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H. Tambs Lyche: Propagandist for America *
    by Paul Knaplund (Volume 24: Page 102)

* This article appeared in essentially the same form under the title "Norsk talsmann for Amerika," in Nordmanns-Forbundet, 57: 119—121 (June, 1964).


FROM its beginning as an independent country, the United States has been subjected to close scrutiny and often to adverse criticism by Europeans. In 1787 a federal republic was an oddity among governmental systems, and the governing classes of the Old World viewed it with distaste and distrust frequently tinged with fear. Ultimately the interloper was admitted to the family of nations. But Europeans continued to regard Americans as crude and deplorably lacking in culture.

Englishmen, always inclined to treat colonials and ex-colonials condescendingly, found their unfavorable opinions of Americans confirmed by Charles Dickens and Mrs. Trollope. Though members of Norway’s constituent assembly of 1814 and liberal statesmen of the 1880’s saw much that was admirable in the United States, the educated classes among Norwegians generally accepted the English opinion that the new republic, an upstart among nations, was inhabited by a rough, materialistic, and pushing people devoid of refinement. As the nineteenth century advanced, Norwegians flocked in steadily increasing numbers to America, but when some of the emigrants revisited their old homes, they tended [103] to confirm those unfavorable impressions. Failing to show expected deference to erstwhile social superiors, they brazenly displayed their newly acquired wealth.

Reports by Norwegian men of letters who had sojourned in America agreed with those of Dickens and Mrs. Trollope. In 1881 the popular poet, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, on a profitable lecture tour in the Middle West, wrote to his wife: "I find life here crude, boresome, and lacking in spirituality." {1} Eight years later Knut Hamsun in his book on intellectual life in the United States ridiculed American manners and customs and claimed that the country had neither art nor literature. It was, indeed, quite uncivilized. The fact that he had been in the States for a total of four years, 18821884 and 1886-1888, made him appear an authority on America. {2} Few knew that he had spent most of that time among unassimilated Norwegian immigrants in Minneapolis, and that as a common laborer he — as he later admitted —"never had a glimpse of upper-class society." {3} He wrote brilliantly and pontifically, and while some Norwegians doubted his judgment, many more accepted his portrayal of American life as authentic. Among the latter was the great Swedish author, August Strindberg.

In 1898 Chr. Collin, lecturer at the University of Oslo, wrote: "The majority among us have had the impression that America was leading in [scientific] invention and technology but was quite far behind [Europe] in culture." {4} The use of the past tense is significant. Collin and others had had a change of mind about America. This change was due in large part to the efforts of one of Collin’s closest friends, Hans Tambs Lyche. [104]

Lyche (1859-1898), engineer, Unitarian minister, and magazine editor, was born at Fredrikshald, Norway. For two years, 1874-1876, he attended school in France. Returning home, he continued his education at the Christiania (Oslo) Technical College, from which he graduated in 1880. {5} Shortly afterwards, he emigrated to America. He remained in Chicago for two months, and then in the winter of 1880-1881 he worked with a surveying crew in northwestern Iowa. The cold was intense and his companions were a motley crowd, but young Lyche thoroughly liked everything — weather, landscape, and fellow workers. Both before and after he became a Unitarian minister, he was engaged in various types of work and met many kinds of people; he enjoyed it all. This gives the measure of the man.

Toward the end of his short life, Tambs Lyche wrote that for several years he had traveled widely, "a stranger among strangers, among people of all classes, adventurers, railroad construction workers, and cowboys." With them he had lived in tents months on end. He had been in prospecting camps and in western towns where nearly all the men were gold miners. And he had slept in freight cars shunted onto railroad sidings, in the forests, and in the wastelands of the Negro sections of the southern United States. On the basis of this wealth of experience, Lyche testified: "Everywhere have I found people, by and large, when you learned to know them, kind, generous, good-hearted, and even self-sacrificing. . . . I have not met more than 2-3 people whom I would call bad, who seemed to take pleasure in doing evil. But one of them was an ignorant, and therefore to be excused, Negro,— and even he had many good traits. And about the second and third I may have been mistaken." {6}

As a minister, Lyche of course gained contacts with totally different types of Americans from those he had worked [105] with in labor camps. Shortly after his arrival in Chicago, he became acquainted with prominent American Unitarians whose Western Conference, under the energetic leadership of the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, was then extending its influence in the Middle West. This Conference imposed no dogmatic test on its members, but welcomed "all who wished to help establish truth, righteousness and love in the world." {7} This creed, if such it may be called, was highly attractive to the idealistic young Norwegian engineer. He embraced it with heart and soul. In the autumn of 1881, Lyche enrolled at the Meadville, Pennsylvania, Unitarian Theological School. His first charge was at All Souls Unitarian Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, where he served as minister, 1884-1885.

On June 24, 1885, shortly after he had resigned his post in Janesville, Lyche married Mary Rebecca, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Godden of that city. Her father was a railroad repairman, and she had been a teacher in her home community before entering the Meadville Theological School; there her term as a student coincided in part with that of her future husband.

In 1885 the Lyches moved to Warwick, Massachusetts, where they served alternately as Unitarian ministers the greater part of the time until the end of 1892. {8} Tambs Lyche loved New England, and Unitarianism fulfilled most of his ideals for an intellectual religious life, but he was not entirely satisfied with his own work as a minister. Writing to his friend, the Reverend J. C. Duncan, November 11, 1891, Lyche said, "I have a feeling that the ministry will not draw out what is best in me, but repress it." {9}

Furthermore, when children began to arrive, he found [106] that his salary as a minister was insufficient for the needs of his family. He therefore returned to his profession as a civil engineer, working for a short period in 1890 for a railroad construction company in Macon, Georgia. The firm went bankrupt, however, and so he took jobs in various other places, including Washington, D.C.

In 1890 Lyche considered buying a home in a small town within easy reach of Boston, working as an engineer the greater part of the year, and devoting the rest of his time to journalism and lecturing. But this plan did not materialize; so in 1891 he returned to Warwick and ultimately resumed his position as Unitarian minister there.

Meanwhile he promoted closer contacts with Norway by writing for the Christiania newspaper Dagbladet and by contributing to the periodical Samtiden, also published in the national capital. The prospect of becoming editor of a new magazine caused Lyche to return to his old homeland.

Unlike his contemporary as a Unitarian minister in America, the Norwegian author Kristofer Janson, who preached to his immigrant countrymen in the Middle West and on the Pacific coast, Lyche always served American Congregations. He not only preached but also wrote about Unitarianism for the Index, an organ of the Free Religious Association, published in Boston. {10}

During his long stay in America Lyche, more than any other Norwegian writer, knew people of all classes in diverse places in the United States. He was not an ivory tower commentator. His associations with labor have been mentioned. His Unitarian connections brought him into contact with some of the most active minds in American intellectual life of the 1880’s. Not only did he become intimately acquainted with students and faculty at Meadville, {11} but he also knew such highly gifted and prominent [107] Unitarian leaders as the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Chicago and the Reverend James Cameron Duncan of Clinton, Massachusetts. {12} Through the latter, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, he became acquainted with outstanding men of letters in New England. Moreover, he was always an eager student of American literature, history, and institutions.

Although Lyche identified himself with American life to an unusual degree, he did not become an American citizen. He apparently decided quite early that his mission was to interpret the United States to Norway, and to sweep away the web of ignorance and misunderstanding which blurred his homeland’s vision of America and Americans.

He launched his program while still in this country. In a series of letters to Dagbladet (Christiania), 1890-1891, Lyche sharply attacked Hamsun’s book on America, charging that it was replete with errors and distortions. {13} To the periodical Samtiden, he contributed in 1891 an essay on James Russell Lowell.

After his return to Norway in October, 1892, Lyche aided in the establishment of a Unitarian church in Christiania. In the magazine For Kirke og Kultur, he argued with the Reverend Thv. Klaveness of Norway’s Lutheran state church about the nature of Unitarianism. But with the assumption of the editorship of the periodical Kringsjaa in February, 1893, his energies were mainly devoted to informing Norwegians about America.

The name of the magazine which had brought him back to Norway was a translation of the German Rundschau. It was modeled upon the English Review of Reviews, edited [108] by W. T. Stead, but the contents of Kringsjaa covered an even wider field than its English prototype did. It published both original articles and translations of treatises from foreign journals. Lyche was tireless in presenting knowledge about America. In special essays as well as in his editorials, "Redaktørens sofahjøre" (the Editor’s Easy Chair), he discussed the American landscape, countryside, its culture, history, institutions, literature, and people — with reflections on the true character of Americanism. He pointed out lessons applicable to the needs of Norway. After his death some of this material, with additions, was published by his widow under the title Lysstreif over livsproblemer (Light Rays on Life Problems). Collin’s obituary of Lyche in Kringsjaa served as the book’s introduction.

In America, the land, the towns, and the people had aroused Lyche’s admiration. True, the western prairies were monotonous, but their new and friendly little villages were appealing. Maine and the towns of New England he regarded with great affection. Chicago, his first home in America, was labeled "beautiful Chicago," and the highest praise of all was reserved for Boston, which he termed "the Paris of the New World." "I doubt," wrote Lyche in Kringsjaa for January-June, 1895, "if there exists anywhere in the world today a place where human life is so bright and beautiful as here [in Boston]."

Lyche covered a wide variety of topics and persons in his articles and in the Editor’s Easy Chair. Among them were American elections, the Chautauqua, and the Brook Farm Community. Individuals such as Jefferson Davis, William Ellery Channing, Emerson, Lowell, and Whitman were treated quite fully either in Kringsjaa or in Samtiden. While generally praising American literature, Lyche admitted that Lowell was not a first-class poet, adding, however, that he was a representative American with high ethical standards and a messenger of faith and optimism. In a similar vein, Whitman was praised for originality, joy in life, [109] self-confidence, and willingness to break with the past. He was, in the judgment of Lyche, a poet for democracy. {14}

He had kind words for the American press, not yet corrupted by Hearst and his imitators. He singled out the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican for especially warm approbation. {15}

Lyche met squarely the charge that Americans were excessively materialistic. Because he considered poverty a great evil, he reasoned that the good life in the wider sense required a secure economic foundation. From personal observation, he knew that American wealth had not come like manna from heaven. It had been gained as a result of increased technical knowledge intelligently applied, and by plain hard work. Moreover, as a result of its wealth, the country had established a comprehensive educational system, free public libraries, art galleries and museums, and had built beautiful homes.

In considering American culture in its widest sense, Lyche did speak of some of his New England parishioners as "thought-shy," and he was troubled about the southern states, where he had seen racial segregation in operation. But in general he gave unstinted praise to America. To him culture was not to be defined in terms of the stereotypes of the literary critics or the perversities of Nietzsche: It represented an appreciation of human achievement in all its phases, and, most importantly, a recognition of the worth of human beings.

Among the examples that Lyche cited is an account of a dreary evening in a surveyors’ camp in the Rocky Mountains. The men had been soaked to the skin after walking six or seven miles in a cold pouring rain. As usual they gathered in the office tent, the common laborers as well as the engineers, "in accordance with American custom without [110] class distinction." The tent roof leaked and the air was filled with tobacco smoke and the steam from wet clothes draped around the stove. To make the scene a little festive, Lyche had lighted half a dozen candles. The men talked unself-consciously and without restraint. Many of them might have been considered rough and wild, but their conversation was neither vulgar nor obscene. Instead, they talked of home and family, of why they had roamed and endured so much hardship, and finally they discussed the age-old question, "Was all this worthwhile?" {16}

In Lyche’s estimation, the essence of Americanism consisted of courage, optimism, a will to achieve, an ability to co-operate for the common good, and an absence of class feeling. With much emphasis, he urged his countrymen to emulate the Americans in developing these characteristics. "In our efforts to provide better conditions, we must work and unite in the manner other people unite," he once wrote.

After Hans Tambs Lyche’s death on April 16, 1898, Chr. Collin wrote in Kringsjaa: "He came to us with much warmth garnered and saved for the fatherland. But he arrived in a period spiritually cold in our country. He gave us in Norway his sympathetic tenderness, his bright hopeful view of life, his frank mind willing to listen to all opinions. But he received very little response from a cold and critical generation."

Equally laudatory was the obituary of Lyche which the Reverend James C. Duncan contributed to the Christian Register (Boston), May 19, 1898: "His mind was wonderfully broad and clear but what in him most appealed to me was the marvellous purity of his whole being: He was the embodiment of humility. Although he aspired to liberate Norway, and was in a fair way to doing so, he would have been content to minister to a few souls in a small New England parish. His heart was in New England, for here were spent the happiest days of his life, and here he became [111] acquainted with our great seer who has opened the eyes of so many of us. Lyche never wearied of singing the praises of Emerson in whom he saw the prophet of the future."

Another Norwegian obituary at the time of Lyche’s death stated: "His work in Kringsjaa was variously judged at the beginning, and the whole movement met with mistrust, but Tambs Lyche persisted, and he lived to see his magazine established with . . . subscribers from every part of the country. In addition to his duties with Kringsjaa, Tambs Lyche did much other work. . . . For nearly two years he edited the first liberal religious paper here, he corresponded with several other papers, edited a provincial liberal political paper, and acted for a time as assistant editor of Dagbladet. A practical idealist was Tambs Lyche, a bright, lovable character, possessed of a wonderful fund of the joy of living. Perhaps this joy needed a warmer, rarer atmosphere in which to unfold — some sunnier, gentler land. He leaves behind him an empty place that can be filled only with difficulty. For his faithful, untiring, self-sacrificing work to improve his country in all its aspects, our people owe him a debt of the deepest gratitude." {17}

H. Tambs Lyche, the builder of bridges between Norway and America, won admiration and scored some success in his day. At the time of his death, Kringsjaa had more than 5,000 subscribers and Lysstreif was widely read well into the present century. But despite his important contributions to Norwegian understanding of America, he was all too soon forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic.


<1> From Fergus Falls, Minnesota, March 30, 1881; see Breve til Karoline, p260 (Oslo, 1957).

<2> Knut Hamsun, Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (Copenhagen, 1889).

<3> "Jeg som almindelig arbeidsmann aldri fikk et blikk i de høiere kiassers verden." See Knut Hamsun, Artikler, 226 (Oslo, 1939). The selection of Ham-sun’s articles for this volume was made by Francis Bull.

<4> The quotation is from Chr. Collin’s foreword to H. Tambs Lyche, Lysstreif over livsproblemer, x (Kristiania, 1903). Selections for the volume were made by Mary R. Tambs Lyche.

<5> Tambs Lyche, Lysstreif, viii. For further biographical information, consult the Unitarian Library, Boston, and Norsk biografisk leksikon, 8: 540—542.

<6> Tambs Lyche, Lysstreif, 84.

<7> The quotation is from a resolution adopted by the Western Unitarian Conference, 1882. See Unitarian Christianity, 14 (Chicago, 1887), and Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, 2: 482—483 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1952).

<8> Tambs Lyche served as Unitarian minister at Warwick until September 8, 1889, and again in April, 1892.

<9> See the Duncan Papers in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota.

<10> For example, see "Unitarian Creeds," in the Index, May 7, 1885.

<11> The Unitarian Theological School at Meadville was founded in 1844. Forty-four years later, three Norwegians and two Swedes were students at the school.

<12> Lloyd Jones (1843—1918), a member of a prominent Wisconsin family, served as secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago, 1875—1884. Duncan (1860—1937) was a native of Scotland. He came to the United States in 1879 and served as a Unitarian minister at Clinton, Massachusetts, 1886—1937.

<13> Microfilm copies of the issues of Dagbladet containing Tambs Lyche’s letters, in archives, Norwegian-American Historical Association. In a letter to Dagbladet, August 4, 1895, he sharply attacked Nils Kjær and Georg Brandes for their criticism of American intellectual life.

<14> Samtiden, 4:339—351, 381—588, 467—477.

<15> Kringsjaa, 5: 424—429. An incomplete file of Kringsjaa is in the University of Wisconsin Library.

<16> Tambs Lyche, Lysstreif , 85—89.

<17> A copy of this eulogy, together with a translation by Mrs. Tambs Lyche, is in the Duncan Papers.

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