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Interpreting the Promise of America

Book CoverAmerica-America Letters: A Norwegian-American Family Correspondence
Bjørn Gunnar Østgård

ISBN 0-87732-092-6
161 pp. Copyright © 2001, The Norwegian-American Historical Association
$24.95

"America letters," the seemingly ubiquitous correspondence that flowed from the immigrants back to former neighbors, acquaintances, and kin in the old country, influenced greatly the extent and nature of the nineteenth-century migration
...I can not fully thank God for His goodness, patience, and long-suffering toward me; may He grant me grace not to misuse it.

- Knud S. Aaker to Knut Olsen Jargo, Feb. 5, 1863
from Europe to the United States. The aggregate effect of these personal and frequent simple documents was to create an image of the New World as being superior to the Old. Here freedom, opportunity, and equality reigned, giving humanity a better way of life and a greater hope for the future. A smaller stream of letters carried news from the homeland to those who had left. In 1989, in publishing a collection of these communications, the Association coined the term "Norway letters" to describe correspondence sent from Norway to immigrated compatriots. It is now a widely adopted appellation for this category of correspondence. Personal letters, whether they commenced in America or in Norway, in whichever direction they went, document individual experiences and are intimate social historical records that broaden our understanding of the human drama of the overseas movement.

In America–America Letters: A Norwegian-American Family Correspondence, compiled by Bjørn Gunnar Østgård, the Association suggests yet another descriptive title for correspondence that has attracted relatively little scholarly interest. The term "America–America letters" is in all modesty introduced to call attention to the multitude of private letters the immigrants sent to each other and to communications by readers printed in Norwegian-American newspapers. Much of this latter correspondence was from residents in pioneer settlements and in small towns, and like the American letters, their letters to the newspaper might encourage fellow Norwegians to join them in building the new community. Its progress until that time is traced in some detail. These are indeed rich sources that await the interested researcher. The letter writers not only address progress, but they also express a great number of concerns and thereby indicate the many difficulties the immigrants confronted as they adjusted to American society. The vast majority of personal letters naturally did not see print, but were intended exclusivley for the eyes of the recipient, and thus communicate a greater degree of confidentiality and candor than those intended for a particular newspaper's readership.

We have now built and moved into our new house. It is a log houe 13 x 15 inside walls, and an added frame addition, 12 feet one way and the length as noted. This is divided into a room and a pantry with steps down to the cellar and stairs to the loft.

- Knud S. Aaker to Knut Olsen Jargo, Feb. 5, 1863

It is this latter type of correspondence, the private America–America letters, that Østgård has compiled for this volume. It contains the family correspondence of the Aaker family—selected mainly from the Association's holdings and annotated by Østgård—descendants of Knud Saavesen Aaker and his wife, Mari Larsdatter Hægtvedt, who emigrated from Upper Telemark in 1845. The correspondence begins in 1847 and ends in 1894. It thus covers a dramatic period of American history and relates through an exchange of letters the varied, deeply personal, and changing experiences of individual members of this immigrant family, some of whom have achieved great prominence within American society. Brynhild C. Rowberg, a member of the Aaker family, and now retired after an eminent diplomatic career, contributes a clarifying and insightful introduction to the letters.

 

 

 
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