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Rølvaag’s Lost Novel
    by Einar Haugen (Volume 32: Page 209)

Of all that Ole Edvart Rølvaag wrote the least read work is surely the story on which he lavished the most time, his apprentice work titled “Nils og Astri.” It exists in a neatly handwritten author’s copy, presumably his last redaction of 1910, in the Norwegian-American Historical Association archives at St. Olaf College. The present author’s recent survey of Rølvaag’s life and work characterized it briefly, and there are fuller accounts in the monumental studies by Jorgenson and Solum, in English, and by Gvåle in Norwegian. {1} Rølvaag began writing it while still a senior at St. Olaf College, in 1904-1905, less than ten years out of Norway. He dreamed of selling it to finance his first trip back home, but Aschehoug, which would later publish his world-famous novels in Norway, rejected it out of hand, and he had no better luck in later years with Norwegian-American publishers. By 1912 he had finally thrown it overboard and embarked on his true literary career with his first printed novel, Amerika-breve (America-letters), which enjoyed a modest success. {2}

“Nils og Astri” is written in copybooks with numbered pages: Part One in 232 pages, Part Two in 201 pages. There is reason to believe that it was completed in the year 1910, as the preface is dated July of that year. Part One was probably composed in his senior year at St. Olaf; its content bears the mark of Rolvaag’s parochial school teaching during the summers of 1903 and 1904. Part Two gives the impression of being hastily written in order to round off the story. By this time he had come to realize that his publishing-house critics were right. In a letter to his friend Ole Farseth dated October 26, 1910, he wrote that Waldemar Ager’s novel Kristus for Pilatus (Christ before Pilate) had set a standard for Norwegian-American literature that he had not yet equaled. {3} Even so, this youthful novel has much to interest the student of Rølvaag’s career. It reveals a great deal of his background in both life and letters, while at the same time pointing forward to themes that would be more successfully integrated into his later work.

First of all there is his choice of setting: the entire story takes place in a rural South Dakota community such as the one Rølvaag had experienced during his first years in America. He did not choose to describe the Norwegian scene, as did many other immigrant writers, and as he would do in one later novel, Længselens baat (Boat of Longing, 1921). He calls the community “Greenfield.” The name, like the one he chose in Amerika-breve and Paa glemte veie (On Forgotten Paths), is reminiscent of the Northfield in which his college was located. The name of his hero Nils would be used again in Længselens baat about a dreamer with musical talent. His last name, Haugen, would recur in Paa glemte veie for the pastor who is to become the heroine’s husband. Nil’s father Ole is of course named for the author himself, and he is in fact the spokesman for many of Rølvaag’s ideas about the failings of the American environment and the importance of preserving the Norwegian heritage. His querulous criticism of society is unlike Rølvaag’s more balanced temper, but Rølvaag may have felt a certain unpopularity and suspicion not unlike that which Ole and after him Nils have to endure from an uncomprehending environment, The heroine’s name, Astri, may come from a well-known Norwegian folk song about love, called “Astri, mi Astri.” The noble schoolteacher, later pastor, is called Aasmundsen, possibly suggested by the first name of Aasmund Vinje, a well-known poet. The villain, Per Ammandus Skogen, bears a first name much used in Rølvaag’s family, that of his father and a brother, but his second name suggests something foreign, ironically a name that means “one who is to be loved,” since the character in this story is just the opposite.

The story is all too obviously modeled on Bjørnson’s peasant tales from the mid-century, widely admired and imitated by folksy authors: Synnøve Solbakken (1857), Arne (1858-1859), En glad gut (A Happy Boy, 1860), and Fiskerjenten (The Fisher Maiden, 1868). The subtitle, Fragments of Norwegian-American Folk Life, is suggestive of these books. He dedicated it to “the Norwegian-reading Norwegian-American young people,” a departure from the pattern, but one that places it in the mainstream of Rølvaag’s work as a professor of Norwegian in America. Norwegian-American schools were still being conducted in Norwegian, although the first signs of language shift were appearing, signs that would become a flood before Rølvaag’s death. {4}

In a short preface he disclaimed any intention of writing a “literary work” and called it “mainly short pieces” grouped around Nils and Astri. “It is not a thrilling novel, in which exciting events follow one another in sequence.” “Still I have the belief that the book may provide entertainment in an idle hour.” These statements are a measure of the naiveté, but also the understated modesty of the author at this time. In fact the novel is cast entirely in the traditional mode of the romantic tale. Boy meets girl, they are separated by sinister forces, but in the end boy wins girl and they live happily ever after. There is an abundance of “exciting events,” especially in Part Two, and the reader’s patience is sorely tried by the hindrances which this amateur author places in the way of the happy ending.

Although Part One takes place on a South Dakota farm, the atmosphere is saturated with Norwegian sentiment. Not only is Ole Haugen, the father, vehemently Norwegian, but the hired girl Lina, whom he has imported to bring up the motherless Nils, is from Nordland, Rølvaag’s Norwegian home. She is an early version of Rølvaag’s backward-looking women, his Magdalena in Paa glemte veie, Kristine in Længselens baat, and above all Beret in Giants in the Earth and its sequels. She embodies one aspect of Rølvaag’s own “divided heart,” which he first presented in the Per Smevik of Amerika-breve. Like Per, Lina is the “newcomer” who is out of tune with the Norwegian-American environment in which she has landed: “one of the many pieces of flotsam that the stream of emigration took hold of and carried far, far away to a foreign land.” She finds the young people, who speak English, strange; and even those who speak Norwegian do so with a mixture of unfamiliar English words and expressions. She finds some solace in spoiling the child Nils, and fills him with tales from the rich folklore of Nordland. Like Per Smevik’s preacher, she climbs to the top of the nearest bluff and gazes on the prairie as if it were the sea, a comparison that Rølvaag was to carry into Giants in the Earth as well. To Nils’s astonishment, Lina weeps from longing for the sea. Later on, the reader learns her story in more detail: she emigrated because she lost her fiancé on a fishing expedition in the great storm of 1893, which nearly took Rølvaag’s own life and led to his emigration in 1896. Like Kristine’s in Længselens baat, her fiancé’s name is Johan, a name that may come from Rølvaag’s oldest brother.

Nils as a child is already a mixture of willfulness and artistic talent, very much like his Bjørnsonian models, Thorbjørn and Arne. Like these as well as Bjørnson’s Øivind and Petra, the “Fisher Maiden,” he grows up in a relatively poor family, since his father has been crippled and has had to rent his farm out. Nils’s talent is musical, and he follows his father in a passion for the violin. Lina buys him a cheap fiddle, and he learns readily to play anything he hears.

Most of Part One is devoted to Nils’s schooling, chiefly in the Norwegian summer school. The American common school is referred to only in passing and with some contempt. This section begins with an essay that compares children to colts that need careful handling for their successful training. Nils’s first teacher goads him into competition with Per Ammandus Skogen, resulting in their becoming enemies for life. Per has “crafty eyes” and bribes the teacher with gifts of fruit and flowers. Eventually Nils meets Astri Bjarne, who becomes his first friend. At length Nils comes under the guidance of a competent teacher, Torger Aasmundsen, who knows how “to break in colts.” Coincidentally, one of Per Ammandus’s first exploits is to shoot and maim Nils’s colt; the teacher compels him to apologize. Nils has a hideout by a “fairy rock” on the river, where he is joined by his friend Olaf Gilbertson and sometimes by Astri. Aasmundsen seeks him out and wins his confidence by joining him in fishing and playing tunes on his violin. He also tells his own life story, which is reminiscent of the schoolmaster’s tale in Bjørnson’s En glad gut. It is the story of two friends whose friendship is destroyed by rivalry over a girl; in a driving accident one of them is killed, which results in the other, Aasmundsen, leaving the community and going off to school.

Aasmundsen is asked to enforce a ban on swimming in the nearby river, but the pupils secretly defy him. The result is the near drowning of Lars, Astri’s brother, but he is saved by Nils. When Aasmundsen learns of their disobedience, he is about to punish Nils until Astri informs him of the facts. Nils tries to express his love for Astri in melody, but because of her mother’s distaste for Nils, she only half admits her fondness for him. Aasmundsen’s problems in teaching are the topic of a discussion which obviously reflects Rølvaag’s philosophy: that each pupil needs his or her special approach, and that the class is like a garden in which each plant needs his care.

On the way home from school Astri and her brother Lars are caught in a storm and Astri falls seriously ill. Nils brings flowers, and in spite of the reluctance of her parents, he prays for her recovery. There follows a passage about his father Ole, who has lost a lawsuit against the Skogens and is bitter about the American legal system. He becomes a relentless opponent of “Yankeedom,” his name for all things American. At a party he and Skogen get into a bitter argument about the relative merits of Norway and America. In this discussion the author clearly sides with the father in his Norwegian advocacy, foreshadowing one of Rølvaag’s major themes.

Astri recovers and the Skogens put on a party in her honor. It is “a dreamy, lovely summer night.” Young people are enjoying themselves, dancing, flirting, playing last couple out. Per Ammandus manages to catch Astri, but she laughs at him and rejects his advances when he is bold enough to propose to her. She laughs, but accepts a package which proves to contain a gold watch, with a rather illiterate love letter. It is hinted that Per Ammandus has bought the watch with money stolen from his father’s wallet. He devises a scheme to start a fight between Aasmundsen’s pupils and those from another school, primarily in order to discredit Aasmundsen. But Aasmundsen smells out the plot and appears on the scene in time to stop the fight and lecture Per Ammandus on the principle that happiness in life can only result from goodness.

On the last day of school the pupils are sad at parting, and only Nils and Astri stay behind. He strokes her hair and cheek, and they part. So ends Part One: it is almost entirely a story of schooling and the teacher’s role in inculcating religion and preventing strife. Much of it is in dialogue form. Rølvaag clearly put a great deal of his own experience as a teacher into the novel. Two major themes occupied him: the pedagogical problem, involving the “breaking” of colts or the cultivation of plants; and the conflict of Norwegian with English.

Part Two begins eight years later. Astri has studied music in Minneapolis for four years, after which Nils has studied in Chicago for three years. They have not corresponded, and in the meanwhile Astri has resignedly accepted Per Ammandus as her escort. He is back in Greenfield as a lawyer but with a dubious practice, defending a prisoner and the owner of a “blind pig,” a legally outlawed saloon. His parents are proud of his eloquence. They are described as concerned only with making money, and the mother, Elizabeth, is such a hard bargainer that she has won the nickname “for little money” from the mixed-language phrase she uses when bargaining. The father subscribes to the Norwegian Chicago newspaper Skandinaven but reads only the farm prices. In this way the contrast is pointed up between these materialistic parents and the Haugens with their poverty but their higher standard of culture. Per Ammandus gets into poker games with a group of gamblers, three Jews and an Irishman, loses all his money, and decides he has to marry Astri to recoup his fortunes.

Aasmundsen has returned to Greenfield as a pastor. He invites the young people’s society to his parsonage. The program goes well, including music by the pastor and Nils. The pastor senses that the classical music is not too popular and suggests that Nils play a Norwegian dance tune. He is also urged to play a composition of his own, in which he declares his love and longing for Astri. After the party they stay, while Nils pours out his experiences at the conservatory and expounds on the difference between surface beauty and true inward beauty. He compares the pain of original composition to the pangs of giving birth, a whole little essay expressing Rølvaag’s own views on art. Lars comments to his sister that Nils actually “grew with every stroke of the bow,” an idea reminiscent of Ibsen’s description of Brand in the play of that name. Astri feels inadequate, though she dreams of sharing “his longing and melancholy and the wild flight of his thoughts.”

The next scene is the annual Old Settlers’ picnic in Greenfield, a festival for the pioneers. Here we find the germ of Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth, for he says of the pioneers that “all had performed miracles.” They tell stories of “those days” (i de dage, the title of Giants in the Earth in Norwegian), “a long vanished time . . . when there lived giants on the earth,” a quotation that became the motto of his later masterpiece. But now the picnic has “degenerated” into a dancing party. Per Ammandus trips and falls, blames Nils, and the two come to blows. The next day Nils is arrested for mayhem, and in the succeeding trial is sentenced to a fine and a 25-day jail term.

Aasmundsen steps into the case at Astri’s request and accuses Per Ammandus of perjury. The villain then draws a revolver and threatens the pastor. But Aasmundsen disarms him and promises to take up the case on behalf of Nils.

Meanwhile Per Ammandus returns to his poker friends and is fleeced of a quarter section of land worth $30,000. Heavily intoxicated and befuddled, he falls into the grass and dies of heart failure. The scene is long-drawn-out and boring. It is followed by another scene almost as bad, in which the members of the Ladies’ Aid meeting at the Bjarnes sympathize with Per Ammandus and criticize the pastor.

Nils has served his term and is back on the farm, now much closer to his father than before, listening eagerly to him telling about his life in Norway. One day he advises his father to sell the farm, because he is planning to leave for good. Lina is dismayed to hear this and decides to go and talk with Astri. She shows Astri a poem Nils has written to express his love for her. It is a long, romantic poem in four-line rhymed stanzas, much in the style of similar inserted poems in Bjørnson’s novels. She pleads with the now weeping Astri to go and see Nils and, to emphasize her plea, tells the story of her own love affair with Johan. In both cases the young man was too embarrassed to speak out, and the result was a nearly tragic misunderstanding between the lovers.

The outcome of Lina’s matchmaking is that Astri goes to meet Nils at their trysting place on the river. They finally manage to say what needs to be said, he takes her in his arms, and all is well. But Nils wants the consent of her parents and comes to see them; he has been officially cleared of the charge for which he was jailed, and he manages to overcome the parents’, especially the mother’s, objections. Nils decides that they should be married as soon as possible. He plans to take over the farm, but only after he has completed his musical education. He assures Lina that she will be treated as his mother and have a home for life. At the end we see the newlyweds happily aboard the train for Chicago, where they sit “gazing into fairy tale and dream and the future.”

It is clear that there are glints and glimpses here of the author that Rølvaag would become, but as a whole the story is intolerably dragged out, and especially in Part Two one is annoyed at the wordiness that envelopes the dramatic episodes. In contrast, the main characters are themselves tongue-tied, unable to express their emotions, an exaggerated form of what Rølvaag evidently felt was a Norwegian trait. The only point at which the American world impinges on the community is in the absurd scenes of Per Ammandus’s poker games. The best one can say for the book is that it served Rølvaag well as an exercise, a warm-up for what would be his real career.

Rølvaag uses the latest form of Dano-Norwegian spelling here, the orthography of 1907, but he is still bound by the phrasing of nineteenth-century Danish. In some cases he has mechanically transposed the Danish forms into erroneous Norwegian, for example, “ingen brøt sig,” “no one cared” (Danish brød, Norwegian brydde). There are obsolete German-influenced syntactic constructions, like det glatdansedegulv, “the smooth-danced floor,” den av støv opfyldte stue, “the dust-filled room,” der sat de som der taltes om og som av nogen misundtes, “there sat the ones who were being spoken of and who were by some envied.” There are pastiches drawn from Bjørnson: Av ham blir det en kjæk kar, “He will turn into a fine fellow.” But one also recognizes some of what would be special for Rølvaag: his emphasis on “following the call” and his esthetic sensibility: Denne tonen gjemte i sig alt det deiligste i verden, “This melody embodied all that was most beautiful in the world.” It is reminiscent of Længselens baat when Lina relates that she and her lover sat bare og saa paa solen danse nord i havet, “just sat watching the sun dance in the northern seas.”

Rølvaag also followed Bjørnson in mingling his Dano-Norwegian with dialect expressions, especially in dialogue. Some of them he even furnishes with footnotes, as was often the custom in a time when they were still new and startling, for example, the dialect work rusle (drage avsted, leave, set out), piskan tull (sandelig, saamen, indeed), fankeren saa godt (pokkeren, a mild profanity), hele vasen (skaren, flokken, crowd), stengælen (aldeles gal, completely mad). This is especially characteristic of Lina, who speaks Rølvaag’s own Nordland dialect, though only moderately, as Per Hansa and Beret would in the later novels.

The most striking feature of his language, no doubt intended to provide verisimilitude, is his liberal use of Americanisms. This, too, became a feature of his later writing, though one no doubt restrained by his Norwegian publishers. Most of the words are incorporated grammatically into his Norwegian, with the definite article attached at the end, but then are usually underlined to be set in italics in the printed text, for example, quilt’en, “the quilt,” bluff en “the bluff,” colt’en, “the colt” (also en colt, and plural colt’er), buggy’en, “the buggy” (en buggy, plural buggy’er), teacher’n, “the teacher” (en teacher, definite plural teacher’ne). A few nouns are feminine, such as døst’a, “the dust,”fil’a, “the field,” and others are neuter: team’et, “the team” (et team, to teams), county’et, “the county,” party’et, “the party,” et basement, “a basement,” et store, “a store,” settlement’et, “the settlement,” court’et, “the court,” corn’et, “the corn.” As with team above, English plurals are sometimes retained, for example, bronchoes, chores, lovers, cowards, skunks, dollars, settlers. Compounds are frequent, such as en safety pin; some of them are bilingual, for example, commonskolen, “the common school,” en skog-claim “a forest claim,” overallsbuksen, “the overalls trousers,” courthuset, “the court house,” corncob-pipen, “the corncob pipe,” and brakemanden, “the brakeman.”

Adjectives are less common, though alright quent: queer (also rar), smart’ere, “smarter,” independent, crazy, bashful, den inscreened’de porch’en, “the screened-in porch.” Verbs are not frequent, but they do occur: spænde, “spend,” meka, “make,” catch’a “caught,” at hurt’e, “to hurt,” settle (den sak), “settle (the case),” shake hands, at kipa hus, “to keep house,” leksjonerte, “electioneered.”

There are also numerous exclamations and fixed phrases, such as “bye-bye,” hello, come on, no Sir, that’s right, byjiminy, Great Scott, blame it all, you bet you, never you mind, too bad, and yessiree. While all the characters and the author can use some of these expressions, they are used especially to characterize Per Ammandus, who is portrayed as yankeefisert, that is, yankified, and his family and friends. An oddity is the regular use among the young people of Miss in addressing even good friends. There are also some Norwegian phrases that seem like translations from English and may be oversights on Rølvaag’s part: jeg skal ha til at, “I’ll have to,” underskog, “underbrush,” vaarfeberen, “spring fever,” blodrosen, “bloodroot.” English loans average about one to a page, and nearly all of them are such as one might expect in the environment Rølvaag was describing. {5}

Some of the best writing in the book is found in two chapters that interrupt the narrative in Part Two. One is placed at its opening and is a lyrical description of the coming of spring on the prairie. The other follows the first poker game and precedes the pastor’s housewarming; it is a similar description of summer. These were later expanded and slightly rewritten to cover all four seasons and published in Rølvaag’s first reader (Norsk læsebok I, 193-202), after publication in the Christmas annual, Jul i Vesterheimen, in 1913. {6} At least so much was salvaged from Rølvaag’s first novel.

It is characteristic of Rølvaag’s stage of development at this time that he sought his models in the folk classics of Norway’s great century, chiefly Bjørnson, but also Jonas Lie. There is no trace of the neo-romanticism of the 1890s or of the great new star on the firmament, Knut Hamsun. Rølvaag probably still regarded him as decadent, an irreligious and irreverent upstart. He would change his mind in time. But when he wrote Amerika-breve he tapped the richest possible vein of immigrant writing, with a long tradition of folk practice. From being an imitator he became an innovator.

Notes

<1> Einar Haugen, Ole Edvart Rølvaag (Boston, 1984), 9; Theodore Jorgenson and Nora Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag: A biography (New York, 1939), 74-79, 89-90, 141-145; Gudrun Hovde Gvåle, O. E. Rølvaag. Nordmann og amerikanar (Oslo, 1962), 108-110, 290-292. Special thanks to Lloyd Hustvedt for a Xerox copy of the “Nils og Astri” manuscript.

<2> Translated by Ella Valborg Tweet and Solveig Zempel as The Third Life of Per Smevik (Minneapolis, 1971).

<3> Ager’s novel was published in Eau Claire in 1910; it was reprinted under the title Presten Konrad Walter Welde (Kristiania, 1912). Farseth’s letter is here cited from Gvåle, O. E. Rølvaag, 290.

<4> See Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America (2nd ed., Bloomington, Indiana, 1969), 233-294.

<5> Haugen, The Norwegian Language, 383-4 11.

<6> O. E. Rølvaag and P. J. Eikeland, Norsk læsehok, bind I, For barneskolen og hjemmet (Minneapolis, 1919), 193-202; O. E. Rølvaag, “Stemninger fra Prærien,” in Jul 1 Vesterheimen (Minneapolis, 1913), reprinted also in O. E. Rølvaag, Fortællinger og skildringer (Minneapolis, [1932]), 42-57.

 

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