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O. E. Rølvaag: Norwegian-American {1}
By Einar I. Haugen (Volume VII: Page 53)

Ole Edvart Rølvaag gave the American people their great pioneer saga in his masterpiece, Giants in the Earth. At the same time he enriched American letters with a new and penetrating depiction of the immigrant, who all too often has been a pariah in the halls of American learning. He was able to do this because he himself was an immigrant, and because he lived among his countrymen and studied them. His work with and for his fellow Norwegians is an aspect of his life that is comparatively unknown to Americans, but is of vital importance to an understanding of his literary achievements.

The dominant passion of Rølvaag's life was his attachment to his race. Everything of consequence that he wrote was either a loving delineation or a bitter scourging of his Norwegian people in America. His love of his race established two fixed poles between which his thoughts were forever oscillating: his devotion to the past in Norway, the heritage of his people; and his concern about their future in America, the fate of the Norwegian immigrant.

Back of all this lay a deep-seated love for home and attachment to the native soil. He came from a cold and northern region, on the very edge of the arctic circle. His parents were poor fisher folk who lived a life of hardship and suffering. Externally this section of Norway is one of the least promising. The mountains are bleak and rugged, the coast is rock-bound, and the soil barren; the population is driven to the sea for its subsistence. In winter there reigns a perpetual night, broken only by arctic storms and blizzards.

Yet the severity of life in the far North has not cowed the inhabitants nor made them despondent. They are a sturdy, imaginative race, with old traditions of story-telling and adventure. They have furnished more than their share to Norwegian literature in such classic novelists as Jonas Lie and Knut Hamsun, and in lyric poets like Elias Blix. Instead of turning with hate and vituperation on the harsh home of their youth, these men have shown a fervent and particular love for it. For Nordland is more than the land of uttermost darkness; it is also the land of the midnight sun. Day after day the sun shines, with scarcely an interruption. Gardens spring up, flowers blossom forth, plants ripen in no time at all because the sun is ever pouring its energy into them. During these months the whole scene acquires a singular beauty, an almost supernatural glory of shimmering sunlight and snow-capped mountains reflected in a glassy sea.

Such extremes of nature could not but leave their impress on the character of both people and poets. More than sixty years ago the relation between man and nature in Nordland was expressed by its first novelist, Jonas Lie, in these words:

The conditions here are . . . better suited to phantasy, fairy tale, and adventure than to level-headed reason and a quiet, secure activity . . . Brought up in a nature so abundant in contrasts and possibilities, the man from Nordland has usually a good, quick head, often he is brilliant and imaginative; he is accustomed to the most touching charm and loveliness. He is a creature of emotion and lives in the moment. But there is a tragic side to his character, melancholy and sadness . . .

So Rølvaag, also, carried with him in all his work the indelible imprint of Nordland, not only as to the specific memories and characters he exploited but in the very essence of his character and imagination. His soul was nourished on folklore and story-telling and was delicately sensitive to new impressions. By study and reading he later acquired his national cultural heritage -- the art and music and literature that were immediately accessible to him through his Norwegian origin -- and this heritage impressed him more and more as he entered more fully into its treasures.

Then he emigrated and settled among fellow immigrants of Norwegian stock in this country. Here he discovered the other pole of his being, in the community built up by Norwegians in America. Some years ago, when this nation was agitated by the hysterical emotions of a great war, it might not have been safe to speak of such a unit. But Americans are no longer haunted by visions of a Little Norway or a Little Germany in this country. They realize that such cultural groups are a necessary preliminary to assimilation and are an invaluable aid in making the immigrant feel at home. When Rø1vaag came to America in 1896 he discovered fully established the so-called "Norwegian America," united by common churches, fraternal lodges, missionary organizations, newspapers, and periodicals. The mass of this population was located on the fertile prairies of the Middle West from Illinois to the Dakotas, and was largely engaged in tilling the soil. Rø1vaag was not slow in discovering that these people had psychological problems of their own. They were both pioneers and immigrants, and his sensitive perceptions began to play about the workings of their hearts and minds, deciphering the marks that life in the new world had left upon them.

Steeped as he was in religious terminology, he could not help recalling the migration of the tribe of Israel into the Promised Land. But he soon felt that the migration of the Norwegians into the land flowing with milk and honey had not been attended by a corresponding spiritual exaltation. They were for the most part absorbed in the business of making a living and were short-sightedly negligent of the finer values of life. They were only too anxious to cut loose from their Old World standards and Old World culture and to chase the flimsy ideals of a machine-made civilization. This attitude was strongest during the war years, when an anti-foreigner hysteria swept the nation. "Hundred-percenters" vented their ignorance and primitive savagery in the burning of German hymn books and the liberal use of yellow paint. Rø1vaag, through his work as a foreign-language author and teacher of Norwegian, found himself regarded as an enemy of the people. Worse than that, he found the Norwegian people succumbing to the effects of mass suggestion, and like Peter of old fervently denying their origin.

This was the situation that awakened the prophet in Rølvaag, and made him a leader of his people in their darkest hour. Four non-fiction volumes published from 1918 to 1922, and innumerable essays scattered throughout the Norwegian-American press were the result of his reaction. Three of these were textbooks -- readers published to further the instruction of Norwegian in home and school. The fourth, entitled Omkring Fædrearven (Concerning Our Heritage), is the fervent and occasionally brilliant exposition of his views on this subject. He did not aim to maintain a permanent Norwegian group in this country, but he was firmly convinced that only by retaining their cultural identity as long as possible could the Norwegians make a definite contribution to American civilization. He regretted their rapid rejection of traditions, and admonished them to keep alive the knowledge of their ancestral language and to deepen and increase their familiarity with Norwegian culture. They must not come empty-handed to the banquet, nor must they vanish without a trace in the great maelstrom.

Rølvaag was fired with the zeal of the Old Testament prophets, and like them he was intensely concerned for the fate of his people. It is certain that only his hope of creating at St. Olaf College a center of Norwegian culture kept him there until the time of his death. "There is scarcely any human being in the world," he wrote in a private letter on December 20, 1923, "who sees more clearly than I what this school can become both for our people and our heritage, what a beautiful monument St. Olaf can become to the Norwegian immigrant." With this vision in mind he broke off a much-needed vacation in 1924 to help the school. His health was poor, but, he wrote, "One man's life is of little importance in comparison with what such a splendid thing as St. Olaf can become for our people." His face was set to the future, and he hoped by means of his books and his teaching to raise the cultural level of the Norwegians and awaken them to their cultural responsibility. He gave his strength and support to all organizations that seemed to him to be working toward this end; among them was the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

This was Rølvaag the prophet. But the thoughts of Rølvaag the author circled about the same two poles, the past in Norway and the future in America. His first published novel, which appeared in 1912, was entitled Amerika-Breve (America Letters). Here the unknown Rølvaag hid himself behind a double pseudonym. The letters profess to have been written by a Norwegian immigrant, P. A. Smevik, and later collected and published by one Paal Mørck. The substantial identity of Rølvaag with both these men is not difficult to perceive. The young immigrant is a native of Nordland who arrives in America in 1896, the same year as did Rølvaag himself. He makes his first abode in South Dakota with an uncle, and after an interval of farming enters a near-by preparatory school, as Rølvaag did. Yet Rølvaag has not merely transcribed his own letters in this novel; he has made a genuine effort to create of his material an artistic unit, and to that end has introduced a number of details that are not strictly autobiographical. Thus his hero does not become a school-teacher, but enters the ministry, a profession that lay closer to the heart of his Norwegian-American public.

This book is a far cry from great literature, but it was a promising beginning. Young Smevik reveals through his letters that gradual and subtle change in point of view that steals upon the immigrant in this country. His first letters are full of astonishment at the many queer customs of the country. He is surprised that no wild Indians have crossed his path. He tells with some amusement that the milking here is done by men, and assures his father that he will never descend to any such "womanish" task. He is bewildered by English spelling, which he quite justly finds "preposterous "; but, he confides, "I don't dare say anything about that, for then people will think that I am stupid and understand nothing." He is almost equally bewildered by the Norwegian that he hears spoken, a jargon swarming with English terms for all the common objects of daily life. No wonder that he exclaims, "America is a funny land!"

But as time passes, he is gradually assimilated through the forming of new habits. He adjusts himself to the working tempo, he begins to enjoy life, he even ventures to defend certain American customs. His Norwegian loses its purity and even in his letters home he forgets himself and lets an occasional English word slip in. The substance of the book is made up of little incidents, many of them told with considerable humor. He has adventures, both as a farm hand and as a book agent, that make good reading.

Two years later appeared Rølvaag's next book, Paa Glemte Veie (On Forgotten Paths), still under the pseudonym of Paal Mørck. This is a more ambitious effort, a full-length novel that is chiefly interesting for certain fore-shadowings of Giants in the Earth. The dominant character is a wealthy farmer, Chris Larsen, who tyrannizes over his wife and after her death continues the same policy with his daughter Mabel. After they have removed from South Dakota to the new frontier in Alberta, an accident confines him to his bed for life and leaves him completely dependent on the care of this daughter. The subsequent relation of father and daughter becomes the motif of the book. The daughter has inherited from her mother a deeply religious temperament, with an almost psychopathic sense of duty. Both daughter and mother are strongly suggestive of his later Beret. Thus the mother is described as a melancholy, religious person, unable to adjust herself to America, who associates "everything that was cold and sad and evil" with the prairie. The daughter is born and reared on the prairie, but on the unpeopled plains of Alberta the same loneliness overcomes her:

When the plain lay there, covered with two feet of snow, just the empty plain in all its desolate greatness and splendor, where the wind howled and sighed incessantly and swept the snow around the walls of the cottage, and the yellow light of the moon glimmered fitfully through the driving snow -- when she sat there and lay there days and nights and listened to it -- eternally the same, again and again the same, then the loneliness became so living, that she drew the cover over her head like a frightened child, and she had to thrust her fingers in her ears to keep from hearing what the cold spirit of the prairie whispered to her.

This sombre temperament and an overwhelming sense of religious duty keep her at the bedside of her crippled father. He does not make it easy for her; he is querulous, unreasonable, thoroughly disagreeable and devilish. He tries her angelic patience time after time and resists all her efforts to convert him to her faith. Eventually, after various harrowing experiences, his conversion does come, but is far less interesting than the glimpses we have had of the fallen nobility in his character. We are led to feel that much of the venom in his soul is the fruit of disappointed and frustrated ambition. He was made to be a Per Hansa, a pioneer of the great prairie. But he was suddenly and inexplicably cut off from realizing the great ambition of his life:

An enormous fist had suddenly been thrust out of the universe and had knocked him down. Had miserably mutilated him . . . But the prairie -- it lay out there still, strong and large and rich as always; no, a thousand times richer now, since he had lost his hold on it. Here he lay in the log hut, a broken straw -- a crushed insect, for all the world to jeer at! -- When his tired thoughts began wrestling with these comparisons, it seemed to him that the plaintive sighs of the prairie in the winter night changed melody and became a teasing, snickering sneer at himself and his whole life.

"Now you got it, Larsen! -- Now you can lie there and suck your paw -- It's no more than you deserved! -- Now you got it! -- N-o-o-o-w y-o-u got it!"

This study of the distorted soul is continued in the next novel, but between the two lie six years of world strife, and for Rølvaag the bitterness of persecution and the grief of personal loss. The effects are visible in his novel, To Tullinger (Two Simpletons) published in 1920, which has been translated, or rather, freely rewritten into English under the title Pure Gold. Here he has developed with considerable virtuosity the theme of the miser, applying it particularly as a lash to the Norwegian-Americans. Louis and Lizzie, the couple about whom the story revolves, are gradually stunted by a fantastic love of gold that poisons their relation to other people and, at length, to each other. There is little besides this theme in the book. There are sketches of the "Americanizers" trying to persuade the two old people to buy Liberty Bonds and at length applying the well-known methods of mob coercion; and the best part of the story is perhaps the episode in which a pious and convincing salesman sells them stock in a gold mine. The defect of the book lies in its utter devotion to the one idea and the excision of all material that might have added life and color to the picture of prairie life. Rølvaag's characters are schematic and bloodless, because he has plowed but a single furrow down the vast field of human life, looking neither to the right nor left of his not very original or interesting theme. There is none of the lyric magnificence that constitutes much of the greatness of his later work.

One year later came the novel that more than any other gives expression to Rølvaag's lyrical and poetic powers. The title of it, Længselens Baat (The Boat of Longing), refers to a legendary vessel that appears off the coast of Nordland, usually to people whose hearts are full of misery and yearning. Rølvaag makes of this vessel a symbol of the heartache that emigration has caused, a mysterious bond between the grief of those who have been left behind and the yearning of those who have departed.

This story, which was the last before Giants in the Earth, represents Rølvaag's highest achievement before his masterpiece. There are moods in which one might even prefer The Boat of Longing to its more famous successor. Unfortunately it is only a torso, a single volume that was to have been followed and completed by another. Rølvaag has told of the first inspiration to this work:

It was a Monday morning and my wife had gone to town; then I suddenly got an idea -- a thought struck me and made me warm. I had to pace the floor, I walked back and forth quite forgetful of the outer world. My wife came in, but I didn't notice her. Then I sat down and wrote, and I wrote the conclusion of The Boat of Longing. A strange ease! The last chapter was born first, and then I had to start working up to it from the beginning.

The last chapter of which he speaks is still in manuscript; the second volume leading up to it was never written. He lost the mood and, once started on the series begun with Giants in the Earth, was unable to return to the earlier motif during what remained of his life.

But of all his books The Boat of Longing was the one he himself liked best. He frequently said, "I have put more of myself into that book than into any other." He felt that it had not received the attention it deserved. The deep emotion of the book is rooted in Rølvaag's own grief over the accidental death of his two promising sons in their boyhood. "If I had not myself experienced the tortures which a father's heart can suffer at the extinction of the dreams he has built around his children," he said, "I could never have written this book." Like the poet Egil in the Old Norse sagas, Rølvaag set himself to transmute his grief into poetry.

Into this book, too, he has been able to put more of the magic charm of Nordland's natural beauty, and of the gloomy mysteries of its folklore, than in any other of his works. Against this background he pictures the sensitive young hero, Nils, whose dreams are nourished by the romantic tales of America that are wafted across the sea. Nils leaves for America with a worthless friend, Per, and finds lodging in a cheap boarding house on the south side of Minneapolis. Without losing the lyric touch or breaking the unity of his work Rølvaag manages to convey a thoroughly realistic picture of the squalor and vulgarity of life in these surroundings. Nils goes untouched through all this; the experience that eventually breaks his spirit is the disappearance of his comrade Per, for whom he has felt a fatherly responsibility. He ceases to write home and thereby awakens in his parents such an anxiety and trembling uncertainty as must have troubled many a parent whose son or daughter vanished in the great maelstrom of American life. The father starts for America to find his son, but is returned by the immigration authorities because he can show no guarantee of support.

The purpose of this novel, as well as that of its more famous successor, Giants in the Earth, is to show some of the human background of immigration. The latter tells the tale of the pioneer-immigrant, who subdued the wilderness. The Boat of Longing deals with the even more complex problem of the city immigrant of later years, who had no wilderness to subdue, but an intricate and hostile urban civilization. In both books the problem is portrayed in terms of human suffering, as an impact of environment on sensitive hearts; and the attempt is made to strike a final reckoning of the human values lost in the process of transplantation. The book is borne by a stream of lyric sentiment that buoys up even certain improbabilities in the story. There is a strain of music through the book that is characteristic of the best of Rølvaag's work.

In all of these early books we can trace some of the qualities that were later intensified in Rølvaag's saga of the Norwegian pioneers. Beret is not the only one of his characters who has suffered in the transplantation from the Old to the New World. Even the lively young immigrant of his "America Letters" is tempted to call his stay in America his "Babylonian captivity." His homesickness is expressed in a line from an old song that is his refrain in many a letter, "Rolls the wave, so broad and bright, between the lands." He expresses the tragedy of the immigrant in the words:

We are strangers among strangers; we have lost our own nation and are strangers to our own people. Our pulse can no longer beat in time with the heart of our own people . . . We have become strangers to the people we left and we are strangers to the people among which we dwell.

The connection with the fatherland is less prominent in the next two novels. In The Boat of Longing, however, it breaks out with renewed force. In this book the rootlessness of the immigrant is portrayed even more strongly than in Giants in the Earth. Besides Nils, the chief figure, Rølvaag introduces two persons whose spirits have been broken in the process. One is the old Norwegian woman, Kristine Dahl, who lives in a hut by the river, nourishing the memories of her youth and her lost love. She and Nils become friends, first because they are both from Nordland, but also because of a more significant bond between them, a bond of common sympathy and common suffering, symbolized by the author in the fact that both have seen the legendary ship of Nordland, the ship of longing that is the recurrent theme of the book.

The other symbolic figure is the poet who becomes Nils's roommate. The author has poured much of himself into this strange being -- perhaps he would indicate what he himself might have become under less favorable circumstances. The inability to reconcile vision and reality, truth and poetry, has driven this poet into the gutter, made of him a derelict. When he is sober, he delights Nils with his verse, which he recites with great bravura. He is pleased to find in Nils his first appreciative audience, and exclaims to him after such a session:

In all Minneapolis I suppose there aren't more than two souls, no more and no less, who can gain a moment of pleasure from such poems. And therefore we two are fools. It is only the fool who has the capacity of rejoicing and laughing at nothing!

A moment later he is reminded of the pain of living, and he orders Nils to hand him the whisky bottle. The transition is too painful for Nils; gently he objects: "But it was so beautiful here just now. And the whisky -- " " -- is so ugly!" adds the poet. What has made such a swine of this man? "Life among the lunatics," he tells us, meaning his countrymen. Through the person of this derelict Rølvaag preaches another sermon on the materialism and artistic blindness of his countrymen in America.

In this book are revealed most clearly two leading characteristics of Rølvaag's more famous writings, his love of the sea and his feeling for music. In Rølvaag's first book, "America Letters," Per writes to his brother, who has thought of emigrating to America, "But do you think you could tear yourself away from the sea?" In a later letter he tells of a man who spent his first Sunday evening in America on top of the highest hill he could find in the neighborhood, "There I stood perfectly still and peered out over the prairie; my eye searched the entire horizon, round and round -- looking for the sea."

This love of the sea finds its fullest expression in The Boat of Longing. The book opens with a magnificent description of the sea, its beauty and its terror:

In summer the sea lay dreaming, tremendous. Light summer waves rippled by in a great light; they rose a bit as they circled the rocks and skerries; murmuring and crooning they crept gently past the headlands and each projection of the coast; and along the shores within they hummed, soft and subdued.

The sea seems to leave an indelible mark on those who have grown up near its majesty, and especially on those who have gained their subsistence from it. Rølvaag knew the sea and never forgot it. It was this love that taught him to see the beauty of the prairie, which resembled the sea in so many ways, and to know its power over men. On the very first page of Giants in the Earth he compares the track of the caravan across the prairies to the wake of a boat. Even Beret is forced to admit the similarity.

The broad expanse stretching away endlessly in every direction seemed almost like the ocean -- especially now, when darkness was falling. It reminded her strongly of the sea, and yet it was very different. This formless prairie had no heart that beat, no waves that sang, no soul that could be touched.

The prairie is one of the chief actors in Rølvaag's production. Though it seems dead to Beret, it comes to life under Rølvaag's hand. The sense of man's conflict with the prairie is first apparent in Rølvaag's second book, "On Forgotten Paths." Chris Larsen feels that the prairie is his personal enemy and treats it with a corresponding bitterness.

Now his turn had come. He would tear it up and chop it into small bits. This cursed prairie! He growled like a hunting dog with its forepaws on a piece of game.

The passage that expresses the despair he feels when he is unable to carry on the struggle has already been quoted. The beauty of the prairie also finds its expression in this book, for Rølvaag felt in the prairie that same double aspect he felt in the sea.

In all of Rølvaag's perceptions of the world around him the sense that seems to have dominated is that of hearing. Part of Beret's despair on the prairie comes from its absolute and unbroken silence. Rølvaag's most delicate observations take the form of music, and rhythmic sound becomes to him the highest form of beauty. In the description of the sea just quoted it is the rippling, the murmuring, and the crooning of the sea that he has heard. Even the prairie has its song and its soul, though Beret cannot hear it. He conveys this thought in "America Letters" when he writes:

On a warm summer evening we can hear the rustle of the waving grainfields, and we hear how this rustle blends harmoniously with the monotonous tones of the cricket and the grasshopper and the frog -- then there can be no doubt of the beauty of the prairie.

This feeling is intensified in his second book. Here he speaks of "untamed strength" as the "dominant tone" of the prairie. Again he describes the beauty of the prairie in terms of its sounds, the many sounds that unite in one lovely melody. An early sketch of autumn on the prairie, published in one of his readers, is a beautiful example of this:

There was something that touched the heartstrings and made them tremble gently with a strange soft tone of sadness and melancholy. And though this tone was as light as a breath and as gentle as a mother's tender caresses on her child's cheek, it crept into every corner and crevice, it spread wider and wider and wider -- over hill and bluff, over river and creek; until at last it rang out [klang] as the dominant note in the mood of the prairie this October evening. From the hillsides and the creeks, and from the groves about the farmhouses rose this tone -- it was as the emanation of the trees, breathing into the autumn night. To the heart that was sorely oppressed it brought a soothing peace; the strong-minded had scarcely noticed it.

This sense of the power of melody over the saddened heart and the ability to transmute all feeling into oral beauty becomes most striking in The Boat of Longing. To the hero, Nils, his dearest possession is his violin. He is endowed with that peculiar sensitiveness to the melody of all things that is part of Rølvaag's poetry, and he expresses all his moods and every new experience through this instrument. By the same means he exercises a certain power over the souls of others who are in tune with him. "When Nils sat and played, he was lost in another world where no one could follow him." One particular melody is the most intimate part of his experience, a melody into which he has tried to put some of his dreams about the sea.

He did not always play it in the same way; for not always did it come to him just the same. But there was one basic tone which always returned. The strange thing was that sometimes this melody wept for him, at other times it laughed. And yet it was the same melody.

One day, when Nils is playing to the old lady from Nordland who lives down by the river, this melody suddenly comes over him, "tremendous as the cold ocean wave."

While he played, his eyes fell on the sunbeams which played on the crags. And there lay a great ocean, resting in golden light. Far out a vessel sailing -- the sea foamed white about her bows. From the deck came strains of music. There was weeping in it, too. It floated toward him on a golden billow. The yearning to be there again thrust itself through his breast like a burning pain.

The vessel was the "boat of longing" and this was the name Nils gave to his melody. Through this symbol the author has at once suggested the connection between the legendary ship of Nordland and Nils's violin, which is the vessel on which Nils's thoughts and feelings find their way back to his native shores.

By the publication of The Boat of Longing Rølvaag had easily asserted his position as the foremost of Norwegian-American authors. He had gradually developed into the artistic and intellectual leader of the group. But like most prophets, and artists too, he met among most of his fellow countrymen only indifference and lack of sympathy. Their lethargy drove Rølvaag to many expressions of bitterness. Outright antagonism would have pleased him better. He wrote in a letter of April 29, 1922:

My despondency is due to the fact that I am losing my faith in the very soul of our people. It seems to me that its resonance is gone. Even if one scratched it with a knife instead of a pen, one would get no sign of life, neither of pain nor anger. But when it gets too bad, I read the Old Testament, the prophets. Even they got no reply! What right have we then to expect results? For us only one thing matters: to be faithful . . .

His chief concern was always that his own people in this country should appreciate his work and derive some good from it. When the first volume of Giants in the Earth had appeared in Norway and won a brilliant success, his first thought, written November 24, 1924, was, "If only my own countrymen here would read it, too!"

As often before, his hopes were not fulfilled, and great despondency came over him. In the summer of 1926 he suffered a complete breakdown as a result of a heart attack, and from this he never fully recovered. It was on the eve of his American success, yet it was perhaps the darkest hour in his life. He still had so much to do, and life had scarcely begun. All his efforts seemed to have been in vain, for his people heeded him not. On September 22, 1926, he wrote these bitter words:

This I know: if I had lain down and died as I thought I should have to a couple of months ago, there would not have been twenty-five persons outside my immediate family who would have drawn a sigh. And to tell the truth -- why should they?

But for the most part his despondency was offset by a warm-hearted enthusiasm for his work and by a lively interest in mankind. On June 16, 1923, he wrote as follows about his plans for a vacation in 1923-24, after seventeen years of teaching:

I intend to live a true life of vagabondage, so far as my money will permit . . . And I want to see life! I love life, love it warmly and whole-heartedly. Now I want to see it in as many different shapes as possible. I hope to grow thereby.

Life was still a rich adventure to him, and he relished its many oddities. No reader of Giants in the Earth can fail to have noted his feeling for the humorous aspects of existence. In conversation, as in his books, Rølvaag's humor was of a quiet, kindly sort, gently ironical. He was not witty, and he had no taste for bitter, mordant humor. He loved anecdotes illustrating human quirks or foibles, and when he told them his eyes twinkled with the kindliness of understanding. Nor was he afraid to look at himself with a bit of irony. In a letter of August 28, 1925, after enthusiastically developing one of his cherished plans, he added:

Some think I am mad, but still there are a few who are so mad that they believe in me -- you know, it is always possible to find people who are even madder than one's self!

He rejoiced in a good fight, especially when he began to find that his labors were not wholly in vain and that he had supporters and admirers even among his beloved Norwegian-Americans. He had expected criticism in church circles for the realism of his portraiture in Peder Victorious, but on December 6, 1928, he was able to write:

I am almost beginning to believe that I won't lose my job on account of Peder. And that proves that we have come far on the road of understanding . . . Nothing could give me greater Christmas joy than just this . . .

He was ready to face anything then, "Do you know, I'm almost beginning to think it's fun to be alive!"

This was Rølvaag as the writer knew him, courageous, warm-hearted, alive, enthusiastic, inspiring. In the classroom he sought beyond the letter of the text to its spirit. Literature was nothing to him unless it was also life. This was his dictum, "Literature is life -- life condensed, life intensified, life distorted, but nevertheless -- life!" In opening his course in Ibsen he declared, "We are going to try to study life this year as we see it reflected in one great spirit." His favorite method of teaching was one he had learned from his great countryman, Henrik Ibsen, one which is as old as Socrates. Ibsen once wrote, "I merely ask, 'tis not my task to answer." Rølvaag felt completely happy if he could find in the text that he was reading some question of life that might rouse his students from their lethargy and start their minds functioning. Then he would put one of the students in charge of the discussion, sit down in the back of the room, and, with a satisfied chuckle, listen to the argument. If the battle grew too hot or too lengthy, he would rise and terminate it with some opinion of his own, but not before he had given the students' minds a chance to absorb the full impact of the work of the author before them. He was always on the lookout for young ability, trying to enlist it in what he considered "the good cause."

The basic charm of Rølvaag's personality came from his heart rather than his head. He was a man who loved humanity, with a deep compassion for all who suffered. His understanding of the "heart that dared not let in the sun," the heart that broods and will not be comforted, is amply attested by his picture of Beret, the pioneer mother. That this sympathy, this depth of comprehension, was not confined to his writing is confirmed by two classic letters from him in the writer's possession. One was written to a mother whose son seemed on the point of breaking down physically, to the utter confusion of all her high dreams for his future. Rølvaag adopts the surest means of comfort: he tells her of his own sons who died in childhood. After he has told the whole sad story, he exclaims:

Do you still wonder that I can write about a father's heart! I, who lie awake nights and chat with my boys! . . . Why do I sit here now and rip up these personal matters? Only to let you know that nothing is the worst to bear. I understand how you now feel, understand that you have built many fair hopes about his future, and that these threaten to tumble. God grant that this may not happen!

When another friend of his, a woman with a soul like Beret's, had lost her husband, he found time and strength to write her a letter of consolation, even though he himself had just escaped from the valley of the shadow of death.

You, dear soul, look too darkly on existence. I should like to scold you if I had the strength. Of course you are lonesome, but so are we all . . . You can think, you can sing, you can work and do infinite good to your fellow creatures; you can read . . . Here I lay two weeks ago and felt it would be the greatest joy of life if I could have died.

Soon after, he wrote to the same woman, whose heart was full of brooding over the mystery of life:

No, I know no explanation of life -- except what lies in being good to people. The Sermon on the Mount is not only the most beautiful words ever spoken, it is also the greatest and highest wisdom of life. And its content is precisely this: be good to people! The greatest happiness consists in just that. . . . I know no other and better advice to give you than this: You must continue to interest yourself in the life about you! . . . And you shall be good to all life about you. That I think is the sum and substance of all religion . . .

With this last passage we have touched upon something fundamental in Rølvaag's personality -- his religion. I am convinced that in these words he has expressed his inmost conviction on this problem. The external forms of religious observance, church and dogma, meant little to him. They were indifferent elements, sometimes helpful and encouraging, sometimes very annoying. As a student of humanity he found them interesting phenomena, because they were an expression of the racial traditions of mankind. Thus the conflict between Lutheran and Catholic in his last book, Their Fathers' God, though it is religious in form, is not religious in fact, as is plain from the fact that Peder, the supposed Lutheran, is essentially agnostic. The conflict is racial, between Norwegian and Irishman, between two ways of life. In sacred literature he found a prolific source of literary inspiration. He was steeped in Biblical phraseology and imagery to a degree that must seem strange in contemporary America. His classic Giants in the Earth derived its title from Scripture, as well as many of its subtitles and innumerable turns of phrase. He often spoke with enthusiasm of the Old Testament, extolling it, as did the Danish writer Kierkegaard, because "there men loved and hated, there they slew their enemies and cursed their issue even to the last generation." The power of religion over the brooding, sensitive soul was always a favorite theme of his writing. But to Rølvaag himself religion was kindness, sympathy, and understanding, and that man was religious, no matter what his creed, who lived the good life.

He believed that every man was cut out for a definite something that it was his to accomplish. He had absorbed from Ibsen the high faith that a divine call comes to every man, -- and woe to him who fails to listen. There was no character in literature whom he admired more than Ibsen's flaming idealist, Brand. He often quoted Brand's motto:

But help is useless to a man
Who does not will save where he can!

From this quotation came his own motto, "To will the impossible.'' He knew it was impossible to stem the tide of Americanization, but with a fine courage he willed it just the same. He knew it was impossible for a Norwegian peasant boy to gain international fame by writing about Norwegian farmers in South Dakota. Yet he willed this too, until it came true. Now in retrospect we see that he, too, was a Brand, happily without the cold and inhuman severity of Ibsen's original.

Some months before his death he wrote a characteristic letter to a casual acquaintance in Norway, who had written to ask the meaning of his initials. The letter beautifully illustrates the kind heart, the good humor, and the courage of the man:

Do you know, madam, I find it exceedingly beautiful of you to remember me! Here are both my hands to say a hearty thank you!

In order to show that I appreciate your kindness, may I tell you that my first name is nothing more or less than Ole, my second nothing more or less than Edward, and now you have the whole miserable story.

My heart is worse, Lord help me! It is a disease which has a beautiful, classic, sonorous name -- Angina pectoris. I am proud of the name, but the ailment is bad. It is necessary for me to live a "quiet, godly life," free from all sin. And a person who can't sin now and then is most certainly to be pitied!

But I do not complain. One must take life as it comes.


<1> The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance given him in the preparation of this article by his mother, Mrs. Kristine Haugen, of Sioux City, Iowa, to whom most of the letters quoted were addressed. He assumes full responsibility for all the views expressed, as well as for the English translations of passages from Rølvaag's books and letters. A translation of Længselens Baat by Miss Nora O. Solum entitled The Boat of Longing has appeared since the original composition of this article, but no reference has been made to it, except to adopt its rendition of the title, which is more literal but less faithful than "The Ship of Yearning," the present writer's original choice. For a survey of Rølvaag's life and a bibliography of writings about him the reader is directed to the article "Rølvaag" in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of American Biography.

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