Digitizing the Papers of O. E. Rølvaag

The Norwegian-American Historical Association recently received a $87,000 grant to digitize a portion of the O. E. Rølvaag papers. Rølvaag is considered one of America’s greatest immigrant writers, and his novels address the migration experience. The project is financed with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. Work is expected to be completed in early 2022.

Explore the O.E. Rølvaag Digital Collection! Thousands of newly digitized materials can now be explored online. If you are interested in learning more about this project, the Ole Rølvaag papers, or other collections in the NAHA Archives, please contact our archivist at naha-archivist@stolaf.edu.

Who was O. E. Rølvaag?

Ole Edvart Rølvaag was born in a fishing village on Dønna, Norway, on April 22, 1876. He immigrated to the United States in 1896 and worked as a farmhand in South Dakota from 1896–98. After graduating from Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota, in 1901, Rølvaag earned a B.A. from St. Olaf College in 1905 and returned to the college to earn a M.A. in 1910. Between his B.A. and M.A., he studied at the University of Christiania.

From 1906 to 1931, he served as a professor of Norwegian language and literature at St. Olaf. During his career he authored Norwegian language textbooks and novels, essays, and poems about the Norwegian-American immigrant experience. Two of his novels, Giants in the Earth (1927) and Peder Victorious (1929), received international acclaim as accounts of immigrant pioneer life on the Dakota prairies in the 1870s. 

Rølvaag worked to preserve and enrich Norwegian-American culture during his lifetime. He helped found the Society for Norwegian Language and Culture in 1910 and the Norwegian-American Historical Association in 1925. In 1926, Rølvaag was knighted (Order of St. Olav) by King Haakon VII of Norway.

Sharing the Universal Story of Migration

Preserving Rølvaag’s extensive correspondence, photographs, and manuscripts provides greater depth and breadth to understanding and contextualizing the man and his works. His vast correspondence with more than a thousand individuals — intellectuals and leaders of the Norwegian-American community, as well as those in Norway — reveals his thinking on the important issues of the day. His communication with teachers, students, other writers, and his family reveal much about the man, his work, and his thinking.

Rølvaag is the iconic literary interpreter of one immigrant group (Norwegian), with its emigration rates in the 19th century second only to the Irish-Americans relative to their populations. Yet, his collective works reveal the universal dimensions of migration, especially exploring the gains and losses. Rølvaag’s epic novel, Giants in the Earth, deals with the hardships of migration, including the anguish of loneliness, separation from family, longing for the old country, forces of nature, and the difficulties of acclimating to a new culture. These issues are still relevant today, as migration is at the forefront of national debates.

I De Dage / Giants in the Earth manuscript, 1924

Rølvaag’s Manuscripts

Rølvaag’s artistic vision was shaped by the harshness of his life—the years of hard work and the tragic deaths of two of his children. Giants in the Earth, a novel that depicts the strong reminders of life’s severity, follows a Norwegian pioneer family’s struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. The book is based partly on Rølvaag’s personal experiences as an immigrant, and on the experiences of his wife’s family who had been immigrant homesteaders. The novel depicts snow storms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land.

Manuscripts to be digitized include:

  • Tois, undated
  • Nils og Astri, circa 1910
  • Amerika-breve fra P.A. Smevik til hans far og bror i Norge, 1912
  • Paa Glemte Veie, 1914
  • Deklamations-boken, 1918
  • To Tullinger: Et Billede frå idag, 1920
  • Norsk Læsebok, 1920
  • Længselens Baat, 1921
  • Omkring Fædrearven, 1922
  • I de dage; Riket grundlægges, 1925
  • Giants in the Earth, 1927
  • Peder Seier, 1928
  • Peder Victorious, 1929
  • Pure Gold, 1930
  • Den Signede dag (Deres Fædres guder), 1931

Rølvaag’s Correspondence

Rølvaag carried on a voluminous correspondence in both English and Norwegian on subjects such as guidance to students and aspiring writers, assistance to teachers planning courses in Norwegian, the place of Norwegian culture in American life, defense of realism in his novels, the arts of writing and translating, church affairs, immigration history, problems of publication and distribution, state and national politics, and promotion of organizations. His correspondents (approximately 1,300) included land prospectors, farmers, students, teachers, editors, artists, historians, theologians, poets, novelists, diplomats, publication houses, and lecture bureaus. 

In his correspondence with Lincoln Colcord, translator of Giants in the Earth, we see glimpses of his personal and professional relationships with those in his inner circle. Colcord and Rølvaag had many things in common, including being writers, but most importantly, they bonded over their love for the sea. Though Colcord was known for causing controversy in his journalism career that caused him to be investigated by the FBI, Colcord and Rølvaag continued to stay in touch.

Rølvaag as Archivist

Following the Norse-American Centennial, a meeting was held on October 6, 1925, at St. Olaf College to officially organize a historical association to collect and preserve the story of Norwegian-American immigrants. Rølvaag served as the Association’s first secretary and archivist. He was known for being an energetic collector. Throughout his letters to the Berdahl family, Theodore Blegen, and others involved in the founding of NAHA, a picture of the Association’s early years and struggles start to come to life.

Funding for this project is provided to the Norwegian-American Historical Association through the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, a component of the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment, ratified by Minnesota voters in 2008. Commercial use or distribution of these digital materials is not permitted without prior permission of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.