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Travel narratives, Popular Religious Literature, Autobiography: N. N. Rønning's Contribution to Norwegian American Culture.
    by Øyvind T. Gulliksen (Volume 33: Page 165)

In his commencement address at Pacific Lutheran College in June, 1940, titled "Go forth, unafraid!" N. N. Rønning told the students: "I do not come to you as an educator; I come as a weather-beaten but unbent and unbroken traveler; an observer of things and men and movements." {1} The metaphors of the traveler and the observer are highly appropriate for a study of Rønning’s work as an immigrant writer. Rønning’s literary career will be evaluated here in three main genres: the travel narrative, popular religious literature, and finally autobiography. {2} Despite his lifelong career as a publisher, journalist, and writer in Minnesota, Rønning has apparently not yet been a subject of study. His writings will be examined here in the perspective of American culture at large as well as in the context of Norwegian-American scholarship.

Born in Bø, Telemark, in 1870, Nils N. Rønning emigrated to Minnesota when he was seventeen years old. His sister, Torbjørg, traveled with him. An older brother, Halvor, who had attended the seminary of the pietist Hauge’s Synod in Red Wing, had invited them to come. During his first summer in Minnesota, Nils stayed with Østen Hanson, the bishop of Hauge’s Synod, at Aspelund in Goodhue county. After attending public school in Faribault for two years, the capable young Nils sought out the synod’s more rigorous school at [166] Red Wing, and in 1891 he started his studies at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis.

Rønning wanted an American liberal arts education and did not wish to become a minister like his older brother. After five years at the university he went into church publishing, which became a lifelong career. Eventually president of the Norwegian-Danish Press Association in America, Rønning became a prolific writer of articles and books both in Norwegian and in English. He was often invited to speak at churches, schools, and colleges. Among his favorite lecture topics were Abraham Lincoln and the Bible as literature. He also found time to be active in Telelaget of America, the old-home society of immigrants from Telemark, and to edit their journal. Rønning died in Minneapolis at the age of ninety-two.


In 1899 Rønning decided to go back to visit his home community in Telemark. He had then been in Minnesota for twelve years. Four years later he published his first book, an account of his journey to the home place. His travel narrative was first published in English in 1903 and two printings of a Norwegian version appeared the following year.

The book represents a typical emigrant’s vision of his mother country. The home place remains static in his memory, always a stable and ideal background for the shifting circumstances of his life in the new country, although he now experiences his childhood farm according to "American standards" (33): everything has become so small. The return to Telemark in 1899 was imprinted on Rønning’s mind for the rest of his life. He never went back. When given a chance to return in 1937 for the centennial of the first emigration from Telemark to the United States, he saw no need of going because he still lived on memories from childhood and the wonderful visit in 1899. {3} Still later, writing in The Friend about a visit to his brother, Halvor, in Canada, he reported dreaming that he "was a boy again herding cattle in Norway." {4} This dream of an ideal rural existence and nostalgia for an untainted past — which is not the same as homesickness — never seem to have left him. [167]

Nils N. Rønning

His first book constitutes a rather unusual variation within the travel genre. By the turn of the century American travelers to Norway had published a number of accounts of visits, but most such writers were explorers of a new scene, first-time visitors who gave their readers a sense of the exotic unknown. Like Rønning they often included stories of folk dancing, music, mountain farms, and other romantic features of life considered typical of Norway at the time. But these [168] writers were strangers to the Norwegian scene, and assumed that their American readers were the same. {5}

Travel books written by descendants of Norwegian emigrants come closer to Rønning’s own position as a writer. A book in this category, which may have prompted Rønning to publish his, was In Viking Land or A Summer Tour in Norway, published two years earlier by Johanna Weborg. {6} As the daughter of an emigrant from Norway, she renders her coming to her mother’s place with a certain nostalgia unknown to other American writers. At her mother’s birthplace, she walks with a "feeling of exultation . . . as I seemed to stand there in her place" (55). Her personal account, interspersed with observations of peasant life and nature, ends on a farewell note: "fare-thee-well, Norway, highly-favored and fair amid the fair lands of the earth" (147), much like Rønning’s affectionate goodbye at the end of his book: "Farewell to Bø, my wonderful, my unforgettable Bø."

Personal travel narratives, often written by ordinary travelers and not necessarily by professional writers, commanded a wide audience at the time. Rønning’s account differs from others essentially because he rediscovers a world he already knew. He includes his reader in his text by frequently addressing the reader as "you" and by sentences in the imperative, like "so many pretty flowers you never saw" (32) and "so don’t listen to him" (27). Clearly Rønning has in mind an American reader who is either an immigrant or the child of one, who shares dreams of a romantic land, a going back for a while to the past.

Although surprised at the success of the book, Rønning quickly realized that a demand existed for an idealized version of a world its readers knew, but had left. Through his own homecoming, he wanted to invigorate the readers’ recollections of their home places. The reception of A Summer in Telemarken documents that as an immigrant Rønning succeeded. In a typical letter to The Friend of 1938, the editor of Skandinaven praised Rønning’s sketches of his old home that have "softened and warmed our harder life here." {7} Rønning’s travel account is untypical in recording an American’s route [169] east into the past, not a journey west into the future, by far the most common direction of journey narratives in American literature. {8} But Rønning’s homeward journey cannot be characterized as a signal of retreat and disappointment, "a defeated rebound from the primary venture." {9} Rønning’s account is the very opposite, a dream journey into a nourishing encounter with his rural past, in order to overcome some of the loss that emigration had inflicted on him. His readers could look back, not only to their home country, but to a less complicated and less mechanized world.

As a narrative of an immigrant’s travel back to his roots, A Summer in Telemarken compares with Louis Adamic’s more famous The Native’s Return: An American Immigrant Visits Yugoslavia and Discovers His Old County. {10} The two books were written by widely different authors, but they share some of the same observations. Like Rønning, Adamic gives an account of going back home for the first time since he emigrated. Adamic, who was fourteen years old when he came to the United States, waited nineteen years for his first return. His home community "seemed so very, very small" (14), although like Rønning Adamic expresses his joy on seeing that the same bridges, the same churches, the same stores remain (15). And in his conclusion Adamic admits, just like Rønning, that home is no longer in Europe: "I’m going home again — to America" (363).

Rønning’s account of a summer in the old country may have set a pattern for later Norwegian-American contributions to the same genre. Kristian Prestgard titled his account of a visit to Norway En Sommer i Norge. {11} Both Prestgard’s and Rønning’s sense of home is based on the dream of the child they once were. Their sense of being born again is linked to a pastoral vision of childhood. Both evoke the terms "holy" or "sacred" to describe the country place they had left years before (Rønning, 28; Prestgard, 1:37).

Rønning returned to an idyllic rural past, not to the urban culture many American writers described from travel to Europe. In fact Ronning’s cultural city center in his narrative is Boston, where he stops on his way to Telemark "to test my [170] Americanism" (11). A walk in the city is important, because as a student of American literature it is impossible not to "fall in love with old Boston" (7). His favorite place in the city is the Old Corner Bookstore, "much frequented by Longfellow, Lowell and Whittier, Emerson and Thoreau" (11). When Rønning sees his old farm in Telemark again, then, it comes as no surprise that both Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and James Russell Lowell inspire the returned immigrant narrator. (Prestgard refers to Aasmund O. Vinje and to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle.) Rønning introduces the reader to emotions he felt through a lengthy quotation that begins "And what is so rare as a day in June?" (30), from Lowell’s familiar poem of 1848, "The Vision of Sir Launfal," about the young knight’s search for the Holy Grail. {12} The quotation is appropriate not just because of its reference to summer. The knight eventually finds the cup in his own castle, and the secret of the grail is hidden in the very nature surrounding the castle, a fitting echo of Rønning’s own undertaking in his travel narrative.

Steeped in Lowell’s poetry, Rønning found a reflection there of the joy he felt on returning to Norway. In several of his poems, Lowell searches for religious solace in nature, in "fields my youth enticed." {13} Going back to his "native village, dear to me," Lowell is convinced that "our only possession is in the past." {14} Like his American Romantic mentor, Rønning spent much of his visit "on soul-satisfying daily communion with nature" (96). Almost all the attributes Rønning applies to Telemark in descriptive adjectives are taken from a typically Romantic literary context: "pure, genuine, unadulterated" (17), "fresh," "delightful" (20).

Rønning’s narrative voice does not always give in to sadness and nostalgia; some episodes are rendered with a sense of humor. Several sketches he wrote here and elsewhere are turned into comedy, even though his experience may have been painful when it happened. He writes about handling an unruly calf on the mountain farm, and about being a greenhorn in Minnesota, episodes he used in several published works. Rønning’s favorite American humorist was Robert Burdette, whose definition of humor Rønning quotes in his [171] travel book. Burdette served as a good model for Rønning, since Burdette thrived on being both a humorist and a pastor, often using church life for comedy, though never with scorn. {15}

Rønning may have used a diary, scattered notes, or just his memory when he prepared A Summer in Telemarken for publication. Among his favorite topics are ballads, tales, and folk traditions of Telemark, "no longer so popular in the valley" (67). In many ways his narrative is a good source of information on regional folkways in Telemark at the time; he includes everything from religious customs to horseracing and dancing. Rønning humorously yet appreciatively emphasizes the importance of his mother’s reading from a devotional book at home on Sundays: "While mother read the sermon, the soup kettle was hanging over the fire. I knew that when the sermon was finished, dinner would soon be served. As I sat right behind mother when she read, I would glance over her shoulder every time she turned a leaf to see if the end of the sermon was in sight" (31). Rønning’s mother had died before he returned to Norway. His meditation at her grave in 1899 was later included as "A Tribute to Mother" in his autobiography.

Rønning’s travel book traces a characteristic American story of progress from peasant boy in Telemark to publisher in Minneapolis, even if Rønning’s "success" did not bring material wealth. With great admiration he also presents stories such as that of the poet Aasmund O. Vinje as the epitome of the American dream: "I have tried to show that it is not only American boys who can win their way from log cabin to high and honorable positions" (83).

Reviews of Rønning’s books mention again and again simplicity of style as one of his merits. The style could nevertheless at times be tiringly repetitive. His novel Gutten fra Norge (The Boy from Norway, 1924) was serialized in Skandinaven in 1934, and as late as 1943 Rønning tried to persuade Decorah-Posten to reprint the same novel, apparently not aware that its day had passed. {16} Letters, often solicited, in praise of his books were used by Rønning without hesitation on dust [172] covers or in church publications to boost the sales of his books, which were often published at his own cost.

He would return to his homecoming of 1899 in The Boy from Telemark, a memoir published in 1933. Probably he felt the need to bring the story of his life to a new generation of readers since his book from 1903 had long been out of print. The later book was favorably mentioned by professors Theodore Blegen and Richard Beck and by Senator Henrik Shipstead, but their reviews do not offer much critical insight. {17} There is a sentimental streak in almost everything Rønning wrote, and The Boy from Telemark is no exception. Writing during the depression years, he was again reminded of his rural boyhood by the sight of children in the streets of an American city who were deprived of the wonders of nature. This time his travel back to Norway in 1899 takes on the language of a pilgrimage: "Every day of my stay was a benediction and a blessing. I would not have been surprised if a voice had come to me saying, ‘Take thy shoes off and uncover thy head, for thou art standing on holy ground’ "(147—148). In his 1933 account of the journey back, however, there is an emphasis on Rønning’s becoming an American which was not evident in his first travel book. He admits now that even in 1899 "I was somewhat a stranger in my own country. My interests were in America. I had two countries. . . . When I again set foot on American soil, it was not as a bewildered stranger; it was as a member of a family returning home after a pleasant visit to a pleasant place" (148). He had to return to the old country to be able to enter the United States again: this time as an American.

In a study of the "bygdelag" movement in America, Odd S. Lovoll explains that these societies based on Norwegian regions of emigration "grew out of the immigrants’ attachment to their old homes and were inspired by a strong feeling for family and kinship." {18} This attachment for Rønning was not without tensions. His persistent endeavor to secure the life of the Telelaget in America reflected his continuing interest in his home region. He served as secretary of the organization from 1914 to 1916, as president from 1933 to 1938, and as the [173] society’s historian from 1938 to 1953. In the end the survival of the Telelaget was totally dependent on Rønning’s efforts, although in the beginning he had run into problems with the leadership of the "lag." As Lovoll points out, there was an inherent conflict in some of the regional societies between a pietistic, intolerant attitude to pleasure and amusement on one side, and a deeply rooted joy in folk dance, folk tales, and fiddle music on the other. To Rønning this was a personal, at times painful conflict. He cherished the best parts of his Haugean background but was at the same time deeply moved by fiddle music and folklore. In A Summer in Telemarken he included a long essay full of praise for a renowned fiddler, and in his later autobiography he would confess: "I had the good fortune to be born in Telemark, a district which had more fairy tales, legends, and ballads than all the rest of Norway together. I reveled in fairy tales." {19} In his early work for the Telelaget he faced the dilemma of being both a pietist and a romantic. All his life Rønning tried to combine these two, often against extremists in both camps. Lovoll comments that Rønning withdrew from his job as secretary for the Telelaget in 1916, "because it permitted the exhibition of folk dancing." {20} It is very possible that Rønning’s resignation in this case was caused by outside church pressure more than by a deeply felt conviction on his part.

In several newspapers during the 1930s, Rønning, on behalf of the Telelaget, urged people to submit histories of immigrants from his region of Norway as well as letters, diaries, and other documents pertaining to Telemark. {21} The results of this campaign are uncertain. Rønning organized the last large-scale Telestevne, or gathering of immigrants from Telemark, in Minneapolis in 1937, and he was able to publish a few new issues of Telesoga from 1938 to 1953. In 1956 Rønning, then eighty-six years old, still retained the title of editor of Telesoga, but found himself increasingly alone in the effort to collect and publish relevant information. At the end he forwarded unedited material to Decorah-Posten because he was too tired, his hands shook, his eyesight was failing, and there was nobody else around to take over. {22} [174]

Rønning’s emigration in 1887 and his brief return in the summer of 1899 had produced a series of books and articles; he continued to travel back and forth repeatedly in his imagination between Norway and America. In his travel book of 1903 he presented a delightful though essentially static version of his home community. A need for a changeless vision of the mother country may be one reason why Rønning never made a second visit.



In 1923, during the decade often referred to in American culture as the roaring twenties or the jazz age, N. N. Rønning started to publish The Friend. Unlike magazines he had initiated earlier, The Friend proved an instant success. After the second issue 3,000 had subscribed to the magazine, and by the fall of that year there were 6,000 subscribers. {23} This may be accounted for in two ways. First of all The Friend was a newcomer of its kind among Norwegian-American publications. A growing number of the younger generation within the church wanted to read English, and according to Rønning they were increasingly put off by the sort of material that the Norwegian church in America usually published. Rønning himself felt that Lutheran literature on the whole had become "dogmatic and dry or too insipid and sentimental." {24} Secondly, Rønning was aiming to introduce what he called "Christian literature" among the younger generation of Norwegian-American readers. {25} In this sense, too, The Friend was a new venture "in Lutheran journalism." It is a mistake, says Rønning to his readers "to read only devotional literature." Consequently The Friend will publish "stories of the highest literary quality without pointing to a definite moral" (June, 1928). Rønning linked literature with morals, but his conception of popular religious literature was clearly broader than the prevailing one. It included ethical edification, public and political education, as well as literary quality. Soon a publishing company called The Christian Literature Company was established in Minneapolis for the two journals he edited, [175] The Friend and Familiens Magasin. The latter, published in Norwegian, came to a predictable halt in 1928.

In expecting The Friend to become the largest national Lutheran family magazine of its kind, Rønning had unduly high hopes. It continued to cater mostly to midwestern Norwegian-American readers. He mentions that the Christmas issue of 1937 was printed in 17,000 copies, 90 percent of which were sent to subscribers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota. Minor Norwegian local colorists such as Per Sivle, Halvor Floden, and Hans Aanrud, as well as a few Norwegian-American writers such as Dorthea Dahl appeared in The Friend without further identification. In the November issue of 1935 Rønning asserted that he was primarily interested in what influence "stories have on character building." Worried mothers wrote to the editor, complaining that even in Lutheran surroundings their children were not protected from exposure to "dancing, card playing, swearing, moving pictures" (June, 1924). Life had become different among Norwegian Americans, and Rønning tried to have his journal reflect such changes, painful though they might be: "Life is infinitely more complex. In former days our people were surrounded by a wall of their native language and by old world customs and traditions. Now that wall is down and the whole world swirls through our hearts and our homes." {26}

Given Rønning’s midwestern rural readership and his stand that the church should be culturally and politically relevant, it is not surprising that he used his influence in The Friend to support the candidacy of Herbert Hoover in 1918 against New York Catholic Democrat Alfred E. Smith. Hoover was the only possible choice for Rønning, because the Democratic candidate was "a personal wet." When Hoover was elected president in 1928 and Henrik Shipstead was reelected as a United States senator from Minnesota on the Farmer-Labor ticket, Rønning stated that "some of us do not feel so lonesome any more" (December, 1928). Rønning felt safe in his judgment of Shipstead, mostly because he was a fellow "Telemarking," a good friend, and a fellow admirer of Aasmund O. Vinje [176] (March, 1928). {27} Respect for Lincoln still committed Rønning to the Republicans, but in the 1930s, like many other Norwegian Americans, he shifted to the Democrats. He would include careful support for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his editorials in The Friend, and in 1934 he printed a speech by Roosevelt on social legislation. Roosevelt’s strength, Rønning wrote, was that his program "captivates the imagination of the lower classes" (August, 1938). In a commencement address to students at Pacific Lutheran College (now Pacific Lutheran University), Rønning even made Roosevelt’s words from his 1932 inaugural address his own, without identifying the Biblical source: "Where there is no vision, the people shall perish" (June, 1940).

In the early 1930s Rønning discussed politics and religion in correspondence with Nikolai Astrup Larsen, son of the Luther College president and himself a pastor in Sioux City, Iowa, who openly supported the Socialist candidate Norman Thomas in the presidential election of 1932. {28} In a sketch he wrote late in life Rønning came to the conclusion that history was mainly about clashes between classes, a lesson he was taught just as much by the Haugeans as by socialism: "the history of the world is the struggle between those who have too little and those who have too much. Those above seldom share justly with those below, before they are forced to." {29}

The progressivism of The Friend, however, had its limits. The magazine became the editor’s mouthpiece for a severe moral attack on what he considered to be the vast amount of inferior literature in the 1920s. Rønning’s admiration for American and British Romantic writers of the mid-nineteenth century left him little enthusiasm for contemporary American writing. In this respect he reflects the general conservatism of Norwegian America in cultural matters and its isolation from the intellectual life of Norway as well as the United States: "In some drugstores you can not find a single clean and high class magazine. Of course you look in vain for Christian literature. Nothing but filth is offered for sale. And it is being bought and read by millions of people." {30}

More than ten years later, in the November issue of 1935, [177] Rønning continued to advocate what he called "wholesome fiction," first of all because other church publications were not interested, and secondly because in his opinion the secular press continued to ignore it. Optimistically he invited readers from time to time to write their own short stories for his magazine. His advice to prospective writers is illuminating:

"Begin by writing about simple things," he urged in his November, 1925, issue. The American writer John Burroughs’ essays on observations of nature were mentioned as model prose. Stories submitted by the readers should be "clean and inspiring. They should deal with courage, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, consecration to some worthy cause, the overcoming of temptations, the victory in spiritual struggle," which had been the main themes of religious and moral fiction published in the United States since the middle of the nineteenth century. {31} Also interested in stories from immigrants, he encouraged young readers to solicit stories from parents and grandparents. The response to a short story contest he ran in the mid-1920s was overwhelming, and Rønning had to admit that he rejected most of the stories, because too few of the would-be writers wrote about their own experiences. The February, 1937, issue of The Friend includes an advertisement for a new short-story contest. Planning their stories, writers should have in mind that although men do read the magazine, the stories are "mainly read by women, young people and children from nine years and up."

Rønning set out the main points of his view on the status of literature in an address he delivered at a conference in Albert Lea, Minnesota, printed in The Friend in October, 1930, as "The Worldly Spirit in Literature." Faced with the outpourings of the sensational press, Rønning asked if this really is "the land of Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier and Hawthorne." He knew that he could rely on a church-based Norwegian-American readership to evoke the literary figures of New England. His pietistic sympathies would like to see a resurgence of interest in the Puritans; instead he complains that "it has become a popular indoor sport to heap ridicule upon the prudery of the Puritans." Contemporary writers in both Norway and [178] the United States, he felt, were too much addicted to "the unpleasant, the shady." Realism according to Rønning "condones sin. The great masterpieces of literature do not condone sin." {32}

Women, he judges, are better readers than men, but they must be liberated economically to invest in literature: "I am glad to say that mothers especially are becoming more and more interested in selecting good reading matter for their children. The trouble is that often the husband handles all the money, and if he is not interested then she stands there helpless." Men find it more interesting to talk "about how many miles per gallon." Rønning favors a literature that "deals with the social application of the gospel . . . We need a literature to show up our hypocrisy . . . among men who say, ‘holy, holy, holy,’ on Sunday, but practice the tricks of the devil on weekdays." Within the church context Rønning’s views on the nature and value of literature are perhaps surprising, though he also advocates the Bible as narrative. It is a shame to have students "talk with enthusiasm about Shakespeare and Ibsen, but remain silent when you mention Isaiah and Paul." {33}

Rønning adapted American mainstream popular religious fiction to his own use. It was important to him to get the young among his readership to read fiction that was morally sound "at a time when the country is flooded with poisonous literature and when even formerly decent magazines are catering to the lowest instincts of man." He was convinced that a good novel did not have to end in tragedy and despair. Critical of contemporary American writers of the 1920s and 30s, he is not sure whether Sinclair Lewis was the worthiest recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature: "in all his books on American life [Lewis] has never found place for a single character of spiritual growth and beauty." {34} Goodness and purity, Rønning believed, could be made interesting, captivating, and inspiring. American religious fiction of the late nineteenth century, by then forgotten or neglected by trendsetting American critics, was printed in serial installments in The Friend and later published in book-length Norwegian translations. Books such as Maria S. Cummins’ The Lamplighter and Grace Livingston Hill’s The Girl from Montana are [179] typical of these novels. Rønning also promulgated other types of American fiction, such as Jack London’s and Zane Grey’s adventure stories. For a period of time Grey’s The Vanishing American was given free to readers who acquired two new subscribers to the magazine.

Interestingly, Rønning must have found Zane Grey’s version of the West in The Vanishing American more edifying than O. E. Rølvaag’s. When Giants in the Earth arrived in the English translation in 1927, Rønning reviewed the book in the June issue of his magazine. Most of Rølvaag’s characters he found "too coarse, too earthy." He thought Rølvaag was too much inspired by modern American writers and their frequent attacks on puritanism. Rølvaag, he felt, had also given in too much to the present trend of naturalistic fiction. Consequently, Rønning did not find the novel true to the ethnic culture it was supposed to represent. So much had Rølvaag swerved away from what Rønning considered to be the history of Norwegian Americans that he warned other ethnic groups in America against taking Giants in the Earth as a true picture of Norwegian settlers. Still, in 1940 he pointed young writers to Rølvaag as one who "was tireless in improving his language and style." {35} but by that time Rølvaag had become a classic — and thus safe.

Rønning may not have thought that his own immigrant novel was a truer historical account than Rølvaag’s, but he certainly felt that in his novel Lars Lee, published serially in The Friend and subsequently published separately in 1928, he had indeed been true to his own vision of the immigrant experience. Lars Lee was essentially a translation and an abbreviation of Gutten fra Norge (The Boy from Norway), a novel written in Norwegian four years earlier. The story includes recognizable features from his home community in Telemark, such as place names, topography, the two churches on the hill, and the river near his home. But onto this realistic setting of the old country Rønning imposes most of the common features he knew so well from American popular religious fiction.

Lars Lee must therefore be read both as an immigrant [180] novel and as popular religious fiction. In Lars Lee there is no trace of homesickness, a feature which according to Dorothy Burton Skårdal "was indeed the most prominent and typical feeling expressed throughout all periods of Scandinavian-American literature." {36} In her book Skårdal refers twice to Lars Lee, first as an illustration of the immigrants’ idea that America offered a chance of a "better education for all" (139), and second to underline that church authorities in Norway often violated the religious inclinations of the common man. Both of those observations about the novel are certainly correct, but answers to questions about how the novel explains the process of immigration may take our attention away from the function of Rønning’s text as a novel.

Lars Lee is also a popular religious novel within the Norwegian-American context. Rønning, as we have seen, was familiar with popular American religious fiction, some of which he published serially in The Friend. The first novel by Maria S. Cummins (1827—1866), The Lamplighter (1854), was the second most popular American novel of the 1850s, passed on the bestseller lists only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cummins’ novel may serve as a typical example of Rønning’s idea of Christian literature and a model for his immigrant novel. Norwegian-American literature is seldom seen in the context of American literature, but writers like Rønning were just as well versed in American literature as in older Norwegian literature. {37} Lars Lee is less interesting as an historical account than as a document revealing intertextual relations between American immigrant literature and American popular religious fiction.

When The Lamplighter was reissued in the American Woman Writers Series in 1988, Nina Baym listed a number of translations in her introduction, but she failed to mention that the novel was published in Norwegian in Minneapolis as Lygtetænderen. {38} The main character of the novel is an orphaned girl who grows up in Boston, in sordid conditions and totally dependent on a woman who does not love her. As in a Dickens novel the reader’s sympathy for the little girl is immediately established. At the end of the first chapter the [181] narrator strengthens the readers’ pity for the girl: "Poor little untaught, benighted soul! Who shall enlighten thee? Thou art God’s child, little one! Christ died for thee. Will he not send man or angel to light up the darkness?" (4) The orphan, helped by benign souls in her neighborhood, grows to womanhood "transformed into a Christian lady" (xx). The Lamplighter is a novel about how a character is formed through self-discipline, responsibility, suffering, and devotion. In a sense the main characters are uprooted: they are migrants from the New England countryside to the rapidly growing city.

Another American woman writer of popular religious fiction whose work Rønning used for The Friend was Grace Livingstone Hill (1865—1947). With 107 books she was probably the most prolific writer in the field. The Girl from Montana (1908) and other novels were published in Norwegian translations by Rønning’s company in Minneapolis. In her books there are always sharp distinctions drawn between disagreeable unbelievers and Christians who are "sincere, brave, altruistic." {39}

An avid reader of American religious fiction, Rønning wanted to take his protagonist, Lars Lee, through a comparable transformation from a poor and lonely boy from the Old World countryside to virtue and success in the New World city. The poor and badly treated young outcast gains the reader’s absolute sympathy from the beginning. In a religious novel like The Lamplighter God in the end rewards the virtues of the protagonist. In Rønning’s novel the story of immigration is in fact used as additional help for the protagonist to achieve the final reward, which readers wait to see fulfilled from the very first pages.

The plot of Lars Lee is simple. Lars’s parents have bought and cultivated a small tenant farm in Norway. His father Jens dies in an avalanche, and Lars is left alone with his mother. Lars’s uncle, Halvor, has already gone to the United States where he has cut off all contact with his home community because class barriers would not let him marry Helga, a rich farmer’s daughter. It is rumored in the community that Halvor stole money to be able to go to America. Helga was then [182] married against her will to a wealthier farmer, who turns out to be a domestic tyrant and an alcoholic. They have a child, Olaf, who becomes Lars’s best friend. Both of them fall in love with an American girl, Olga, who is back on a visit to her homeland. A pietist preacher suddenly turns up in the community to set things straight. He discloses that Halvor is innocent, and he forces Helga’s brute of a husband to help Lars’s mother on the farm instead of being a constant threat to her. Lars does well in school and goes to a place called New Norway in Minnesota to get more education. His boyhood friend Olaf also emigrates to the United States, but he becomes a total failure, and dies of consumption in a Chicago hospital. Who else should turn up at his deathbed but Lars’s uncle Halvor, now Americanized into Harry Jones and a doctor at the hospital! Lars rushes to Chicago, where he prays for Olaf and meets his uncle for the first time in his life. The uncle is ready to go back to the old country to marry Helga, now — quite conveniently — a widow. Lars finally settles in Minneapolis, where he overcomes his constant religious doubts, gains his dream girl Olga, and — as expected — becomes a minister in the Norwegian-American church.

The plot outline has already revealed abundant parallels not only to such pre-1900 Norwegian-American novels as Foss’s Husmandsgutten (1889) but also to popular American religious fiction. Like, for instance, The Lamplighter, Rønning’s book includes the turning of fate for the poor hero, the sudden appearance of lost family members, and the struggle for religious conviction. Female characters in the novel are endowed with the same qualities they have in other religious fiction. Through persistent loyalty and loving care for their husbands, who often appear as insensitive, authoritarian, and liable to drink, the women come out victors in the end. Their efforts often lead to a sudden divine intervention, resulting in punishment or conversion of their unruly husbands, who will either perish in their sins — as does Helga’s unwanted first husband — or be saved and undergo a sudden moral change for the better. Lars’s first job in New Norway is with a tyrant of a Norwegian immigrant farmer who is intolerant of all kinds of [183] fairy tales and literature other than the Bible and a few religious books he keeps on his bookshelf but which have no influence on his life. To Rønning’s way of thinking, the farmer’s neglect of both his wife and his reading are grievous shortcomings. When the farmer is about to lose his wife through his own fault, he turns into a contrite sinner: "Man! can you forgive me? You must not die. If you die, I become your murderer. O God, how I have sinned against you and the boys." After this dramatic conversion, the suffering wife forgives him, kisses him, and miraculously recovers. {40}

As in most popular religious fiction it takes the almost angelic nature of the woman to convert the sinful man. This episode in the novel should clearly not be read as an illustration of social conditions on Norwegian-American farms, even though maltreatment of wives must have sometimes occurred. The incident in Rønning’s novel is a direct textual transfer from the rules of operation intrinsic to the genre of popular American religious fiction.

Women and pietists give good advice. According to the itinerant pietist preacher, Lars will stand a better chance in America to "come through with a clean heart" (86). Lars’s mother, Anne, is convinced it is "the will of God that he goes to America" (123). In that sense immigration is coordinated with salvation.

Not only do women appear in American religious fiction as saviors of fallen men, they also function as strong characters. Some of these novels therefore turns out to be "a plea for an improvement in the status of women." {41} Rønning, who had observed how women could take leading roles within the Hauge movement, gladly adopted this motif from American religious fiction as his own. It is no coincidence that it is Helga, the strong and patiently suffering farm woman in Rønning’s novel, who threatens to tell her bishop about the local pastor’s refusal to administer communion to Lars’s dying father. It is also Helga who orders the men not to drink at the funeral. And when Lars is introduced to the divisions within Norwegian churches in America, it is a farmer’s wife who speaks for the implied author: "‘Talking about union is [184] correct,’ she put it with emphasis on the word talking. ‘And talking is all it will ever amount to — that is, as long as the menfolk are to decide the matter’ " (114). Fiction allowed Rønning to say what church documents probably would not.

In his study Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America, David S. Reynolds points out that the implied theology of religious fiction became increasingly uniform, and that it mattered less if a novel was written by orthodox or liberal writers. {42} Thus Rønning, who let his hero Lars grapple with problems from Calvinist fiction such as doubts about salvation, has no qualms in publishing and learning the trade from writers like Maria S. Cummins, a Unitarian. Both ends of the theological scale, the Calvinist and the Unitarian, met in fiction to overcome dead dogmatics.

Descriptions of nature provided a common ground for a good many of these writers. Increasingly Lars Lee escapes into nature for comfort. "His senses became startlingly acute to the sounds, the fragrance, and the forms all around him" (27). In fact his solitary experience of the wonders of nature becomes a ritual for him: "His communion with nature became a holy communion" (95). Rønning’s pietism, then, does not rule out a strong dose of Romantic nature description. He mentions in the November, 1937, issue of The Friend that when he read Wordsworth, "the beauty and solitude of nature were to me symbolic of the spiritual." In The Friend he would sometimes include small sketches of his own experiences in nature, intended for city children who were not close to the woods. To a large extent Rønning was inspired by the American nature writer John Burroughs (1837—192 1), whom he had earlier introduced in The Friend. In The Boy from Telemark Rønning mentions that when he attended school in Faribault "the teacher gave me a booklet. I still have it. It is ragged from my use. It was Sharp Eyes and Other Papers, by the great lover of nature, John Burroughs." {43} If nostalgia occurs in Rønning’s novel, it is not the immigrant’s longing for the old country so much as a parallel to Burroughs’ poetic dream of his unforgettable "boyhood days in the country." {44} In fact, some of Rønning’s passages on Lars’s joy in observing the birds and the [185] trees in his boyhood community sound like echoes from Burroughs’ earlier work: "The bird would begin to sing in a tree near by. A perfect flood of melody flowed from its tiny throat." {45} Telemark becomes one with the Catskills.

Seeking solace in God’s creation, however, does not solve Lars’s puritan dilemma. He is constantly driven by doubts about whether he has been born again, a conflict that apparently becomes less of a problem after the shock of Olaf s death, when Lars realizes that "salvation was no longer a system to be studied and understood" (163). In religious fiction it is not uncommon that a calamity of some sort brings about the long-sought confidence of faith.

The social gap between classes is central to the plot of The Lamplighter and other religious novels. The main characters in The Lamplighter are migrants from the country and are insecure in their city setting. The growth of the orphaned girl in The Lamplighter into a middle-class "Christian lady" matches her rise out of poverty. The wealthy are treated with skepticism. A similar class structure rules in Lars Lee’s home community. Piety and thrift characterize the peasants. Big farmers are sinful and not to be trusted. Rønning’s rendering of class differences in a Norwegian rural area also of course echoes the peasant stories of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. That Lars, because he has no rich father, is not ranked number one among the confirmands, in spite of his talents, is clearly a motif from Bjørnson. The two farm boys who fall in love with the same girl, but the poorer of the two has to withdraw — at least temporarily — because he finds himself several stations below her, is also a common motif.

Rønning combines the typical plot outlines from the popular religious novel and the immigrant novel to work out a resolution of the love story between the poor farmer lad and his dream girl. Again the appropriate Norwegian-American parallel is Foss’s Husmandsgutten. In a religious novel, faith and a sustained sense of duty tend to send the poor boy eventually into the arms of the church. In Rønning’s immigrant novel, the breaking away from the old country adds to the hero’s chance of winning, in both love and religion. Rønning manages to [186] keep his readers in a double suspense. Will love and salvation win out in the end? When Lars first meets Olga she is "dressed like the city girls" (49), an appearance which adds considerably to her attractiveness in the country. In an incredibly contrived scene she appears to Lars on a hillside in Norway as she sings the American national anthem and tells a story of Lincoln. "Then and there Lars Lee became an American" (60). Olga invites Lars to come to America; they later meet in Minneapolis, where Olga conveniently helps him when he appears to fail as a preacher. Lars finally declares: "I have loved you since the first time I heard you" (199). The dream girl has thus helped the farm boy to become first an American, while still on the hillside in the old country, then an immigrant, a true Christian, and — on the final page of the novel — a lover. No small accomplishment!

Looking back on this novel in his autobiography, Rønning jokingly admitted that he had not created a masterpiece, and that it had taken him "twenty-four years to finish the story." He had planned it, he said, particularly for "young people who were in spiritual trouble." {46} Lars Lee was first published serially in The Friend, and Rønning must have felt that he needed to pursue the story of Lars and Olga beyond the rather abrupt end of the novel. A sequel was published in 1931, titled A Servant of the Lord and furnished with the impressive and very Victorian subtitle: "The story of a little girl — a Waif in the Woods — and how she and her father and mother through the instrumentality of Rev. Lars Lee and his wife Olga found the Great Happiness." {47}

During the depression years of the 1930s religious fiction started to gain popularity again in the United States after it had waned during the 1920s. {48} Rønning’s new novel was an attempt to maintain the genre, especially for low-church Norwegian-American readers. In his first volume the fate of the immigrant had kept Rønning within a more or less realistic narrative frame. As the story continues into the next volume, Rønning completely gives in to the conventional ingredients of the popular religious novel.

Lars Lee, now a minister in the Norwegian Lutheran [187] Church in America, is tempted to accept a comfortable call in a big city church; instead he chooses an outpost in northern Minnesota. Olga shows the same sense of sacrifice when she relinquishes a musical career in the city. All through the book they are the ideal Christian couple. Up north they get to know a Norwegian-American family by the name of Carlson. The father in the family is a thorough agnostic and a frequenter of the local pub, which of course makes him the perfect candidate for conversion in a novel of this kind. The reader will not be disappointed, but as usual it will take a disaster to save the infidel male. Mr. Carlson’s crippled daughter is miraculously saved from a fire by Lars, who brings her to a hospital in Chicago where she is restored to perfect health. The fire and the daughter’s healing work wonders with the father, who now gives up drinking, is converted, and becomes a church member. His failing marriage also improves and he is accepted by his in-laws.

A sinful father saved by an innocent daughter is one of the classic contrivances of the American popular religious novel. In the novel Lucretia and Her Father (1828) the father, who is given to drinking and gambling, to the deep sorrow of his wife and daughter, is brought to "the loveliness of Jesus" on his young daughter’s deathbed. Through the tragedy of her death she becomes the saving agent of her father. {49} The father in Rønning’s novel is much the same, but he not only commits sinful deeds, he is also possessed of unorthodox views, a theme often found in Calvinist fiction. The father in Rønning’s novel is an avid reader of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. After he is converted he not only gives up his reading of the American rationalists, in a fit of auctorial vindictiveness Rønning makes the father set fire to Ingersoll’s famous Some Mistakes of Moses. Considering that the book was debated in the 1880s, Rønning’s bookburning seems somewhat belated, but Ingersoll must have continued for a long time to be anathema to Midwestern Lutherans. When Rølvaag, in the last volume of his trilogy of the Hansa family, Their Fathers’ God, published the same year as Rønning’s second and last novel, also has Peder read the speeches of Ingersoll, it is in a different [188] context. There reading Ingersoll is supposedly an act of freedom from the restraints of immigrant religious culture. {50}

Religious debate takes up considerable space in Norwegian-American novels. A good proportion of Rølvaag’s Peder Victorious concerns Peder’s doubts about religion. But whereas Peder battles with the problem of theodicy — the goodness of God — and the sociology of religion among immigrants, Rønning’s Lars turns to a puritan search for the certainty of an inner light. Despite didactic elements of Calvinist fiction in Rønning’s novels, however, pietists do not go free. In his youth Mr. Carlson has been subjected to dull sermons and useless dogmatics and, in Rønning’s ideology, orthodoxy can not bring the rationalist back to faith. Instead Lars shows how to transfer a love for storytelling to the Bible. Indeed Rønning, after converting the father, finishes with a surprising liberal last sentence: "God was good. Folks were good. Life was good" (128).

In A Servant of the Lord drinking is seen as a vice, but also a social evil that keeps people from getting ahead. Indirectly Rønning supports prohibition, a cause seen by most to be practically dead in the early 1930s. Converted, Mr. Carlson will be working to reform society. In this way Rønning’s novel may also be classified as a social gospel novel, even though Rønning was skeptical of the Social Gospel movement. {51} The novel thus incorporates three of the main categories in Reynolds’ analysis of American popular fiction: the Calvinist, the Liberal, and the Social Gospel novel. In this second novel the women are also almost always good and the agents of salvation, except for Mr. Carlson’s stepmother, who has inherited common features from her prototypes in fairy tales. His wife secretly baptized her daughter when she was seriously ill, and she read her mother’s Bible in secret before her husband mended his ways. {52} All together Rønning’s books about Lars Lee totaled 18,000 copies. {53} To use a term from Ann Douglas’s study of nineteenth-century women, the clergy, and popular literature, Rønning’s two novels express the "feminization" of Norwegian-American culture at the end of its peak period. {54} [189]



In his study of immigrant autobiographies William Boelhower has suggested that the proliferation of this particular genre during the early decades of the 1900s was a challenge to the "model American self [which was] expressed most clearly in the tradition of American autobiography." {55} He argues that immigrant autobiography is a special kind of text, which presents "a new system of self-description" in American culture, a text structured on the experience of a split or a composite self (18). In immigrant autobiographies the narrator will vacillate between visions of what Boelhower designates as the writer’s "Old - World identity" and his "New - World self’ (35). The plight of the immigrant writer then is to combine these two worlds "into a single model" (28). According to Boelhower this "existence of the double self’ (37) is the most important aspect of immigrant autobiography, dramatically opposed to the common "monocultural" (221) concept of self he finds in other American autobiographies. As the narrator traces his journey in time and space from the old to the new world, he first anticipates a new-world ideal, then there is a contact with new-world reality, which finally leads to a contrast between the old and the new world (40). Boelhower explains how the old world in "co-present in all" (84) the protagonist does in America. He finds a narrative tension in immigrant autobiographies between "the two structured poles of Old World and New World" (66). Boelhower bases his findings on a reading of Italian-American texts, but his theoretical approach can be applied as well to studies of other ethnic groups.

N. N. Rønning in fact wrote his autobiography as a Norwegian immigrant in Minnesota several times over, first in the account of his 1903 trip back to Norway, then in his immigrant novel of 1928, followed by his story of his upbringing in Telemark, and finally in his memoirs of his American experience published in 1938. {56}

Rønning’s autobiography of 1938, Fifty Years in America, [190] is divided into two parts. In the first he tells the reader about his childhood and his coming to the United States, his education in a Faribault public school, at the seminary in Red Wing, and finally at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he studied for close to five years. The second part of the book consists of short sketches of prominent Norwegian Americans he has met or read about.

The second part is to a large extent an evaluation of the immigrant churches and the leading church figures he has met and a presentation of his own church-related activities. "No person can write adequately about the Norwegians in America and leave out religion," he claims (17). Boelhower, who argues for the uniqueness of immigrant autobiographies, admits that in cases where "the use of biblical language" is prominent in immigrant autobiography, there is a strong link to the "rhetoric of American autobiography." Rønning’s autobiography is religious in tone and content, but it is not confessional like the classic personal narratives of such Puritan writers as Bunyan or Edwards. Rønning is not concerned with his inner self and the experience of conversion, although he tells briefly of conversions in his family while he was still in Norway (26). His pietist background proved to be the least obstacle to his becoming an American. After three years at Red Wing, Rønning was convinced that this school of the Hauge Synod was the best preparation for an American university that a Norwegian-American school could give at that time. Red Wing, he writes, "was more American" (149) than other Norwegian-American schools, and it was here that he got his first encouragement to write — in English.

His student records at the University of Minnesota show that he took courses in "Rhetorical Work" and "Oratory" practically every semester from 1892 to 1896, when he graduated with a Bachelor of Literature degree. Listed as a junior in the 1893—1894 yearbook, Rønning was the only student who gave Norway as his home country. {57} His teacher for both "Rhetoric" and "American Authors of the Nineteenth Century" was Marie Stanford, whom Rønning mentions in his autobiography as his favorite teacher: "She was an idealist, not [191] a realist. Her sensitive soul shrank from the ugly, no matter how true . . . She could quote Longfellow, Lowell, Bryant, Whittier, Ruskin, Browning and Tennyson by the hour, and what a marvelous voice was hers!" (57)

Rønning did not think that his background as an immigrant was unique. "I take it that it was somewhat typical." {58} His peasant, pietist, rural upbringing in Norway was certainly common to many; his life as a university-trained editor in the city of Minneapolis was not. Seen in this perspective there is unquestionably a contrast between the old-world self and the new in the narrator, but Rønning only rarely mentions such a discrepancy. Ever since his younger days on the farm in Telemark Rønning had been conscious of having both a romantic and a pietist spirit, although his friends in the Haugean churches may have regarded that as an impossible combination. His meeting with what he characterizes as "the finest traits in American life" (35) gave him a chance to develop both these intrinsic parts of himself, which he later in life clearly understood to be core aspects of the American mind as well. As an immigrant writer he certainly felt that he had an old and a new self, but his American or new self had been awakened already in his old self, as he illustrates when he explains his discovery of Lincoln while still in Telemark: "Then and there the heart of the little white-haired, barefooted Norwegian boy went out to the great heart of Abraham Lincoln, and I was baptized with the spirit of America." {59}

A common theory among scholars of immigrant literature is voiced by James Craig Holte, who argues that immigrants "used the autobiography as a means to impose order on an experience that was both disruptive and confusing." {60} As an immigrant autobiographer Rønning may have harmonized the process of his breaking away from the old world, but in his book emigration comes as a welcome chance to develop what in his mind were the best parts of himself. To him, staying in the old world would have been more disruptive. "No, I would not have been satisfied in Norway. I had become too much of an American for that" (69).

The fact that Rønning found parallels to his own ideals in [192] what he calls the finest traits of American culture made him a less staunch supporter of the Norwegian language in America than many of his co-workers. Rølvaag for one was upset with Rønning on that point. Rønning refers in his memoirs, which he wrote in English, to the skirmishes they had on the subject of ethnic literature, and Rølvaag devotes a section in his book Omkring Fædrearven (Concerning the Ancestral Heritage, 1922) to refuting Rønning’s ideas. He may agree with Rønning that the language in which they write is of lesser importance, but he takes Rønning seriously to task for questioning if Norwegian-American writers really have much to say. Rølvaag quotes at length from Rønning’s essay in the Christmas issue of Familiens Magasin, in which Rønning bluntly stated that he believed the future of their immigrant writing in the United States would be American, not Norwegian. {61}

Rønning’s first book had been published in English in 1903 with a subsequent Norwegian edition. This shows that Rønning, from the very beginning of his career as a writer, even though he was surely anchored in the Norwegian-American community and rarely ventured outside it, was conscious of addressing an English-speaking readership, and that he was less concerned about preserving the Norwegian language than other writers. Yet he was never in doubt that Norwegians in America, in spite of the loss of the old-world language, would "retain group consciousness for generations" (19). {62}

Rønning professed friendship for Rølvaag, even though he quotes Rølvaag as once having said to him: "You don’t know anything about literature" (205). In their complaints about the lack of readers among their fellow Norwegian Americans, moreover, Rølvaag and Rønning seem to have been in complete agreement. Both argued that the new generation of Norwegian Americans did not keep up their reading as the first generations had done. Rølvaag similarly complained that American young people at the time were more interested in pleasure than in the truth and beauty of literature (114). In typical Haugean fashion Rønning also blames the [193] lack of interest in reading on rapid material progress within the general American culture: "until some 20 years ago the Norwegians in America bought books and read books. That was the day before the automobile, telephone, radio, movie and the daily newspaper" (82).

Rønning here argues that a cultural change has taken place within his ethnic group. But his personal indictment against a growing material world does not fit easily into Boelbower’s frame of contrasts. As narrator Rønning here applies a distinction frequently used in immigrant autobiographies, not between the old world and the new, but between old new-world ideals (puritanism) on the one hand and what he perceives as new new-world realities (materialism) on the other. This stance is typical of many immigrant writers, but as a cultural phenomenon it is as old in America as the second generation of Puritans. Rønning’s autobiography is not so much marked by a contrast between an old and a new world in the geographical sense as by the passing of time in one world. At the time of his writing the autobiography, his divided heart or the composite self of the narrator as an immigrant has less to do with his emotional attachment to the old country than with his fear that a tradition is losing out in his new country. After all, most immigrant autobiographies are written by people who have spent a good many years in America. The country which may have been new to Rønning fifty years ago when he left Norway was hardly new to him anymore.

Rønning’s indictment of American culture in the 1920s and 1930s shows that the Haugeans, even though they were more democratic, more in tune with the ideals of American culture than any other church body, at the same time displayed profoundly conservative traits. To Rønning, the pietist writer, the ideal time in America seemed to have been when people were familiar with Bible stories, "before the radio blared forth the latest love songs and jazz music" (87). Rønning says he does not want to be judgmental: "I am not preaching, I am just telling" (17).

Although Rønning did not refrain from seeing the ills of American culture in typical pietist terms as sinful materialism, [194] he used the concept of America as the realization of an essential Haugean promise of a society in which class distinctions mattered less than religious zeal. Even though he never equates the two, Rønning in fact makes the Haugeans, who "turned away from forms and faced the reality of sin and grace" (64), into a version of the early American Puritans. Rønning attributes to Red Wing and Haugeanism "gentle piety; deep seriousness; an inner glow of happiness" (49). He had found that Norwegian-American clergy often hid behind dogma and were less authentic about religion than their American counterparts. His autobiography is therefore meant as an honest account of his religious doubts and convictions, simply because he felt that his Lutheran readers were not used to receiving such stories from their pastors.

Of all Norwegian-American church bodies, Rønning was convinced that the Haugean churches were the most receptive to American concepts of freedom. Consequently, the Haugeans could also have been the first to disappear through a loss of their ethnic qualities, an irony that Rønning may not have seen. He does not use the term "melting pot" as an ideal, but he does say that the "tragedy" of assimilation "may turn into romance when they [the Norwegian Americans] merge with a larger group, producing a more splendid people" (19). Among the different branches of Norwegian Lutheranism in the United States Rønning saw himself as mediator. Sketches in his autobiography of church people he has known are meant to edify the reader, and all fit nicely into an American context: Østen Hanson, the Haugean bishop of Aspelund, Minnesota, becomes a symbol of the puritan work ethic. J. N. Kildahl, who taught at Red Wing, the center of learning for Haugeans, and later was president of St. Olaf College, becomes in Rønning’s terms an embodiment of the American dream of rising from poverty to a respectable position in society. Sven Oftedal, the stern professor of theology at Augsburg Seminary, enters the scene in the improbable guise of an Emersonian nature lover. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, who is one of the few exemplary men from outside the dominant ethnic fold presented by Rønning, is written about [195] in almost Haugean terms as the spokesman of the common people.

In the case of Rønning’s autobiography one could say that the old-world heredity of the protagonist is also conditioned by his presence in an American environment. It is not only, as Boelhower says, that the immigrant’s old-world self is "copresent in all his actions" (84). In Rønning’s case his old world becomes richer, not as a contrast to a chaotic new-world perception, but because it is shaped by a fairly satisfied and consistent new-world self. This is clearly seen already in Rønning’s first published book, his memoir of a journey back to his home in Telemark, when he starts to reflect on his old- world self and his boyhood nature in terms of the poetry of the American poet James Russell Lowell, whom he has studied at the University of Minnesota. The Telemark nature of the protagonist as a young man is here seen through the mind of the grown-up narrator, now a reader familiar with American poetry. And the American poet enriches the boyhood scene of the immigrant: "If Lowell could write such an exquisite poem in praise of a June day in America, what a wonderful poem could he not have written about a June day in Bø." {63}

His tendency to romanticize his background often breaks out of restrictions that his pietistic influences might otherwise have imposed on him. Certainly his American education has influenced his vision of himself as a young boy in an almost Wordsworthian context, although the actual setting is the countryside in Norway: "I sat outside the cabin playing with the lambs" (24). Like any Romantic writer Rønning stresses his attachment to local folk ballads, fairy tales, and fiddlers, although he is perfectly aware that such were almost taboo topics among the Haugeans he stayed with during his first years in Minnesota. But in a larger American context romanticism and puritanism were not impossible to incorporate in the same self.

Rønning also emphasized the sense of beauty experienced "far from the dust and din of the cities" (235). Characteristically he felt at home in his new country, not when he had made his first dollar, but when he had learned to name new [196] birds and had "studied trees and wild flowers" (22). Thus his immersion in British and American literature at the University of Minnesota also vitalized the story of his background in the old country. He came to understand his old-world self more in the context of his American education than in the context of the immigrant community in which he functioned. In old age his new-world self reaches back to his Norwegian past, not to dramatize a divided heart, but to illustrate a sense of continuity to his immigrant readers.

In immigrant autobiographies the voyage to the United States often marks the break between two worlds in the mind of the writer. But in Rønning’s memoir it is not his coming over that marked him forever, but rather his first and only going back. In 1938, close to forty years after he spent the summer at his home in Telemark, he returns to this visit in his autobiography. The place still carries mythic overtones as "this Garden of God": "what I carry with me when alone in the twilight hour or when mingling with the crowds in the city, is the beautiful scenery in my home parish, Bø. I cannot describe the thrill I experienced when I caught sight of Lifjeld, the mountain region where I spent seven summers herding cattle, fishing, climbing the mountain, roaming through the woods, often alone from early mornings till late in the afternoon" (68). An urban dweller in Minnesota for almost half a century, Rønning here offers a pastoral image of his old-world self, strengthened by his reading of Romantic writers. To recall the images of nature from his old world becomes a ritual with him. As with romantic writers, recollections of nature had a soothing effect: "The majesty, the mystery, the solitude of the mountain cast their spell upon my soul, a spell that never has been broken and which makes a man indifferent to praise, criticism, and crowds and money" (68).

Rønning’s book is in large part a justification of his life. Over and over again he claims that he has devoted his time to "Christian literature" (84). This is a concept he has adopted from his reading of American popular religious fiction. He laments that his own Haugean church often had a condescending attitude to the use of fiction; he shared with Rølvaag the [197] idea that pastors had not been supportive of Norwegian-American literature. Writing, he felt, was not always an easy task: "Most of my literary work has been done under pressure and at high speed and in noisy surroundings. It is impossible to write well in the presence of other people" (70). His belief in the necessity of a simple style had both an old- and a new-world source. First of all the storytelling traditions of Telemark: "I reveled in fairy tales. They are told in the simplest language and stimulate the imagination." (71). Rønning had also noticed that "an ordinary immigrant tells simply what he has observed" (17). His own philosophy of writing is voiced in a speech he gave to students at St. Olaf College: "Is there anything to write about in this part of the country? Yes there is, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and, above all, have an understanding heart. That is if you are a keen observer and can enter sympathetically into any life, no matter how simple" (77).

Autobiography may not only offer the writer a chance to organize and review his own experience, it may also be a means of discovery to readers. {64} Rønning wrote his autobiography with primarily Norwegian-American old-timers in mind, and they responded to the book in very favorable terms. Several readers of Fifty Years in America wrote to Rønning to tell him what reading his autobiography had meant to them: "Have carried your last book in my grip for some time"; "I sat up nearly all night reading the book"; "it brought back to my mind many things almost forgotten." {65} Clearly Rønning had struck home with an older generation of Norwegian Americans, who in their letters gave Rønning a sense of having written a timely, edifying, and certainly representative autobiography. In selecting details to formulate his own self, past and present, he had in fact helped readers remember their own identity.

Rønning had been asked by Theodore Blegen, editor for the fledgling Norwegian-American Historical Association, to write the book, and it was well received in the press. L. W. Boe, president of St. Olaf College, wrote that Rønning’s book "gives us a picture of fifty years that could be painted by no [198] other artist." Theodore Jørgensen of St. Olaf College noted the romantic, poetic tone. The reviewer in Normanden (January 8, 1939) detected a possible change in the author’s attitude to the history of American culture: "It seems that the America he loves and pays high tribute to is Lincoln’s America rather than the real America, whose fifty years have wrought deep furrows in his brow." Lutheran Companion, published in Rock Island, Illinois, told its readers to place the book on the same shelf "on which we put Augustine and Bunyan."

N. N. Rønning’s Fifty Years in America is not an autobiography of a self-made man; his self is molded by both old and new world forces. In his book he chose to order his self not so much through what he accomplished, but through relationships he cherished. Contrary to what happens in several immigrant autobiographies, Rønning does not want to be released from the past. His desire to write was no doubt prompted by a sense of "the essential wholeness of life," and not a radical break between the old- and the new-world self. To shape his own past and remind his readers of theirs, he selects a few significant episodes of his life, such as his memory of home and mother and people worth knowing. In doing so he connects his own self to the history of the Norwegian-American community.

For more than fifty years N. N. Rønning contributed to Norwegian-American writing. His life experience spanned upbringing in Norway, the rural immigrant world of pre-1900 Minnesota, and life in the modern city. His readers included old-time immigrants as well as the younger generation who read only English. Aware of a decline in Norwegian-American culture at the end of his life, Rønning did not write out of bitterness or despair. Haugeans rarely did.


<1> The Friend, June, 1940, 8.

<2> Rønning’s major works are:

A Summer in Telemarken (Minneapolis, 1903)
En sommer i Telemark (Minneapolis, 1904) [199]
Abraham Lincoln (Minneapolis, 1909)
Bare for moro (Minneapolis, 1913)
Gutten fra Norge (Minneapolis, 1924)
Da stjernene sang (Minneapolis, 1925)
Lars Lee: The Boy from Norway (Minneapolis, 1928)
A Servant of the Lord (Minneapolis, 1931)
The Boy from Telemark (Minneapolis, 1933)
Fifty Years in America (Minneapolis, 1938)
The Saga of Old Muskego (Waterford, Wisconsin, 1943)
Select Sketches (Faribault, Minnesota, 1949)

In addition Rønning published a series of pamphlets and booklets, mostly on religious issues, and edited magazines. Over the years he kept up an impressive correspondence. Many of his readers wrote to him in response to what he published. See archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. Rønning also sent numerous letters home to his family in Telemark. A few years ago a sizeable part of this correspondence was discovered in the attic on the Buskerønning farm in Bø. Copies of these letters are presently stored in the Telemark College Library in Bø, but they have not been consulted for the present study.

<3> Skandinaven, March, 1937, clipping in NAHA archives.

<4> The Friend, December, 1941.

<5> See for example Hetta M. Hervey’s chapter on "characteristics of the peasants" in her Glimpses of Norseland (Boston, 1889), 235 ff. Other late nineteenth-century American accounts of travel to Norway include John Dean Caton, A Summer in Norway (Chicago, 1875), and Katherine E. Tyler, The Story of a Scandinavian Summer (New York, 1881). Most travelers included "summer" in the titles of their books.

<6> Johanna Weborg, In Viking Land or A Summer Tour in Norway (Evanston, Illinois, 1901).

<7> Letter from the editor of Skandinaven, in The Friend, 1938.

<8> "In accordance with the patterns of history, our journeys are typically westerly, and westerly movement is typically associated with positive values such as freedom and progress." Janis P. Stout, The Journey Narrative in American Literature: Patterns and Departures (Westport, Connecticut, 1983), 6.

<9> Stout, The Journey Narrative, 66.

<10> Louis Adamic, The Native’s Return (New York, 1934). Carl Aaron Swensson’s two book-length travel narratives, I Sverige (Omaha, 1891) and Ater i Sverige (Chicago, 1897), also published as Again in Sweden (Chicago, 1898), are Swedish-American parallels to Rønning’s book. See also William Beyer, "Giving the Booster his Due: The Travelogues of Carl Aaron Swensson" (unpublished manuscript in author’s possession, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1990).

<11> Kristian Prestgard, En Sommer i Norge, 2 vols (Minneapolis, 1928). [200]

<12> James Russell Lowell, "The Vision of Sir Launfal," in Horace E. Scudder, ed., Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell (Boston, 1896), 107.

<13> Lowell, "The Search," in Complete Poetical Works, 66.

<14> "An Indian Summer Reverie," in Complete Poetical Works, 72.

<15> "The American humorist Robert Burdette once said in a lecture that we should try to see the comical side of a situation while we were right in it" (A Summer in Telemarken, 37). Robert Burdette (1844—1914) wrote several "sentimental memories" of boyhood. See Dictionary of American Biography, 3 (New York, 1929), 272—273. Rønning was once introduced as the "Will Rogers of our Church" (Bethesda Gleanings, newsletter of Ebenezer Home Society, Rønning papers, NAHA).

<16> Decorah-Posten archives, Preus Library, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

<17> Rønning papers, NAHA.

<18> Odd S. Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America (Boston, 1975), 1.

<19> Rønning, The Boy from Telemark (Minneapolis, 1933), 71.

<20> Lovoll, A Folk Epic, 207.

<21> See, for example, Skandinaven, May 25, 1937. A report of the last large Telestevne, in Minneapolis in the fall of 1937, appeared in Skandinaven, October 12, 1937. Rønning papers, NAHA.

<22> Rønning, letter to Decorah-Posten, April 21, 1956. Archives, Preus Library, Luther College.

<23> The Northland Weekly and The North Star both folded after short lives. Rønning, Fifty Years in America (Minneapolis, 1938), 83—84.

<24> The Friend, 1924.

<25> Rønning, Fifty Years, vii. For a good many years, church periodicals printed by Augsburg Publishing House in Norwegian sold better than the ones printed in English; thus Lutheraneren subsidized The United Lutheran at least up until the formation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1917. As late as 1929 Lutheraneren was still more popular than its English language equivalent, also published by Augsburg. However, the number of subscriptions to both declined, whereas Our Young People that year increased by more than 20%. See Official Reports from the 1929 District Convention of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (Minneapolis, 1929), 360.

<26> Rønning, "Forty Years of Literary Work," in The Friend, November, 1936.

<27> For Senator Henrik Shipstead (1881—1960) see Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Six 1956—1960, 577—579. In a letter to Rønning, December 6, 1936, Shipstead wrote: "Beauty in literature I have found as rare among modern writers as I have found sense in politics. You can furnish it. You have the style and the gift." Rønning papers.

<28> See Nikolai Astrup Larsen’s correspondence in the archives of Preus Library, Luther College.

<29> Rønning, Selected Sketches (Minneapolis, 1949), 82. [201]

<30> The Friend, October, 1924, 25.

<31> The Friend, November, 1935, 16.

<32> The Friend, October, 1930.

<33> The Friend, October, 1930.

<34> The Friend, February, 1931.

<35> The Friend, March, 1940.

<36> Dorothy Burton Skårdal, The Divided Heart: Scandinavian Immigrant Experience through Literary Sources (Oslo, 1974), 264. The merit of Skårdal’s book is first of all the amazing number of immigrant works of fiction she has used as a basis for her study and thereby helped save from oblivion. Criticism of her methodology has come, however, both from scholars of literature and from historians. See, for example, "Is Fact a Stranger to Fiction? A Symposium on the Methods and Status of Historical and Literary Scholarship," in American Studies in Scandinavia, 16:2 (1984), 65—101.

<37> In an essay on Waldemar Ager’s Sons of the Old Country I have pursued the same argument. See "In Defense of a Norwegian-American Culture: Waldemar Ager’s Sons of the Old Country," in American Studies in Scandinavia, 19:1 (1987), 39—52.

<38> Nina Baym, introduction to the new edition of Maria S. Cummins’ The Lamplighter (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1988). I am largely indebted to Baym’s introduction for my own reading of the novel. See also Elaine K. Ginsberg’s essay on Cummins in Lina Mainiero, ed., American Women Writers (New York, 1981), 436—437. In his The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste (New York, 1950), 93—94, James D. Hart also mentions Cummins. See also Frank Luther Møtt, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York, 1947), 124—125.

<39> See V. R. Mollenkott’s essay on Grace Livingston Hill (Lutz) in Maimero, American Women Writers 3:56—59. Hill’s best known novel, The Witness, ran serially in The Friend in 1938.

<40> Rønning, Lars Lee: The Boy from Norway (Minneapolis, 1928), 132. All quotations in the text are from the English version of the novel.

<41> R. Shipley, "A Forgotten Best-Seller: E. P. Roe," in Journal of American Culture, 8:2 (1985), 58. Shipley offers insights not only into the writings of E. P. Roe but into American religious fiction in general. In the early 1890s Roe is said to have been the fourth most widely read novelist in the United States.

<42> David S. Reynolds, Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981), 5, 121. Reynolds’ book is to my knowledge the only full-length study of American religious literature as a mass-culture phenomenon. His last chapter, "Into the Mainstream," which includes reflections on texts from the last part of the nineteenth century, has been most helpful to my study of Rønning.

<43> Rønning goes on to explain his debt to Burroughs: "When I read that he, too, as a boy had wandered through the woodland looking at the birds [202] and flowers, I said to myself, ‘Thank God, I am not more queer than he is.’ . . . John Burroughs became my guide and inspiration." The Boy from Telemark, 41.

<44> See Norman Forster’s chapter on Burroughs in his Nature in American Literature: Studies in the Modern View of Nature (New York,. 1923), 265—?.

<45> Rønning, The Boy from Telemark, 27. See, for example, John Burroughs, Birds and Bees (Cambridge, 1887). Several essays of Burroughs were published in cheap editions in The Riverside Literature Series, along with Longfellow, Whittier, H. C. Andersen, and Bayard Taylor’s Lars: A Pastoral of Norway, and Other Poems.

<46> Rønning, Fifty Years in America, 73, 75.

<47> Rønning, A Servant of the Lord (Minneapolis, 1931).

<48> Hart, "Platitudes of Piety: Religion and the Popular American Novel," in American Quarterly, 6 (Winter, 1954), 316.

<49> The novel is mentioned in Reynolds’ Faith and Fiction, 83—84. To Reynolds it is a Calvinist novel, in which "sentiment and heroism take on a reformist coloring." I have borrowed the term "Calvinist fiction" from his book.

<50> O. E. Rølvaag, Their Fathers’ God (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1959 [1931], 91). Robert Ingersoll (1833—1899) was a famous American rationalist who fought all kinds of orthodoxy. His Some Miracles of Moses was published in 1880. Even before the book was out, his speech on Moses was debated. See J. B. McClure, ed., Some Mistakes of Ingersoll (Chicago, 1879). If Ingersoll was a threat to religious certainty, his political ideas were popular among farmers in the Midwest. He often took their part against eastern bankers.

<51> A typical Social Gospel novel is Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1895), reprinted by Rønning’s company in 1938. It is the story of a local minister who is scorned by a group of cowboys but wins them in the end. Hart calls this novel a typical example of "the muscular Christian in religious fiction around the time of Teddy Roosevelt" ("Platitudes of Piety," 314). See also Dana F. White, "The Early Social Gospel Novel," in South Atlantic Quarterly, 67 (1968), 469—485. Rønning expressed his views on the Social Gospel movement in The Friend, June, 1937.

<52> Rønning would often return to the ideal mother figure. In a short story in the Christmas issue of The Friend in 1933 he lets a stranger, lost in a snowstorm, seek shelter with a Norwegian-American farm family. The atmosphere in the home brings back memories of his dead mother; he breaks down and is converted.

<53> According to a bibliography compiled for Ebenezer, 29:3 (August, 1962), an issue in memory of N. N. Rønning, 6,000 copies were printed of Gutten fra Norge (1924), 9,000 of Lars Lee (1923), and 6,000 of A Servant of the Lord (1931). Not all the books were sold; some were given as gifts to people who provided new subscribers to The Friend. A copy of the issue of Ebenezer is in the Rønning papers. [203]

<54> Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977).

<55> William Boelhower, Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian-American Self (Verona, Italy, 1982), 17.

<56> Both Fifty Years in America and The Boy from Telemark are listed in Louis Kaplan, comp., A Bibliography of American Autobiographies (Madison, Wisconsin, 1962), 250.

<57> The transcript of Rønning’s course work at the University of Minnesota is in the Students and Records archives at Coffey Hall, St. Paul campus. Rønning also took courses in English and Scandinavian Literature, Icelandic, History, German, French, Ethics, Interpretation. In all likelihood he attended a class in the "Literary Study of the English Bible" which was offered at the time (University of Minnesota Catalogue, 1894—1895). As a student Rønning was active in the campus literary society called "The Shakopean," where he delivered papers and took part in debates. At least two of his presentations are mentioned in the student paper. He talked on "Schools in Norway" (Ariel, 17:28 [1894], 351) and on "Norway and Sweden" (Ariel, 19:16 [1896], 5). The catalogues, the student papers, and the yearbooks from 1892 to 1896 are in the University Archives, Walter Library, Minneapolis.

<58> Rønning, Fifty Years in America, 22.

<59> Rønning, Fifty Years in America, 73. Rønning never tired of telling how he first read about Lincoln. See, for example, the chapter called "Was it a fairy tale?" in The Boy from Telemark, 1—2.

<60> James Craig Holte, "The Representative Voice: Autobiography and the Ethnic Experience," in Melus, 9:2 (Summer, 1982), 28.

<61> Rølvaag, Omkring Fædrearven (Northfield, Minnesota, 1922), 112.

<62> Compare the use of language and the understanding of self in the case of Peer Strømme. Son of an immigrant, he wrote his autobiography, published posthumously as Erindringer (Minneapolis, 1923), in Norwegian. Much longer and more detailed than Rønning's, it may offer more of an immigrant’s understanding of selfhood, just because it is written in the "old" language.

<63> Rønning, A Summer in Telemarken, 30.

<64> For a comment on readers’ response to autobiographies, see Janet Varner Gunn, Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience (Philadelphia, 1982). The reader, she says, "experiences the autobiographical text as an occasion of discovery: of seeing in the text the heretofore unexpressed or unrecognized depth of the reader’s self," 19.

<65> All quotations from letters to the author and reviews of the book refer to the Rønning papers.


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