays about Norwegian culture in America entitled Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift 1914, published by the Symra Company. In this book he wrote the only survey thus far of the Norwegian-American press, a contribution of some 160 pages of the total 352 in the book. Otherwise his tastes ran to fiction, which he demonstrated in Symra in a lively short story of pioneer life entitled "Leaves from a Pioneer Saga” and in a priceless sketch, "When Bjørnson Came to La Crosse.” In Decorah-Posten, Wist conducted a humorous column under the pseudonym "Arnljot,” a name he also used for his satirical novels in 1920-1922 about the Norwegian pioneer Jonas, founder of "Jonasville.” Whereas Prestgard was a Norwegian national romantic, Wist was a realistic humorist with an ear for the bizarre.

The pages of Symra read like an honor roll of the authors who made a name for themselves in this period: Peer Strømme, journalist, globe trotter, humorist (writing, among other things, on Mark Twain); Knut Gjerset, historian of Norway and Iceland; Hjalmar Rued Holand, historian and raconteur of pioneer life; Waldemar Ager, journalist, temperance man, novelist, and short story writer; George T. Flom, linguist in Norwegian dialects, Old Norse, and Old English; Wilhelm Pettersen, professor, politician, and poet; Olav Bøhmer and Sigurd Folkestad, poets; Agnes M. Wergeland, professor and poet; Jon Norstog, farmer and lyric poet in New Norwegian; Simon Johnson, editor, poet, and novelist; Laur. Larsen, president of Luther College; O. E. Rølvaag, professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College and world-famous novelist in later years, under his early pseudonym of Paal Mørck; and many others whose names are less well [107] known, but each distinguished in his own way. The contributions are not always on the same high level, but the contents are entirely original pieces written for the magazine, whether by Norwegians in Norway or in America. Nothing is reprinted; everything is intended to stimulate a cultural atmosphere in the American-Norwegian community.

It is typical, however, that the contents of the periodical are predominantly retrospective. The Norwegian contributions concentrate on the national past, either the Viking period and ancient Norway, or the resurgence of nationality in the nineteenth century, from 1814 to 1905. The American articles are heavily weighted in the direction of personal memoirs from immigration and pioneering, precious for their vivid detail and historical insight, but with little stress on the present or future. The history of the church and its schools occupies a broad sector of the essays, as for example in volume six. Included are articles on organizations that sought to strengthen the tie between Norway and its emigrants. A topic of constant interest was the authenticity of Norse pre-Columbian explorations of the American coast. Symra carried the first solid condemnation of the Minnesota Kensington Rune Stone, by the Norwegian archeologist Helge Gjessing, and the inevitable attempt at refutation by H. R. Holand, who had just discovered his life’s mission. The periodical also featured a series of original historical studies by Torstein Jahr on the Oleana episode in the life of violinist Ole Bull from the 1850s.

Sketches of Norwegian-American authors in Symra are at the same time attempts at literary criticism: on Peer Strømme by Wist, on H. H. Boyesen by M. Mikkelsen, on Waldemar Ager by Strømme, on Wilhelm Pettersen by Ager, and on Jon Norstog by Ivar Haugé. Most of the volumes contain a number of reviews of Norwegian and American-Norwegian books. Two solid articles [108] by P. J. Eikeland, professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf, present arguments for the adoption of the new 1907 Norwegian orthography in the American-Norwegian press; this proposal was rejected by Anundsen and other publishers. There is a sprinkling of stories and poems, as well as a number of less interesting translations of Norwegian poetry into English. These were no doubt intended to appeal to a younger generation, which was gradually losing its mastery of the native tongue. In later issues there are several articles dealing with this problem. Opposing views were launched concerning the efforts to maintain Norwegian, especially in the work of the church, with I. B. Torrison calling for a more and K. Kvamme for a less rapid shift to English.

The ten years of Symra’s existence represent the height of development in the use of Norwegian in America, a period when a professional group of authors held sway, even if on a comparatively modest scale. These were horse-and-buggy days, an idyllic decade before the war hysteria against foreign languages broke loose, and just before the peaceful segregation of the Midwestern communities was shattered by the draft, the automobile, and the radio.

It is an era that I can just remember, as I can recall the arrival in my childhood home of the last issues of Symra. Later I was to read them with understanding and profit; as a whole they formed a solid base for the interest that I have always retained in the cultural community of Norwegians in America. A near-complete set is a treasured portion of my Norwegian-American collection.

As fate and good luck would have it, I was to become more closely acquainted with the men whose names figured on the pages of Symra. Waldemar Ager came as a guest to my parents’ home in Sioux City, as did Rølvaag, whose pupil I became at St. Olaf College. He advised [109] me to pursue graduate study with George T. Flom at the University of Illinois, and my work on a dissertation under him on the development of New Norwegian led me to the Norwegian collection in the Luther College Library. Here I met (and eventually married) the daughter of Einar Lund, a successor of Wist as editor-in-chief of Decorah-Posten. Wist was gone when I first went to Decorah, but in the years that followed, Kristian Prestgard, Simon Johnson, Knut Gjerset, and others of the cultural giants who had created and contributed to Symra became my good friends.

Even though the periodical had long since gone to its rest, the name "Symra” was still alive through my years of frequent visits to Decorah. It had survived through the society of that name which had been founded by these men. The Symra Society originated in October, 1907, at the office of Dr. Trond Stabo, who became its first president. Its ulterior purpose was to support the periodical financially, since the editors alone could not pay the deficit. The membership was limited to twenty-five men who met in each other’s homes on every other Friday evening for dinner and talk either by a member or by an outsider like myself Each speaker was the target of questions and comments, and many of the topics excited a lively discussion. For as long as the older members lived, the dominant language was Norwegian. Even though the periodical which had given rise to the society died in 1914, the value of the society was such as to keep it alive right down to the present. I know that few events each month were more eagerly anticipated than the meetings of Symra. My visits to Decorah were limited to vacations - spring, summer, or Christmas - but a great attraction was always that group of men and women, including also George Strandvold, the Danish-born editor of Decorah-Posten, whose interests in the language and literature of the North were congruent with mine. [110]

In my father-in-law’s peisestue on Pleasant Hill, I heard Knut Gjerset tell about the great actors and actresses he had seen in performance at the National Theater in Oslo; Simon Johnson narrating with a long and solemn face the most uproarious tales from the Norwegian settlements in North Dakota; Trond Stabo regaling us with anecdotes from his early medical practice in Spring Grove and Decorah; Kristian Prestgard discussing Norwegian authors and reporting in his deliberate way on the life back in Heidal; George Strandvold injecting a note of healthy skepticism and a sharp literary critique from his wealth of reading in all the major literatures. This was "Symra” as I knew it, in public and private, in the best years of my life. Where could a young teacher of Norwegian have found a better second home?

The "Symra” that I knew has also passed into history, though the society goes on with new members into a new era. All the men and women I have mentioned have passed on; as of 1972 their newspaper Decorah-Posten had also ceased publication. All I can do is to express my gratitude to them for what they meant to me. I was glad then for the opportunity to learn to know and understand their point of view, as I am now to record something of their importance in the history of Norwegian culture in America. Their writings are buried in the archives, but many of them would deserve reprinting, either in Norway or in America. For anyone who might wish to reach the pulse and heart of Norwegian immigrant ethnicity, he could find few better places to begin looking than in the pages of Symra. From there the lines would reach out into the lives and writings of its many contributors, who hoped that their work would be a "harbinger of summer,” though, as Aasen suggested, such flowers might freeze before "the frost is out of the fields.”

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