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Angst on the Prairie: Reflections on Immigrants, Rølvaag, and Beret
    by Harold P. Simonson (Volume 29: Page 89)

FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER imagined himself standing at Cumberland Gap, in Kentucky, and inviting all Americans who wished to understand their history to join him there and "watch the procession of civilization, marching single file . . . the Indians, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer." {1} Not only did Turner think the westward procession explained American history but, for him, the entire movement bespoke an inherent order in the nature of things. Like ocean waves, each following another, each wave of settlement pushed the tide of population further westward - and further into those symbolic advancements such as newness and fullness of being ("rebirth") that Turner associated with westering. Throughout his famous essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," the metaphor of process and growth looms as the central interpretive idea.

The problem with the metaphor is that it does not work existentially. It serves the historian who in taking his clue from Emerson or Hegel sees history as projecting cosmic order. It serves the poet, especially the Romantic elegist, who in gazing upon the grass of graves rhapsodizes, "O perpetual transfers and promotions." {2} But it does not serve the North Dakota farmer watching grasshoppers destroy his wheat, or a mother learning her son has been killed in battle. Organicism as a phenomenon of nature poses difficulties when applied metaphorically to the world of history, philosophy, and religion. More accurately, the metaphor with its implicit connotation of purposive order means little to the individual who is caught in the crosscurrents of historical events, including moral and ethical ambiguities as well as actual threats and dangers to this existence. In short, the metaphor of organicism, while serving the generalist intent upon having the larger view of things, may prove for the individual a cruel lie or a barrier against harsh reality.

That Turner's metaphor of organicism neglects the exceptional in favor of the general points to his more egregious disregard for the radically alien culture displaced by the westward tide and his failure to understand primitivism except as the pejorative antithesis of civilization. Turner assumed that process, like some organic growth, has its destined way in assimilating all that it touches. Thus on Turner's maps the westward movement appeared as a flowing, expanding, evolving organism, with "tongues" or lines of civilization penetrating the empty wilderness and eventually composing a "complex nervous system" for the once simple, inert continent. But what of those persons who resisted assimilation by holding to a different cultural mode? To them the idea of process compelled no necessary allegiance to the singular vision of the mythical Westerner who, as conceptualized by Turner, assumed that only one kind of rose was meant to bloom in the garden. To them the vision had little bearing upon their immediate needs, and deep down they often wondered if the process included them at all.

Even disregarding the cross-cultural issues, the view of history represented by Turner subordinates persons to process. Such a perspective leads historians to interpret persons in terms of what they contribute to the larger, sovereign process, what effect they have upon it, or how they serve to validate historiographical theory. Left out of account is the individual person existing in his own separate and private world.

The question that artists rather than historians are more likely to ask is: What effect did the process have upon the person? What happened to the person who resisted the process or remained outside it, separated from the westward procession that Turner envisioned filing through Cumberland Gap? What of those who knew themselves to be misplaced in the garden?

The largest group of outsiders, aside from the American Indians, were the late-nineteenth-century immigrants who felt little if any attachment to America's past and only alienation from its present. Christer L. Mossberg is justified in wondering why both Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, despite their "massive research," chose to ignore the influx of these millions. {3} One wonders the same about Turner. Perhaps the fact that many immigrants resisted the garden and frontier myths kept them from serving the historians' synthesizing conception. A necessary correction comes in Oscar Handlin's important study, The Uprooted (1951, 1973), in which he argues that immigrants felt estranged from America and constantly pressured to make of themselves something different from what they were. According to Handlin, their experience seemed to them more a "cataclysmic plunge into the unknown" and a psychic crisis of devastating magnitude than a merging into the organic flow. {4}

Any hypothesis that purports to explain the westward movement but omits immigrant psychology must be considered incomplete. To ignore the immigrants who "lived in crisis," and to disregard the shock that "persisted for many years [and] reached down to [later] generations" {5} is to pass over what even the generalist must acknowledge as a crucial facet of the total American experience. Likewise, to study mass immigration but submerge the motives, decisions, and anxieties of individuals is to neglect the shadow-side of the mythic garden and frontier, and to overlook the men and women broken by the frontier, including what Vernon L. Parrington called the "great army of derelicts," who failed and were laid away in forgotten graves. {6} On the other hand, to take immigrant psychology seriously is to see the individual in his own right, separate from a generalized process too often interpreted in traditional romantic ways.

In contrast to the garden where Turner thought American civilization was destined to flourish was the wilderness, where human beings suffered the psychic impact of broken connections, the bewilderment of alien ways, and the corrosive effects of Americanization. These effects also included the breach between husbands and wives whose roles were distorted by new conditions and the breach between generations as Americanized youth moved beyond their parents' orbit. These were the disastrous consequences visited upon the uprooted immigrants about whom Handlin wrote his "parable of immigration." {7} Far from representing an organic transition from the Old World or an evolutionary stage in a larger process, the immigrant experience was a radical "break," says Dorothy Burton Skårdal, leading to the trauma of a "divided heart," a homesickness that the American promise never healed. {8}

This is not to say that being cut off from their native land brought the same trauma to all immigrants, who numbered over thirty-five million by the First World War, or that assimilation proved impossible. Indeed, as Skårdal observes, many learned to overcome their nostalgia by adjusting their desires "from what their home should be to what the social environment around them permitted." {9} Yet the immigrant experience brought something new to the American scene; it brought a contrast between the security of the past and the vulnerability of the present, and between not only a lost country but a lost youth on the one hand and pragmatic actualities on the other. It is not without significance that the census of 1890, to which Turner attached great importance in his announcement that the frontier was closed, also revealed that 33.2 percent of the insane in the United States were of foreign birth whereas the foreign born accounted for only 14.77 percent of the total population. Specifically, in Minnesota, the Scandinavians, who in 1886 constituted 16.5 percent of the population, furnished 28.3 percent of the insane, a figure that jumped to 30.7 percent by 1890. {10} Norwegian psychiatrist Ørnulf Ødegaard, who has studied personality types, has shown that "relatively more Norwegian-born persons in Minnesota suffered from mental illness, especially schizophrenia, in the 1920s than did members of Norway's population." {11} It seems safe to assume that something inherent in the immigrant experience accounted for these sobering facts. Most often they are attributed to the immigrants' changed environment, their cultural isolation, and the severity of their struggles in a new country. Whatever the explanations, when the artist interiorized these experiences they in turn became the source of psychological truth.

The Norwegian Ole Rølvaag was one such artist who, in making the mind and heart of the immigrant into a lifelong study, shifted his visionary eye away from the Romanticist's garden and toward the ominous wilderness, a better metaphor for suggesting what it meant to be a stranger in a strange new world. Unlike the garden, the wilderness evoked brooding darkness where the storms of nature corresponded with those of the inner self. The inner landscape that Rølvaag perceived resembled that which certain of his contemporaries were depicting on canvas. One thinks of Rølvaag's compatriot Edvard Munch, who, while not an immigrant, captured the psychological moment as being a cataclysmic event. In the tradition of Expressionism, which extended from Goya, Gauguin, and Van Gogh to the likes of Giorgio di Chirico, Chagall, and the Picasso of "Guernica," Munch painted the inner world, where self-revelation and emotional intensification brought forth frightening, neurotic, obsessive concerns associated with love, sickness, alienation, and death. Nothing in his canvases terrifies more than the image of fear, the unreasoned fear one experiences in nightmare, depicted in "The Scream," painted the same year (1893) that Rølvaag nearly lost his life in a Norwegian storm at sea. The painter's long, rhythmic strokes convey the echo of the scream into every corner, every segment of the picture, transforming earth and sky into a gigantic world of fear.

The purpose of placing Rølvaag alongside Munch is not to claim any mutual influence but to suggest a similar psychological context. In this same setting can be heard the voice, sometimes the scream, of Knut Hamsun's fictional characters and the tremulous words of novelist Johan Bojer's protagonist Per Holm in The Great Hunger: "Now it was that I began to realize how every great sorrow leads us farther and farther out on the promontory of existence. I had come to the outermost point now - there was no more." {12} The promontory reaches out to the unknown, ending only at the boundary where security meets insecurity and the inner limits of existence. The promontory is the boundary between two worlds: between native land and foreign country, accepted belief and radical questioning, assimilation and alienation, sanity and madness. Living on the boundary is perpetual crisis, spoken of in the opening sentence of Rølvaag's The Boat of Longing: "The place lay on the sea, as far out as the coast dared push itself, and extremely far north, so far, in fact, that it penetrated the termless solitudes where utmost Light and utmost Dark hold tryst." {13} The promontory is the place of fateful decision, the place where young Rølvaag, determined now to be an emigrant, stood alone on the Lofoten pier and watched the boys who had brought him to it sail home in the same boat he had been so fond of. Standing on the pier and staring after them until they disappeared behind Skarvholmen on the other side of the fjord, he felt at that moment when the sail was gone as if "a door closed within me and a room was locked forever." {14} In 1896 the twenty-year-old Rølvaag, headed for alien country, stepped beyond the promontory. He later remembered how as a newcomer, making his way on foot from Elk Point, South Dakota, to his uncle's farm in the deep darkness of night, he had lost his way at a crossroad and, disoriented, how "gladly [he would] have traded a stormy night on the Vestfjord for this summer night on the prairie." "It seemed so ironic," he reflected, that he should die of hunger and exhaustion "right here in the promised land." {15} When Rølvaag came to write Giants in the Earth some ten years before his death in 1931, he knew his ailing heart would not allow him many more years of life. More to the point, he felt himself still standing on the promontory, still gazing at the world left behind and also at the engulfing darkness lying ahead. Rølvaag was still the immigrant - "to the end of his days a spiritual denizen of Nordland" {16} - but one who now was intent upon transforming his painful internalization into psychological and artistic truth. He had found his governing metaphor in the wanderer alone in space, another Ishmael. The measure of his success would come in the fictional character of Beret, who, locking her past inside a trunk, stood a stranger in the American wilderness, a place of crisis where light and dark held tryst and where the terror beyond the promontory filled the earth and sky.

To be uprooted is to be thrown into a state of crisis. This is the way Mircea Eliade describes the consequences of living without roots, of stepping into unconsecrated space and inhabiting a world in which nothing connects with the axis mundi. Something primal is at issue here. Primitive consciousness - i.e., the homo religiosus in all of us - requires ontological orientation. Everyone shares a thirst for being, the essence of which is relationship or connection. We require a place (house, temple, village) that serves as a symbolic extension of the world's axis, a paradigmatic cosmos in which we are at home because we exist in a place made sacred by its connection to the axis. Thus, as Eliade explains, settling somewhere represents a serious decision, for one's very existence is involved. Likewise, changing habitation is equally serious, for such a move means the abandonment of one's world and the threat of cosmic alienation and nonbeing. {17}

Again it is Oscar Handlin who interprets what this sense of abandonment meant to the immigrants whose old ties had been snapped and who found themselves bereft of the whole complex of institutions and social patterns which formerly supported their actions. Cut off from these influences and supports, they left behind specific things of incalculable meaning: familiar fields and mountains, the cemetery where generations before them rested, the church, the people, the animals, the trees and rivers they had known as "the intimate context of their being." {18} In severing themselves from the things that had given them a fixed place in the universe and had testified to their identity, they found themselves in a prolonged state of crisis, made all the more unsettling because the unfamiliar cities, prairies, and forests provided no basis for re-establishing the old solidarity of communal life. In their loneliness, whether in cities or on the soil, they lacked this social dimension. A vague and disturbing melancholia fell over them, leaving them with a sense of helplessness before gigantic forces and a sense of despair at their own insignificance.

Wounds that touched the heart were not to be healed in a lifetime, despite the American myth that in the West a person could forget the past and have a new beginning. For the immigrants, to be uprooted from their native land was such a wound. Granted that the everyday problems of survival preoccupied them as they struggled with nature and the alien culture. But survival and adaptation failed to heal the deeper hurt, nor did the desperate preservation of Old World traditions amid New World relativism permanently assuage the pain. A melting pot of cultures or an evolving American nationalism did little to alleviate these private feelings. Most Norwegian immigrants, Ole Munch Raeder observed, seemed to cherish "a hope of returning some day to their native land, having realized only after they had broken away how strong were the ties that held them there." {19} Whether or not they returned, the immigrants seemed forever to treasure the precious memory of the land where their roots had once grown.

When young Rølvaag saw the mountains sink lower and lower into the horizon as he left Norway, and then saw the horizon as nothing more than a low, rugged cloud bank, he crept below deck into his bunk and sobbed like a whipped child. "That," he wrote, "was my farewell to the fatherland." {20} Reflecting later on the experience, he spoke for fellow-emigrants in confessing that Norway and the life they lived there would become "locked up" in a separate room in their souls. This room would be a "kind of holy temple" entered "only now and then as is fitting and proper with anything sacred." In his diary he also wrote of the heartache of leaving his mother; and when he received word of her death four years later he referred again to the "secret place" set aside for the memory of her and everything he had loved in Norway: that "inner room" where he had hidden "everything that was beautiful and precious and worth preserving." {21} His words are echoed by the Danish novelist, Enok Mortensen, who describes the homesickness that overwhelms the protagonist in Saaledes blev jeg hjemløs (1934): "He hardly knew what he was yearning for. It was home and father and mother, of course, the farm and his ordinary surroundings; but it was much, much more. It was the whole parish with its broad hills, it was the forest and the heath and the fjord. It was the whole country with the people and the language, it was the sum of thousands of objects and experiences woven into a wreath with the flowers of memory. . . . {22}

Only in riper years is a person likely to understand the risk in abandoning traditional roots. Reasons that in youth seemed straightforward and obvious later return to haunt the older person, the immigrant, as he surveys his successful farm, business, or profession in America. To repeat, reasons for emigrating may have once seemed clear enough. Mainly economic and psychological, they promised prosperity and happiness plus the fulfillment of what Ingrid Semmingsen has identified as a "secret impulse," the impulse that lay behind "the whole [Norwegian] migration." {23} As a youth Rølvaag imagined America as a Promised Land where he hoped to find his Soria Moria Castle, the Norwegian folk symbol of perfect happiness. Thus at the age of twenty he was another askeladd who would cross the sea to win the Castle. {24} And Rølvaag did make good: he entered secondary school at twenty-two; graduated from St. Olaf College at twenty-nine; after graduate study at Royal King Frederik's University in Oslo returned to St. Olaf College as professor of Norwegian, Greek, and Biblical History; married in 1908; published many books; became president of the Nordland Society of America and helped to found the Norwegian-American Historical Association. All this - achieved by a Lofoten fisherman. The askeladd theme runs through Rølvaag's fiction, especially The Boat of Longing and Giants in the Earth. That this should be the case is understandable. However, the Castle in these same novels is a symbolic foreshadowing of death. And this, of course, is exactly Rølvaag's point. Successful in the ways America measures success, Rølvaag was also conscious of that which mocks so-called success. The mature novelist now understood the real cost of immigration and the superficiality of his earlier reasoning. Most importantly, he understood the fateful difference between retaining the past as a "holy temple. . . an inner room" and abandoning the past to answer the secret impulse that promised the Castle and its store of happiness. The former place, still rooted in the axis mundi, retained its sacredness, whereas the Castle had its reality only in the imagination of the uprooted wanderer. Maturity brought to Rølvaag the lesson that, despite earlier reasons for emigrating, loneliness and spiritual desolation await the person who sacrifices past roots for future visions.

America exacted a terrible price. For all the songs and ballads of migration that celebrated the promise of the West, others told of deprivation, loneliness, futility, and death. One song from the 1860s asks the emigrant if he expects to find in America the same sun, the same summer, the same music in the streams:

Nay, you will not find it so,
This, your fate, you've bidden:
Sun shut out by clouds below,
Stars by black night hidden;
Speech and custom of your past
From your life you sever,
Exiled you will be at last,
Down the years forever.

Another is a plaintive farewell to a Norwegian farm:

Farewell, valley that I cherish,
Farewell, church and trees and home,
Farewell parson, farewell parish,
Farewell kith and kin, my own,
Lovely garden, walks of beauty, -
Would to God this were undone! -
Home, you stay me in my duty,
Calling, 'Leave me not, my son!'

In another an emigrant woman sings to the spinning wheel she must leave behind:

Goodbye, my old comrade,
As now I must leave you,
My heart, it is breaking,
My going will grieve you.
No longer at night,
By the glow of the fire,
Shall we sit and gossip,
And know heart's desire.
These things all about us
Had roots in my heart,
Ah, now it is bleeding
And torn as we part.
But if I must choose
From these home things I cherish,
Ah, give me my cradle
To have till I perish. {25}

No one has proved that Norwegian immigrants paid a higher price in suffering than other ethnic groups. Yet Skårdal suggests a connection between a peculiarly Norwegian sense of gloom and the disproportionate incidence of mental illness among Norwegian immigrants. {26} In this same vein the novelist and editor Waldemar Ager, himself a Norwegian immigrant, noted that his compatriots on the prairie were a melancholy people, given to little social life and having neither a strong desire nor much opportunity for amusement. In this respect, he said, "We stand almost alone among immigrant groups. The Irish brought their irrepressible humor with them. . . and the Germans and Danes their geniality and sociability. . . . We Norwegians (and perhaps the Swedes) often became introspective and despondent." {27} Maybe the prairies were partly to blame. As a mountain people, the Norwegians felt lost coming into the flat, open reaches of the Dakota Territory and, like Rølvaag's Beret, finding no natural shelters, nothing to hide behind. Certainly the American Constitution and flag offered insufficient refuge for a lonely and sensitive immigrant adrift in an alien wilderness. With former ties broken and no roads leading back, such a person understandably felt doomed. The monotony of the prairie plus a deep nostalgia for the homeland stirred up psychological turmoil in many a melancholy pioneer, unbalancing the personality already inclined toward moroseness by the long dark Arctic winters.

Even granting that Beret has such a temperament, readers of Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth miss the point when they say that she could not "measure up to the challenge of the frontier." This view simplifies Beret into merely a "pitiful figure" who serves to show, by contrast, "how strong and great Per Hansa is." {28} From this simplistic dichotomy it is only a short step to denouncing Beret's condition as "psychopathic religiosity" and trumpeting Per Hansa's as gallantry of soul. {29} Judging these two persons as weak or strong has little to do with understanding Beret unless one carefully defines what the terms mean, for in the end it is Beret and not her husband who survives. Nor does the issue boil down to a deficiency in personal qualities on the one hand and amplitude on the other. If such were the case, Skårdal would appear on safe ground in saying that "the sensitive, the introvert, the tender-hearted and the thin-skinned were shown invariably to make the poorest immigrants." {30} Logic, then, would lead one to conclude that the best immigrants were insensitive, extroverted, tough-hearted, and thick-skinned.

One grows uneasy with distinctions that imply synonymy between strength and insensitivity, and the converse. The more important issue pertaining to Beret is the price immigrants paid in coming to America, the most painful being borne by persons still holding to the past and all the symbols of a meaningful life left behind in the homeland, but having to sacrifice these same ties to the great American prairie that drinks the blood of immigrants and only in this way is satisfied. Sensitivity to former ties does not indicate weakness, deficiency of spirit, or inflexibility - as critics frequently have said of Beret - but rather a sense of belonging to what gives life wholeness and consecration. By contrast, the frontier myth heralded the independent person, freed from past ties. Independence on the frontier supposedly demonstrated strength of will and character. But the central point Rølvaag makes in Giants in the Earth is the cost incurred when independence, attenuated beyond traditional ties of culture, turns out to be only the autonomous self. In Beret he creates a character who not only recognizes the false claims of self-sufficiency but knows that true strength and wholeness eventuate within relationships, not apart from them. From relationships within one's native culture as well as from those beyond it comes strength greater than the autonomous self, even though empowered with imagination, is ever able to generate.

The issue is not that Beret was weak but that she recognized the psychological danger in uprooting oneself from the soil of one's origin. In her, Rølvaag pictured a person sensitive to the danger of what he called the "transplantation of human souls." "Some people get out of patience with her," he wrote in 1929, "and I in turn with them because of their lack of understanding." {31} What the novelist wanted understood was that Beret was fighting for values synonymous with life. In Peder Victorious her antagonism toward the American ways of her son Peder was not, Rølvaag insisted, a case of stubbornness but a fight for life itself. In this novel the cleavage separating her and Peder sharpened the pain she had earlier suffered in being cut off from her Norwegian past and, most poignantly, from her own mother left behind. Now Beret is the mother, unable to reach the mind of her son. Lacking the password that would unlock his American world, she cannot follow him. "Can you not feel her dark apprehension?" Rølvaag asks. {32} This same apprehension in turn will visit Peder, unable to unlock his mother's Norwegian world, "a man having no traditions, having no background" {33} - in short, a man cut off from his past, an Americanized Ishmael whose freedom is another kind of terror.

Although Rølvaag never broke prairie sod, he knew the immigrant experience firsthand. He knew what it was to leave home, family, and native land, and to make his way in a strange new culture. Throughout his adult life he brooded over the cost of immigration, not just in lives but in souls. As Kristoffer Paulson perceptively argues, this spiritual cost is Rølvaag's central theme in Giants in the Earth; it is what makes up "the core of the novel's psychological truth, its dramatic action, and its social and cultural themes." {34} The same sense of spiritual loss is also central to Rølvaag's own complex psychology. To lose a homeland without finding another left him a stranger, separated from those left behind and those around him. To live in two worlds but belong to neither is the ultimate cost, and, like Beret, Rølvaag paid it. Saying this does not discount other facets of Rølvaag's personality. For example, he also embodied qualities of both Per Hansa and Peder Victorious, the one possessing what Jorgenson and Solum call a "viking heart" and the other a "penetrating skeptical intelligence." {35} Rølvaag's makeup included these facets and others less visible to the world. But something ran deeper, something stemming perhaps from the tragic drowning of his young son, Paul Gunnar, in 1920, the same year he started to write The Boat of Longing, soon to be followed by Giants in the Earth. Whatever the origin, something made him ever conscious of the tragedy associated with life itself. For him the immigrant came to personify the alienation common to everyone, a human condition in which one lives in many worlds but belongs nowhere, the tragedy of existence presaging what this century's history has authenticated in its millions of displaced, deracinated people worldwide, belonging nowhere and blown about willy-nilly. Rølvaag's viking heart and skeptical intelligence had deeper levels indeed. In identifying them Jorgenson and Solum note how "Beret is the deep undercurrent of dread, agony, sorrow, anxiety that ran through his life like a dark October stream." {36} Rølvaag knew firsthand the immigrant experience of dread and alienation. Like Beret's inner world, his own was a solitary labyrinth in which he wandered often as a stranger. Beret is his anima - his setting out, his headland edge of darkness, his lostness - as remembered in his broken ties with Norway and a loving mother left behind.

Hoping to recuperate in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1929, Rølvaag nevertheless accepted the fact that his angina pectoris would soon mean his death. Seeing how the ocean waves come washing in on the beach and were destroyed, he wrote to his friend Lincoln Colcord: "Not one turns back to tell the others. Not one takes thought of what happens to the one in the lead." Resigned to his innermost feelings, he continued: "Natures like yours and mine can never be happy! It isn't possible. We live too deeply. . . . {37} Nothing can stay the inexorable ways of destiny, certainly not one's ancestral roots. Yet how tragic to lose these roots before one must, and to think the American prize surpassed their value. This was Rølvaag's lament.

In speculating about "the main factors in Rølvaag's authorship," Jorgenson claimed that Rølvaag's mother Ellerine was the prototype for the fictional characters of Beret, Mrs. Chris Larsen (On Forgotten Paths), and Nils Vaag (The Boat of Longing) - sensitive souls struggling to keep alive the Norwegian spirit in the forbidding wilderness. By contrast, according to Jorgenson, the novelist saw himself rather than his father in the characters of Per Hansa, Per Smevik (The Third Life), Chris Larsen (On Forgotten Paths), and Lars Hauglum (Pure Gold) - visionaries striving mightily to realize the possibilities of the American garden. {38} The problem with this dichotomy is not the conflict in Rølvaag's fiction between two opposing temperaments but the suggestion that, in the end, Rølvaag the author saw life from a so-called Per Hansa perspective. When Jorgenson collaborated with Solum in their biography of Rølvaag, this interpretation took a slightly different tack. Together they suggest that, as between these same two temperaments, Rølvaag sympathized more with "the frail, sensitive natures" than with "the born adventurers and builders of kingdoms." {39} In short, he dwelt on the deeper sensitivities of character that the American frontier had not learned to value; it was Beret, not Per Hansa, who reflected his own "deep undercurrent." Likewise, Lincoln Colcord interprets Rølvaag as "preoccupied with the human cost of empire building rather than with its glamour and romance," {40} the cost being Beret's psychological suffering rather than Per Hansa's physical death.

It is important to recognize that the novelist, in attempting to understand the real cost of immigration, is not attributing Per Hansa's death to Beret's religious fanaticism, as some readers have thought, but rather to Per Hansa's failure to realize that building kingdoms in this world is spiritually a very dangerous thing to do. To conclude that his death is caused by a bedeviling wife reduces Rølvaag's theme to inconsequence. Rølvaag's waters are deep; fishing their treacherous currents is a tragic adventure, a vocation and not a sport. To him the western prairies were the ocean, the pioneers the vikings. And what is more, the stress of existence was apparent at all times, whether during a blizzard or in the splendor of a spring dawn. Rølvaag and his fictional Beret shared in what Per Hansa was blind to, namely, the tragedy underlying all existence but given special meaning in immigration and its terrible consequences. It needs to be stressed that long before Beret sent her husband out into the winter wilderness to summon a minister for the dying Hans Olsa, Per Hansa had already severed his roots as the prerequisite for kingdom-building; he had done so, confident that he could subdue and shape the wilderness into the kind of world he wanted. In the beginning it was not Beret who had sent him into the wilderness but his own proud longing, an ambition costing his soul, a price he paid long before he entered the final storm.

He paid the price but she suffered the knowledge. His was the death, hers the weal and woe. In the long run, her suffering was the higher price because it called into terrible question the hidden motives of the human heart. The price she paid was a broken spirit obedient and humble, a heart inclining not toward self but to God, allegiance to a Kingdom of another world, a crucifixion and a faith. Per Hansa lacked the strength to pay this price. He entered the final storm still confident that such a price was not required of him, still secure in his superiority, still the knight of infinite possibilities who even at death continued to behold visions in the west. Tragic as his death was, it never cost him a shattered pride. Defiance in selling his birthright and turning his back upon the past spelled high drama, but in the end it palled in contrast to the tragedy of acceptance that required a daily crucifixion. Because Per Hansa never wrestled with the angel, never wrestled until his pride was broken, he died still believing that he was master of his fate. By contrast, Beret had entered the valley of shadow, had been broken and restored, and now sent her husband on a different kind of errand into the wilderness, to find not a doctor for the body but a minister for the soul. In truth, she sent him out to believe. On this errand Per Hansa is defeated as he must needs be, his death confirming what had already transpired in his soul and serving as Rølvaag's forewarning of what awaits all kingdom-builders, especially in America.

The many levels in the novel all relate to Rølvaag's great theme of immigration and its cost. He shows, for example, that success in America does not always compensate for the loss of a homeland. Severed roots that once were axial leave a person vulnerable to fearful encroachments from within the mind - to what Knut Ham-sun called the "trolls in the vaults of the heart and brain." {41} Cultural uprootedness has its psychological counterpart. Being a stranger in a new land makes one a stranger both to the people left behind and to oneself, and ultimately a stranger in the great, mysterious nature of things. To Rølvaag these cultural and psychological consequences carried profoundly religious meaning, making immigration a tragic adventure on the deepest level. On each level the immigrant, if sensitive to the dynamics of life, faces the fact of angst. Translated as "dread," the term identifies the most fundamental affective state of human existence, and discloses the perilous position between freedom and possibility, between what a person is and what he is obliged to become. In facing angst, one is left adrift. Cultural roots are gone or rendered meaningless. The ego, sui generis, is in a state of awful freedom, and the soul is either under judgment and condemned or abandoned in a universe which is itself devoid of meaning.

The suffering of angst is more than most people can bear. Somehow Beret endured it, but not without the price of brokenness. "I say," Rølvaag wrote, "that the woman must go mad from suffering." {42} She had given up her homeland and all its inexpressible associations that nurtured selfhood on many levels. She knew the terror of darkness ("everything was turning to grim and awful darkness"), {43} the knowledge that visits one who denies the soul its rightful and necessary nurture. Descending into the soul's dark night, its angst, was Beret's solitary journey. Her dark trunk was her final refuge, the refuge of death. How the trunk becomes an altar and Beret's death a rebirth is another story, one of healing that Rølvaag said he had not thought to write until he began to work on the influence of the church in the early pioneer community. {44} So also is the story of Beret's later struggle to assimilate the ways of the new community while preserving those of the old. It is enough for now to recognize Beret as one who, in paying the full price of immigration, not only mirrored Rølvaag's deepest and most compelling feelings but embodied more powerfully than anyone else in American fiction the costly suffering that countless people experienced in becoming Americans.


<1> Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, 1962), 12.

<2> Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself."

<3> Christer Lennart Mossberg, "Shucking the Pastoral Ideal: Sources and Meaning of Realism in Scandinavian Immigrant Fiction about the Pioneer Farm Experience," in Arthur R. Huseboe and William Geyer, eds., Where the West Begins (Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 1978), 42.

<4> Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (2nd ed., Boston, 1973), 270.

<5> Handlin, The Uprooted, 6.

<6> Vernon Louis Parrington, "Introduction," in O. E. Rølvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York, 1929), ix.

<7> Richard Hofstadter, "West of Ellis Island," in Partisan Review, XIX (March-April, 1952), 252.

<8> Dorothy Burton Skårdal, The Divided Heart: Scandinavian immigrant Experience through Literary Sources (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1974), 268.

<9> Skårdal, The Divided Heart, 269.

<10> Prescott F. Hall, Immigration and its Effects upon the United States (New York, 1907), 156-157.

<11> Quoted in Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway to America: A History of the Migration, trans. by Einar Haugen (Minneapolis, 1978), 115.

<12> Johan Bojer, The Great Hunger, trans. by W. J. Alexander Worster and C. Archer (New York, 1919), 321.

<13> O. E. Rølvaag, The Boat of Longing, trans. by Nora Solum (New York, 1933), 1.

<14> O. E. Rølvaag, The Third Life of Per Smevik, trans. by Ella Valborg Tweet and Solveig Zempel (Minneapolis, 1971), 4. The book was originally published as Amerika-Breve (Letters from America), 1912.

<15> Rølvaag, The Third Life, 11, 15.

<16> John Heitmann, "Ole Edvart Rølvaag," Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 12 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1941), 144.

<17> Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. by Willard R. Trask (New York, 1961), chapter 1.

<18> Handlin, The Uprooted, 56.

<19> Ole Munch Raeder, America in the Forties: The Letters of Ole Munch Raeder, trans. and ed. by Gunnar J. Malmin (Northfield, Minnesota, 1929), 68.

<20> Rølvaag, The Third Life, 20.

<21> Rølvaag, The Third Life, 100, 113.

<22> Quoted in Skårdal, The Divided Heart, 271.

<23> Semmingsen, Norway to America, 121; see also Canton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938), 11-13; also Einar Haugen, "O. E. Rølvaag: Norwegian-American," Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 7 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1933), 2.

<24> See Raychel A. Haugrud, "Rølvaag's Search for Soria Moria," Norwegian-American Studies, 26 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1974), 103-117; also Paul Reigstad, Rølvaag: His Life and Art (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1972), 3-4.

<25> Theodore C. Blegen, Grass Roots History (Minneapolis, 1947), 42-45.

<26> Skårdal, The Divided Heart, 100.

<27> Quoted in Skårdal, The Divided Heart, 100.

<28> Robert Steensma, "Rølvaag and Turner's Frontier Thesis," North Dakota Quarterly, 27 (Autumn, 1959), 102-103.

<29> Lewis O. Saum, "The Success Theme in Great Plains Realism," American Quarterly, 18 (Winter, 1966), 586.

<30> Skårdal, The Divided Heart, 24-25.

<31> O. E. Rølvaag, "The Vikings of the Western Prairies," 25, in O. E. Rølvaag Papers, Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota.

<32> Rølvaag, "The Vikings of the Western Prairies," 39.

<33> Rølvaag, "The Vikings of the Western Prairies," 39.

<34> Kristoffer Paulson, "Berdahl Family History and Rølvaag's Immigrant Trilogy," Norwegian-American Studies, 27 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1977), 65-66.

<35> Theodore Jorgenson and Nora Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag: A Biography (New York, 1939), 385.

<36> Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 385.

<37> O. E. Rølvaag to Lincoln Colcord, December 26, 1929, in Rølvaag Papers.

<38> Theodore Jorgenson, "The Main Factors in Rølvaag's Authorship," Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 10 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938), 151.

<39> Jorgenson and Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 201.

<40> Lincoln Colcord, "Introduction," in O. E. Rølvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York, 1927), xxiii.

<41> Knut Hamsun, Mysteries, trans. by Gerry Bothmer (New York, 1971), 46.

<42> O. E. Rølvaag, "On Writing," 22, in Rølvaag Papers.

<43> O. E. Rølvaag, Giants in the Earth, trans. by Lincoln Colcord (New York, 1927), 38.

<44> Rølvaag, "On Writing," 22.


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