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Bjornson's Reaction to Emigration
By Arne Odd Johnsen (Volume VI: Page 133)

The history of emigration is far more complicated and demands a much wider range of investigation than topics confined to a single country. In the case of Norway and the United States, for example, the historian of emigration must have a thorough knowledge of economic and cultural conditions in two countries, the historical problems of which differ markedly. Necessarily the student is compelled to study his subject thoroughly before he can understand and master it.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association has published a series of studies dealing with various aspects of the history of Norwegian emigration that make available for the student an excellent introduction to this branch of historical research. Among these studies are several articles and documents that reveal the attitude of the Norwegian people toward emigration. {1} Their reaction is interesting and worthy of careful study, for it has left unmistakable marks not only upon the history of emigration but also upon the general history of Norway.

Emigration early occasioned a considerable amount of writing in Norway. It has been, indeed, one of the vital problems discussed in the press and literature of Norway for about a hundred years. Several of Norway's great poets, such as Wergeland, Bjørnson, Aasen, and Vinje, have devoted much attention to the subject; and in recent years a number of Norwegian-American and Norwegian authors have pictured, in fiction, the life of the emigrant. Rølvaag and Bojer have here displayed masterly ability, and authorship in this field continues to flourish. In the Norwegian book market shortly before Christmas, 1930, there appeared at least four books in which emigration played an important part. It is significant that the greatest living Norwegian author, Knut Hamsun, has described in his two latest books that type of emigrant who has lost all feeling for home and has become a wanderer over the earth.

The first printed Norwegian document that deals with modern emigration is Bishop Neumann's Word of Admonition to the Peasants, published in 1887. {2} Neumann strongly discouraged emigration. His words may be regarded as expressive of the opinion of the clergy and of a considerable part of the people in general as to the new disease, the "America fever." A large amount of newspaper writing, mainly polemical and anti-emigration in nature, arose about the new issue. The patriotic and problem-loving Wergeland soon entered the discussion. He was greatly impressed by the importance of the question. The thought that emigration might deal a fatal blow to Norway distressed and enraged him; consequently he was among those who most uncompromisingly opposed this folk movement. Through his paper For Arbeidsklassen (For the Working Class), he exercised a considerable influence upon the people, and in this periodical he published furious attacks against emigration. He wrote:

Yes, the "emigration frenzy," that is precisely the word for this desire to emigrate to America which like a general epidemic has swept over large parts of our country. It is the most dangerous disease of our time, a bleeding of our fatherland, truly a frenzy because those whom it dominates will be guided neither by their own nor by other people's common sense. They ignore reasoning and examples and give up their present status for a still more ominous, uncertain, and dark future. They permit themselves to be driven by this frenzy into a whirlpool of unknown sufferings. {3}

The resentment that vibrates through these lines is genuine. Wergeland considered the fight against emigration to be one of his most sacred tasks. The last work from his hand, Fjeldstuen (The Mountain Hut), written on his deathbed in 1845, was expressly directed against emigration. {4}

Like other plays by Wergeland, Fjeldstuen is so sharply polemical that there is little room in it for purely artistic merit. In the sense that it is the poet's last fight for his dearly-beloved country, however, the work is of sublime and noble beauty. The text of the play is that emigration agents are veritable rascals who would lure people to an uncertain fate and great misery. A simple love story provides the framework of the plot. One of the last stanzas in the play reads as follows:

So many a fool went over the sea,
Went over to North America,
But soon returned a beggar again,
With scarcely a shilling in his pocket.
For go you east or go you west,
The Norwegian home remains the best.
There with my God,
There with my bride,
To my dying day will I abide.

Norwegian literary critics agree that Bjørnson was in many respects the spiritual successor of Wergeland. Bjørnson was also a literary giant and a great patriot. In this connection it is interesting to note that his first play, Valborg, written in 1851, is said to have been in a sense a continuation of Wergeland's Fjeldstuen; it was likewise directed against emigration. {5} This play was accepted for production in a theater in Christiania but Bjørnson withdrew it and destroyed the manuscript. The young poet was at that time strongly nationalistic. He is said to have reproached himself for permitting some of the characters in Valborg to speak the dialect of Romsdalen. In terms of the scanty information we have about the play, we may say that it was closely akin to the two nationalistic plays, Fjeldstuen by Wergeland and Ervingen (The Heir) by Ivar Aasen, the latter published in 1855. Fjeldstuen is a typical play of the national-romantic period in Norwegian literature, and it is made the more intense and fervent by the contrast of the native parish and family traditions with the insecurity and uncertainty of the new world. In Aasen's play this intense feeling is not so apparent. Aasen deals with an emigrant who returns to his native parish. {6} The situation is romantically portrayed, the hero, Aamund, singing:

Here I know the parishes and homes
And the mountains in their far-flung ranges.
Fjords and cliffs and skies and sun
Seem lovelier here than anywhere else.
Sorely and for long have I yearned for home
And so it is doubly dear to me now.
Let come what may,
I'll meet it like a man,
And never will I fare forth from this land.

It may be said with some degree of certainty that Bjørnson's Valborg was a nationalistic, romantic play, more dramatic than Fjeldstuen and directed more strongly against emigration than Ervingen was.

Three plays have so far been mentioned that were written during the period of national romanticism in Norwegian literature. All three were composed in the decade 1845-55, and all were in some sense directed against emigration. The question naturally arises as to what influence emigration had upon national romanticism. Perhaps it stimulated the poets to try, consciously or unconsciously, to picture home conditions more attractively than they had been exhibited before. Certain it is that from that time some of Norway's greatest poets adopted the view that emigration was dangerous to the country; that they wrote plays, novels, and articles to cheek the stream of emigrants; and that with emigration as a background they made the home parish and the fatherland seem exceptionally dear to all Norwegians. They touched a very human note: not until the would-be wanderer thinks earnestly of leaving a place does he fully realize how completely he is bound up with it, how dependent upon it he has become.

The spirit of national romanticism was opposed to emigration, but this was not the only factor determining Bjørnson's views. Characteristically, he set up for himself certain clear-cut moral criteria or points of view. He sometimes altered or even discarded these opinions later, but usually such changes were produced only by time and inner struggle.

The attitude toward emigration first adopted by Bjørnson is best expressed in the novel, Arne, published in 1858. In this book his thesis is that talented persons who find themselves cramped in their native country can do better by remaining at home and enriching life there than they can by emigrating. The question of emigration forms the entire background for this novel. Arne wishes to go "over the high mountains" to America to dig for gold as his friend Kristian has done. He does not feel that he was born to remain at home. Four successive letters come to him from America, but his mother hides them, fearing that they will cause her son to leave her. Finally, partly in consequence of the scheming of his mother, Arne is bound to his native parish by his love for Eli Bøen.

Among Bjørnson's writings, Valborg and Arne are the only ones in which the problem of emigration forms the entire background, although in a number of his other works he pays some attention to America, to the "America letters," and to emigration. Since the time of his youth, when he had lived among the peasants of Romsdalen, Bjørnson had been interested in the living conditions of the people and this interest remained with him throughout his life. The constant recurrence in his works of the subject of emigration merely reaffirms what we know of his nature -- his close contact with the pulsating life of his time. The absolute opposite occurs in the attitude of Henrik Ibsen, who usually was occupied with problems outside both time and space. There is seldom any allusion to emigration in his works. Occasionally he mentions a person who is going to America -- Peer Gynt, for example -- but that is a commonplace in Norwegian literature. America has become a part of the consciousness of the Norwegian people to such an extent that usually, when an author wishes to remove a person from the stage, he sends him off to that country. This happens usually with persons who have made themselves undesirable at home, such as criminals, vagabonds, and women with illegitimate children. Bjørnson himself frequently used America as a "refuse heap." In the little story, En Dag (A Day), for example, the drunkard Aksel Aarø is permitted to go to America. In Der nye System, the seamstress whom Fredrik Riis has seduced goes to relatives in America. In the second part of Over Ævne, the following classic words are spoken by the worker Hans Olsen during the reception of a deputation of workers by the factory owner, Holger, "What are you saying? Have we honor? No, they have all the honor! -- they who seduce our women and then send them to America."

In Synnøve Solbakken, which appeared in 1857, America is mentioned only once; the newly-married man at Nordhoug has to emigrate, for various reasons, to America. Bjørnson does not inject any moralizing here, but he leaves the impression that emigration must be a dismal fate. An essentially categorical opinion about Americans is given in En glad Gut (A Happy Boy), published in 1860. In one of the letters to his parents, Øyvind writes: "Now we have freedom, and no other nation has so much of it as we have, except America, but there they are not happy." This remarkable statement may well be regarded as expressing Bjørnson's own ideas about America at that time. It must be borne in mind in this connection that Bjørnson's views as to America were closely bound up with his opinion of emigration. {7}

After the publication of Sigurd Jorsalfar in 1871, Bjørson ceased writing historical dramas; thereafter America figures more prominently in his books. Bjørnson came into close contact with the United States through his letters to the Norwegian-American newspaper, Skandinaven og Amerika (Chicago), in the years 1872 and 1873. At this time he was urged, by Norwegians who had emigrated, to make a visit to America. In November, 1873, he seems to have decided to go to America in the autumn of 1875. {8} The visit was not made, however, until 1880.

Just as the question of emigration produces the suspense in the entire story of Arne, so also it contributes to the tension of the last act in En Fallit (1875). After having assisted the Mjælde family in settling all their difficulties, the modest Sannaæs wants to go to his prosperous relatives in America, but Valborg proposes to him and at the last moment persuades him to stay at home.

During the seventies Bjørnson became an ardent republican. {9} It was natural that the United States, "the land of freedom," should have become to him the ideal state, worthy of imitation. Evidence of this opinion is to be found in several of his works, among them a play entitled Kongen (The King), 1877, which Bjørnson wrote in support of a republic. The following quotations from this play are of interest as there is mention of the "America letters" and of information in them about the advantages of a republican state. Letters from America often contained eulogies of the freedom that characterized American life. {10}

The King: Then he is not, after all, a confirmed republican?

Flink: Not in the larger sense. Not yet! But it grows. Our reactionary government causes that -- and the America letters.

The King: The America letters?

Koll: Letters from relatives in America.

Gran: There is now scarcely a family in the country that does not have relatives in America.

The King: And these write home -- about self-government, about republican customs?

Flink: And institutions. So it is!

The King: Have you read any such letters!

Flink: Many of them!

There can be little doubt that Bjørnson himself had read "many of them," {11} and that he understood the far-reaching influence of these letters. In the same year when Kongen was published, Bjørnson wrote another book, Magnhild, in which we meet the congenial post girl Rønnaug, who saves money and buys a passage to America. Magnhild's husband, Skarlie, had been in the United States for several years before he married. Rønnaug is successful in America, and, after her return to Norway, she causes Magnhild to break off her marriage with the unworthy Skarlie and to accompany her to America. In this ease, America is made to appear a land of hope for Magnhild. One anticipates that her future will be happy compared with the sad existence she has endured at home. To attribute to Bjørnson a changed opinion of emigration in terms of these plays only, is of course dangerous. Taken as part of the general development of his ideas, however, the two plays, Kongen and Magnhild, seem to indicate a change in his views toward emigration.

The enemy of authority in Der nye System, 1879, who is made the spokesman of many of Bjørnson's own views, has been to America and is designated in the play as "the American.'' Evidently Bjørnson here uses the appellation as a very honorable one; he himself was at that time a rebel against authority and regarded the United States as the ideal commonwealth. As was stated above, there is mention of the seduced seamstress who is going to relatives in America. In the same year, 1879, Bjørnson published another work, Leonarda, in which General Rosen has won "honor, eminence, and permanent appointment" in the great American war. Finally Mrs. Falk goes with him to America, sacrificing her love for Hagbart.

After Bjørnson's visit to the United States in 1880-81, his personal experiences there were mentioned frequently in his works. {12} In En Handske (A Gauntlet), 1883, the characters Riis, his wife, and his daughter Svava have been in America. Svava speaks of a temperance meeting that they attended. Bjørnson's letters to Dagbladet in 1880-81 disclose that he made a careful study of cultural and material conditions in the United States, and that he was particularly interested in educational methods. Bjørnson had the faculty of synthesizing personal experiences and knowledge into a poetic whole. This is apparent in his novel, Der flager i byen og paa havnen (Flags Are Flying in Town and Harbor), 1884, which is permeated with the moral teachings in which Bjørnson was so interested during the eighties. In this novel, Bjørnson makes excellent use of his knowledge of American educational methods. He declares that a sound and well-planned education is the prime requisite for raising the average man from the low state to which, Bjørnson believes, he has fallen. The idealistic schoolmaster, Rendalen, has studied education in many countries and has found what he seeks best exemplified in America. His school is patterned entirely on American models. The teacher is a female physician from Boston. The organization of the school on American lines is one of the chief themes in the novel. In the same work there is the statement that Rendalen's half-sister, an illegitimate child, had gone to America but had fallen into bad habits there.

In the novel, Paa Guds Veie (In the Ways of God), 1889, the author's reminiscences of his sojourn in America are also evident. The character Edward Kallem has a cousin who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. {13} To this cousin Kallem sends Ragni. Later he himself goes to America and studies medicine. After six years, Kallem and Ragni return home married. The reader gathers that Kallem is proud of his American training in the same way that Rendalen is proud of American educational methods. His hospital is large and modern. In one paragraph of the novel we seem to hear Bjørnson's own joy at his return home. "Heaps of rock in the most unexpected places and paths and roads in all directions. He who came from the prairies of America and of central Europe was happy amid all this ruggedness. The same bright sunshine as yesterday, the same strong odor of meadow and wood, and such a profusion of flowers and songs of birds. There the cuckoo cries." America is mentioned frequently in this book. In one passage the author tells a story that has its setting in St. Louis; and in another he writes of Kristian Larsen and his wife, whose great hope is to be able to go to America.

The character Karl Manders in Mors Hender (Mother's Hands), 1892, had been in America after his graduation, and his meeting house and library are patterned on American models. Finally, there are the two works, En Dag, 1893, and the second part of Over Ævne, 1895, in which Bjørnson, as previously stated, used America as a "refuse heap."

These examples may easily be supplemented by others from Bjørnson's works, but a sufficient number have been given to show the astonishing extent to which Bjørnson discusses America and emigration in his purely literary writings. At the same time they illustrate the depth to which emigration had entered the consciousness of the Norwegian people.

Bjørnson was never as passionately opposed to emigration as was Wergeland. He always fought against "absolute viewpoints." His attitude in Valborg and in Arne is closely bound up with his feeling toward national romanticism at that time. The remark in En glad Gut is a curious outcome of the same anti-emigration point of view that Bjørnson held in the fifties and sixties. In 1866 Bjørnson became editor of the Norsk Folkeblad. In an issue of that paper in 1866, there appeared an article about emigration, the general tenor of which was similar to the attitude of Wergeland. {14} Though this article may not have been written by Bjørnson himself, it is safe to conclude that its hostile spirit conformed with Bjørnson's views of emigration at that time. Bjørnson evidently shared the opinion prevailing in his country at the time, that emigration was unfortunate for Norway and that it was of doubtful value to those who emigrated. He considered himself morally bound to remain in Norway even though his native country was in straitened circumstances.

By 1880 his views seem to have been completely reversed. In a letter sent from America in November to Dagbladet he writes: "A young engineer asked me what I thought a laborer owed his native country. He asked if he should not return to his fatherland and give to it that which he had learned. I replied that that would depend upon his personal abilities. If they could be fully developed at home -- certainly. If they could not, one does not owe it to one's country to become a cripple." {15} This problem seems to have caused Bjørnson some study during his visit to America, for at one time he made the following remark, "One thought pursues me here in this distant land, where, together with so many emigrants, one must think of one's relation to one's fatherland. It is my opinion that the fates must decide whether or not we are to remain in our native country or emigrate. Our fatherland cannot demand that we shall curb our own abilities. If it cannot provide opportunities for the development of our talents, we must go where such conditions are to be found." {16} This point of view was not only a result of his visit to America, but is rooted in Bjørnson's spiritual growth. Bjørnson passed through a strong inner development during his forties.

The Bjørnson of 1870 and the Bjørnson of 1880 are two different persons. His philosophy of life -- his entire point of view -- underwent a radical change during this decade. To overlook this fact would make his changed attitude toward emigration seem accidental and casual; such is not the case. Bjørnson's earlier views of emigration were not only of a national-romantic character but were closely associated with his religious viewpoints. He still cherished his childhood faith. Influenced undoubtedly by the agitation of the clergy against emigration, Bjørnson seems to have given a literal meaning to such Biblical passages as, "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long on the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee," and "So shalt thou dwell in the land and verily thou shalt be fed." Bjørnson's change of view as to emigration, like his transition to agnosticism, was gradual.

As editor of the Norsk Folkeblad from 1866 to 1871 he obtained a thorough knowledge of the conditions of emigrants. He read the many "America letters" that were sent to the editor and in 1870 he published in his paper an excellent series of articles dealing with Norwegian emigration. {17} Bjørnson's interest in social conditions in Norway soon put an end to his romantic conceptions of peasant life. lie realized what miserable living conditions the cotters endured, and he fought for the improvement of this situation. In consequence of this interest he came to recognize that severe economic conditions lay at the root of the new folk migration. His ever-increasing enthusiasm for republicanism caused him to turn his eyes to America. He felt that existence in his own country was cramped. There were many things which prevented him from giving free rein to his feelings, but he felt that opportunities for a happy life were greater in America than they were at home. Finally, towards the close of the seventies, Bjørnson was an avowed freethinker, and this marks the full development of his new views. Bjørnson's altered position on the question of emigration was among the consequences of this great change.


<1> Gunnar J. Malmin, tr. and ed., "Bishop Neumann's Word of Admonition to the Peasants," in Studies and Records, 1:95-109; Martin B. Ruud, "Norwegian Emigrant Songs," ibid., 2:1-19; and "Emigration as Viewed by a Norwegian Student of Agriculture in 1850: A. Budde's 'From a Letter about America,'" ibid., 3:43-57. The latter document is translated by A. Sophie Bøe and has an introduction by Theodore C. Blegen.

<2> This document is published in Studies and Records, 1:95-109.

<3> For ArbeidskIassen, Febrnary 6, 1843. Cf. Blegen, The "America Letters," 13 (Oslo, 1928).

<4> This three-act play was published at Christiania in 1848.

<5> C. Collin, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, hans Barndom og Ungdom., 1:119 (Kristiania, 1907); Francis Bull, in Norsk Biografisk Leksikon, 1:610 (Kristiania, 1923).

<6> Aasen's monologue, Siste Kvelden (1887), may also be regarded as a document embodying agitation against emigration.

<7> Bjørnson knew the story of Ole Bull's ill-fated colony, Oleana, in Pennsylvania. Its failure no doubt increased his antipathy toward emigration and tended to substantiate his belief that people in America were not happy. In 1857 he published in Morgenbladet a welcome to Ole Bull on the latter's return to Norway from Oleana.

<8> Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Brytnings-år, I:168 (Halvdan Koht, ed. -- Kristiania, 1921).

<9> Bjørnson took the field against monarchy for the first time at a public meeting in Gausdal on August 21, 1873.

<10> Blegen, The "America Letters," 7; D. G. Ristad, "A Doctrinaire Idealist: Hans Barlien," in Studies and Records, 3:17-22; and Albert O. Barton, "Norwegian-American Emigration Societies in the Forties and Fifties," ibid., 3: 31-33.

<11> Norsk Folkeblad, 1870, p. 147.

<12> This subject is treated in detail in H. Eitrem, "Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons Amerikaferd i 1880-81," in Edda, 29:165-206 (1929). Arthur C. Paulson discusses "Bjørnson and the Norwegian-Americans, 1880-81" in Studies and Records, 5: 84-109.

<13> Bjørnson's good friend Mr. Rasmus B. Anderson was professor of Scandinavian languages in the University of Wisconsin.

<14> Norsk Folkeblad, 1886, p. 280, 288.

<15> Dagbladet, December 4, 1880. The letter was dated at Elmwood, Cambridge, on November 2, 1880.

<16> The passage is from a letter written at Elmwood on November 11, 1880. See Eitrem in Edda, 29:183.

<17> Norsk Folkeblad, 1870, p. 147.

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