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"Dear Sara Alelia": An Episode in Rĝlvaag's Life
    by Einar Haugen (Volume 31: Page 269)

Ole Edvart Rølvaag, author and professor, is characterized in the "official" biography by his colleagues Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum as "an inveterate letter writer." {1} They quote extensively from his letters in an effort to give an intimate, personal picture of the man and his work, but the possibilities the letters provide are far from exhausted. While doing research on Rølvaag in the archives he founded at St. Olaf College, it became apparent that an edition of his letters is long overdue. Rølvaag's letters cast light not only on his own life and writings, but also on a large segment of the Norwegian America of his day. It is no coincidence that his first published novel, Amerika-breve, in 1912, was written in epistolary form. {2}

Among the letters in Rølvaag's hand collected in the archives there was one that especially called attention to itself by being marked "restricted." It was accompanied by a covering letter from Bishop Eivind Berggrav of Oslo to President Clemens Granskou of St. Olaf College. The "restricted" letter, written in 1927, was brought to this country in 1956. Berggrav asked that the letter be restricted for at least ten years, a period that is now long past.

The letter was mysterious in more than one way. Although unmistakably written in Rølvaag's flowing, handsome script, it was not signed "O. E. Rølvaag" or "Ole," as were most of his letters. It was signed "Norenius" and addressed to a person whom he called "Sara Alelia," suggesting a desire for anonymity. The bishop explained that the letter was written to a close friend of his family. She was a woman who in a moment of desperation had halfheartedly attempted suicide by walking out on the thin ice of a nearby body of water. He added that she was a "widow, highly gifted, but also very self-centered and ambitious for recognition, frustrated." {3} But he did not reveal her name.

No one at the Norwegian-American Historical Association was aware of her real name or the reason for Rølvaag's curious pseudonym; and they had no knowledge of other such letters. The contents of the letter, to be examined later, were deeply moving, expressing Rølvaag's concern about the recipient's well-being. He urged upon her his philosophy of active concern for one's fellow beings as the best guarantee of happiness. Neither the letter nor the peculiar disguise is mentioned in any biography or study of Rølvaag's life. Even the members of his own family could not solve the riddle.

In preparation for a book on Rølvaag, I was able to pursue my researches in Norway. {4} Even the experience of a visit to his birthplace on the island of Dønna in northern Norway did not solve the riddle of Norenius. But the answer came during study in the archives of the University of Oslo Library, which provided a truly serendipitous solution. Librarian Oivind Anker, among other things well known for his work on Bjørnson, was able to inform me that in that very year (1980) a collection of letters from Rølvaag had been turned over to the library. Anker had personally received the letters from the recipient's daughter, a well-known Norwegian art weaver, Else Halling. A number of these were addressed to "Sara Alelia" and signed "Norenius."

Anker was able to identify "Sara Alelia" as Marie Halling Swensen (1877-1964), usually known as Mimmi Swensen. She had been married to the Reverend Johannes Swensen (1862-1920). {5} She came of a family distinguished for their work in education and the church. Her father, Honoratus Halling (1819-1886), was a minister, known for his efforts on behalf of the laboring classes and for his authorship of numerous works of a religious nature, including at least one novel. He was also the founder and first editor of a still existing religious journal, For Fattig og Rig (For Poor and Rich). {6} His son, Marie's brother Sigurd, was an educator who founded a private school in Oslo known as "Hallings skole," where even King Olav studied in his youth.

It is therefore not surprising that Mimmi Swensen had literary ambitions of her own. But these were hardly encouraged by the men around her. Her position as a pastor's wife in the small town of Holmestrand on the Oslo fjord south of the capital may also have been inhibiting. She appears to have published only one book, a collection of rather sentimental short stories for and about children, entitled Bedstevenner (Best Friends), in 1913. But she found opportunities for self-expression through her family friendship with Eivind Berggrav, who asked her to review books for his journal For Kirke og Kultur (For Church and Culture) while he was still the head of a school in Holmestrand. She also gave public readings of literary works and lectured on literary personalities. She had three children, two of whom grew to adulthood and are still, as far as I know, alive. One of them, Else, is the aforementioned weaver, now residing in Oslo. {7} It was therefore a simple matter to get in touch with her and learn more about her mother. Miss Halling not only granted permission to make use of the letters she had turned over to the University Library, but also provided additional information, including pictures and clippings of her mother's writings from various periodicals.

It appeared that at the time of her marriage in 1896 Mimmi was only nineteen, while her clergyman husband was thirty-six. Some hints in the correspondence suggest that this May-and-September marriage was not entirely harmonious. Since the daughter Else was unmarried, the responsibility of taking care of her mother in later years fell upon her. It seems that the mother was often unhappy and was not above taking it out on her daughter. It is clear from Mimmi Swensen's enthusiastic reception of Rølvaag's first novel published in Norway that she was deeply fascinated by his portrait of Beret, the heroine of I de dage - (1924) and Riketgrundlægges (1925), which together became Giants in the Earth (1927). "In Beret's thoughts," she wrote, "lies the significance of all yearning for emigration, then and now." {8} In an interview on her eighty-fifth birthday she referred with animation to her earlier correspondence with Rølvaag.

Knowing her name made it possible to go back to the NAHA archives and locate some of her letters to Rølvaag. Only nine have been found, beginning with a card dated November 8, 1924, which accompanied her review of I de dage - . She wrote on the card that this "is among the most beautiful books ever written. . . . There are descriptions and lines so fine that reading them has been to me like a devotional meeting." And she adds, with a sigh, "I envy you." {9} Most of these letters are from 1926; the last is dated January 1, 1927. But it is clear from his replies that she had written many more, the last on July 9, 1931, to which he replied on August 9, 1931, just three months before his death on November 5. The Oslo collection contains thirty-six letters from Rølvaag and one fragment (to which may be added the Northfield letter) dated from June 18, 1926, to the one in August, 1931. Even this collection is not complete, as appears from the fact that she has numbered his earliest surviving letter "9" and the third one "18." From her letters one can see how she followed his literary output, writing reviews of Peder Seier in 1928 and of Den signede dag in 1931, and giving a public lecture on his life and work in 1926. According to accounts in local newspapers, the auditorium was packed and her lecture was received with "vigorous applause." {10}

But what about Sara Alelia? The solution appears in his letter of September 13, 1926. Up to that time their salutations have been fairly formal. But once Mimmi Swensen had made the contact in 1924, she not only wrote long letters, but also showered him with clippings, books, and even gifts. Appropriately enough, one of these was a letter opener, which he received together with a book entitled Prestedatteren (The Minister's Daughter), a Norwegian translation (1922) from the Swedish of Hildur Dixelius (1879-1969). The title of the original, published in Stockholm in 1920, was Prästdotteren; the story was continued in Prästdotterens son (1921) and Sonsonen (1922). {11} It was not surprising that Mimmi would be fascinated by the title and subject matter of this novel since she, like Dixelius, was a minister's daughter. The book had sufficient quality to win translation not only into Norwegian but also into English, in 1926, as The Minister's Daughter. It won the approval, interestingly enough, of two American woman novelists. Zona Gale called it a book "which no lover of the unique art of Sweden should miss," and Ruth Suckow characterized it as "an austerely imagined, finely proportioned book." {12} Rølvaag found it interesting, even though he held that "artistically there are many and considerable defects." Still he thought it "a great work of art . . . the book fascinates quite strangely from the first sentence. Only a great poet could write such a book." {13}

At all events, the names we have been seeking come from this novel. Sara Alelia is a young woman married to a pastor several years her senior. In her loneliness she lets herself be seduced by a passing Don Juan, who abandons her when she is about to bear his child. The first volume of the trilogy ends with her retirement to a remote farm in northern Sweden to bring up the child on her own. Mimmi's accompanying letter, which is not preserved, must have expressed her identification with the young woman, for Rølvaag replied: "Well, well, if you are Sara Alelia, then I am Norenius." This prominent character in the novel is neither her husband nor her seducer, but a gruff and eccentric local curate to whom Sara turns for comfort, alternately teasing him and treating him as a father figure. Rølvaag comments: "I have all of his defects and even a few more. But Sara is outstanding in her goodness, just like my friend in Hillestad [that is, Mimmi] ." He addressed her as "Sara Alelia" for the first time in a letter of November 8, 1926, and began signing himself "Norenius" on December 18. In the novel Norenius is blunt and outspoken, and Rølvaag plays a similar role by scolding her for what he calls her "whimpering." He reminds her of her talents, her children, and her potentialities for benefiting humanity. He warns her that if she doesn't change her ways, he would be tempted to give her a good spanking. He even addresses her at times affectionately as "little Sara Alelia."

During the remaining years of his life she served as his contact with current literary trends in Norway, while he was concerned with filling her in on his earlier books, so far unknown outside Norwegian-American circles. He was happy to hear of her lecture about his work and wanted her to know as much as possible about it. In keeping her informed he often commented interestingly on his books. For example, he surprisingly wrote of his bitterly satirical To tullinger (1920, translated as Pure Gold, 1930) that "artistically it is my best work," although he fears that she will "throw up over it." "I regretted the praise it got," he continued, perhaps feeling it has been over-praised, and so "I sat down and wrote without a thought of such things as intrigue and structure - just wrote from a full heart, and that became Længselens baat" (1921, translated as Boat of Longing).

She was indeed pleased with Boat of Longing, particularly the lyricism of the Norwegian sections, the tale of Nils Vaag's youthful years in Nordland. But, in close agreement with most critics of the book, she was less enthusiastic about the two central sections, the story of his life in Minneapolis and in the North Woods. Rølvaag advised her to reread the section on the old woodsman (the "Stril") whom Nils met up north. "I maintain that this is one of the best things I have done; at least I am not aware that the homelessness and rootlessness of the emigrant has been more strongly asserted than in him; nor the joyless heart that often becomes the special feature of the emigrant."

Returning to his general philosophy of literary realism, he expressed his conviction that "the art of the future will aim at the character portrayal of people. It is easy to make plots, but extremely difficult to create human beings. And life is so delightfully interesting that there is not a single person who would not be suitable as the protagonist in the most exciting novel if only the artist with the glint of genius in his eye was there to catch him." He wrote that he had tried to do this, but without success, in his youthful book, Paa glemte veie (On Forgotten Paths), published in 1914. He did not share the extreme pietism of his heroine Mabel, "but the air was so stifling around me that I had to try to portray a human being who really attempted to walk the path of the cross." {14}

He was still hoping to get his first book, Amerika-breve, republished in Norway and even enlisted her in his campaign. {15} He had not yet found his translator, Lincoln Colcord, and he complained about the problems of getting his novel out in English: "It is not easy to make Per and even less Beret speak English naturally." To speak candidly, he wrote, "all translation is sinful - a sin against the characters, who are too tender and delicate to rise up and protest." {16}

He commented somewhat resignedly on his fellow author Waldemar Ager's novel Gamlelandets sønner, which he had persuaded his Norwegian publisher to print in 1926. {17} The Norwegian reviews were apparently not enthusiastic, and he confessed to his own disappointment that "I almost cried when I read the novel." "Brilliant as journalism, but there is nothing in it. He fails to catch hold; the material eludes his grasp, as do the characters. I put the book down and said, 'Now Ager won't get any farther - poor man.'" He granted Ager an alibi in his lack of time to work on the book and in his family situation. In the same letter he returned to To tullinger with its picture of miserliness: "The book was more of a sensation here than any other published among us Norwegians in America. People wrote about it and ministers preached about it from their pulpits. But it also won me many enemies: I was accused of slandering the Norwegian Americans. Ah, it was lively in those days." {18}

In the meantime his American translator, Lincoln Colcord, had entered his life, and Rølvaag made his first contact with the larger world of American publishing. {19} In May, 1927, he could send Mimmi an early copy of Giants in the Earth. Now he could predict: "It is possible that this book about Per Hansa and Beret will make my name known from one end of America to the other." {20}

In March, 1928, his new-won fame got him an invitation to attend the Ibsen centennial in Oslo, making it possible for him to meet Mrs. Swensen for the first and only time. They had been anticipating such a possibility for some two years. In 1926 he had written: "After the first feeling of strangeness is overcome, I think time will fly as we talk for hours about all possible topics - both permitted and forbidden. We would both be the richer for it! - But we must not dream of it. . . . Let us think of it as something beautiful that could happen to us." {21} Busy days at the centennial limited them to one meeting. Afterward he wrote: "Dear, dear Sara, don't be grieved that things are like this for me! It was by accepting all this hullabaloo that I could get to Norway and spend those hours with you: let us be grateful for that!" {22} From that time on, he addressed her with the informal pronoun "du" instead of the formal "De."

By August, 1928, he could report on the completion of Peder Seier (translated as Peder Victorious): "There are many mad whims in it, but I am myself well satisfied." He knew he had written the truth, "life as I think I have seen and experienced it." {23} But, like Ibsen, "I feel a strange emptiness in my body after saying goodbye to these dear folk. . . . We have shared good and bad together, have even - all of us - been to Hillestad and visited Mrs. Mimmi Swensen! I think this is the most original book I have written. . . . There may be more of myself in it than in any of my others - unless that might be Længselens baat." He wonders: "Will you find genuine, unfalsified people in it?" Her review was reassuring: "Rølvaag's book is realistic and alive." She admired his descriptive ability, his faith in life and in human goodness; she commended his "yearning for harmony . . . . as the great goal among races and peoples." {24}

In March, 1931, he informed her that Den signede dag was completed: "It is a bit wordy; this was unavoidable in a portrayal of a society - not just the little Norwegian one, but the American as well, and here even the Irish! You can't conceive how much Irish and Catholic lore I've had to dig my way through before I could draw those figures!" {25} Once more she commended the realistic portrait of the fusion of peoples in the American Midwest. "With the poet's gift he has lent beauty to everyday life, from the time they pioneered down to Beret's deathbed - the most moving episode he has given us in this book. If the picture of a life is to be truthful, everything must be included, and Rølvaag does that, rendering the inner life and the yearning behind the struggles of the pioneers." {26}

If most reviewers saw a marked diminution of power in Rølvaag's last books, the account of his own failing health in these letters goes far to explain it. There may have been other reasons too, such as his deeper empathy with the first than the second immigrant generation. But the letters also reveal the problems of a bilingual author. He found it a burden to write first in Norwegian and then have to prepare an English version as well. It took as much time to rewrite To tullinger into Pure Gold as to write another book. {27}

His proposed solution, to Mimmi's dismay, was to begin writing in English. He actually did start an autobiography in English, which remained a fragment. {28} Already in 1929 he wrote: "This last year my ties with Norway have loosened. . . . One can't live abroad a whole lifetime without putting down roots." {29} In reply to her protests: "This does not mean that the window of memory grows dim; only that one finds less time to look through the pane. But nights are long and sleepless hours are many. . . . I feel the mighty magnetism of this great country." {30}

It was inevitable that to this daughter of the church he would entrust his thoughts on religion. He dismissed the value of prayer: "Neither physical nor spiritual laws can be temporarily suspended and then temporarily put back to work." {31} He was less interested in what people believed than in what they did: "The greatest thing in all religion is goodness. . . . not doing evil to men. . . . But people knew that long before Christianity was founded." {32}

"Sara Alelia" survived her "Norenius" by thirty-four years, dying in 1965 at the age of eighty-eight. In an interview on her eighty-fifth birthday she dwelt on her correspondence with Rølvaag and their meeting. {33} The interviewer noted that she was remembered locally for her readings and lectures: "Lively, vital, and thoroughly familiar with her material, she stood on the rostrum, delighted to read and speak to a grateful audience." She was known for her radical views and the courage of her convictions. We do not have her last letter to Rølvaag (July 9, 1931), but his reply began, "Dear lonely soul," and went on to say that it was one of the most beautiful letters she had written to him.

But the most beautiful letter he wrote to her and one that must have meant a great deal to her was precisely the one that Bishop Berggrav sent back to Rølvaag's college. This specimen of Rølvaag's epistolary art concludes the account of their correspondence. {34}

"March 8, 1927

"Dear Sara Alelia!

"Uff, how sad your last letter was. Now I'm going to tell Sara Alelia a great secret, and this secret is the quintessence of all religion: We were not born into life in order to get, to demand. We were given life so that we might give. And then give a little more. And then again a little more. That is the purpose of it all. That is the answer to every riddle.

"Sara Alelia is unhappy because she is not getting what her heart yearns for. But Sara Alelia should not yearn to get things. If she only could - and she perfectly well can! - turn her yearning right around, then she would find satisfaction immediately and her sore heart would be brimming over with a marvelously rich joy. Sara Alelia is like the deer that runs to the water to drink. When he gets there, he lifts his head and drinks dry air; he fails to observe the water, and his thirst is unbearable. Sara Alelia is like a singer who has been granted the most melodious gift of song. Instead of going out among people and singing so they weep from joy, she goes into a narrow black stone chamber where she sits growling, and then she scolds the Lord for not caring about her.

"Sara Alelia is like the brook that got the idea that to reach the sea it had to run uphill. And so it really started to run backward. It ran and it ran, struggled and labored on its way to the sea until the cheerful melody of the brook fell silent, the brook stopped its course entirely, and its water - the clear, melodic water - turned slimy and ugly and unfit for people.

"Sara Alelia is like the rose that became aware of its own fragrance and conceived the idea: I must save this fragrance until I have a great deal of it - only then can I charm the children of men. And so the rose hid its fragrance and died of it. But lo - it did not know this itself. Sara Alelia is like the wave that wanted to hear its own song and so it stopped to listen. - After that it never ran again.

"And I could compare Sara Alelia with the star that put out its light to save it, or with the grain of wheat that wouldn't grow so it could save its strength, or with the heart that did not dare to let in the sunlight.

"But what is the use of such parables? None whatever. For Sara Alelia insists that to be happy she must get. She must get love and sympathy and happiness. How strange it is that Sara can't hear at all! For out of all that exists there rings the commandment of the Lord to her: You shall get, Sara! You shall get to give! Don't you hear at all? You shall get to give. And the Almighty himself has no greater gift to grant than the ability to give, that is God-given. But Sara will not use it except to a few whom she likes very well. 'But lo, if you are good to those who are good to you, what gain have you from that?' She knows this is true, and yet she won't believe it - that's how wicked the good-hearted Sara Alelia can be!

"Now Norenius has preached for Sara Alelia, and he hasn't the strength for any more. For Norenius is poorly and has no strength either for preaching or anything else. But he felt it was exceedingly bad of Sara to blame the Lord because the water was not deep enough where she walked through the ice. What if it had been deep enough, would little Sara then have been any happier? Here, too, Sara's chief fault shows up: when she can't get, she wants to put an end to her getting!

A sermon by Norenius"

Notes

<1> Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography (New York, 1939), 221.

<2> O. E. Rølvaag, Amerika-breve (Minneapolis, 1912); trans. by Ella Valborg Tweet and Solveig Zempel as The Third Life of Per Smevik (Minneapolis, 1971).

<3> Eivind Berggrav to Clemens Granskou, February 20, 1956, in Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota.

<4> Einar Haugen, Ole Edvart Rölvaag (Boston, 1983).

<5> Studenterne fra 1880 (Kristiania, 1905), 292-293.

<6> See J. B. Halvorsen, Norsk Forfatterleksikon 1814-1880, 2 (Kristiania, 1888), 481-483.

<7> 0n Miss Halling see Elle Melle, "'Mosrosen' fra Skotselv som ble Norges store billed-veverske," in Drammens Tidende, February 17, 1976; also her own article, "Gamle tepper - ny inspirasjon," in Oslo Kunstindustri-museum Arbok, 1972-1975 (Oslo [1975]), 111-118; for her biography, see Norsk Kunstnerlexikon 2 (Oslo, 1983), 30-31. She adopted her mother's maiden name for professional reasons.

<8> Review of I de dage -, unidentified clipping from Oslo University Library, 1924.

<9> Marie Hailing Swensen to O. E. Rølvaag, November 8, 1924, in Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<10> Review of Peder Seier in Jarlsberg, October 20, 1928; of Den signede dag, in same newspaper, undated (1931). For lecture, March 19, 1926, see Jarlsberg (Holmestrandsposten), April 2, 1926, also unidentified clipping of May 5: "Fru Swensens foredrag."

<11> Information from Orjan Lindberger, Swedish scholar.

<12> Book Review Digest (New York, 1927), 211.

<13> Rølvaag to Swensen, September 13, 1926, in Oslo University Library.

<14> Rølvaag to Swensen, September 13, 1926.

<15> Rølvaag to Swensen, October 26, 1926.

<16> Rølvaag to Swensen, November 8, 1926.

<17> Waldemar Ager, Sons of the Old Country, trans. by Trygve M. Ager, with an introduction by Odd S. Lovoll (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1984).

<18> Rølvaag to Swensen, December 18, 1926.

<19> Haugen, Rolvaag, 93-94; Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag, 365-376.

<20> Rølvaag to Swensen, May 14, 1927.

<21> Rølvaag to Swensen, October 26, 1926.

<22> Rølvaag to Swensen, [March 13, 1928].

<23> Rølvaag to Swensen, August 2, 1928.

<24> Swensen, review of Peder Seier.

<25> Rølvaag to Swensen, March 13, 1931.

<26> Swensen, review of Den signede dag.

<27> Rølvaag to Swensen, August 19 [1929].

<28> "Romance of a Life," manuscript in Norwegian-American Historical Association [1931].

<29> Rølvaag to Swensen, August 19 .

<30> Rølvaag to Swensen, October 20, 1929.

<31> Rølvaag to Swensen, May 25, 1929.

<32> Rølvaag to Swensen, April 25, 1930.

<33> Interview by O. O. B-n, "En midtsommeraften hos fru Mimmi Swensen," in Hoknestrands Blad, July 3, 1962.

<34> Rølvaag to Swensen, March 8, 1927, in Norwegian-American Historical Association.

 

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