NAHA Header


Socialist Dissent Among Norwegian Americans: Emil Lauritz Mengshoel, Newspaper Publisher and Author
    by Odd-Stein Granhus (Volume 33: Page 27)

In the autumn of 1941 the new editor of Nordisk Tidende of Brooklyn, Carl Søyland, traveled among his fellow Norwegian Americans to record the life stories and viewpoints of some of them, which the following year would be presented as a series of interviews in his newspaper under the heading “Whom Do We Meet?” On leafing through the subscription file for Minneapolis, he had come across a name - E. L. Mengshoel - that triggered a memory of caustic letters to the editor written in curious old-fashioned handwriting. They had maintained, among other things, that it would do no harm if Norwegian Americans, as descendants of Vikings, had a little more of their Viking forefathers’ spirit. {1}

In Minneapolis, Søyland, tempted by the strong opinions and colorful style of his contributor, found a thin, silver-haired man in his mid-seventies with a rugged face. In his bed-sitting room, surrounded by his bed, a gas stove, some bookshelves, and a piano, the old man was at his little desk reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote in Spanish through a magnifying glass, supported by a Spanish dictionary and a notebook for especially difficult words. {2} The walls were decorated with his own oil paintings, and enthroned on top of his piano were busts of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen.

Although Søyland had become used to the multifarious tastes of his compatriots in America, he had rather expected the Pentateuch than this, he remarked dryly. During the interview old Mengshoel informed him that they were in fact colleagues; in his time he had written and privately published two novels, he had worked on and edited three Norwegian-American newspapers himself as well as publishing his own socialist weekly for twenty-two years. He had retired from his job with the Minneapolis General Electric Company a couple of years earlier, a job he had held since his newspaper ceased publication in 1925.


About his background he told Søyland that he was only half Norwegian; his mother was Hungarian and only sixteen years old when she came to Norway with a band of Gypsies. His father had been a law student but was shipped off to America as the black sheep in his family when he fathered the illegitimate child. One year after his birth, Mengshoel had been taken away from his young mother and was from then on raised by his paternal grandparents. Because of conflicts with his grandparents, he broke with them in his early twenties and went to sea. In November, 1891, he jumped ship in Pensacola, Florida, and got a job as a handyman with the county surveyor in Alcoo, Alabama, over the winter. There he happened to meet in person a famous boyhood friend of his employer - Mark Twain! - who spent a couple of months with the family Mengshoel worked for and stayed with. Mengshoel could converse with him daily. As a matter of fact he had a fifty-page manuscript about this and other adventures of his youth, he revealed to Søyland.

Needless to say, the colorful socialist editor charmed his colleague at Nordisk Tidende, who promised his readers that Mengshoel’s interesting reminiscences would soon appear in his newspaper. He told them about his recent meeting in a coffee shop .in New York with the Norwegian Labor party prime minister, Johan Nygaardsvold, exiled because of the German occupation of his homeland. Nygaardsvold had told him about his years in America, working on the railroad in Oregon in 1903-1904. When Søyland asked him if he had read any Norwegian-American newspapers at that time, the prime minister confirmed that he had subscribed to several of them, but the one he remembered best was one called Gaa Paa, edited by someone called Mengshoel.

Carl Søyland’s article ends on a wistful note: “What a strange world. Today Nygaardsvold is an exiled prime minister of a country under the heel of her enemy. The world is in flames. Mengshoel sits old and quiet in his room reading about Don Quixote who fought against the windmills!”

A month later the first article in a series of three of Mengshoel’s memoirs from his youth appeared in Nordisk Tidende. {3} They were all titled “Personal Reminiscences about the Most Famous Humorist in America - Mark Twain.” According to the opening article he was about ten years old when he was taken to the farm of his relatively affluent grandparents on the eastern side of Lake Mjøsa, directly across from the small town of Gjøvik. By the age of twenty he had completed a military education and graduated from the three-year school for non-commissioned officers in Kristiania, and his grandmother, who was a devout Christian, had agreed to finance his way through the university provided that he study theology to become a clergyman or a missionary. Although the ambitious young man originally wanted to study liberal arts as preparation for a career as a writer, to be able to attend the university at all he agreed to his strong-willed grandmother’s wishes.

Back from his stay in Kristiania he spent the Christmas of 1886 with his grandparents at the Mengshoel farm, where he devoted most of his time to reading a book of Mark Twain stories that he had bought from a secondhand bookshop just before Christmas. {4} He liked these tales immensely for their “breakneck mockery, such sweeping derision of all stodgy conventions and all proper consideration for natural law and the orderliness of normal life”. The day after Christmas he sat in his grandparents’ spacious parlor absorbed in his recently acquired volume of Mark Twain. Soon he became aware that the room was slowly filling up with people, and he learned that his grandmother had invited an itinerant fire-and-brimstone preacher to hold a revival meeting at Mengshoel. It was too late for him to leave the room; his grandmother was already enthroned in her comfortable armchair and would certainly take offense at his trying to slink away. So he kept on reading while listening to the sermon with half an ear. The mixture of Twain and Norwegian hellfire proved disastrous. As an especially terrifying depiction of old-testament infernal torment poured over the heads of the meek gathering, Mengshoel suddenly broke out in a fit of hysterical laughter. The faces turned toward him expressed feelings that varied from astonishment and fear to wrathful indignation, and the preacher himself felt so scandalized that he immediately broke off and left. The young man’s stuttering attempts to explain his outbreak met with little understanding, and his grandmother fumed with rage. According to his account, the repercussions were extremely serious for him; she never again mentioned financial aid for further education, and he consequently had to give up his plans for university study.

With his future ambitions barred he went to sea and sailed for three years until he left his ship in Pensacola, Florida, because his half-sister Ellen had written to him from Sioux City, Iowa, describing the great opportunities America offered for people of some education. {5} To reach Sioux City he set out northward along the railway tracks, and after a couple of days he arrived at Alcoo, Alabama, a hamlet near Brewton. It was November and he was dissuaded from trying to reach his destination on foot in the face of the oncoming winter; when he was offered a job so that he could save up money for the train fare to Sioux City the following spring, he took it.

His employer, John M. Ackley, was the county surveyor and the only Yankee in the area. He lived with his wife and four children in a Southern mansion with a small park and a vegetable garden, and Mengshoel’s job involved taking care of the park grounds as well as functioning as a handyman around the house. To his surprise he was treated much more like a member of the family than the average farmhand would have been back in Norway; in addition to living in his own rather elegantly furnished room in the house, he had all his meals at the Ackley family table - even when they entertained guests.

Ackley often brought his new employee along as a driver on his trips as a surveyor in the countryside, and on one of these excursions he told him that a friend of his from his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, the famous author Mark Twain, would soon be coming for an extended visit to the Ackleys because his doctor had recommended the southern climate for his chest. Mengshoel said nothing about how reading of one of Twain’s stories had ended his university plans back in Norway, since he hoped to get a chance to confront Mark Twain in person with his anecdote.

He had worked for the Ackleys about a month when Twain arrived, and because he often drove Twain’s buggy on his numerous outings in the neighborhood, Mengshoel had the opportunity to converse daily with the man he admired so much. One day, when Mengshoel was out driving with Twain, he finally told the author how he had once lost his chance of pursuing an academic career because of the combination of Twain’s humor and a narrow-minded grandmother. This piece of burlesque delighted the humorist so much that he commanded his driver to entertain the whole family with it at the dinner table later in the day. And so he did. Mengshoel recounts that Twain introduced him in the following manner:
“As I apologize to Mr. Ackley for being so forward as to usurp the toastmaster’s prerogative, I hereby announce the next entry on our program. It is a performance of our good friend Lawrence {6} - I have forgotten his un-Christian name - who will let us share in an unreal but nonetheless gospel-true adventure that once happened in the country where Christmas lasts for weeks on end, and Christmas trees grow on your doorstep. Lawrence has the floor!”

Since he had some acting experience from amateur comedies and managed to keep a straight face, Mengshoel succeeded in bringing the house down. Even the toastmaster, although he had heard the story told before, laughed as heartily as the rest; whereupon Ackley gleefully proclaimed that Mengshoel had truly accomplished a miracle in making Mark Twain for once laugh at his own humor. Twain protested, since it was a point of honor with him never to laugh at his own jokes; but in the end he admitted that Ackley had a point, at least indirectly.

Twain departed a week before Mengshoel left the Ackleys on March 1, 1892, but he left behind indisputable evidence that he indeed appreciated the Norwegian tale. When Ackley drove Mengshoel to the railway station in Brewton, he handed him an additional month’s pay, explaining that it was a gift from Mark Twain as compensation for the trouble his tall tales had caused Lawrence and in appreciation of the fun Lawrence had given him.

Regrettably, Mengshoel’s entertaining story about his meeting with Mark Twain is a fabrication. {7} Mengshoel’s memoir as well as Carl Søyland’s interview with him, however, indirectly offers us insight into a fascinating personality of many contrasts. Søyland’s impression of a man with background, outlook, and interests that made him something of an exceptional character among his fellow Norwegian Americans holds true, while at the same time it is amusing to see how Mengshoel used Søyland and his newspaper to create legends about his birth and experiences in America that were considerably larger than life. Nonetheless, the former newspaper editor had in his time been very active on the barricades of political life and had voiced his opinions so unmistakably that he had been either hated by the conservative establishment circles he attacked or loved by those he wrote for - the working class. Although by the forties he had been forgotten even by newspapermen, a case can be made that the socialist newspaper he founded and edited from 1903 to 1925, Gaa Paa/Folkets Røst (Onward/Voice of the People), played an important part in political dissent among his compatriots. Because his role in Norwegian-American history has received little attention to this day, his life and career will be outlined here with main emphasis on his political activities. He also had a minor literary career, publishing two novels, stories, dramatic sketches, and about forty poems, most of them very lively and well-written social and socialist criticism. {8}

The Mengshoel farm in the 1870s.


Mengshoel’s birth and growing up in Norway were an unusual blend of unfortunate and favorable circumstances, and the mythology he spread in America about his parentage testifies to the uneasiness he seems to have felt about his family background. Emil Lauritz Ludvigsen Mengshoel was born September 16, 1866. His father, Karl Ludvig Evensen Mengshoel, was the third son of the prosperous proprietor of Mengshoel farm. {9} His mother, forty-two-year-old Petronelle Andersdatter Bondlien, was a widow with six children living on poor relief in the town of Gjøvik not far from the farm. {10} The first seven or ten years of his life he lived in Gjøvik, probably with the destitute family of his mother, until he was taken over by his grandparents on Mengshoel farm, where he lived until he was eighteen. {11} In connection with Mengshoel’s presumably romanticized version of his origin, it is of some interest to note that there is still today a tradition at Mengshoel that he was brought to the farm by a ragged Gypsy girl - probably one of his pauperized half-sisters - and left on their doorstep. {12} Also a glance at Mengshoel’s handsome but rather dark-complexioned Eastern-European features might invite speculation about the claim of Gypsy blood.

Although he grew up under the stigma of illegitimacy and without a father, who had been shipped off to America soon after he sowed his wild oats, it seems that young Emil was relatively well treated by his grandparents. {13} He received the seven years of primary education normal at the time at the Gjøvik school, as well as considerable private instruction at home, as his grandparents employed a governess to teach the children on the farm. He was a voracious reader and was given adequate leave from daily work to develop intellectual abilities and ambitions that soon made the confines of the rural area where he grew up too limited for him. {14}

Because it was government financed, a military education became one of the few routes to success for bright Norwegian youngsters of the lower classes, and in 1884, after having convinced his grandparents that their fear that he would easily fall prey to bad company among the officer candidates was unwarranted, he enrolled in the ranks of the school for noncommissioned officers in Kristiania.

Mengshoel made good use of his three-year stay in Kristiania. Although school hours and military training took much of his time, academic subjects fortunately came easily to him, {15} and in his spare time he engaged in a wide variety of activities, including acting in the military dramatic society; he took lessons in play-acting and singing, and because he had, as he called it himself, a passable baritone voice, he earned a little extra money as a member of the chorus in the daily performances of a newly established opera company. {16}

At the school for non-commissioned officers Mengshoel also met with socialism. In Norway, as elsewhere, the government employed soldiers to break up strikes, and in 1881 a sixteen-year-old worker had been shot dead by a sergeant in the same unit Mengshoel was to join. {17} This was one of the incidents the newspaper Vort Arbeide (Our Labor), the forerunner of the Norwegian Labor party’s best-known journal Social-Demokraten (today Arbeiderbladet, Labor Journal), took as its point of departure in arguing against army intervention in the anticipated class war. As most of the students at the school for non-commissioned officers came from the lower classes themselves, they were receptive to the socialist ideas in Vort Arbeide, which was distributed in their barracks. The school became a hotbed of discussion about socialism, general social questions, and the struggle for a parliamentary democratic system in Norway that ran high in Kristiania in the 1870s and 1880s. In a retrospective account Mengshoel said that he took part in the political debates but did not become an avowed socialist; he merely harbored diffuse feelings of protest against the established order of society. {18}

There is much evidence that Mengshoel’s primary ambition in Norway, as well as during his first decade in America, was to become a professional writer. {19} Although the story he presented in Nordisk Tidende about his conflict with his grandmother might have been somewhat adapted to fit into his Mark Twain anecdote, the fact remains that he felt that Norway did not hold much of a future for him. In spite of being well taken care of and given educational opportunities above the average, he claimed in an article he wrote later that he felt like an outsider among the reputable Mengshoels, and probably he was. {20} An alternative explanation for his going to sea in 1888 might be that his military education offered poor job prospects because of the international economic crisis that affected Norway from the middle of the 1870s until the end of the 1880s.

His experience on Norwegian sailing ships clearly influenced his sense of social inequity, and at least once he had to jump ship to escape the mistreatment commonly the lot of ordinary sailors. {21} However, he also used his apprenticeship under sail in his later literary career. Some of his stories and poems as well as the setting of his first novel Øen Salvavida (The Isle of Salvavida) were based on his seafaring years. {22}

Karl Ludvig Evensen Mengshoel and his daughter Ellen, Emil L. Mengshoel’s father and half-sister. Courtesy Odd-Stein Granhus.

Invited by his half-sister, he came to America in 1891, and after a few months’ employment in Alabama he arrived in Sioux City, Iowa, in the spring of 1892. Most likely he was welcomed and introduced among the Norwegian Americans in the city by his half-sister and possibly his stepmother - his father was dead by then. {23} He soon participated in cultural life as a very active member of a male chorus and became one of the founders of an amateur dramatic society - Normanna. {24}

To earn his keep, he sometimes had to resort to manual labor, but he also started submitting articles to the local Norwegian newspaper Sioux City Tidende, and from 1894 he became a member of the newspaper staff. {25} It seems he developed friendly relations with editor John Story’s family; Story (Støre) was also song instructor for the male chorus. In 1902 he hired Mengshoel as editor of his newspaper Republikaneren (The Republican) in Lake Mills, Iowa. In Sioux City Mengshoel worked with and was a good friend of Egil Havig, John Story’s brother-in-law; they were comrades in a double sense, Mengshoel claimed, because they both regarded themselves as socialists. {26}

The new contributor to Sioux City Tidende wielded a very fluent pen, and many Norwegian Americans responded negatively to what he wrote. He regularly expressed his indignation at an essentially unjust and ruthless society in an uncompromising style full of satire and irony. The two most common themes of his journalism were the superiority of European culture to American commercialism and of real Norwegian values to those of Norwegian-American “norskies,” whom he identified with the most conservative element among their nationality in America, ashamed of their roots and uncritical toward everything American. {27}

Although Mengshoel often wrote about social injustice in America, there is little evidence of Marxist theory in his writing. He was, however, much influenced by a native American brand of radicalism that developed in the 1890s - Bellamyism. Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) portrayed an America that had developed from ruthless exploitation and poverty under capitalism to harmony and affluence for all through evolutionary means. Evolution suited many American reformers better than Marxist revolution, and according to historian Howard H. Quint, the growth of American socialism “owed more for its inspiration to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward than it did to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.” {28} In an early serialized version of Mengshoel’s later published novel Mené Tekél, “Ragnarok” (Armageddon), the protagonist, August - whose model was clearly the writer himself - is questioned about his political views: “Isn’t it true that you consider a calculating German, Karl Marx, to be a Moses for society and a dreaming Bellamy a kind of modern Messiah?” August replies: “I believe in justice. That’s the essence of my - catechism - as you would call it.” {29} Other American influences on his thinking were the two most popular socialist newspapers in the 1890s, Julius A. Wayland’s Coming Nation and its successor in 1895, the Appeal to Reason. After the turn of the century Mengshoel even became a contributor to the latter newspaper. {30}

In 1896 Mengshoel moved to Minneapolis, where he worked as a typesetter for both Scandinavian and English-language newspapers, and from October, 1897, material signed E. L. Mengshoel started appearing in Nye Normanden, the radical populist weekly published and edited by Hans A. Foss. {31} On the staff of Nye Normanden Mengshoel met and befriended another radical Norwegian, Olav Kringen, who served as a contributing editor until he returned to Norway in 1897 to become a leading personality in the emerging Norwegian Labor party. {32} Kringen later for several years contributed regularly to the newspaper Mengshoel founded and thereby secured a voice among Norwegian Americans for his moderate reform line of socialism that was in opposition to the revolutionary strategy of the majority of the Labor party in Norway from the time of the Russian Revolution to 1923, when the communists broke away from the party.

Another instance of transatlantic politics among Norwegian Americans grew out of Mengshoel’s meeting with Helle Crøger, who became his wife in 1899. {33} Helle Margrethe Crøger was born into a distinguished clergy family in Bergen, Norway, in 1860; {34} in 1878 she married Niels Devold, of an equally prominent family of textile-mill owners in Alesund. {35} Although they had three children together, their married life was complicated and not very happy. Devold practiced the Baptist faith as an itinerant revivalist preacher and neglected both his family and his business enterprises, while his wife developed an interest in free thinking and socialism. {36} In 1887 they came to Kristiania, and Helle Crøger Devold, together with her young son, Olaf Andreas, born in 1879, began attending meetings of the Kristiania Workers’ Society, the official debating society of the rapidly growing socialist movement in the Norwegian capital. {37} She also took part in organizing strike activity, and in 1889 she was one of the socialist leaders of the most publicized and famous of all strikes among women workers in Norway, the strike of the matchpackers at the Bryn and Grønvold match factory in Kristiania, that eventually led to the establishment of the first Norwegian labor union for women, founded on October 28, 1889. She was a personal friend of several leading figures in Norwegian socialism such as Christian Holtermann Knudsen, Carl Jeppesen, and Fernanda Nissen, whom she corresponded with after her departure to America in 1893. {38} After having been legally separated in 1890, Devold and Crøger were finally divorced in 1900. {39}

Helle Crøger and Emil Lauritz Mengshoel at the time of their marriage, Minneapolis, 1899. Courtesy Odd-Stein Granhus.

Because Helle Crøger occasionally submitted articles to Nye Normanden and also knew Olav Kringen, she most likely met Mengshoel in the radical political circles of Minneapolis. In 1899 Hans A. Foss accepted a better paid job than editing a small newspaper, and from December of that year until May, 1902, Mengshoel functioned as editor of Foss’s journal. Presumably, his new position gave him a better and more stable income that permitted him to take responsibility for Helle and her children. Mengshoel was definitely more of a radical than Foss, and Nye Normanden’s hard-hitting editorials soon met with opposition from influential Norwegian Americans. {40} There were political and personal feuds between the new editor and the editors of Fargo Posten in North Dakota and Vesterheimen (Home in the West) in Crookston, Minnesota. {41} Innuendo against him finally became so unpleasant that Mrs. Mengshoel inserted a notice in Nye Normanden under the heading “Sladder” (gossip), where she compared the effect of gossip to the Boyg, the fabled animal in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, symbolizing obstacles that can be felt but are hard to identify. {42} An increasing number of readers also canceled their subscriptions, and Mengshoel’s position gradually became untenable. In 1902 he moved with his family to Lake Mills, Iowa, where he took over the editorship of John Story’s Republikaneren, which was as conservative as its name indicates. {43}


It was probably no coincidence that in 1901, the same year the Socialist Party of America was founded, Mengshoel openly declared himself a socialist in the columns of Nye Normanden. {44} In 1903 he announced in Gaa Paa that he was a party member, and there was never any doubt that his privately owned newspaper always fought for the official party line. {45} The demise of the Populist movement in the 1890s left a legacy of receptiveness to social reform, improving conditions for the spread of socialist thought. Before the turn of the century, socialism had been a foreign implantation in America and in regard to membership and organization a very weak plant compared to its European sibling. However, the founding of a distinctive American socialist party in 1901 inaugurated the development of a movement that in time partially succeeded in uniting socialist immigrant worker elements and native American socialists under a common organizational roof; it can thus be seen as a counterpart to the rise of mass social-democratic movements in Europe at that time.

Radical publications were beneficial to and benefited from the new socialist organizational vigor. From the nadir of radical publishing in 1898 because of the impossibility of competing with the jingoism accompanying the Spanish-American War, the press that supported the Socialist party grew rapidly. In 1904, several non-English dailies and over a hundred English-language weeklies and monthlies were published, {46} and the two largest native socialist weeklies, the Appeal to Reason and Wilshire’s Magazine, were competing to see which would first reach a circulation of one million. {47}

While he was working for Nye Normanden and Republikaneren, Mengshoel kept up a correspondence with and occasionally submitted articles to the Appeal to Reason, which Julius A. Wayland published from 1897 in the small Kansas town of Girard. Through the use of modern selling techniques, commercial advertising, a message of reform propagated in a folksy style of journalism, and Wayland’s hard cash, the Appeal grew steadily and made Girard into the Mecca of American socialism, to which party workers and other dedicated individuals made pilgrimages to admire and seek inspiration from the most successful business endeavor of the American socialist movement. {48} Being aware of the rapidly growing number of immigrant workers from the Scandinavian countries, where socialism was on the advance from the turn of the century, Wayland planned to establish an organ to propagandize for the party among them. He knew Mengshoel from his contributions to the Appeal and in 1903 invited him to become editor of a forthcoming publication aimed at Scandinavian readers. {49} Mengshoel did not hesitate to leave Lake Mills and Republikaneren with his wife and stepchildren. However, by the time he reached Girard, Wayland had decided that he did not want to publish the newspaper after all, perhaps as the result of a closer market analysis. Instead he encouraged Mengshoel to break fresh ground in starting up a Norwegian kind of Appeal himself, promising to help him out with printing facilities until the venture was earning enough to meet its expenses. {50}

For Mengshoel to take economic responsibility for publishing still another Norwegian-American newspaper in the Midwest was quite another matter than hitching on to the success of the Appeal to Reason. After the turn of the century, Norwegian-American ethnic culture bloomed well into the 1920s and a growing awareness of ethnic identity resulted in an increase in number and circulation of newspapers published by the national group. It was relatively simple to launch a new publication but difficult to build a satisfactory circulation to make it last. About one-third of Norwegian-American newspapers survived less than one year. {51} Mengshoel later described the founding of his new socialist publication as a desperate deed. {52} The radical press had little access to bank loans, because bankers were normally hostile to political dissent, and publishing in general was not looked upon as a safe investment. {53} On the other hand, the new wave of Scandinavian immigrants seeking work in industrial America consisted of people with an outlook and social orientation very different from the majority of earlier immigrants, most of whom had sought land to farm. Mengshoel assumed that such a change in the makeup of the immigrant body would be advantageous for establishing a Norwegian-American socialist newspaper. {54}

Thus Mengshoel accepted Wayland’s offer in 1903. As he had little money to put into the project himself, he was dependent on his capacity for hard work, support from his family, and the goodwill of the Appeal to Reason. So, with husband functioning as editor and wife as business manager in the evening, while they were both typesetters during the daytime, they managed to launch the first issue of Gaa Paa, printed on the Appeal to Reason’s printing press, on Saturday, November 29, 1903. {55} It was a four-page weekly in large format costing fifty cents a year, or thirty cents for six months, the normal subscription fee for such a publication. Above the three Scandinavian flags on the masthead was printed the rallying cry from the French Revolution: “Frihed, Lighed, Broderskab” (liberty, equality, fraternity), and both ears (the boxes at the ends of the masthead) carried slogans proclaiming the newspaper’s point of view: “Organ for Scandinavian Workers in America” and “Workers of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win.” In addition to the Socialist party program, page one carried the news columns “Fra Norden” (From the Nordic Countries) and “Hist og Her” (Here and There) that gave both foreign and domestic news. On the inside pages were the editor’s column, socialist educational articles, cultural topics including poetry and prose, and letters to the editor. The last page normally carried announcements and requests from the editor to his readership as well as serialized fiction as an incentive for the paper’s less committed readers.

In content, then, Gaa Paa was not essentially different from the average Norwegian-American newspaper. What made it exceptional was Mengshoel’s talent for combining the popular with the meaningful. At last he could make use of his many talents and considerable experience, combining literary style with journalistic punch and political insight, and aggressiveness with humor and wit. He put his unmistakably critical stamp on more than the editor’s column; news items taken from Norwegian and American newspapers were also carefully adapted and commented upon in the context of Mengshoel’s general philosophy and in his inimitable style. There was an appealing directness and freshness to the columns of Gaa Paa that attracted readers’ attention; at the least it must have been difficult to remain neutral to its outspokenness. Likewise, the use of excellent political cartoons on almost every page tended to catch the eye and imagination of readers. {56}

Despite an announcement in the third issue where the editor expressed his satisfaction with reader response, only the extremely low production cost, including the Appeal to Reason’s generous subsidies, kept his publication going. Also, the large number of unpaid party propagandists who distributed the Appeal spread the word of Gaa Paa among Scandinavians. During the winter, Mengshoel pointed to several reasons why the circulation had not developed as well as he had hoped and why the newspaper had therefore begun accumulating debts. He claimed that local postmasters and letter carriers sometimes took action against “red” periodicals and saw to it that they did not reach subscribers. He held the Postmaster General responsible for taking two whole months to grant Gaa Paa the second-class newspaper rate, which meant a ninety percent reduction in mailing costs. Also, at that time Gaa Paa had no revenues from advertising, which for American publishing amounted to fifty-five percent of the total income. {57}

The town where Gaa Paa was published, Girard, Kansas, was situated on the periphery of the Scandinavian heartland of the Upper Midwest, far from Minneapolis and Chicago, which encompassed the largest working-class populations of the ethnic minority. Since newsstand sale by single copies was therefore out of the question, distribution by mail was the only viable alternative. To solve this problem permanently, Mengshoel appealed to his readers during the summer of 1904 to make contributions to cover the cost of moving the newspaper to Minneapolis, where he was well known among Norwegians. There his socialist comrades were in the process of organizing a socialist club called Den Skandinaviske Socialist-forening (The Scandinavian Socialist Federation), {58} which could support and be supported by Gaa Paa. During the autumn of 1904, Mengshoel took his newspaper and his family along to Minneapolis, and although the new socialist organization temporarily failed, {59} the editor now had high hopes for socialism and the future of his publication. {60}

In 1903 and 1904, the cartoonist Guy H. Lockwood, a friend of the Mengshoels in Minneapolis, contributed to Gaa Paa. 1. “Under Socialism Santa Claus will treat all children equally well.” 2. “The independence of the ‘individual’ in present society.”

He turned out to be right in the sense that Gaa Paa by 1912 had built a circulation of 5,000, which remained relatively stable into the 1920s. {61} In addition to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Gaa Paa was now circulated among Scandinavian workers in Chicago and had several agents who distributed it on both the east and the west coasts. In time the newspaper also developed a sizeable readership among debt-ridden small farmers in western Minnesota and especially in North Dakota. These farmers persisted in agrarian revolt by supporting the partially socialist platform of the Nonpartisan League, which became a powerful force behind the farmer-labor movement in the 1920s. {62}

Although many radical farmers relished Mengshoel’s fiery editorials, there was never any doubt that Gaa Paa primarily catered to a working-class reading public; for about a decade, Mengshoel’s organ was the only Norwegian-American ethnic publication covering socialist-sponsored gatherings and activities, since mainstream Norwegian-language newspapers preferred to ignore manifestations of working-class cultural life. Most of the back page of Gaa Paa was filled with the particulars of the Scandinavian socialist movement, mainly in Minneapolis; in addition there were now advertisements for Scandinavian businesses. Mengshoel also opened a business office in Chicago manned by a longtime socialist in that city, Wilhelm Petersen, who reported from the organizational center of Scandinavian-American socialism on page three.

So when a Dano-Norwegian socialist weekly was established in Chicago, Mengshoel regarded it with misgivings. The background of the new publication was the formation in 1910 of the Scandinavian Socialist Federation in that city, the new central organization combining Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish socialist locals all over the country into one federation affiliated with the Socialist party. Svenska Socialisten (The Swedish Socialist), the organ of the powerful Swedish local in Rockford, Illinois, was moved to Chicago to become the organ of the new federation. The Danish and Norwegian clubs were not too pleased with the prospect of being represented by a Swedish newspaper only and therefore launched their own organ, Social-Demokraten, published in the common Dano-Norwegian literary language, in the autumn of 1911 {63}

One reason for Mengshoel’s negative response was certainly his fear that the newcomer would reduce the circulation of Gaa Paa. He also felt offended because the new publication claimed that the Dano-Norwegian socialists had demanded and finally got a newspaper of their own, without mentioning the existence of Gaa Paa at all. The Chicago socialists also claimed that ownership by party organizations was the only guarantee that a Socialist party newspaper would remain socialist and not lead the working class astray. A privately owned publication might easily become undermined by the personal ambition of the owner, who might use it to rise above common workers and eventually abandon their struggle. {64} Many readers of Gaa Paa - also members of the Chicago organization, which threatened them with expulsion - rallied to the editor’s support, claiming that Gaa Paa had always been a loyal Socialist party organ and that their comrades should attach more importance to a newspaper’s content than to its organizational allegiance. If they did so, there was no doubt which newspaper they ought to buy first. {65} Mengshoel himself stated with some bitterness that he found the epithet “workers” more fitting for the publishers of Gaa Paa than “owners,” as they had no bank accounts and had at their disposal only working time, no spare time, and often no sleeping time. {66}

The official Socialist party policy toward private press organs was to acknowledge their favors rendered to the movement but also to recommend that party organizations that could afford it should offer “private” owners a takeover. Mengshoel ignored an offer from the Scandinavian Socialist Federation in Chicago, a fact which Social-Demokraten published in 1912. {67} He probably feared the loss of his livelihood as well as a transformation of Gaa Paa into a sectarian parish magazine catering more to the internal needs of organizations than to general socialist propaganda and news. Although the two publications lived on side by side, the bitterness between them never wholly subsided. The Chicago journal regularly complained that the private press made it exceedingly difficult for the organizations to develop a sound party press, while Mengshoel grumbled, not without malice, that at least Gaa Paa had never been a liability to any socialist federation.

The staff of Gaa Paa in Minneapolis had already by 1904 been reinforced by a family member who became increasingly useful to the newspaper. Under the auspices of the seasoned propagandist Thomas H. Lucas, Helle Mengshoel’s son, Olaf Andreas - or Andrew as he was renamed in America - became an able speaker in English as well as in Norwegian and propagandized and recruited new members for the growing socialist movement in Minneapolis. {68} He learned the printer’s trade, which occupation he followed for some time, but also practiced as a journalist managing the Canadian department of the publication Collier’s Weekly. {69} In 1909 he was listed in Gaa Paa as co-editor and publisher of Mengshoel’s newspaper. Andrew Devold was gradually drawn into the American section of the Public Ownership party, as the Minnesota state socialist party was named, probably to appease the predominantly agricultural population of the state, and in 1910 he ran for his party - unsuccessfully - as a candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives. {70} In 1914, however, he was the second socialist representative to be elected to the Minnesota House, and in 1918, he became a member of the state senate, where he served for five terms until his death in 1939. After law studies at the University of Minnesota, he was admitted to the bar in 1917 and preferred to practice law in Minneapolis rather than carry on with newspaper work. His relationship to the newspaper remained close and of mutual benefit, however, as he often submitted articles, and Gaa Paa before every election promoted his candidacy and recorded his successes in the legislature. In this way, Devold’s prestige in state politics gave Gaa Paa increased credibility, at the same time that the newspaper furthered Devold’s political career.

Olaf Andreas (Andrew O.) Devold. Courtesy Minnesota History Society.

Mainline Norwegian-American publications regarded Gaa Paa as the reddest and most radical among all their newspapers. {71} and the Mengshoel family as red menaces or cranks. Judging by the kind of socialism Gaa Paa represented, it seems such attitudes were misguided. Mengshoel’s political stance most resembled traditional social democracy as it developed in the labor parties of Scandinavia and Great Britain in the years between the world wars, the only difference being Mengshoel’s more negative view of strike action. Despite his moderate socialist attitude, however, his form was often more militant than the content required and provoked his staid compatriots; Mengshoel liked to flaunt his radicalism. To the usual complaint in bourgeois newspapers that socialism taught “class hatred,” for example, Mengshoel retorted: “Our enemies accuse us socialists of hating the rich. Naturally we do - could anybody tell us why we shouldn’t? We are human beings and are not ashamed of anything human. There are probably quite a lot of our party comrades who say ‘they only hate the system,’ but in all honesty that is only a euphemism. Indeed, I would like to see the man who could perform a psychological balancing trick like this one: to hate the system, an abstract, complex concept, without hating the people whose schemes are the cause for the existence of the system! No, let us above all be honest! Let us confess that we hate the entire criminal, soulless, and contemptible conspiracy of money grubbers and their followers and defenders with a burning hatred that will never be extinguished until their useless class has been removed from the earth!” {72}

The kind of class struggle Mengshoel thought necessary to keep the wheels of American history rolling toward socialism was much less frightening than might be expected from reading some of his colorful editorials. The key to his understanding of the Marxist concept of class struggle was in fact the ballot. Socialist education of the working class was necessary to convince the workers to vote the Socialist party, not to make a revolution. When a majority of the electorate had voted the party into power, there would be no need for violent revolution; the program of the Socialist party would then be gradually introduced and would transform America into a socialist society.

Because his struggle for socialism relied exclusively on voting, his view of what social groups were natural allies of the working class was relatively wide, and in time became even wider. While the Socialist party program prescribed national confiscation and collectivization of big farms, and a large proportion of Norwegians in the Upper Middle West were farmers, Mengshoel often pointed out that all small farmers who tilled their own soil could be absolutely sure to keep the title to their land in their own lifetime, if they so wished. However, the economic plight of all farmers was brought upon them by capitalism and could not be alleviated until socialism was introduced. Likewise, in the 1920s, when socialism was on the wane and his newspaper was squeezed between the moderate reformism of the successful Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota and emerging communism, he included all groups that criticized big business and conservative politicians - from small businessmen and progressives to social democrats and communists - in the rather woolly term “the people,” who were all for the same end and only disagreed as to the means to get there. As an evolutionary parliamentary social democrat, Mengshoel was against communist revolutions in America, anarchist bomb attacks, and industrial sabotage, but at the same time deplored that communists, anarchists, and syndicalists would not cooperate with the Socialist party in elections. In his novel Mené Tekél, portraying Norwegian-American working-class life, published during the year of the postwar Red Scare in America, he strongly emphasized his opposition to violent political action.


During World War I, the anti-hyphenate campaign against immigrants suspected of harboring divided loyalties affected Norwegian Americans relatively mildly because they were regarded as more “assimilable” than the peoples of eastern or southern Europe, and according to historian Carl H. Chrislock, the Norwegian-language press “unreservedly and consistently backed America’s overseas crusades.” He points out, however, that Mengshoel’s publication stood out as “a conspicuous exception to the pro-war consensus of the Norwegian-American journalistic network.” {73} From the beginning of the war in Europe, Mengshoel and his party strongly criticized the increase in American armaments, the lack of neutrality, and the whipping up of intolerant nativism. Most of the socialist press that kept up their protest after April, 1917, when America joined in the hostilities, were hard hit by government censorship and repression.

Mengshoel’s novel Mené Tekél (1919) is one of the very few Norwegian-American novels that can be defined as worker literature. Courtesy University of Oslo, Norwegian-American collection.

Although Mengshoel never made a secret of preferring the noble culture and civilization of autocratic Germany to the “popular ballyhoo” and “capitalist robber bands” ruling Britain and the United States, and the Norwegian-American press repeatedly accused him of being pro-German and called his publication “a rotten Jerry rag,” {74} Mengshoel himself claimed to be absolutely neutral in the armed conflict - decidedly more neutral than those who supported the American government’s pro-British stance. For those who labeled anti-war proponents traitors, he acknowledged his status as a traitor “against the profiteers of the export trade, foodstuff speculators, shipping companies, the munitions trust, and Wall Street.” {75} That after America declared war on Germany in 1917 he was not alone in pinning his hopes for peace in Europe on the Russian Revolution is demonstrated by the following telegram from an unanimous Minnesota House of Representatives to the Russian Duma in Petrograd, penned by Andrew Devold: “It is the hope of this commonwealth that you not only succeed in establishing your new government on a firm and lasting foundation, but that your country become a force for uplift, progress, and peace on the European continent.” {76}

American intervention in the war made dissent difficult and dangerous. Government legislation - the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, the Trading with the Enemy Act of October 6, 1917, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918 - limited expression of opinion against government war policy, state administrations passed further regulations, while street mobs took the law into their own hands. Neither official government spokesmen nor the bulk of the national press had much to say about the rising number of incidents of violent mob action and arbitrary imprisonment. Press commentary was, to the contrary, often instrumental in whipping up public hysteria and legitimizing extralegal action against alleged disloyal activity. {77} Gaa Paa’s immediate reaction to the war measures was to claim that although they curtailed civil liberties and were therefore unconstitutional, nonetheless protests would be futile. Mengshoel wrote: “The reason why we, the friends of peace, do not propagandize forcefully against this martial law which at present is in operation is not because we are frightened, but we would not try to sermonize about common sense in a lunatic asylum or preach about morality in a den of robbers. It would be a pointless waste of time.” {78}

Prussianism had become a part of American life, Mengshoel declared, and his main concern became to expose and attack the growing number of violations of civil liberties rather than risk his newspaper venture in a doomed struggle against the fact of American war involvement. {79} Gaa Paa’s few pages now were filled with news reports and documentation of “The War in Our Country,” a column Mengshoel ran during most of the war. His reports about incidents of repression were frequently based on news items in other socialist or liberal English-language newspapers, but letters from readers or from Gaa Paa’s various contacts throughout the country also contributed firsthand or background information.

The editorial line of obstinate opposition to the war and the war spirit that Mengshoel chose for his publication was clearly a risky course for a small socialist weekly. By the end of the war, nearly every socialist newspaper had been either denied second-class mailing privileges or barred entirely from the mail, and most of those that had not been forced out of business had capitulated and assumed a pro-war stance {80} - the Appeal to Reason included. Mengshoel deplored the fact that “the pioneer among working-class newspapers in this country . . . had sold out to the capitalist camp.” He asserted, however: “Party comrades and party journals may betray our cause, from fear or force. But not all can be scared or bought off.” {81}

But early in the autumn of 1918, Gaa Paa’s turn came. In April, Mengshoel had reported two break-ins in his business offices and the theft of his subscription file, correspondence, and accounts, {82} and in the course of the summer, to use his own words, “Gaa Paa was repeatedly visited by sleuths and became the object of other inexplicable occurrences.” {83} The climax came in September, when the postal authorities barred Gaa Paa from access to the mails. From his local postmaster in Minneapolis Mengshoel received a statement that included the stop order signed by the censor of the Post Office Department, W. H. Lamar, who declared that a review of the last two volumes of Gaa Paa showed that the editor routinely failed to comply with the Trading with the Enemy Act, and that he had published material violating the Espionage Act. {84}

In the period following this governmental action, the Mengshoel family and their publication faced a precarious existence. Members of the Socialist party in Minneapolis helped with distribution in the Twin Cities area, and to try to meet production costs Mengshoel raised the price on single copies to five cents. {85} However, there was little use in spending the weekly sum of thirty dollars to publish a newspaper that could not be distributed to its subscribers, and eventually it became a bimonthly. Single-copy sales in the Twin Cities could not compensate for the lost mail subscriptions. Some weeks passed without publication before his newspaper reappeared with a Christmas issue under a new masthead on December 21: Folkets Røst (Voice of the People). By then he had been publishing his newspaper for four months without being able to mail it out, and this caused him so great a financial loss that he thought he would never be able to recoup it. {86} Another problem Mengshoel feared for the future was the disloyalty label that tended to be attached to publications under suspicion of having violated anti-sedition laws. For example, in a letter Helle Mengshoel wrote to Olav Kringen in 1920, she claimed that although most Norwegian-American doctors and lawyers in Minneapolis subscribed to Folkets Røst, they did not dare to advertise because of the accusation of disloyalty still hovering over the newspaper. {87}

FOLKETS RØST, 1919-1925

After November, 1917, the socialist or Bolshevik stage in the Russian Revolution cheered and revitalized socialists in Europe as well as in America, and from 1918 to 1919, membership in the American Socialist party grew in both size and radicalism. In mainstream America, however, there was widespread distrust of Russian Bolshevism and a growing fear that in the near future American institutions would be threatened by foreign as well as native revolutionaries. The patriotism and fear of treason implanted in Americans during the war now focused on immigrant and native-born subversives said to be plotting revolution, and following the armistice on November 11, 1918, the year of the legendary Red Scare brought repression of radical criticism and political activity to a climax.

Revolutionary developments in Europe also precipitated a formal break between the revolutionaries and the reformists who had coexisted within the American Socialist party from its inception. The party split between the communists and the social democrats in 1919 effectively thwarted all hope of a socialist third party that could challenge the power of the parties of capitalism. Although Mengshoel was definitely against a revolutionary strategy in America, he regretted in Folkets Røst that the communists could not coexist with their less revolutionary comrades within the party, because socialism was the goal of both wings, and the party that was the best guarantee for socialism in America could be fatally wounded. Time certainly proved Mengshoel right, but in 1919 he was out of step with developments in both Norway and America, as the Norwegian Labor party adopted the revolutionary line of the Third (Communist) International, and the Scandinavian Socialist Federation in Chicago by a considerable majority voted itself out of the Socialist party in 1920.

Masthead of Folkets Røst, 1919.

Both Mengshoel’s hope for future cooperation between communists and socialists and his fear of losing many good subscribers restrained him from attacking communism in his columns. For example, when he featured contributions from his friends Olav Kringen and Christian Holtermann Knudsen that criticized the Norwegian Labor party, a shower of letters scolded both the contributors and the editor in language that shocked even hardened Mengshoel. {88} Throughout the 1920s, until Folkets Røst was discontinued in 1925, Mengshoel wholeheartedly supported the Socialist party line of cooperation with the promising political coalition of Minnesota farmers and labor unions in the Farmer-Labor party, in which Andrew Devold was a powerful force. Subscriptions canceled by communists were made up for by farmers, as Folkets Røst maintained its pre-war and wartime circulation at a time when other socialist publications were failing. {89}

The name of Mengshoel’s rechristened newspaper, Folkets Røst, suggested a considerably wider target group than that of “Gaa Paa,” which conveyed Marxist connotations. Also Gaa Paa’s masthead tag line, the militant Marxist slogan “The Liberation of the Working Class Can Only Be Carried Out by the Workers Themselves” had been replaced by the more cryptic Latin phrase “Vox Populi Vox Dei” (The voice of the people is the voice of God). At the head of the editorial column another tag line proclaimed that this was “A Newspaper for Norwegians in America,” a far cry from Gaa Paa’s claim to be a socialist journal for Scandinavian workers. In the first issue of Folkets Røst, Mengshoel editorialized that those Norwegians who did not look upon themselves as belonging to the people were too few to bother with and added that he trusted that his new organ would not founder on the rocks of insidious intrigues inspired by unjust suspicion and petty intolerance. {90}

Although Mengshoel had to adjust Folkets Røst somewhat to new political realities, this did not mean that his newspaper became less stimulating in style and content. During the year of the Red Scare in 1919, for example, he repeatedly took to task two Norwegian-American politicians who gained national reputation for their red-baiting. Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota represented those who favored continuation of wartime censorship: “We need now, even more than we did during the days of the war, legislation to protect the people of the United States against the circulation of dangerous literature through the mail.” He argued that it was the duty of Congress “to protect the American people against the poisonous spirit of anarchy and sedition. The Constitution never was intended for the protection of people of that kind. To my mind it is idle to invoke the liberty of the press for those classes of people. They are outside of the pale of constitutional or any other law.” {91} Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle won national attention as the man who broke the general strike in his city in February, then quintupled his income by resigning as mayor to tour the country giving lectures on how to quell the dangers of domestic Bolshevism. {92}

From early in 1919, much of the space in Folkets Røst’s columns was filled with reports about the waves of new strikes and labor unrest that were especially fierce in the Pacific Northwest. Mengshoel strongly disapproved of the way the Seattle general strike had been broken. He reported that fifty-four leading strike agitators had been arrested, summarily put on a train, and taken to Ellis Island for deportation. They were mostly Russians, Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians. When they were transferred from the train to the boat for Ellis Island, a group of them gave nine cheers for the Bolsheviks and the Industrial Workers of the World and shouted “To hell with America,” Mengshoel gleefully reported. {93} Later in the year, he related that one of the deported Norwegians, Olaf Finnestad, was now content with his new life in Kristiania, where he delivered soapbox oratory about conditions in America to crowds of people every night. Mengshoel quoted Finnestad as saying that because workers were well paid in Norway, other Norwegian-American workers should not hesitate to return and help him and the Norwegian socialists {94} In Folkets Røst both Mayor Hanson and Senator Nelson were hauled over the coals: “‘I almost feel ashamed to be a Norwegian,’ an honest old Norwegian worker from this city said when he paid us a visit last Sunday. He had read in the Sunday papers about the ‘Bolshevik propaganda’ in America and Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson’s dirty attacks on the striking shipyard workers and the other union workers who stopped work in sympathy with them. Yes, every honorable, thinking, upright Norwegian might be strongly inclined to be embarrassed on behalf of his national origin because such abominable parasites are bringing shame upon the honorable name of our worker nation. We can only be disgusted by such skunks. But the typical Norwegian parvenus of this country are nearly bursting with pride over the big-mouthed Seattle realtor’s attacks on deceived workers as well as over the senile Senator Nelson’s mutterings.” {95} This excerpt from Folkets Røst shows that the editor’s principal concern was still to publish his journal as an alternative to the bourgeois Norwegian-language press, and in much the same way as during the war he dared to take a clear stand against the Red Scare.

Gaa Paa and Folkets Røst were required to submit translations in English during World War I and the Red Scare.

And just as during World War I, the repressive atmosphere of the Red Scare endangered the existence of Mengshoel’s publication, mainly because of its skirmishes with the American Legion, the powerful war-veteran organization. The American Legion, which historian John Higham styles “the supreme embodiment of the 100 percent Americanism philosophy,” {96} was originally a veterans’ organization founded by army officers concerned about the morale of the homesick troops and alarmed at the radical ferment among the soldiers. As was formally expressed at the Legion’s first national convention in Minneapolis in 1919, its drive against radicalism was closely connected with its drive for Americanization. Historian Robert K. Murray rates the Legion and the Ku Klux Klan as the most effective societies during the Red Scare and early 1920s in their ability to promote public fear of radicalism and enforce 100 percent loyalty. {97}

When Folkets Røst, in October, 1919, featured an anonymous article which castigated the Americanization campaign of the American Legion and recommended that discharged soldiers join the World War Veterans, the veterans’ organization supported by the Socialist party, {98} retaliation from the Legion was not long in coming. A contributor to the Astoria Budget threatened that because Folkets Røst spoke with contempt about the Legion it would lose all ads from Astoria, Oregon, as well as its second-class postal rates. {99} In addition, a certain delegate from the local Legion chapter in Astoria had been given the responsibility to instigate harassment of Mengshoel’s newspaper during the Legion’s first annual meeting in Minneapolis from November 10 to 12; {100} only a month after Folkets Røst’s criticism of the Legion, 20,000 Legionnaires were to convene in Minneapolis.

The editor expected the worst this time. Because of harassment from the police and unidentified “spies” during the war, the Mengshoels had already moved their living quarters up from the street level of their business office. They felt more secure being able to keep the entrance under surveillance from the upper floor. {101} Because of the recent threats, Mengshoel also hid his subscription file, types, and typesetter’s cases, and shunned the business premises during the days the convention lasted. Tarring and feathering, for example, was one of the fates he envisioned for Mrs. Mengshoel and himself. {102} Although there was a reduction in advertising from Astoria, the dangerous situation in Minneapolis blew over without any harm to the Mengshoels. Nevertheless, the precautions they took were evidently justified; the headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World in Minneapolis was attacked, and they felt that they could not expect protection from the police. It seems Helle Mengshoel felt her husband’s militancy was a bit too much. She feared he might go so far that he would have himself deported; only then would he be satisfied, she wrote. {103}

The five final years of Mengshoel’s career as a newspaper publisher, from 1920 to 1925, represented an anticlimax for him politically as well as professionally. General lack of enthusiasm for the socialist creed was not the only circumstance that disconcerted the Mengshoels; they felt that people had become less interested in taking part in political life as well as reading about political questions in newspapers.

The Mengshoels’ participation in politics was not restricted to putting out their weekly newspaper. They had always worked for their party organization, assisting in canvassing for candidates they supported and attending numerous political raffles. In 1925, for example, they visited 2,000 homes to bolster the campaign for a socialist alderman in the city administration. {104} By this time, Mengshoel had acquired some standing in his community, and because of dissatisfaction with Minneapolis Tidende, the leading Norwegian-language newspaper in Minneapolis, influential Norwegian Americans asked him to cooperate in establishing another newspaper in the city. {105} In 1924, he served as election judge in his precinct, {106} and he also probably served for some time as one of the four street commissioners in Minneapolis, who were politically appointed. {107} When he lost his extra income from this position in 1925, Mrs. Mengshoel regretted it: “Oh what misery! The paper cannot pay for itself in this Sodom and Gomorrah. I am tired of it all. {108}

As Helle Mengshoel’s exclamation indicates, their economic situation became increasingly difficult throughout the 1920s. Although the income of Folkets Røst remained low, its cost of production kept rising. Hired labor, paper, and postage rose constantly in price from the end of the war until their newspaper was discontinued in 1925. Mengshoel tried to meet increasing expenses by a moderate raise in subscription fees and filling so much of the newspaper with advertising that several readers complained - especially because he sometimes allowed political contenders the use of Folkets Røst’s pages. The editor maintained, however, that political as well as commercial advertisers paid for space only, and not for the opinion of the editor, which had never been for sale. Or as he put it metaphorically: “If someone comes along who pays you to stick up a circus poster on one of your back walls, that does not make you responsible for the elephant, monkeys, or clowns. {109} But when the newspaper also began losing advertisers and from November 15, 1924, became bimonthly, the editor must have realized that the end was approaching.

The demise of Fokets Røst in 1925 resulted from several interrelated factors in addition to its rising costs. The general agricultural crisis and urban labor unemployment of the decade, combined with a gradual loss of Norwegian-speaking audience because of assimilation and reduced immigration, undermined the prosperity of all Norwegian-American publications, while the failure of a left-wing political alternative especially weakened socialist publishing. It seems that what finally killed Folkets Røst was illness. In 1925, Mrs. Mengshoel turned sixty-five and her husband fifty-nine, and the constant strain of hard work had broken their health. She had a weak chest and had to leave work more and more often to recuperate from flu and bronchitis. Mengshoel suffered from rheumatism, and when he damaged a nerve by lifting, Mrs. Mengshoel wrote that he was almost a cripple. {110} Because of his wife’s illness, Mengshoel was thrown entirely on his own resources from the spring of 1925, and when he fell ill himself in September he could do little more than churn out the newspaper week after week with so little change in material that the issues appeared to be almost identical. The appeal of the publication was rapidly dwindling to naught, and on October 31, 1925, Mengshoel’s career as newspaper publisher ended.

Six weeks before the last issue, he printed a poem called “Dødsseileren” (Sailor of Death) across two columns on his front page that expressed the purpose and determination of his life. {111} The poem was a stubborn declaration that he was still under the vow he had made to keep on sailing until he reached the harbor of his ideals: socialism. Although his ship was now a mere spectre, a voice from the depths, only death could stop him from sailing on, tacking against the wind. But the following month, the captain capsized his ship. Nevertheless he must have found some satisfaction in what he and his family had accomplished over twenty-two years. With very little help from socialists, Mengshoel had pioneered in establishing a stable and long-lived medium for the highly migratory Norwegian-American working class as well as radicalizing farmers and uniting them behind socialist principles. When the socialist alternative failed, he readjusted his course somewhat and became a force behind the reform politics of the Farmer-Labor movement. During the war and the Red Scare, Mengshoel boldly confronted the powerful anti-radical and nationalistic movement and became one of the very few consistent Norwegian-American voices against the war. As he stated many times in his editorials and poems, he could never reconcile himself to becoming a craven spirit.

During his last few years, he found time to renew interests he had repressed for a long time because of his work situation. He painted, received piano instruction over a ten-year period, and composed music to his own and other authors’ poems; he read extensively in at least six languages, and attended classical music concerts, theatre performances, and ballets. As Carl Søyland’s article in Nordisk Tidende testifies, his well-reasoned and hard-hitting dissent was still listened to after the termination of his own publication: from 1925 to 1944 he wrote close to 200 signed contributions to Norwegian-American newspapers. The last five years of his life he particularly employed his pen in the struggle against fascism and for the liberation of Norway from German occupation. He suffered a brain hemorrhage in January, 1945, and although he survived new-won Norwegian freedom on May 7 by eighteen days, it is doubtful if he ever comprehended that the cause he had closest at heart during his five final years had been won. {112}

The main issue is not whether Mengshoel’s work to radicalize working-class minds was successful or not. His struggle was doomed because the general demise of socialism in America also wiped out the Scandinavian-American socialist movement. The fact remains that he was a leading exponent of a highly conscious and vocal Norwegian-American segment that historians have tended to pass over in silence when they recorded the history of this ethnic group. Nor was he alone. In the ethnic organizations of the Socialist party, in the communist parties, in the Industrial Workers of the World, in labor unions, and in several other organizations Norwegian immigrants served as both leaders and rank-and-file members who, like Mengshoel, dedicated their lives to socialism. By throwing light on their achievements, one not only gains greater insight into Norwegian-American socialism and consequently the working class, but also creates a more comprehensive picture of the whole Norwegian-American group. It is high time the silence was broken.


<1> C. S., “En gammel norsk-amerikansk redaktør, som leser Cervantes på spansk,” in Nordisk Tidende, June 11, 1942.

<2> During the last years of his life he was, curiously, translating Dante from Spanish to Russian. Obituary, Normanden, June 7, 1945.

<3> E. L. Mengshoel, “Personlige erindringer om Amerikas mest berømte humorist - Mark Twain: Humoreske i to [sic] deler.” The three-part series appeared in Nordisk Tidende, July 9, 16, 23, 1942.

<4> The book he was reading from was Mark Twain, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, first published in 1867.

<5> In America his black sheep of a father had settled in Sioux City, Iowa, and married a Norwegian girl, who gave birth to a daughter.

<6> Mengshoel preferred to be called Lauritz (Lawrence) in America.

<7> Mark Twain and his family were living in Berlin, Germany, from October, 1891, through February, 1892, and from the middle of January until early in February he was sick in bed. Letters received from Hamlin Hill, May 19, 1987, and the editor of The Mark Twain Journal in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas A. Tenney, September 22, 1987.

<8> This article is based on the author’s Cand. Phiol. thesis, University of Oslo, 1988: “A Socialist among Norwegian-Americans: Emil Lauritz Mengshoel, Newspaper Publisher and Author.” The only new material is Carl Søyland’s article in Nordisk Tidende. All translations from Norwegian sources are the author’s. Other articles about Mengshoel and Norwegian-American socialism by the author include: “Scandinavian-American Socialist Newspapers with Emphasis on the Norwegian Contribution and E. L. Mengshoel’s Gaa Paa/Folkets Røst,” in Essays on the Scandinavian-North American Radical Press 1880s-1930s, ed. Dirk Hoerder (Bremen, Germany, 1984), 79-99; “Mer enn halvparten ble ‘byproletariat,’” in Arbeiderbladet, August 1, 1984; “Ny viten om norske sosialistaviser i USA,” in Arbeiderbladet, August 2, 1984; “Emil Lauritz Mengshoel: A Norwegian-American Socialist,” in Essays on Norwegian-American Literature and History, eds. Dorothy B. Skårdal and Ingeborg Kongslien (Oslo, 1986), 301-312; “Emil L. Mengshoel. Sosialistisk avisutgiver og forfatter,” in Essays on Norwegian-American Literature and History, volume II, eds. Øyvind T. Gulliksen, Ingeborg R. Kongslien, and Dina Tolfsby (Oslo, 1990), 121-128.

<9> The church register for Vardal parish in the Norwegian State Archives at Hamar gives the dates of Mengshoel’s birth and baptism. It also contains the names and status of his parents and the fact of his illegitimacy.

<10> Petronelle Andersdatter Bondlien (Petra Bondlien) and her six children are listed as on poor relief in the Gjøvik census of 1865, but there is no trace of them in the subsequent one of 1875.

<11> Mengshoel gives an account of his growing up on the Mengshoel farm in a sixteen-page manuscript he had printed in Kristiania shortly before he left Norway in 1887: Lorenzo Silvani (pseudonym for Mengshoel - “Lauritz the Rustic”), “Tre aar i garnisonen” (Kristiania, 1887). The manuscript stops abruptly in the middle of a sentence at the bottom of page sixteen, when the first-person narrator has just arrived in Kristiania to attend the school for non-commissioned officers, and the publication has no back cover.

<12> The Mengshoel traditional equivalent is “taterjente,” which definitely implies ragged clothes and low social status but not necessarily a roving life or a member of the Gypsy people.

<13> Oral information from Kristiane and Leif Mengshoel, retired farmers on the Mengshoel farm.

<14> ”Silvani,” “Tre aar i garnisonen.”

<15> The marks Mengshoel’s class got in oral and written Norwegian language are listed in a grade book from the school for non-commissioned officers. On a scale of marks from 1 to 4, with 1 at the top, the average score was between 2.6 and 2.7. Mengshoel was the only student achieving grades above 2.0. In written Norwegian, he got the absolute top mark 1.0, while in orals, he got 1.5. See grade records, 2. Akershusiske brigade, Underofficer-skolen, sersjantklasse b, May, 1887, at The National Archives in Oslo. Teaching himself all his life, Mengshoel became a learned man, especially in linguistics, as his many articles in Norwegian-American newspapers testify. He mastered several languages fluently, among them Spanish, Italian, Russian, French, German, and Esperanto.

<16> Mengshoel, “Fra Olefine Moes tid,” in Minneapolis Tidende, May 1, 1930.

<17> Mengshoel, Méné Tekél (Minneapolis, 1919), 40-41; Sigmund Skard, USA i norsk historie (Oslo, 1976), 303; Bjørn Bjørnsen, Har du hjerte? Tusener lider! (Oslo, 1984), 12.

<18> Mengshoel, “Hjem og tilbage,” in Gaa Paa, December 6, 1913.

<19> He stated that in his autobiographical articles in Nordisk Tidende. His wife wrote back to Norway in 1899 that she was married to the author E. L. Mengshoel, and that he had already produced two novels.

<20> Mengshoel, “Personlige erindringer,” part one.

<21> Mengshoel, “Ogsaa en Nytaarsnat,” in Nye Normanden, January 1, 1901.

<22> Mengshoel, Øen Salvavida. Et samfunnsbillede (Girard, Kansas, 1904).

<23> Karl Ludvig Mengshoel lived at least ten or twelve years with his family in Sioux City, Iowa, as a photograph shows him with his daughter Ellen, who seems to be of that age. Her name was scribbled on the back of the picture. The Mengshoels’ oral family tradition says that Karl Ludvig died after a few years in America.

<24> Mengshoel, “M.h.t. ‘Aksel og Valborg,’” in Normanden, August 3, 1944. Together with Norwegian-American notables such as the minister, newspaper editor, and pharmacist, Mengshoel was appointed to give advice to the Sioux City library board on Norwegian literature (“Mer skandinavisk literatur i byens bibliotek,” in Sioux City Tidende, October 7, 1892). He was also elected to the accounts committee of his singing society, and in 1894 wrote a song, “Sangerfestkantate” (Song Festival Cantata), that the choruses of Sioux City sang at the annual Song Festival for all Norwegian-American male choruses in Sioux City that year. “Normædenes Sangforening,” in Sioux, City Tidende, October 7, 1893; “Sangerfestkantate,” in Sioux City Tidende, June 30, 1894.

<25> C S., “En gammel norsk-amerikansk redaktør.”

<26> Mengshoel, “Den avsatte byretsdommer,” in Decorah-Posten, November 4, 1941.

<27> Mengshoel’s negative opinion of American culture is very close to Knut Hamsun’s view in Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (Copenhagen, 1889) based on his two stays in America in the 1880s.

<28> Howard H. Quint, The Forging of American Socialism (Columbia, South Carolina, 1953), vil.

<29> Mengshoel, “Ragnarok,” in Nye Normanden, December 6, 1898.

<30> Mengshoel, “I tyve aar,” in Folkets Røst, December 29, 1923.

<31> Hans Andersen Foss (1851-1929) is best known today as the author of the first best-seller among Norwegian-American novels: Husmandsgutten (The Cotter’s Son). Besides being a prolific author, Foss was for many years an influential factor in Norwegian-American politics, especially as a radical editor of the prohibitionist and populist newspaper Normanden (The Norseman) in North Dakota from 1888 to 1893. In an obituary, “E. L. Mengshoel, Minneapolis, død,” in Normanden, June 7, 1945, it is stated that Mengshoel worked as a typographer for Normanden in the 1890s.

<32> Olav Kringen (1867-195 1) emigrated to America in 1887, where he served as teacher and journalist. In 1897 he became a staff member of Social-Demokraten in Kristiania, and from 1903 to 1906 he served as editor. He was one of the political forces behind the Norwegian Labor party and represented the party on various national and international committees. He later founded and edited several local socialist newspapers as well as working for Social-Demokraten. Both Mengshoel and his wife knew him well from his years in Minneapolis, and Helle Mengshoel corresponded regularly with him from 1917 to 1925. Twenty-three letters from Helle Mengshoel and one from her son, Olaf Andreas Devold, are available in the Olav Kringen Papers, Norwegian Labor Movement Archives, Oslo.

<33> Letter from Helle Mengshoel to Niels Devold, May 23, 1899.

<34> A. Landmark, Stamtavle over en norsk slegt LANDMARK (Christiania, 1924), 47; Helle Mengshoel, “Lidt Genealogi,” in Folkets Røst, December 13, 1921.

<35> Landmark, Stamtavle, 46-47.

<36> Oral information from Ola Devold, collected from the Devold family in Oslo.

<37> Announcement of the fortieth birthday of Olaf Andreas Devold in Folkets Røst, November 1, 1919.

<38> The letters from Helle Mengshoel to Carl Jeppesen and Christian Holtermann Knudsen are deposited in the Norwegian Labor Movement Archives. No surviving letters from Helle Mengshoel’s correspondence with Fernanda Nissen have been found.

<39> Helle and Niels Devold were divorced by Order in Council, January 1, 1900. A divorce was quite a scandal in the nineteenth century and difficult to obtain from the government - an average of only five divorces were granted to Norwegians annually up to 1900. See the Norwegian Ministry in Stockholm’s recommendation to the Swedish-Norwegian king of December 22, 1899, and the final resolution of the Order in Council of January 5, 1900, government recommendation 1935/1899 at the National Archives in Oslo. This situation accounts for certain discrepancies in dates between Helle Devold’s divorce and her remarriage.

<40> Among them were Professor Rasmus Anderson, journalist and novelist Peer O. Strømme (who advised Mengshoel to reemigrate), and doctor and author Knut M. Teigen.

<41> Untitled editorials in Fargo Posten, August 3, 31, 1900; and in Vesterheimen, April 10, 17, 24, May 1, 29, June 5, 1901.

<42> Helle Mengshoel, “Sladder,” in Nye Normanden, March 18, 1902.

<43> Norsk-amerikanernes festskrjft 1914, ed. Johannes B. Wist (Decorah, Iowa, 1914), 148.

<44> Mengshoel, “Times og anarkismen,” in Nye Normanden, September 24, 1901.

<45> Mengshoel, “Der er ikke?” in Gaa Paa, December 19, 1903.

<46> Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the USA, 3 (New York, 1973), 390.

<47> Elliot Shore, “Talkin’ Socialism: Julius A. Wayland, Fred D. Warren and Radical Publishing, 1890-1914” (Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, 1984), 95-96, 122.

<48> Shore, “Talkin’ Socialism,” 186-187.

<49> Festskrift 1914, 131.

<50> Festskrift 1914, 131; Mengshoel, “I tyve aar.”

<51> The Norwegian Americans were renowned for the great number of newspapers they published, with a total of over four hundred titles. Odd S. Lovoll, Det løfterike landet (Oslo, 1983), 118.

<52> Mengshoel, “I tyve aar.”

<53> Shore, “Talkin’ Socialism,” 117.

<54> Mengshoel, “I tyve aar.”

<55> Mengshoel, “Til læserne,” in Gaa Paa, December 12, 1903.

<56> Gaa Paa’s excellent cartoonist - and Mengshoel’s personal friend - was Guy H. Lockwood from Minneapolis. He also illustrated Mengshoel’s first novel, Øen Salvavida, and was the man behind the design of Gaa Paa’s elegant masthead.

<57> Shore, “Talkin’ Socialism,” 110.

<58> Mengshoel, “Noch Einmal,” in Gaa Paa, August 6, 1904; Oluf Steenvaag, “Lidt biografi,” in Folkets Røst, July 15, 1922.

<59> Helle Mengshoel wrote to Christian Holtermann Knudsen that the organization had failed because its first leader, recently immigrated Harald Hansen, journalist on Social-Demokraten in Kristiania, had become too fond of the bottle, and Mengshoel could not take over because he was no speaker - but a good journalist, she added. Helle Mengshoel to Christian Holtermann Knudsen, July 9, 1908, in Christian Holtermann Knudsen Papers, Norwegian Labor Movement Archives.

<60> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, November 19, 1904.

<61> Juu1 Dieseruud, “Den norske presse i Amerika. En historisk oversigt,” in Nordmands-Forbundet, April, 1912, 162.

<62> See Odd S. Lovoll, “Gaa Paa, A Scandinavian Voice of Dissent,” in Minnesota History, 52/3 (Fall, 1990), 86-99.

<63> Henry Bengston, Skandinaver pa vänsterflygeln i USA (Stockholm, 1955), 64-65.

<64> “Arbejdernes blad,” in Social-Demokraten, October 5, 1911.

<65> See, for example, Wm. Petersen, “Socialismen blandt skandinaverne i Amerika,” in Gaa Paa, August 12, 1911; Anton Kvist, “Til de stridslystne,” in Gaa Paa, September 30, 1911.

<66> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, October 14, 1911.

<67> ”Ærklæring,” in Social-Demokraten, May 31, 1912.

<68> Walther P. Wolfe, “In Memoriam Andrew O. Devold,” Hennepin County Bar Association Memorials, Archives/Manuscript Division, Minnesota Historical Society; Announcement of Andrew Devold’s fortieth birthday in Folkets Røst, November 1, 1919.

<69> Tidens Tanker (Kristiania), 4 (1921), 98.

<70> Helle Mengshoel to Carl Jeppesen, July 30, 1911, in Norwegian Labor Movement Archives.

<71> Festskrift 1914, 131.

<72> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, June 11, 1904.

<73> Carl H. Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I (Northfield, Minnesota, 1981), 66.

<74> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, February 19, 1916.

<75> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, March 10, 1917.

<76> The full text of the resolution is printed in Gaa Paa, April 21, 1917.

<77> H. C. Peterson and G. C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1957), 43-60.

<78> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, June 9, 1917.

<79> ”Til læserne,” in Gaa Paa, October 12, 1918.

<80> By the middle of 1918, the socialist press consisted almost exclusively of periodicals published in larger cities - those not dependent upon the mails for distribution. James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America 1912-1917 (New York, 1967), 93.

<81> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, December 15, 1917.

<82> Gaa Paa, April 20, 1918.

<83> Gaa Paa, October 12, 1918.

<84> “‘Gaa Paa’ stanset,” in Minneapolis Tidende, October 10, 1918.

<85> ”5c pr. Expl. for Gaa Paa!” in Gaa Paa, October 26, 1918.

<86> Untitled editorial, Gaa Paa, January 18, 1919.

<87> Helle Mengshoel to Olav Kringen, September 22, 1919. In Olav Kringen Papers.

<88> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, September 22, 1919.

<89> N. W. Ayer & Son’s Directory, Newspapers and Periodicals, 1920, 1921 (Philadelphia, annually since 1880).

<90> ”Glædelig jul!” in Folkets Røst, December 21, 1918.

<91> Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, 287-288.

<92> Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria (New York, 1964), 58-66; Terje I. Leiren, “Ole and the Reds: The Americanization of Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 30 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1985), 75-95.

<93> ”Streiken i Seattle tabt,” in Folkets Røst, February 15, 1919.

<94> “ ‘Undesirable Alien’ fra Amerika trives godt i Norge,” in Folkets Røst, August 9, 1919.

<95> Untitled editorial, Folkets Røst, February 15, 1919.

<96> John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925 (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1955), 256.

<97> Murray, Red Scare, 87-90; Higham, Strangers in the Land, 224, 256.

<98> “A Raw One,” in Folkets Røst, October 4, 1919.

<99> There was a radical Scandinavian labor movement in Astoria. Gaa Paa regularly devoted a page to developments there, as reported by their own correspondent.

<100> Helle Mengshoel to Olav Kringen, October 30, 1919; “VI ER TRUET,” in Folkets Røst, November 8, 1919.

<101> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, December 1, 1919.

<102> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, October 30, 1919.

<103> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, February 15, 1920.

<104> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, June 10, 1925.

<105> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, June 24, 1924.

<106> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, November 17, 1924.

<107> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, June 10, 1925; Carl H. Chrislock to Lloyd Hustvedt, October 28, 1986. According to Chrislock, the alderman of a ward appointed the street commissioner. It is therefore very likely that the alderman that the Mengshoels supported so actively in 1925 was the one responsible for such appointments in Mengshoel’s ward. Chrislock writes about the function of the street commissioner and the likelihood that Mengshoel held such a post: “By 1925, it seems, this [the street commissioner post] was basically a sinecure, a residue from earlier days when the commissioner from each ward . . . was in charge of street construction and maintenance in his ward. . . . Unfortunately, the proceedings of the Minneapolis City Council did not indicate that there was an extensive turnover of the commissioners in 1925. So we have a mystery here. Helle Mengshoel states definitely that her husband would now lose his job as street commissioner, but the council proceedings fail to indicate that he held this position. Could it be that he was an assistant, or that the commissioner for the sixth ward had a staff of which Mengshoel was a member?”

<108> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, June 10, 1925.

<109> Untitled editorial, Folkets Røst, June 19, 1920.

<110> Helle Mengshoel to Kringen, June 10, 1925.

<111> Mengshoel, “Dødsseileren,” in Folkets Røst, September 12, 1925. He often used “ship” as a metaphor for his newspaper: a “gunboat” against capitalism or, as in this poem, a “sailing-ship” bound for the promised land of socialism.

<112> He lies buried beside his wife, who died in 1929, in Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis.


<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page