NAHA Header


Skandinaven and the Beginnings of Professional Publishing
    by Orm Øverland (Volume 31: Page 187)

Only a minority of the Norwegians who came to the Midwest in the middle of the nineteenth century settled in urban areas, and the first publishing ventures of the 1840s and 1850s, Nordlyset, Democraten, and Den skandinaviske Presseforening (The Scandinavian Press Association), the first publisher of the weekly Emigranten, the monthly Kirkelig Maanedstidende, and a dozen or so reprints of religious books, were all based in rural settlements. To Knud Langeland, the pioneer editor, the rural base was one reason for the failure of the early ventures. {1} Even though Emigranten moved its press to Madison in 1857 and fairly successful presses were soon established in small towns like La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Decorah, Iowa, urban publishing on a large scale did not begin until the founding of the newspaper Skandinaven in Chicago in 1866 by the three partners John Anderson, Knud Langeland, and Iver Lawson. Skandinaven not only became one of the most influential and successful Norwegian-American newspapers but also soon developed a publishing business that became the largest venture of its kind in “Vesterheimen,” the name Norwegian Americans, taking their cue from Rasmus B. Anderson, fondly gave to their America. {2} This essay will trace the beginnings of professional publishing among the Norwegian Americans and show how [188] the growth of the book business in Chicago and the prominence of Skandinaven served to foster a Norwegian-American literature.

The lack of urban centers, however, was not the only obstacle experienced by the early editors and publishers: editorial laments on the lack of literary interests among the settlers and pleas for increased support from their fellow immigrants were frequent in Nordlyset and Democraten and continued to appear in Emigranten and later newspapers. In the first issue of Emigranten for 1858 the editor, Carl Solberg, reflected on the problems of publishing for the Norwegian immigrants and on the many difficulties “unknown to a newspaper in Europe”: “While there is in Wisconsin a Norwegian population of about 70,000, and Minnesota has one of perhaps half that size, and northern Illinois and northern Iowa have a considerable Norwegian population, the Norwegian newspapers published in this country have hardly more than 3,000 subscribers.” {3} The main reason for this deplorable lack of support, for Solberg as for his colleagues, was the narrow reading habits of the average immigrant: “We wish that we could convey a clear notion of the usefulness of reading and of expanding the boundaries for intellectual entertainment beyond the area to which it has been limited with so large a portion of the Norwegian rural population: the Bible, the Hymnbook, and the [Pontoppidan] Explanation [to Luther’s Catechism].”

In spite of such jeremiads from editors and publishers, however, and in spite of the small and scattered potential market, enterprising businessmen began to see a profit in the book trade by the late 1850s. One indicator of the growth of the book trade among Norwegian Americans in this decade is Bertel W. Suckow’s bookbinding business, first in Beloit and then in Madison when Emigranten moved its press there in 1857. {4} Suckow bound and sold books for the Scandinavian Press Association, but an advertisement that ran in 1855 and 1856 suggests that he had an expanding business binding books and journals for private customers as well. By June 17, 1857, another bookbinder and onetime partner of Suckow, [189] Christian Sahlquist, was advertising his Norwegian book-bindery and sale of Norwegian books in Portage, Wisconsin. That the sale of books to Norwegian immigrants was considered a worthwhile business is also brought out by an advertisement for another bookstore in Beloit with the un-Norwegian name of Wright, Merrill & Co., which claimed to have a large stock of Norwegian books and promised future imports. {5} A considerable volume of business for the Scandinavian Press Association is also suggested by a notice in 1858 elaborating on the different procedures that could be used for mail orders. When Elias Stangeland advertised his edition of Luther’s Homilies for sale on July 31 of that year, eleven outlets were listed, all in Wisconsin. The following year T. M. Hoist, who for a short time had run Suckow’s bookbinding business in Madison, was established as the first Norwegian bookseller in Chicago. He may have found the competition too strong in Madison, where at least five firms were selling Norwegian books, one of them established by Knud J. Fleischer.

The book trade among Norwegian immigrants continued to proliferate in the 1860s. Many of those who appear at various times as sellers of books were merely agents for a few titles, while others were able to establish firms with a relatively large stock and a stable business. In 1861, for instance, Ole Monsen in Madison, still working as a printer for Emigranten, began advertising his bookstore, followed the next year by Anders Gulliksen in Decorah, Iowa, and C. Amundsen & Co. in Winona, Minnesota. The first advertisement in Emigranten (January 9, 1865) for B. Tobias Olsen’s Noget om den christelige børneopdragelse og undervisning (On the Christian Upbringing and Education of Children) lists sixteen places where it can be bought, and by February 6 it lists thirty-four such places, all in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Even though a good number of these addresses are simply clergymen or parochial-school teachers who served as agents, the number still speaks not only of the availability of books but of the possibilities authors had for distribution of their works. By the mid 1860s there are also advertisements [190] for several booksellers in Chicago; the founding of Skandinaven in 1866 marked the beginning of that city’s dominance in the Norwegian book trade.

The Norwegian immigrant population was scattered throughout the midwestern states, and the location of a bookstore mattered less than the frequency of advertising in the few Norwegian-American newspapers. Since so small a proportion of the potential book buyers ever came close to the store, announcements of books in stock had the function of window displays and most of the trade was by mail order. {6} Not only the increasing volume but the changing nature of the book trade is evident from the variety of books listed for sale.

In a large advertisement for “Fleischers Boghandel” in Emigranten for July 11, 1859, most of the list consists of devotional books and school texts, but under the subhead “Children’s Books etc.” some fiction is listed, for instance Bjørnson’s Synnøve Solbakken, which had been serialized in Emigranten earlier that year. When Ole Monsen began running announcements for his “Norsk Boghandel” in 1861, titles on history, some moralistic fiction, and three books by Eilert Sundt, the pioneering Norwegian sociologist, appeared in addition to the two dominant categories of religious books and school texts. By 1864 his list of 101 titles has 54 devotional and theological works, while the second largest category is fiction, with 18 titles, closely followed by school texts with 14. {7} The trend toward a more diversified stock is evident two years later in the advertisements for Anders Gulliksen’s “Norsk Boghandel i Decorah,” where his list is divided into the following categories: “Homilies and Devotional Books,” “School Texts and Children’s Books,” “History and Geography,” “Hymnals,” “Language,” “Handbooks,” “Novels and Stories,” “Books of Various Content,” and “The Latest Poems.” The first of these categories is still the largest with about one-fourth of the titles, but it is apparent that immigrants could by now acquire a fairly varied and balanced collection of books in their old language as their new country gradually gave them the material conditions that made such [191] acquisition possible. {8} Most of the books available for sale among the immigrants at this time were still imported from Norway or Denmark, but the proportion of those produced in America was increasing. While the church-related publishing initiated by the Scandinavian Press Association continued to grow and prosper, the new development of the 1860s was the gradual emergence of professional commercial publishing, the forerunners of the large-scale urban businesses of John Anderson, I. T. Relling, and Christian Rasmussen, as well as the many other publishing firms active by the end of the nineteenth century.

The two main competitors in the book trade of the 1860s were Anders Gulliksen in Decorah and Ole Monsen in Madison. Both tried their hand at publishing, but here Monsen clearly had an advantage over his competitor since he was employed by Emigranten as printer and could make good use of this connection for the production, marketing, and distribution of his books. Monsen had the successful businessman’s sense of what will sell and also the sense of humor that gives an edge in advertising. His first venture in publishing, of which no copies are known to exist, was a broadside or pamphlet announced in Emigranten on May 1, 1865: En ny og rørende sang om krigens slutning og Præsident Lincolns mord af den forvorpne skuespiller Wilkes Booth (A New and Moving Song on the End of the War and the Murder of President Lincoln by the Corrupt Actor Wilkes Booth). The editor dutifully supported his colleague with a review in an adjacent column, calling it “one of the best ballads we have ever seen” and predicting that the publisher would do a good business. Monsen continued to publish in the popular vein and brought out a translation of the German juvenile Genoveva of Brabant by Christoph von Schmid and other light reading. His greatest success was no doubt the popular autobiography of the famous robber and escape artist of early nineteenth-century Norway, Gjest Baardsen. This book was to become a staple of Norwegian-American commercial publishing. It is frequently mentioned in Norwegian-American fiction as the [192] only secular book regularly found among the devotional books in the homesteader’s cabin. {9}

Monsen was the first commercial publisher of any note, with at least eight titles in 1866 and 1867, while Anders Guiliksen in Decorah, his main competitor, was primarily a bookseller, publishing only one book with his own imprint. In spite of the brief spell of success of an Ole Monsen, however, it was still too early in the development of a Norwegian-American literary culture to sustain a publishing business over a long period of time. Booksellers are heard from and disappear, often after only a year or so in business. Publishers appear with a single book, and there are notices asking for subscribers to works that are never heard from again. Thus in 1866 Ole E. Trøan made his first appearance as a publisher in Chicago with a translated book about the infamous Andersonville prison. After a few months he published a songbook, Den norske Amerikaner, and then apparently overreached himself. At least nothing seems to have come of the last two projects he announced, an English volume of Thrilling Stories of the Great Rebellion and Gjest Baardsens levnedsløb. {10} The many attempts to establish a book-publishing business as well as the many single book projects in the 1860s suggest that though the market was not yet sufficiently developed for publishing on a large scale, the potential Norwegian- American public appeared both affluent and literate enough to encourage a good number of ventures where an important motive seems to have been profit. While most book publishing in the previous decade was prompted by the need to make central texts for religious instruction and devotion available to the immigrants in their own language, the more secular, but equally idealistic, motive of keeping the mother tongue alive and promoting Norwegian culture among the immigrants began to take prominence in the 1860s.

This ideal was an abiding concern with Knud Langeland, the first editor and initially a co-publisher of Skandinaven, throughout his long and distinguished career. In his first editorial for Skandinaven, June 1, 1866, he made clear that he “regarded it as a sacred duty for the Scandinavians in America [193] to do all in their power to support and maintain the language of their fathers and their Scandinavian literature.” John Anderson, a printer by trade, was the senior partner and driving force in the management of Skandinaven. He was surely in agreement with Langeland’s views on language preservation and the value of maintaining a Norwegian culture in America, but for him printing and publishing in Norwegian was first and foremost a profitable business. Although Anderson soon began to print books on his press, in addition to the job printing that was always a significant part of the total volume of his business, he was cautious, and had printed or published only a few books by the end of the 1860s.

The foundation for the kind of publishing Skandinaven and the John Anderson Publishing Co. were to thrive on during the following decades was laid when two of the partners, Langeland and Lawson, for unknown reasons broke with Anderson in 1872. They established a competing newspaper and publishing company, Amerika, with the active support of a new partner, John A. Johnson, a successful businessman with strong cultural commitments. Their interest in Norwegian book publishing may be seen in the ambitious project they launched as soon as their newspaper began to appear: a volume of Norwegian folk tales and stories edited by Rasmus Bjørn Anderson, the Wisconsin-born professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin. {11} Although Amerika had merged with Skandinaven by the time the book was ready for marketing as Julegave (Christmas Gift), it nevertheless bore the imprint “‘Amerika’s’ Forlag.”

The editor’s preface makes clear that Rasmus B. Anderson regarded the modest volume as an important event in the development of Norwegian-American publishing: “When I have visited Norwegian families in the cities and in the country I have almost always found a lack of Norwegian books, and especially books that contain light reading for children and young people. If we are to maintain the Norwegian language in this country we will have to supply our bookshelves with some of our fatherland’s literature and try to awaken the taste and interest for the mother tongue in our children.” [194] Anderson was optimistic because of the rapid growth of the book trade in recent years: “Ten years ago we hardly had a single Norwegian bookstore in America. Now there is a considerable Norwegian book trade in Chicago, Decorah, LaCrosse, etc., and some Norwegian libraries have had considerable growth.” The number of newspapers, church periodicals, and literary magazines had also increased. Nevertheless, he continued, “of Norwegian books that are not specifically religious almost none have been published in this country with the exception of feuilletons in the Norwegian newspapers, and even these may be counted on one hand.

“Is it not time that we begin to publish historical works, collections of stories, poetry, and folk tales? I think it is. The Germans in America have already published the literature of their country with good results, and even though the Norwegian public is small compared to the German one, I still believe it is a worthwhile experiment.”

The publishers had not been so convinced to begin with. Langeland wrote to the impatient author in English on October 18, assuring him that “We have commenced work on the Book,” but expressing his doubts about the venture: “I am afraid the Eventyr [fairy-tales] are too old and worn to sell, but Johnson thinks otherwise.” Johnson, however, seems to have had his doubts as well. “You are correct about that Julegave book - it’s a bad business,” wrote Victor F. Lawson to Johnson on January 24, 1873, “we have sent quite a number by mail in single copies [to agents], but it is noticeable that no one sends for a second copy.” {12} They were far too pessimistic, however, and sales picked up unexpectedly. Some weeks later Lawson was writing, “Has Prof. Anderson any ‘Julegave’ books on hand? . . . Think we shall have to have some more bound soon,” and in the correspondence that spring the need for more copies was frequently mentioned. So little faith had the publishers had in this venture, however, that they had not even bothered to advertise the book until they suddenly discovered that there might be a market for it after all. The first Skandinaven advertisement for Julegave was not until February 11, 1873, after unexpected sales had [195] infused the publishers with optimism. It promised “Liberal discounts for agents, and since the book is ensured a quick turnover those who want to sell it will have a good profit. Agents wanted in all settlements.” The volume became one of Skandinaven’s many popular successes, and it remained in print for about thirty years, with the eighth and last edition published in 1900.

While it was with a sense of mission rather than any expectation of great profit that the proprietors of Amerika agreed to publish Julegave, they showed great reluctance in taking on their second book publication even though it was in the well-tried field of theological dispute: the proceedings of a “Free Conference” of representatives of several Norwegian-American churches. {13} Lawson, writing to Johnson on the last day of the conference, claimed he was ignorant of the whole affair and reported that Langeland wanted no responsibility for the publication. Their hearts were evidently not in this project and they doubted that it would serve any business purpose. But they soon found that this was the kind of literary fare Norwegian Americans still wanted. One of their agents, a schoolteacher in Wisconsin, ordered 20 copies of Julegave but requested 200 copies of the report on the church meeting. The ratio of one to ten suggests that though the collection of folktales was the first of its kind to appear in America, a volume of 128 closely printed double-column pages of theological dispute was potentially far more popular.

Few books of this kind were to be published by Skandinaven, however. Two other volumes published later that year are indicative of the kind of literary fare that was to dominate their list all the way up through the 1920s: popular fiction, often in translation, and generally printed from the plates used for prior serialization in the newspaper. The two translated novels published in 1873 were Henrik Schmidt, Bondehøvdingen. Historisk fortælling fra reformasjonstiden (The Peasant Chieftain. A Historical Tale from the Time of the Reformation), and D. James, Abyssiniens Perle (The Pearl of Abyssinia). An editorial note in Skandinaven for October 14, [196] when the serialization of the former was concluded, suggests that Langeland’s liberalism was influencing the selection of fiction for the newspaper: the theme of the novel is “a strengthening of love for the people’s liberty and independence and a humane government on the one hand, and a detestation for all despotism and oppression on the other. At least that was our intention in publishing it.” Although the increasing number of titles suggests a growing market, it was still too early to make a good business of this kind of publishing in 1873. Writing about the historical novel by the German Schmidt, Lawson observed in a letter to Johnson, December 6, 1873, that “Bondehøvdingen don’t seem to set the Scand. West on fire. We have sold 3 copies.”

By this time two other firms in Chicago were doing a fairly prosperous business in books imported from Scandinavia: I. T. Rellig and Fritz Frantzen, for a time close neighbors on Milwaukee Avenue. They were followed in 1874 by a similar Scandinavian bookstore operated by Christian Rasmussen and Christian Jørgensen, who in 1876 merged temporarily with Fritz Frantzen. {14} Frantzen, a Dane, had started rather modestly in the late 1860s with a tobacco and stationery shop. In the summer of 1868 one of the several Norwegian bookstores and rental libraries in Chicago, F. Herfordt, went out of business and its stock of 700 volumes was auctioned. {15} Although some of the stock seems to have been bought by the major competitor, M. N. Olsen, {16} Frantzen also made use of this opportunity to branch out in a new business. Later that fall he began to advertise his “Rental Library. Several hundred volumes of fiction and literary works.”

The main initiative in book trade on a large scale in Chicago, however, had come from I. T. Relling. On arriving in the United States from Norway in 1866 he had first been employed as a clerk in Winona, Minnesota, where there was a Norwegian bookstore at that time. Soon he moved to Chicago and an editorial position with Skandinaven. Returning to Norway in 1869 Relling contacted publishers in Christiania and Copenhagen and was encouraged to go back to Chicago [197] and establish a bookstore there. {17} Frantzen’s plans may merely have matured at the same time or he may have been goaded by the example of Relling; at least both now began large-scale advertising in the Norwegian-American press in the summer and fall of 1870, Relling stressing his contacts with Scandinavian publishers, Frantzen claiming to be the “only American member of the Book Sellers’ Association at home” and thus able to get books from Norway and Denmark at the lowest prices.

The advertising of Relling and Frantzen became increasingly competitive and the claims of one were immediately taken up by the other. Reading societies were obviously important for their businesses, and both laid claim to being dominant in this trade. When Relling, for instance, on January 4, 1874, boasted of his excellent service to reading societies, claiming that almost all that had been started in the past three years had bought their books from him, Frantzen answered with a large advertisement on January 29 making similar claims and asking rhetorically: “Why do we get almost daily orders from reading societies?” {18} In the early 1870s their business was almost exclusively with books published in Europe, and both claimed that they had the best connections with large firms in the Scandinavian capitals and reported on the beneficial effects of their journeys there. An escalation of their advertising war reveals that the volume of their business in imported books was quite large. In Fædrelandet og Emigranten for February 26, 1874, Relling concludes with the following: “Since we see that Mr. Fritz Frantzen writes copies of our advertisements, we would like to submit that according to the books of the Customs House in Chicago I. T. Relling & Co. have paid $2,077.49 in duty for books imported from November 15, 1872, to November 15, 1873. Fritz Frantzen [has paid] $165.12. We will now see if he will copy this advertisement as well.” Frantzen, however, was not so easily defeated. On March 19 he came up with the following conclusion to his advertisement: “As proof that the book trade has made considerable progress in this country I [198] submit that in the past year I have paid about $1,600 in gold in duties for books in Detroit, New York, and Chicago. I cannot state what other booksellers have paid since the Customs House rules strictly forbid the giving of such information to others.”

In the decade after the Civil War the increased volume of the book trade among Norwegian immigrants had made it possible to establish several substantial businesses in Chicago alone. In 1874 Skandinaven ran a series on Scandinavian businesses in Chicago written by David Monrad Schøyen. The installment for February 24 dealt with bookbinders and printers as well as booksellers, and about the latter Schøyen wrote: “Until a few years ago the sale of Scandinavian books in Chicago was limited to religious books and the most commonly used school books, and at the most there were in addition to these a few entertaining storybooks of the most popular kind. The first important step toward a book business that could satisfy present-day requirements came when I. T. Relling opened his store in the fall of 1870. He and F. Frantzen now have bookstores with assorted stocks that probably cannot be found outside of Christiania, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, and they do not merely supply Chicago with books but have customers all over the Northwest. Their large businesses are both telling and encouraging proof of the fact that a taste for literature and thus for culture is growing among those of our nationality. Some other Norwegians and Danes have smaller bookselling businesses, often in connection with other trade. The North Side has three Swedish bookstores. Several rental libraries are established in connection with these bookstores.”

In Chicago and other cities, as well as in small towns with a concentration of Norwegian immigrants, bookstores flourished for several decades. If immigrants did not have one close at hand, the Norwegian-American newspapers to which they subscribed advertised bookstores that based much of their trade on mail orders. Although these booksellers did not primarily distribute books by Norwegian-American writers, the mere existence of a well-organized [199] commercial distribution of Norwegian books in America was one of several factors encouraging aspiring writers to produce books of their own.

Skandinaven established a bookstore division (Skandinavens Boghandel) in 1876, though they had imported books for retail before this formal reorganization. The main impetus behind their interest in the book trade, however, was to find a profitable use for the excess capacity of their modern printing press as well as ways to strengthen their growing newspaper, which by the mid 1870s had weekly, tri-weekly, and daily editions as well as a special European one for distribution in Norway and, to a lesser extent, in Denmark. In October, 1873, Skandinaven began the publication of Husbibliothek. Et Tidsskrift for underholdende Læsning (The Home Library: A Journal for Entertaining Reading), making Scandinavian novels, stories, and poems available at very low prices. The monthly issues could be bound in handy book-size volumes and the idea propounded in the advertising was that a subscription would make it possible for the immigrants to build up a library of a kind unavailable to most of them in the old country. Husbibliothek was an immediate success. Not only did Skandinaven make this claim in their December advertising campaign, but the publishers were privately congratulating themselves. Victor Lawson, who, on January 25, 1873, had written rather cautiously to Johnson that “it is a new feature in Scandinavian papers and I think we shall get our money back in time,” was quite pleased with the results of the first two months on December 6: “Husbibliothek will bear some ‘brag,’ even ‘much,’ - I think. We have now 900 subscribers - fully 700 have paid 1 year in advance.”

Until 1896, when it became a supplement to Skandinaven, Husbibliothek was an independent publication, only indirectly supporting the various editions of the newspaper. In 1874, however, the publishers began to plan another venture that was more intimately linked to circulation-building. On March 24 a notice appeared offering a new two-volume history of the United States as a premium to all of the 13,000 subscribers who paid for one year in advance. This eventually [200] became the three volumes of David Monrad Schøyen’s Amerikas Forenede Staters historie (1874, 1875, 1876, and many later reprints). Apparently most subscribers fulfilled the terms set. The publishers had launched a major marketing campaign and written a form letter to local public officials all over the large region covered by the newspaper, requesting “the names and addresses of as many Norwegians and Danes (not Swedes) in your town (and others outside of the town if known to you) as you can give. We propose to send to each one of these names a specimen copy of our newspaper, and a full announcement of our history. As this work will be the first of its kind ever issued, its value is at once apparent, and as it can be had, in connection with our paper, WITHOUT COST, it is evident that you are really conferring a favor upon the Scandinavians in your town in thus assisting us in bringing the announcement before them.” {19} They suggested that the tax roll on poll list be used and promised “to reciprocate this favor” at any time. Their sales campaign seems to have paid off. On February 21, 1876, Victor Lawson wrote to Johnson about the logistics of getting out about 10,000 copies of the second volume of the history and the need to set a deadline to qualify for the premium. This figure would have been a very respectable first printing for any American book in the mid-1870s, but it is quite remarkable considering the size of the Norwegian reading public at a time when the total Norwegian-American population can be estimated at about 150,000. {20}

As book publishing could be used to increase newspaper circulation, so could the newspaper be used both to advertise a book and to publish favorable reviews. This practical combination of a printing business, the publication of newspapers, journals, and books, and bookselling proved so successful that those Chicago booksellers who could, followed suit. Thus I. T. Relling in 1874 expanded his bookselling business to publish the weekly newspaper Norden, where reviews of books available from his bookstore were a prominent feature. Increasingly he also published books. {21} Christian Rasmussen, [201] a Dane who was a printer by trade like Skandinaven’s John Anderson, came in 1874 to Chicago where he became a partner in a bookstore, acquired a printing press, and in 1877 established his own publishing house for journals as well as books. After ten fairly successful years he moved his business to Minneapolis, probably to get out from the shadow of John Anderson. At the time of incorporation in Minneapolis in 1887 his capital was $40,000 and after a few years the firm employed about fifty people. {22}

One reason publishing could prosper among the Norwegian immigrants in America in the face of competition from the far more experienced presses in Norway and Denmark was the cost factor. The competitive price of Norwegian-American books was from the very beginning an important theme in their marketing. Thus a review of Knud Henderson’s Koralbog (Hymnal) in Emigranten (January 25, 1866) observed that while the price was $1.00, an imported book of the same kind would cost at least $2.00. The high cost of imported books was not due merely to transportation and handling. Increasingly, the tariff, which imposed high import duties on books of all kinds, protected the growth of Norwegian-American publishing. On the other hand it probably had an adverse effect on the conditions offered Norwegian-American writers, since the publishers could draw upon all the writers in the Scandinavian countries for cheap reprints. Discussing the negative effects of the protective tariff as well as the lack of international copyright in a review of the American edition of a British Bible concordance in Budstikken (Minneapolis) for February 15, 1881, Erik L. Petersen points out that this not only made all European books unnecessarily expensive, but it tended to encourage pirating and deprived authors of their income. His examples of price differences between London and New York editions of the same books also illustrate the practices as well as the working conditions of Norwegian-American publishers. The American bookseller, in Petersen’s hypothetical example, would select a promising book without any honorarium paid to the author, “stereotype it and publish it on poor paper and [202] in small print, and sell . . . the book that in London cost $10 for 50 cents bound in cloth.” For some specific titles Petersen gives the prices as $12.50 and $8.00 in London as compared to the New York prices of $2.50 and 40 cents. {23}

How this situation affected Skandinaven’s publishing practices may be seen in a letter from Lawson to Johnson (December 6, 1873) where he considers the possibility of improving the poor sales of Bondehovdingen: “The reason we put the price at $1.50 was because for amount of reading matter it is cheap compared to the imported Norweg. books. Shall we reduce to 1.00?” Production costs were apparently so negligible, especially since Skandinaven only made use of the free capacity of their own press for their early books, that they did not figure significantly in price-setting. The main concern was to keep the price well below that of comparable imported books. Apparently they would still be making a profit after reducing the price by a third! With local competition in publishing, however, discussions of prices had to take other factors into account. When Johnson wrote to Lawson on May 8 the following year about the marketing of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, he seemed to remember that the book “was 90c at Rellings stitched, but that is too much. I think 75c is all it will bear. The sales will be mostly with the paper cover. I would run that, get 500 bound and push it at 75c. I suppose it would pay pretty well at 50 cts, but that would give dealers no margin. Allow dealers 30%. I think we can print books if we can strike the right kind to advantage. If we can get the money back on them in a reasonably short time, the increase of stock will give us something to draw upon after a time.” By the mid 1870s Norwegian book publishing and selling in America had become both a professional and a competitive business.

Actual sales figures for this period are seldom available, since the archives of these publishers have not been preserved. In a letter to R. B. Anderson, July 28, 1880, Louis Pio, who had arrived from Denmark three years earlier, presented a list of his literary accomplishments in America. Several of the books he had edited or translated had been [203] published by the Chicago Methodist publisher Christian Treider and the sales figures for two of these were given as 1,500 and 1,000 copies. He further claimed that his privately published Den lille amerikaner (F. W. Gunther’s bestseller The Little American) had sold 6,000 copies and a similarly published history of Chicago (Chicagos historie og beskrivelse) 2,500. The figure he gave for Fuldstændig lovbog for hvermand (Everyman’s Complete Legal Handbook, published by C. Rasmussen in 1879), 1,500 copies sold, may also throw light on the business volume of Skandinaven, since they had published a competing volume by David Monrad Schøyen, Lovbog for hvermand (Everyman’s Legal Handbook) in 1878. That book seems to have been the more successful of the two since it was reprinted four times by 1884, one reason no doubt being that it had only 320 pages compared to Pio’s more ambitious 608 and thus would have been cheaper.

The increasing importance of the book trade for newspaper publishers is evident in Skandinaven for October 20, 1874, where the front page takes on a new look with two full columns of book announcements. An editorial note on the same page claims that “The books advertised here are entertaining, educational, and in other respects useful, and are all deserving of a place in the bookcase of any intelligent man. We would like to admonish our readers that in this country, where one does not count every penny as we were used to doing in Norway, it will be wise for parents to supply their family with good books in order to make the home a pleasant place for the young, among whom there will always be some who acquire a love for books, and you will discover that money spent on books carries interest.” Only four of the eight advertised books were actually published by Skandinaven, and two of these were reprints of books originally published in Scandinavia. The remaining six books, however, were all in their different ways Norwegian-American products. Two of these were written in English (Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen’s Gunnar and Rasmus B. Anderson’s America Not Discovered by Columbus) and the other four were the first [204] volume of Schøyen’s United States history, Henderson’s Koralbog, O. M. Peterson’s 100 timer i engelsk (100 Lessons in English), and Anderson’s Julegave. In the same issue, Anderson, using his pen name “Frithjof,” had a review of Boyesen’s Gunnar, hailing it as the first novel written in English by a Norwegian author. Two weeks later (November 3) Anderson reviewed Peterson’s textbook and commented on what he saw as a literary awakening among the Norwegians in America: “So it seems that not only are we Norwegians in this country gradually becoming self-sufficient as far as our literary products are concerned, but that we are also beginning to deserve the respect of our motherland. . . . I would appreciate having more Norwegian-American books to review in the near future.”

Anderson was at this time seeing such a book through the press himself, his own Den norske maalsag (The Norwegian Language Question), published by Skandinaven some months later. {24} This was a book on the development of the new Norwegian written language (landsmaal) based on Norwegian rural dialects, and the volume included a story in that language by Kristofer Janson, a prominent Norwegian writer soon to become Norwegian correspondent for Skandinaven. Two reviewers used the publication of Den norske maalsag as the occasion to note that an important change was taking place in Norwegian-American culture and that the mere existence of Anderson’s book was a sign of what was happening.

Skandinaven always had favorable reviews of their own books, so the positive comments on the book itself by “B.T.” on May 18 are not as interesting as his introductory reflections on the current status of Norwegian-American literature: “It is common knowledge that Norwegian-American literature, as far as books are concerned, has until recently been sparse and insignificant and mainly limited to a few religious books, while there has been virtually no original material and the translations and adaptations have often been terrible. We have all the more reason for satisfaction now that a more active interest in both better and more wholesome reading may be observed among our people. . . . [205]

“The reasons this development has been so slow up to now should be obvious to all who have studied the growth of our people over here. We have lacked the intellectual as well as the material resources - the first necessary for the writing of a readable book, the other for its publication. For even though there may have been intellectual powers hidden away in some corner, our material conditions have been such that books have been kept from publication . . . and the barrier has been so great that it must many a time have broken the courage of those who may have had the ability to produce fairly good books.” The reviewer speculates in romantic terms on the “sparks” that glow in the masses, some of which may burst into flame, and on the signs of an awakening among the Norwegians in America. Books are beginning to appear, “and the publishers of Skandinaven deserve our gratitude for their recent initiative in book publishing, through which they have opened the door to an independent Norwegian-American literature.”

The second reviewer, in the Minneapolis newspaper Budstikken (May 25, 1875), also felt duty-bound to make the public aware that the publishers of Skandinaven were increasingly taking on the role of book publishers. His observations on the conditions for a Norwegian-American literature were much the same as those made in the Chicago newspaper the week before: “For natural reasons the writing of books by Norwegians in America has been very rare. The immigrants who had the knowledge and the gifts for such work were few, and those few were so poor that they had to rely on manual labor in order to sustain life. . . . Now the situation is somewhat different; there are now more Norwegians whose education and genius may be measured with a European yardstick and who may wish to try their hand at literature if only a favorable occasion were offered. It is with this in mind that we lead your attention to the publishers of ‘Skandinaven’; they are men with great financial resources and they also seem to be inspired by the greatest will to further all that can be to the honor and usefulness of our [206] nationality. Men who wish to appear as authors could now perhaps have hopes of a helping publisher’s hand in Chicago.” {25} Two would-be novelists had already acted on such hopes. Tellef Grundysen, a cotter’s son from Telemark, had sent the manuscript of Fra begge sider af havet (On Both Sides of the Ocean) from Fillmore county, Minnesota, to Skandinaven for publication in the newspaper or Husbibliothek. Lawson had realized the potential interest of an original Norwegian-American novel and sent it on to Rasmus B. Anderson in Madison on May 20, asking his “opinion as to advisability of publishing it.” Bernt Askevold, an ambitious young immigrant in Decorah, Iowa, had actually already signed a publishing contract with Skandinaven for the novel he had recently completed.

R. B. Anderson, although always surrounded by controversies, largely of his own making, held a position of prominence in the Vesterheim of the 1870s that should not be underestimated. As professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin he was the only member of the Norwegian-American group, outside the conservative Norwegian Synod, with fully respectable academic credentials. More important, however, was the fact that although he identified himself with the immigrant group, he was a born and bred American from Koshkonong, Wisconsin. When Bernt Askevold, a teacher who had immigrated in 1873 and was employed by B. Anundsen as editor of Decorah-Posten from its beginning in 1874, completed his first novel, it was natural for him to send it to Professor Anderson in Madison for approval. Anderson, who was indefatigable in his support of aspiring (and admiring) talent recommended the novel to John A. Johnson, still an active partner in Skandinaven. The partners discussed the project with Anderson breathing down their necks, and Lawson had to assure him that they were working on the matter. {26} The reply came to Bernt Askevold in the form of a complete contract dated May 15, 1875, and the conditions offered the author of the first American novel written in Norwegian and published in book form were as follows: “With reference to discussions with Prof. Anderson [207] on the publication of your book we can inform you that the book, nicely printed and set up and bound in cloth, must sell at $1. We will, if we print the book, have an edition of about 1,000 copies. When 400 copies at $1 are sold our expenses will be about covered, counting the unbound 600 copies. So if you can get 400 subscribers for the book at $1, we will print it and pay you 10% of the sale price of all copies sold in addition to the 400, but nothing for the 400, so that if 1,000 are sold at $1 per copy you will receive $60. A financial report to be made each year or, if you prefer, twice a year. When 400 have subscribed printing will begin and be completed as soon as time and other business permit. You may advertise free of charge in Skandinaven for six months, not using more than 3 inches of a column each week, excepting reviews etc. You to receive the subscriptions, but will send us all correspondence with a list before printing begins. The advertisement to explain that no money is required before the book is completed. When the book is printed you shall have 30 copies free of charge for distribution or sale as you decide.

“The copyright is ours.

“If you find these conditions satisfactory please sign this letter as ‘accepted’ in your own hand and send us a copy. It will then be a valid contract . . . .

Johnson, Anderson & Lawson” {27}

These conditions may appear stringent, but they were essentially the same as those offered R. B. Anderson himself for Den norske maalsag, and he, too, had advertised for subscriptions in Skandinaven in the fall of 1874. Askevold responded immediately to Johnson’s offer of a contract, buoyed by the interest and support of all whom he had approached. His employer, B. Anundsen, the Decorah publisher and printer, let him run the subscription advertisements in his name, thus giving his stamp of approval to the project as well as a dependable address for the subscription campaign. Scarcely two weeks after Askevold had received the contract, the first announcement inviting subscribers [208] interested in receiving the forthcoming novel, Hun Ragnhild eller billeder fra Søndj jord. En fortælling (Ragnhild or Scenes from Søndfjord: A Novel), to send their name and address, but no money, to B. Anundsen appeared in Skandinaven (June 1, 1875). What followed must have dampened the spirits of the young novelist.

When invited to subscribe to the first Norwegian-American novel the public did not seem to be overly impressed by the historical import of the occasion; at least they did not find that this publishing venture merited their financial support. After two and a half months of advertising Askevold made an appeal to the readers of Skandinaven (“Til ‘Skandinavens’ Læsere,” August 17, 1875) in which he presented the book and assured them that it did not contain “gossip” but was “an entertaining and interesting story of life in Norway.” After revealing that publication had been recommended by the many competent people who had read the manuscript, he explained that his contract with the publishers of Skandinaven required a list of 400 subscribers. Two weeks later R. B. Anderson made a similar appeal: “Will not the Norwegian people in America take part in encouraging and supporting a Norwegian-American literature?” More specifically, Anderson appealed to the clergy, claiming that they had a special responsibility for the promotion of Norwegian-American literature, but observing that of the 100 subscribers to Askevold’s novel to date only two were clergymen. {28} When Anderson wrote again on October 5, forty-four more names had been added to the list (three of them clergymen), but this was still far below the initial optimistic expectations. The advertisements continued in Skandinaven for more than a year, with the last one appearing August 22, 1876. By then the conditions of the contract were finally met, and the publication of the novel was announced on October 17.

The notice was prominently placed and quoted a lengthy passage from the novel; it was repeated several times, but not after November 21, when the newspaper published an article [209] by Askevold in support of the Norwegian parochial schools in opposition to the strong stance taken by Skandinaven in favor of public education. The book was not even mentioned in the alphabetical listing later that month of books available from Skandinaven. Neither was the book ever properly reviewed; it was merely given a brief notice in the literary supplement to Skandinaven for December 5. Such was the difficult birth of the first Norwegian-American novel in book form.

Even when it flourished, the publishing and retailing of Norwegian-American books was a successful business in relative terms only. Neither Anderson’s Den norske maalsag, which had seemed to augur the birth of a Norwegian-American literature, nor his other books appear to have had impressive sales. At least Lawson wrote rather pessimistically to Anderson on November 6, 1875: “It is a little early yet to decide upon the prospects of sale of your books. We are selling very few books of any kind now,-and yours are about as ‘few’ as the rest. We have sold from July 31 - to date of your books

Am not Disc
Norse Mythology
8 copies
3 copies
5 copies
8 copies

We have about 18 copies of your Mythology on hand. I do not think we shall sell more than that number during this winter.”

All books, however, were not equally poor properties and Lawson could give quite other figures for O. M. Peterson’s Fuldstændig norsk-amerikansk brev- og formularbog (Complete Norwegian-American Letter and Form Book), a practical guide to writing letters and contracts, published in April, 1875. “We have sold since that date 184 copies, and we shall probably sell 100 more this winter, notwithstanding that there are half a doz others selling it. I state these facts thinking they may interest you,” Lawson concluded.

However unsuccessful the first attempts to publish Norwegian-American fiction and belles lettres seem to have [210] been from a purely business point of view, Skandinaven and other publishers clearly felt that it was part of their cultural responsibility to include some such titles on their lists. From 1876 original fiction, poetry, and drama were regular features of Norwegian-American publishing for half a century. Moreover, the establishment of publishers among the immigrants, from the first modest newspapers like Nordlyset, Democraten, and Emigranten, to the large professional businesses like Skandinaven and Christian Rasmussen’s enterprise, was not only a precondition for a Norwegian-American literature but actually the main encouragement for the early would-be writers to realize their ambitions. The availability of outlets for poems, essays, and stories, as well as for books, was the impetus needed for the earliest literary efforts. Writing for Christian Rasmussen, the aging Knud Langeland looked back on the history in which he had played such a central role and commented on the changes that had taken place during the 1870s and early 1880s “in what we may call Scandinavian-American literature. Before this time the original works of Scandinavian writers in America could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the books that were commonly read by our compatriots were either homilies or books like The Adventures of Gjest Baardsen. Because of the work of several publishers we now have a public that is able to appreciate the importance of good books and there is good reason to believe that this improved taste may gradually lead to the creation of an independent literary culture in our mother tonque here in our new homeland." {29}

Although the Norwegian-American commercial publishers were not quite as idealistic as Knud Langeland here makes them appear and Skandinaven thrived on the publication of numerous editions of Gjest Baardsen and similar popular fare, the Chicago publisher did perform as midwife at the birth of a Norwegian-American literature. After the first novels in 1876 and 1877, however, smaller firms and private publishing became increasingly important. By the second decade of this century the Minneapolis-based church publisher, Augsburg Publishing House, the publisher of Simon [211] Johnson, Dorothea Dahl, Waldemar Ager, Julius Baumann, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, and others, had become a far more important institution for the well-being of a Norwegian-American literature than Skandinaven.


<1> Knud Langeland, Nordmændene i Amerika (Chicago, 1888), Ill.

<2> Useful accounts of the founding and later history of Skandinaven are Johs. B. Wist, “Den norsk-amerikanske presse. II. Pressen efter borgerkrigen,” in Wist, ed., Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift 1914 (Decorah, Iowa, 1914), 45-56, and Jean Skogerboe Hansen, “Skandinaven and the John Anderson Publishing Company,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 28 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1979), 35-68. Further information may be found in Jean S. Hansen, “History of the John Anderson Publishing Company of Chicago, Illinois” (MA. thesis, University of Chicago, 1972), a copy of which is deposited in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<3> Census figures for 1860 suggest that Solberg’s population estimates are grossly overstated.

<4> Suckow had been employed as a secretary by Ole Bull in connection with the ill-fated Oleana project in Pennsylvania. Johan Holfeldt, the first secretary-treasurer of the Press Association, had also been an agent for Ole Bull, while the father of Carl Solberg, editor of Emigranten from 1857, had been director of the colony. So in this indirect manner as well, Ole Bull had an influence on the growth of a Norwegian-American culture.

<5> This advertisement appears in most issues of Emigranten from December 22, 1854, into 1857. The information on businesses in this paragraph and the following one is from advertisements in this newspaper.

<6> One day in October, 1866, Rasmus B. Anderson had been to Ole Monsen’s bookstore in Madison and observed that an order was being filled for his friend P. P. Iverslie. He must have written of the coincidence, for Iverslie replied, in English, “It was singular that you should happen to call at Ole Monsen’s just when he had the package ready for me. I had sent for two books, one of which is the life of Tordenskjold.” P. P. Iverslie to R. B. Anderson, October 26, 1886, in R. B. Anderson Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. Other references to letters to Anderson are to this collection.

<7> One example of this advertisement is November 21, 1864.

<8> Examples may be found in Emigranten for July 30 and September 17, 1866. Ole Monsen’s advertisement on the latter date presents roughly the same variety. The advertisements for both booksellers are frequently repeated with minor variations. When Gulliksen had started advertising in 1860 his list was almost exclusively made up of religious books. See Emigranten, January 23, 1860.

<9> The firm Ole Trøan & Bro. had advertised a forthcoming edition of [212] Gjest Baardsens levnedsløb in Fædrelandet, October 25, 1866. The more enterprising Monsen had his edition off the press a month later. For Monsen’s output see Emigranten, January 1, November 15, 1866, and January 21, 1867. John Anderson (Skandinaven) brought out many editions of Gjest Baardsen, one as late as 1921, and also published Genoveva af Brabant in 1891. Ole A. Buslett’s Sagastolen (1908) is one example of a novel that mentions Gjest Baardsen.

<10> Fædrelandet February 1, April 5, August 2, and October 25, 1866; Skandinaven, June 1, 1866. Ole Trøan was a printer employed by Skandinaven. A few years later Trøan was involved in a confidence fraud and is not heard from again after the scandal that followed. See Skandinaven, February 16 and March 16, 1870.

<11> Lloyd Hustvedt, Rasmus Bjørn Anderson: Pioneer Scholar (Northfield, Minnesota, 1966), interprets Anderson’s life and contributions.

<12> Johnson lived in Madison; questions that otherwise would have been dealt with in conversation were therefore the occasion of letters, most of these from Victor F. Lawson, who succeeded his father as partner in the firm. Lawson preferred English and used this language in his correspondence with Johnson. All letters to Johnson are in the John A. Johnson Papers, NAHA.

<13> M. Falk Gjertsen and J. B. Frich, eds. Referat afforhandlingerne i en frikonferents paa Rock Prairie, Wis., mellem nordmænd, der bekjende sig til den evang. lutherske kirke, fra l3de til 22de november 1872 (Chicago, 1873).

<14> Information on these and other businesses has been culled from the advertising pages and the book notices in contemporary Norwegian-American newspapers. Wist’s pioneering press history has also been useful.

<15> Skandivaven, August 5, 1868.

<16> See advertisement in Skandinaven, August 26, 1868.

<17> Wist, “Pressen efter borgerkrigen,” 87.

<18> These particular advertisements may be found in Fædrelandet og Emigranten (La Crosse) for the dates mentioned, but they were also printed in both Skandinaven and Budstikken (Minneapolis).

Reading societies and libraries may not always have been as well served as the competitors boasted. On August 9, 1874, a farmer wrote to R. B. Anderson about the library they had established in their settlement and asked advice on books to order in addition to those they had bought, first for $130 from a firm in Bergen, Norway, and then for $20 from Relling in Chicago. Anderson sent advice on how best to spend the $30 they now had, but to little purpose. On December 20 the farmer wrote back thanking him for the advice but explaining that the Chicago bookseller had not had the books they demanded and had sent them some others instead.

<19> Johnson Papers.

<20> The 1870 census puts the total Norwegian-born population at 114,246. Ten years later it was 181,729. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, 1975), 1:117.

<21> Wist, “Pressen efter borgerkrigen,” 84-86. [213]

<22> Alfred Søderstrøm, Minneapolis minnen. Kulturhistoriskt axplockning från qvarnstaden vid Mississippi (Minneapolis, 1899), 430-432; Wist, “Pressen efter borgerkrigen,” 175-177.

<23> To some extent this protection of the American publishing business in general was counteracted by a kind of book dumping that probably had some effect on Norwegian-American book production: the tendency to import remaindered Norwegian books for which there was no longer a market in Norway. In a letter to Rasmus B. Anderson, David Schøyen wrote that the publishers of Skandinaven had decided to give their subscribers a choice of several books available in their bookstore “and that it moreover is cheaper to buy remaindered unsellable books in Norway than to produce original books here in America.” He added that they had “done a good business” with his American history (September 17, 1877). In the 1870s the Norwegian publisher and bookseller Fredrik Beyer in Bergen raised new capital for his business by travelling in the Midwest and selling his considerable stock of religious books and textbooks that no one would buy in Norway. See Finn Glambeck & Leif Christensen, Tankens verktøy. F. Beyer 200 år 6. juni 1971 (Bergen, 1971), 92.

<24> The title page has 1874 for year of publication but the printing took much longer than expected. A notice in Skandinaven, February 16, 1875, announces that Den norske maalsag will be published around March 1. Lawson explained the delay in a letter to the author dated May 4: “The composition cost us more than we had expected - that story was tough on the ‘intelligent compositor.’ The spelling of almost every word had to be observed. The reason the title page bears the date 1874 is because it was printed when the first form was printed - last fall - when we confidently expected to have the book ready before newyear.” Anderson Papers. In 1874 there had been a long debate on the landsmaal in the columns of Skandinaven.

<25> In an essay in Budstikken for June 29, 1875, Erik Leopold Petersen uses the image “European yardstick” (“europæisk alenmaal”) in a similar context and he may well be the author of this anonymous review as well.

<26> There has been a misunderstanding about Askevold’s book - we shall make an estimate of its cost at once.” Lawson to Anderson, April 27, 1875, Anderson Papers.

<27> Johnson Papers.

<28> ”Frithjof,” “Til det norsk-amerikanske Publikum,” August 31, 1875. One clergyman, who evidently had not subscribed, protested Anderson’s views. Signing himself “Bjørn,” he published a letter to “Mr. Frithjof” on September 21 questioning the notion that a clergyman had any such responsibility and referring to the poor quality of what had been presented as Norwegian-American literature in the journal For Hjemmet: these efforts “have been nothing but deplorable choleric nonsense.” The reference is to the second and third Norwegian-American novels in serialized form written by N. S. Hassel.

<29>Knud Langeland, “Lidt skandinavisk-amerikansk Literaturhistorie,” [214] in Fortællingerforfolket afforskjefligeforfattere (Minneapolis, n.d.) This volume opens with a biographical sketch to commemorate Knud Langeland as the man who “laid the cornerstone for a Scandinavian-American literature.” Langeland died in 1886 and the book must have been published after 1887, the year Rasmussen moved his business to Minneapolis. Langeland’s short essay seems intended as an introduction to a full account of both the Scandinavian authors that were most popular among the immigrants and those writers who had laid “the first foundation for a Scandinavian-American literature.”

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page