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Dr. Curtis B Solberg Lecture



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Dr. Curtis B. Solberg 1990 - 1991 

Lecture Dedication

TO THE MEMORY of Leonardo Dorantes

Memorable Quotation

'IT IS A MISTAKEN belief that the immigrant has no soul.' -Ole Rølvaag     



The Divided Heart 

Dr. Curtis B. Solberg, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics 

Lecture 'Witnesses'

  Waldemar Ager Kari Skangsetter Norman  
  Aud Paust-Andersen Anne Norsby  
  Randi Kankerud Anderson Anne Norstebø  
  Rakkel Tonette Aslaksdatter Margrete Nilsdatter Næsheim  
  Ingeborg Bergene Olianna Olson  
  Mrs. Johan Bergmand Gina Runningen  
  Aasta Blakset Ole Rølvaag  
  Anne Flyum Oline J. Skrædderstuen  
  Liv Nilsdatter Grimeland Annie Slette  
  Anna Gundersen Pernille Smevik  
  Anna Johnson Karen Sørensdatter  
  Agnes Kirkeide Kari Sørli  
  Marie Killy Oleanna Olsdatter Vigerust  
  Ragnhild Killy Ragnhild Olsdatter Viegrust  
  Clara Myhra Elsie Wærenskjold  

LAST SPRING a delegation of former Lecturers appeared at my office door with the news that faculty and students had anointed me as the recipient of this great honor. When the surprise subsided, I retreated to my Webster's Complete Unabridged Dictionary to understand the word LECTURER. It's a complicated word-with its Latin roots-but, ultimately, it means TEACHER.

So if the focus is on teaching, then I wish to draw attention to three persons who have had a primary influence on my professional growth and development.

WILBUR R. JACOBS is one of these. This man was my academic shepherd at UCSB in my postgraduate studies in the early-mid sixties. This may be difficult to explain, but I've felt that I could never repay my debt to him. The caring attention I received transcended the commonplace teacher-student relationship. I spent countless hours in his home learning the fundamentals of writing. It was Dr. Jacobs who helped me gain entree to the Huntington Library in Southern California, one of the great research libraries in the world. There I spent more than two years conducting my doctoral research. This period afforded me the opportunity to rub shoulders with scholars of international reputation. I always treasured the personal way that Dr. Jacobs dealt with me. He remembered occasions like marriage and the birth of children. I attended social functions in his home attended by his university colleagues and eminent personalities from the larger scholarly world.

Over the years, Professor Jacobs' research and publications have concentrated on the impact of early American history upon Native American cultures and the environment. He produced more Ph.D. candidates than any other teacher at the university. I am part of two generations of his offspring now teaching at colleges and universities across the country.

You can see how unequivocal his support and encouragement were. Indeed, beyond the specifics that he taught me, there was another less specific way that I bear his imprint; by permitting me into his home, by allowing me into his personal life, he did not hide behind the Ivory Tower mystique. His behavior suggested that such a career was not beyond my horizons. Dr. Jacobs demonstrated that he had confidence in me. Two years ago, he concluded a distinguished career as a history professor, and now is ensconced at the Huntington Library as a Senior Researcher, working on two books simultaneously.

Another of my mentors is well known in this audience. My colleague, GEORGE FRAKES, was also a student of Professor Jacobs' graduate seminar. In fact, Frakes and I had in common three of the four fields of study required for the Ph.D. degree. We spent three nights weekly for six months grilling each other on the almost 300 books to be mastered in preparation for our qualifying exams. In addition, it was Frakes who played a pivotal role in my appointment to the City College history faculty in 1965. What a great role model for effective classroom teaching he has been! Philosophically, he is "student-centered," expecting a copious writing experience from his students. His reading list is rigorous. When I think about breathing life into office hours for one-on-one student consultation, Dr. Frakes is one of the first who comes to mind. Despite the rigor of his course, Dr. Frakes evidences the fun of learning. How many of his students remember his unparalleled Johnny Carson humor?

In the early seventies, Frakes proposed that we collaborate on some writing projects. Although the senior man in these publishing forays, he was refreshingly egalitarian in his approach towards our involvement. In less than two years, we produced two books. Both the Random House book on minorities in California history and our environmental anthology remained in print for 10 years, largely due to the insight and expertise Frakes brought to these tasks. From Frakes I have learned lessons in cooperation and effective teamwork.

OSCAR SOLBERG rounds out this trio of my mentors. Also a history teacher, my father is one of the few people I know who chose to leave school administration and return to the classroom. My earlier memories are of Dad constantly reading student papers at home. A life-long reader, he has a keen interest in words/ language/ideas. A topflight scrabbler, he and his wife, Louise, square off at the game table every evening of the week. I usually join the fray weekly. On the scoreboard, Oscar still wins most often. He is also blessed with a stentorian voice, a veteran public speaker who is still in great demand at the recording studio of Recording for the Blind. He is now nearing 2,000 hours of volunteer service, reading difficult history and science textbooks on tape for use across the country. Oscar has also raised letter-writing to a fine art, carrying on decades-long correspondence with former students and former teachers, including one woman 98 years old.

Moreover, my father speaks fluently the Norwegian language of 1890, although he never set foot in Norway until he was 65 years old. Imagine how useful he has been in the translation of my immigrant letters. While I can grapple with the rudiments of the language adequately, he is able to catch just the right nuance from century-old colloquial and idiomatic expressions. Oscar celebrated his 84th birthday yesterday. Recently, I said to him: "Dad, keep this up for a few more years and you'll become a national treasure! "

These encomiums of praise do not mask my concern that I have failed to meet the standards imparted by their examples. But I'm still trying. I am also concerned that I've not adequately conveyed my gratitude to these fine human beings. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh advised that we should "admire" more, that there was much beauty in people deserving of admiration.

(The Lecturer requests, at this point in his presentation, that the theater house lights be turned up in order to introduce his mentors to the audience.)

So . . . in honor of my teachers, I wish to teach a lesson today, keeping in mind the principles teachers are supposed to learn in teacher-training courses at the university:

  • CONTENT: You've got to have something to say. 

  • ORGANlZATlON: There should be some logical sequence to your ideas. 

  • CLARITY OF EXPRESSION: Use language that can be understood. 

  • BE VISUAL, especially because we're dealing with a youthful clientele. So voilá, our giant screen becomes our chalk board and bulletin board. 

  • BE PERSONAL: Dare to reveal yourself and appeal to their self-interest, too. 

  • CHALLENGE THEM: Stir the pot of controversy--at least a little bit.


My topic-despite the brevity of time-concerns Norwegian immigration to America. My hope is, that by discussing this subject, we can explore possible connections with the immigration experience today-100 years later.

Moreover, inasmuch as immigration easily melds into the larger issue of "Americanization," the topic is of compelling interest not only to immigrants, but to all of us. This is particularly true when one considers the close connection each of us bears to the immigration experience. That is the meaning of John F. Kennedy's book,A Nation of Immigrants. Here the theme is that all of us, or at least our forbearers-are/were immigrants. We can afford to be engaged in this issue. It should not be difficult to identify with immigrants. They are us.

So what about the Norwegians as a case study? Almost one million people from Norway came to America in the century following 1820. Indeed, of all nations, only Ireland has contributed a greater proportion of its people to America than Norway. Oceanic travel was shortened from approximately 90 days from Norway to New York in 1846 to 20 days in 1873, largely due to the shift from sail to steam power. Economic adversity explains the primary motive of these prospective emigrants to leave their pre-industrial society and cross the Atlantic to America. The majority of these migrants became pioneer farmers in the Upper Midwest. Later in the 19th century, others responded to the lure of industrial jobs in the urban landscape.

Although the conventional wisdom among social historians has been that immigrants from northern European Protestant countries were easily "Americanized, " in more recent years a growing body of scholars has been challenging this view. They suggest that the period and cost of "Americanization" were much greater than assumed. One classic study is Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted, published in 1951. Handlin provides an eloquent description of the emotional/spiritual existential hell experienced by the immigrants to l9th-century America, where they suffered a loss of identity and their invisibility within American society. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the life-and-death struggle between Norwegian immigrants and their awesome environment is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by Ole Rølvaag, an immigrant himself from northern Norway in 1897. Allow me to illustrate by introducing you to three immigrant women-Johanna, Rakkel and Oline.


"I was born in Rendal, a forested region in eastern Norway in 1872. Church confirmation records reveal that my father was a Swedish railroad worker, and my mother was named Eli and worked as a tjeneste-pike or maid. I was taken in and raised by a veterinarian and his family, and took nurse's training. Alone, and with no opportunity for an independent life in Norway, I dared to venture to America in 1900. I lost the address of a brother who had gone over earlier, and I spent my last money hiring Pinkerton detectives to find him . . . without success. I found work in a Minneapolis hospital, where I met Carl Olai, seeking medical treatment for an ailment. He was an immigrant already homesteading in Dakota, and he persuaded me to return with him as his bride. We worked twenty hours a day to survive, as we made humble progress in improving our farm. We endured blizzards, prairie fire and house fire, death of our eight draft horses by poisoned water, and finally my husband's death in 1912, when our fourth child was only seven months old. What was I to do? For the next thirty years I raised my children-two sons and two daughters-as we struggled through the 'scratch and dig' years of the 1920s and '30s. During the evening hours when there was time to dream, the children never really expressed curiosity about their fatherland; they were too busy being American. So I dreamt my dreams alone, never to be shared. I joined our Lord in Heaven in 1945."


"Kristen came from a neighboring farm on the fjord, just around the mountain. He had already tried his hand in America as a bachelor farm-worker in Nebraska and the Dakotas. But as the eldest son, he returned to Norway to inherit the family farm. That's when he asked my father to give him my hand at the church. Father consented, with the condition that we not immigrate to America. Four years later-in 1897-and with two sons and a third on the way-Kristen became disgusted with the rocky, hillside patches of soil overlooking the fjord-after having experienced the broad prairies of the American midwest-he flung his hat into a furrow in the soil, and exclaimed: "We're going to America! " So the promise was not kept. We homesteaded in North Dakota in 1897. Here is a letter I wrote home to a sister-in-law in February 1913:

Dear Sister:

It's not too early for me to send you a few lines as to how I'm feeling. I'm nearly ashamed that I haven't done so earlier. Please accept my apologies. Many are the times when I have said and thought that I should not plead such excuses, but it has not yet been brought to fruition.

I've been quite busy, now having nine children. The five eldest are boys and you understand that I have no domestic help. Martha is now eight but she has been plagued with tonsillitis and is not usually well. Then there is Ruda. These are the girls. The boys are Eivind, Olaf, Magnus, Malvin, Karl, and Oskar (now five). Whether Kristen has written since we received the attractive picture of you I don't recall, but I do thank you ever so much. We are so happy to receive photographs from Norway I look at them until my eyes hurt.

Aside from the usual colds we are in reasonably good health. However, I'm somewhat afflicted with rheumatism but I shouldn't complain as long as I may be permitted to move about and care for my children. I hesitate to think about what will happen if I should become bedridden for any length of time. . . .

There is probably little doubt that I shall ever again see Norway or any of you, but let us try to 'fight the good fight,' and at some time in the future be reunited. Oh, it will be heavenly to rest again.

Hence, a hearty greeting to you all from us. 

Rakkel, York, North Dakota, N. America


Ah-Destiny-my health degenerated; consultations with the doctor indicated that I was fading fast, probably from cancer. I remember setting nine-year-old Oskar on my lap and whispering to him: "You are such a sweet boy. " How much I would like to have said to our ten children. . . but I didn't. We Norwegians are so stoic. Kristen and the older boys lifted me onto the back of the wagon for the ride to the town hospital twenty miles away. God give us all peace."


"Kristen lived across the fjord from my farm. I did not meet him until 1917 when he returned home as a widower. Where else could he find a new wife? He had a reputation as a good man, but little did I know how charming he could be. He would row across the fjord, and the visits became more frequent. I never learned what he said to my father, but by April 1918, we arrived at his farm in North Dakota, where everything was different. From being a single woman, suddenly I was mother to ten children. Oh, the homesickness that set in: the flat treeless prairie; the winters were much more severe than in Norway; I was constantly frightened by the wandering Indians who would appear at the back door asking for food. But-thank God-there was the church where worship services were conducted in Norwegian by our pastor who came every third Sunday. And thanks to our neighbors who were also immigrants. Like those dear friends, my English skills-and Kristen's-never really developed. And why should they? It was natural that we should speak our own tongue! But with the children, it was another story! In 1920 Kristen and I had our baby daughter Ragna. Our family was now complete. Kristen died in 1957. I ended my earthly days in 1964."

Each of these three women-Johanna, Rakkel and Oline- underwent the pain of the divided heart, in one way or another. These experiences of my grandmothers have been echoed by virtually all of our forefathers and mothers who attempted to be American, especially those who were not native English speakers. What is it about their collective experience that speaks to us?

Here I have found useful the concept developed by my English Department colleague Terre Ouwehand in Voices from the Well. In her work, Ouwehand has suggested that to exhume certain women from the dustbin of history is to strike a rich vein of pain, beauty and wisdom. This idea found robust expression in Helena Hale's stage presentation of Ouwehand's O'Keeffe. At that theater performance, I remember feeling that the artist herself was in our very presence.

Similarly, a lesser known novel by the immigrant Rølvaag, entitled The Boat of Longing, also addresses the value of our antecedents' experiences.

I am interested in human beings. Human portraiture has no end. Through long association with the persons in this story, I have learned to know and love them. Take them in and be good to them. They need it.


So, let's do that; let's uncover our roots. Although the traditional perspective on immigration to America has been the global movement of masses of mankind, entailing statistical data on humanity by the millions, let's ignore that collective, aggregate approach, and instead attempt to get down to the individual human level. My collection of immigrant letters sent back to Norway during the second half of the 19th century provides a mosaic of personal responses to the immigrant experience. By resurrecting this correspondence, we gain insight into the daily life and feelings ofindividual immigrants-in their own words. And what a social documentary we have! In reviving their letters, we honor our forefathers/mothers whose pain and suffering have largely escaped our consciousness. These WITNESSES bear eloquent testimony to their ordeal, perhaps thereby serving to educate us-their offspring. So, let's find them, and listen to their stories. We'll take them in and be good to them. They are our grandmothers.

(A music/slide show on Norway and Atlantic migrant crossings ensues, followed by narration by 'Witnesses' based on their correspondence, at this point in the Lecture.)

Pernille Smevik . . . 
Oh what weeping and wailing on the pier when the ship was ready to sail. It was enough to make one hate the thought of America. We sailed out through the Oslo Fjord in the most delightful weather and in the early evening reached Kristiansand where we lay until the next afternoon. Then we set out to sea. The next landing place was to be New York. I stood on deck all afternoon. The mountains sank lower and lower into the horizon as the day waned. When nothing more could be seen but a low, rugged cloud bank, I went below, fell into my bunk and cried like a whipped child. That was my farewell to the Fatherland.

Randi Kankerud Anderson . . . 
It is estimated that there were 1600 people on board; I'm not sure, but there were many. . . . As I stood on the deck gazing at the coast of Ireland, a white bird flew by; I became dizzy and had to go below to our quarters to my bed, where I more or less stayed. I am one of these people who cannot tolerate seasickness. As soon as I raised my head up from the pillow, I would throw up. . . . I could hear people in the adjacent cabin throwing up and in such misery that it was gruesome to listen to. I could no longer eat and became so weak that I could not even make my way to the toilets.

Kari Skangsetter Norman . . . 
I should tell you a bit about the voyage over. I got sick when we left Norway and remained sick all the way across the ocean. Six children and an old woman died on board the ship and several died after we arrived.

Randi K.A . . . 
We came to New York on the 15th, and took a little boat over to the famous Kastlegard on Ellis Island, a large round hall that can accommodate several hundred people. There you can buy many kinds of food and drink, but prices are high, so it's not a good place to shop. There people are getting their railroad tickets, and there we spent the night, some of us sleeping on the floor.

Why did they endure this pain of separation from the homeland and the sometimes inhuman travel conditions? And who should come to America? Was it for all? And furthermore, what should immigrants bring with them?

Karen Sørensdatter . . . 
Here is a large prairie 130 miles long without a single tree to be seen. These large stretches of land are like the most arable lands we have in Norway. The land is gentle rolling hills with forest land all around. All this blessed grassland grows and ripens just as it has from the time of creation.

Annie Slette . . . 
It has been many days since I left the land of my birth . . . but all is going well, so I have no complaints. I have found that America which I so often dreamed of, has not disappointed me; indeed, it has turned out to be better than I could have imagined while I was in the Old Country.

Oline Jakobsdatter Skædderstuen . . . 
Dear Berte,

Mother says that we're going to get rich because four of us in the family are working. I earn 55 cents per day, Ragnhild 40 cents, Alfred gets one dollar, and my father gets a dollar and a half a day; for us, this is wealth. We are amazed when we think back how it was in the Old Country . . . here the poor eat with the rich-at the same table. My mother says that this is the best place for her, and for your mother and you. She says that if you come, she will help you as much as possible. We want you to come.

Anne Norsby . . . 
Even though I would be happy to see you again, yet I would not advise you to come or remain in Norway. I have never regretted that I came to America, but I am reluctant to advise anyone else. Dear Marie, you must not think ill of me regarding my reluctance to advise you. I would never want on my conscience that I "lured" you to America.

Elise Wærenskjold . . . 
Those who have it good in Norway have no reason to be here. But those who are lacking in Norway, indeed for many of the poor underclass, it would be their good fortune to come here.

Marie Killy . . . 
I would not advise anyone to come to America, especially the faint-hearted. It is only those of robust health who should be here.

Elise W . . . 
Cotton-pickers make a good wage. They earn one dollar per 100 Ibs. and a good picker can pick 200 Ibs. a day. This represents a very good earning for many of your poor in Norway, especially because children can also pick cotton.

Rakkel Tonette Aslaksdatter . . . 
For the time being I cannot give you information about America, because we haven't been here long enough to judge, but we can say that America is better than Norway both in living standards and other things. We can say that letters written from America are basically true; things are as they say. 

P. S. I know that Siri will agree with my opinion that America is a glorious land, and especially for women, because work is much easier.

Oleanna Olsdatter Vigerust . . . 
When I heard that my sister Ragnhild wishes to come to America, I decided to offer my opinion. I think that if she wishes to achieve success in America, she will do better than in Norway. I am convinced that if she does not expect instant riches during the first year-which is tough for everybody-she will succeed. I can report what an ordinary girl can earn here: from two to six dollars a week and still live like a hotel guest in Norway, with much lighter work.

Ingeborg Bergene . . . 
Here there is another kind of work than in Norway. There's much to do here, but it is much easier work here for girls because here they don't have to go out and take care of the animals as they do in Norway.

Clara Myhra . . . 
Two years ago a cousin emigrated from Fondalen. She is in Fergus Falls now. She likes America very much.

Elise W . . . 
Take along some preserved milk, lemon juice, some medicine for constipation and other stomach disorders, and dried, cured fish. And if you will bring me a good whey cheese I shall surely appreciate it. Anne Norsby . . . If you are coming to America, bring all your dresses-even if they are worn-homespun clothes are good to have. Elise W . . . If Lotte would collect different kinds of fruit pits and seeds, and label them, that would be a big favor. There are many good things in Norway which we miss here. Until recently, something as simple as beer has been unattainable because of lack of yeast. But some recent immigrants brought yeast with them, so all of us have brewed our Christmas beer; and it's never tasted as good as now! It has also been four years since I have had a glass of wine. If we could get some fruit, we'd be able to have wine and juice.

Yet whimsical references to Christmas beer and perhaps an occasional glass of wine should not be misinterpreted. These sober-minded immigrants envisioned the Lutheran Church playing a key role in the education of their children. Who but the church could properly imbue the youth with the values and mores of the old society and thereby assure their ethnic solidarity? In these letters sent back to Norway immigrants expressed their hopes for securing just the right minister to guarantee the religious training of their offspring. Frequently, however, their hopes were dashed by disappointment. And their blueprint for safeguarding their spiritual/cultural traditions was thwarted.

Elise W . . . 
Here in Texas we have successfully subscribed 300 dollars as an annual wage for a pastor of a Norwegian settlement at Four Mile Prairie. Whether we will be successful in finding one is uncertain.

Elise W . . . 
I would so much like to go home to Norway in a year or two to have Otto and Niels confirmed . . . . Thorvald is a very cute little boy and his mother's pet.

Elise W . . . 
I can't tell you how much I hope that we will find a new pastor, one whose talent is to imbue our youth with Christian teaching. If Reverend Crøger is that man, I hope we'll be lucky enough to get him here.

Margrete Nilsdatter Næsheim . . . 
There is a lovely Norwegian congregation here in town, but it belongs to the sect called Methodist. Quite a few Norwegians have swung over to this sect, so consequently the Lutheran congregation does not number over twenty people.

Elise W . . . 
Several Norwegians have left the Lutheran faith; Andreas and Vincent have been baptized as Catholics, Marie Grogaard has become Episcopalian, Mrs. Staack has joined the Methodists and her brother is a Baptist. How I wish we could get a good Lutheran pastor!

Pernille S . . . 
The church here is in continuous turmoil. I know of no less than four Norwegian Lutheran synods, and how many more there might be I do not know. These four are all Norwegian, they are all Lutheran, and yet they are in constant strife with one another. I don't know what they are quarreling about except that it concerns doctrine. When I understand it better myself, I'll tell you in more detail.

Pernille S . . .
You see, all these people have only one single-what shall I call it?- entertainment, to go to church; here everybody meets regularly every Sunday. If there's something one wants to tell his friends or acquaintances, he doesn't have to hope he'll meet them at church on Sunday, he knows they'll be there. The need of companionship which we all have is satisfied there.

Aasta Blakset . . . 
You should have seen how dressed up the folks were. You never saw anything like it! The women, even wrinkled old women of seventy or eighty, wore hats loaded with pretty flowers. There must be a lot of extravagance in America, judging by appearances . . . .They looked like our finest rich folks at home.

lecture 1

Besides the agency of the church, language was central in preserving the old culture in the new environment. As long as the Norwegian language could be preserved, its speakers would remain a separate culture. First-generation ministers frequently invoked the sanction of the Almighty for the continued use of the Norwegian language in America. Yet good intentions notwithstanding, not only was the church taking on a social function never dreamed of in Norway, but language preservationists were constantly rebuffed. Immigrant settlers even adopted American slang in their speech; twenty-five cents became "two-bits." It became obvious that exclusivity in Norwegian would not work; the immigrant must learn English.

Ragnhild Killy . . . 
We now have two children. The boy is named Edvard Sigurd and is five years old; the girl is Jenny Marie; she is three years old. Eddy will begin English school this summer. When he's a little older he will also attend Norwegian school.

Ragnhild Olsdatter Vigerust . . . 
We have Norwegian worship services and communion every other Sunday here in town, and for the past two or three years we have had Norwegian Bible school during the summer. It is pretty hard for the children; as soon as English school is finished, they must begin Norwegian school.

Elise W . . . 
One large pleasantry is lacking here in Texas; we live in the midst of totally English-speaking neighbors. This is such a far- flung country, and I deem it next to impossible to find a regular Norwegian settlement, at least in our lifetime.

Randi K.A . . . 
Our neighbors are Swedish, but that doesn't matter; they are very nice anyway!

Olianna Olson . . . 
We are five neighbors in this community; three are Norwegian, and two are Germans. These Germans are just as good neighbors as people from other nations.

Ingeborg B . . . 
In my opinion it's hard to learn the language. It isn't very nice to be among English-speaking people and not understand a word they are saying. But with time, one finds that it's not so painful. So I would not return to Norway because I know it's much better here in America.

Pernille S . . . . 
America is certainly a peculiar country. Here everything is topsy-turvy, including food and mealtimes. They eat only three times a day, but the evening meal comes as early as 6 o'clock. The food is very good, mostly meat and potatoes, white bread and jam. Bread and butter are served at every meal, and so is coffee. They have such curious names for their meals. Even Uncle Hans, whose dialect is the same as mine, calls the evening meal "supper," the noon meal "dinner, " and the morning meal "breakfast." So it is with other things, too, especially the names of dishes, tools and even buildings. It is almost impossible to know what they mean. Uncle Hans calls some of the dishes we use "plait" and "pitsher", a monkey wrench is "maunkirenshen," and the summer kitchen is "kukshenti. " Of course this is English, so you see I have reamed quite a bit already! But don't you ever believe that this is all I have learned in these two weeks. I bet I could come up with at least a hundred words if I wanted to, but that wouldn't make any sense to you. However, I can't say I like their way of talking; they could just as well use Norwegian words when they speak Norwegian. But they don't do that; they stick in English words here and there. If Uncle Hans came home now and spoke Norwegian the way he does here, you would think it was English and I am sure you couldn't possibly understand all he said.

Annie S . . . 
Now I have begun to work for some Americans. At first it didn't go very well. Weeks go by without a word of Norwegian. I understand and speak very little in English. In this little town there has not been a single Norwegian until now. There is a lot of work here; I need to stay for a while in order to learn a bit of English at an American school before I move on.

Pernille S . . .
I have gotten pretty good at English now, although I must admit that it goes more slowly than I had expected. It's a terribly difficult language to learn. The worst of it is, the words are spelled so differently from the way they are pronounced. You have to learn each word twice, both spelling and pronunciation, and that's not so easy. It's no wonder that the spelling is mixed up, for there are not as many letters in English as in Norwegian, neither æ, nor ø or å. Naturally, that causes difficulty. The English word "honor," for instance, is pronounced "ahner" but it has to be spelled honor. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? But I don't dare say anything about it or people will think I am dumb and don't understand anything.

Clara M . . . 
Dear Cousin Anne,

Since Mama is writing a letter, I'll join in too. You probably don't understand my writing very well, but I'll do the best I can. I'm not very clever in writing Norwegian, but I can write in English quite well.

Pernille S . . . 
I am still working hard on my English, using almost every free moment I have to practice reading. The pronunciation is coming very slowly, but little by little I'm learning the meaning of words so that now I can follow along and understand a conversation fairly well, and can even speak a little English.

These immigrants were realizing that the challenge of the new society required language readiness. People from the English-speaking world had no such problem. But for others, the language barrier seemed almost insurmountable. Those who failed to learn English remained at the mercy of their new society for the rest of their lives. Indeed, language problems were directly related to immigrant feelings of homesickness and alienation. Letters sent home to Norway contained poignant signs of unhappiness and a yearning to maintain contact with the Old Country.

Elise W . . . 
Only God knows whether I'll ever see you again in this life, but never can I forget my deeply beloved birthland and the many dear folks I left behind. There is such a beautiful Swedish song called Hjembygden. It is impossible to hear this song without tears coming to my eyes. And yet, I have no desire to return to Norway to live. When I think about the great difference in living conditions which prevail in Norway, I can no longer imagine myself back there. In Norway they look upon the poor with scorn, the way whites here regard Negroes.

Anne Flyum . . . 
I definitely do not yet feel at home here, and at times am plagued with homesickness; when I am occupied with my daily chores, much of this is forgotten, but when I stop for a bit and think about it, I develop such a wish to be in Norway, that never would I be happier than that day when I could set foot on Norwegian soil again.

Elise W . . . 
Thank you for the picture of your mother. Can one also get photographs of the local landscape, and are they expensive? How I would like to have a view of Lillesand and my birthplace at the parish parsonage, which can be seen from the sea. I was eight years old when we moved from there; but I still remember everything so clearly.

Mrs. Johan Bergmand . . . 
Dear folks, please be so kind as to send us your picture-it would be such a pleasure to have, since we probably will never again see one another in this life. So your picture would be a souvenir and a pleasure for my whole life.

Elise W . . . 
I will never forget the cozy times we enjoyed at Kaja's house at Nygaard. Who lives there now? And Mrs. Stenersen's large house at Moglestue, who lives in it? Is the old parsonage still there, or has it been moved to a new location? Do you know if my mother's grave has been replaced by another, or have they been kind enough to let the old minister's widow rest in peace? I paid for the metalwork at the gravesite.

Randi K. A . . . 
Our new house isn't finished yet, but it's finished enough that we have moved in. The exterior siding is done, and its new paint makes it really pretty, but the interior lacks a lot of the finish work. We have a kitchen, a living room, bedroom and dining room. You probably wish to know what it's all like, so I'll try to tell you. In the kitchen are two windows and three doors. The door on the south wall goes outside, and the one on the north wall does also. Outside these doors there is what is called the stoop, similar to the veranda in Norway. The third door goes into the living room, where there are three windows and three other doors.

Elise W . . . 
I will be eighty years old on February 19, 1895. Is the old parsonage at Moland still there? Who has your grandfather's farm now? Several times I have had the dream of being back in Lillesand and I wished to go visit your mother; but everything had changed so much I couldn't find her.

For some, the longing was life-long. Many of the immigrant generation experienced the pain and suffering described by Rølvaag in his Giants in the Earth: sickness and natural calamity, death and suicide, tragic house fires, the uncertainties of childbirth a century ago, for some, insanity and for many, deep feelings of guilt. I remember an elderly cousin of my father who criticized my grandfather and his four brothers who migrated before 1900. Old Kornelius suggested that the easy money available in America was not an adequate motive to acquit these five Norwegians from their moral obligation to Norway. In a letter to me, he wrote: "We who stayed to appreciate ten acres of our dear and beloved fatherland thought we got along quite well with that . . . In America, nobody worries about old traditions or a national heritage that must be protected."

Elise W . . . 
After I last wrote you, the fever took a vicious turn for the worse and, in two and a half weeks, seven Norwegians had died, including Anne Gjasted who . . . killed herself with a very strong poison used only against wolves and crows. The doctor was present when she died, but unfortunately he did not notice the bottle of poison. Since it was found in the bed, it follows that she had taken it before she died.

Liv Nilsdatter Grimeland . . . 
Osmund Omland is dead and his son and the two youngest, Anne and Guri, are dead. Taral Bustedalen is dead and one of the girls is married. The retarded girl is dead and the youngest is also retarded. Christian Reiersen and Reinert Reiersen are dead. All of Jorgen Aamland's family are dead except for Buri and Oline.

Elise W . . . 
I know what you mean when you talk about losing a loved one, since I too have been going through it; my sweet little Thorvald has left me. I have his picture of when he was two years old, but I would gladly give one hundred dollars if I could have a picture of him now, that is before he died, but there was no opportunity for that. It was so completely unexpected for me and I was so unprepared for his death, which came like a bolt of lightning from the sky. Thorvald was actually sick last summer and that was probably the beginning of his weakness that led to his death, because I think that all the calomel that the doctors here use for practically every possible sickness completely destroys a person and weakens one's entire system. A Norwegian doctor has since told me that he thinks that this was Thorvald's trouble . . . since he was a rather delicate child to start with.

Kari Sørli... 
I must greet you from Inger's half-sister Anne who lives nearby, and who became a widow in a tragic mishap which occurred to her husband the week before Christmas when he was crossing the prairie and was caught in a snowstorm and froze to death.

Elise W . . . 
I have lost my husband, my children's dear father. God knows which of us will be next. And if I should be taken away from my children in the future . . . it would be so terrible for them. Let God's will be done! It doesn't help to worry about what can happen. Of course, it would be quite otherwise if I were in Norway; there I have both relatives and faithful friends whom I know I can count on; but here I am alone in a foreign land where I have no guarantee that there will be provisions for my children's Christian education or that their inheritance will be preserved for them.

Mrs. Bergmand . . . 
I am married to a Swedish shoemaker whose name is Johan Bergmand. We have not been married for over a year and already have had a son who was a great joy to us. But now he's dead, and called away from us. Yes, it is very sad and a heavy burden for us at this time. He was three months old and he came down with dysentery. He was very sick for eight days. It wasn't so good for me either since I was sick during the entire period with sore breasts. Many times I thought about if mother had been here I would have been so happy. But my wish could not be fulfilled and so I have had to make the best of it.

Elise W . . . 
I had sown 15 bushels of wheat, but it all backfired when we were hit by a swarm of Egyptian locusts or grasshoppers. They came here at the end of October and left us when they had eaten everything. This was followed by an extraordinary drought. In addition, I lost over half the sheep, five horses and 27 milk cows, besides the calves, to starvation. The dry grass which the grasshoppers did not eat went up in a prairie fire. I could never have imagined that grasshoppers could fly so high; but as far as the eye could see, the sky was full of them.

Anne Norsby . . . 
This winter a tragic event happened not far from us; a Norwegian and three small children were burned to death in their house. The oldest was five years old. I knew the man; they were poor folks.

Gina Runningen . . . 
Hans Endresen Joramore died some time ago; he hanged himself in his house.

Anna Johnson . . . 
On New Year's Day, twin daughters were born at 3:30 a.m. I became so sick by six o'clock I didn't think I could endure it, but the Lord eased the burden for me. I had no idea that childbirth could be so painful. Now the babies are screaming all the time. I wished that my mother or sisters could have been here while I was sick, but that could not be contemplated as we are so far apart.

Anna Gunderson . . . 
Dear Parents, 
It's so painful for me in the evenings when I'm alone, because that's when my thoughts are full of longing, so much so that oftentimes I just go to bed and cry myself to sleep. Oh, God, strengthen me so that I can hold on, because when I begin to slip, I become deeply, heavily depressed. I had so much to say before I left home, but I became overwhelmed with tears just thinking about it, so I had to be quiet. I know I must have seemed unconcerned toward you; please forgive me for that. In my heart it was something other than unconcern I felt for you. It would have been of no use to moan and groan; that would have made things worse for both you and me.

Anna Johnson . . . 
I am home with our small girls; both sleep after dinner, one of them is near me at the table while I write this letter. I must say that the children are close to my heart, but, when I think about the times since the twins were born, I break down and cry uncontrollably. I am not able to describe the pain I have experienced, but when I remind myself of my faith in God's Word, the Lord lightens my burden.

Anne Norsby . . . 
It's been a long time since we got a letter from Norway. We feel as if we have been forgotten by both relatives and acquaintances.

Anna Johnson . . . 
Dear Parents, 
It's been a long time since we have heard from you or anyone else at home. It seems as if we have been forgotten as I haven't gotten a letter from my siblings for years and years . . . I am heavy-hearted and full of sorrow, and weep so much that I wish to go to my grave. Earlier, I have been happy at this place where we are living, but now I wish only to remove myself. God help me to resist temptation which this world is so full of. I have a deep yearning that we shall return to our Fatherland again.

Elise W . . . 
One thing really hurts . . . that is that Thorvald was not able to have a kind, good wife. I think so often about Thorvald, how sweet and clever he was as a little child and how much he and I loved each other.

A common complaint of the newcomers was that the pace of work was much more intense in America. It is clear that overwork and inadequate housing contributed to their common malaise. One person observed that the immigrants paid for their self-abuse with premature old age. As a result of this adversity, one-third of the adult population of the immigrant generation after 1880 died within three years of their arrival . . . due to the rigorous climate, unexpected hardships and unfamiliar social practices. Alvin Toffler's Future Shock may be appropriate in describing the ordeal of the immigrants.

Take an individual out of his own culture and set him down suddenly in an environment sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to-different conceptions of time, space, work, love, religion, sex and everything else-then cut him off from any hope of retreat to a more familiar social landscape, and the dislocation he suffers is doubly severe. Moreover, if this new culture is itself in constant turmoil, and if-worse yet-its values are incessantly changing, the sense of disorientation will be still further intensified.


In varying degrees, these immigrants were experiencing the pain of the divided heart. If it were not realistic to remain exclusively Norwegian in the new land, some thought that at least people should become hyphenated Americans, with one foot in each country. Others regarded such ambivalence to be unacceptable, resulting in divided hearts and loyalties. Consequently, the immigrant became forever a stranger, without a home.

It is clear that the price of Americanization was very high. Few if any of these emigrants from Norway could have imagined how much their lives would be altered. Home, fatherland, relatives and friends, and language-all ultimately would be sacrificed. This debate between Preservationists and Assimilationists raged for years.

In his diary, Rølvaag described the overpowering sense of defeat that encircled the immigrant. In the same way, an immigrant contemporary of Rølvaag wrote a book, entitled On the Way to the Melting Pot, claiming that the price of Americanization was total self-denial. Others-indeed, the majority of Scandinavian immigrants themselves-accepted the inevitability of assimilation, and some encouraged it. They recognized that the mother tongue was inadequate to deal with relationships and tasks unknown in the Old Country. There were no words to substitute for settlement, landseeker, pioneer or homestead, units of measurement were different: miles, bushels, gallons, acres, dollars and cents. Foods were different too: beefsteak, bacon, ice cream, and drinks like cider, lemonade and whiskey. It served no useful purpose to attempt to translate these words into Norwegian, so people instead chose to use the vocabulary of the life they were living.

Women played special roles in this process. As immigrant daughters who hired out to Yankee families-rural and urban, they became purveyors of the American way of cooking and serving food, dress and language. Domestic work for thousands of Norwegian immigrant girls provided a powerful classroom, and, by the time these women married, they were enthusiastic apostles of American "gentility." Dorothy Burton Skåardal explains why American food customs were attractive:

'Those who at least for a time maintained their food customs from Europe were thus soon able to eat like the gentry at home; while those who adopted American food found it much more varied and plentiful than they had ever known before. . . . Food was cheaper in the New World in relation to both wages and the work required to produce it.'


Ole Rølvaag . . . 
When I came to America, I learned the first lesson of the immigrant, the first and perhaps the greatest lesson: a feeling of utter helplessness, as if life had betrayed me. It comes from the sense of being lost in a vast and alien land. In this case, it was largely physical, but I soon met the spiritual phase of the same thing. The sense of being lost in an alien culture. The sense of being thrust somewhere outside the charmed circle of life. If you couldn't conquer that feeling, if you couldn't break through the magic hedge of thorns, you were lost, indeed. Many couldn't, and didn't-and many were lost.

Waldemar Ager . . . 
First, they discarded their love for their parents, then their attachment to all back home they held dear, then the language they had learned from Mother, the love of their childhood faith, of God and their fellow man, then the songs they had learned as children, then their memories and their youthful ideals . . . and when they had uprooted from their hearts and minds everything they had praised before, then there was a great empty space to fill with egotism, selfishness and money madness.

Agnes Kirkeide . . . 
Life here is altogether different from life in our mountain valley. One must readjust oneself and learn everything all over again, even to the preparation of food. We are told that the women in America have so much leisure time, but I haven't yet met any women who thought so.

Aasta B . . . 
Let us be honest toward both our cause and our children, and admit that we should give them the right to float free and follow the currents which tug at them. Because our children must, first and foremost, be brought up to be good American citizens, who speak English without an accent and are equal to the best in that people to which they belong; if we can give them an extra value through our old language and culture, that is certainly desirable and worth trying, but it is of secondary importance.

Aud Paust-Andersen . . . 
Step by step, our youth will be Americanized. It is useless to try to stop the process; what must rather be done is direct it, to make young people aware of what is worth adopting and what not. But to live at odds with the cultural life of the nation which has offered us hospitality shows neither wisdom nor gratitude and cannot be reconciled with our great purpose.

Perhaps we can see how this "arduous transplantation"-as one scholar calls it-had lifelong consequences for the immigrants. Emigration became the central experience of millions of human beings. They became foreigners ceasing to belong. For those hopeful migrants, immigration became a history of alienation.

From our nation's early history a fundamental question has persisted: WHAT IS AN AMERICAN? Deeply rooted in our past is the notion of the melting pot . . . that we somehow blended together into a perfect homogeneous mass called 'American.' Yet the melting pot theory was misconstrued, with dangerous results. To be an American, I mean, a real American, a 100 percenter, was to be a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant American. Historically, this cannot be denied in this country.

So, for many, the American Dream became a nightmare, especially for those not meeting the criteria of spoken language or skin color. It came to be assumed that immigrants have no souls. It has seemed almost natural to regard them as objects easily dismissed and discarded. Even today, ethnic and racial eipthets and insults are heard in many quarters, even on Main Street.

In the meantime, for the past 25 years or so, I have thought that there was something missing in the equation concerning the civil rights or human rights issue. For me, there has been something almost patronizing about the creation of a curriculum, one primary purpose of which was to inform "minority" students of their own culture and history. This has seemed to me to be a dangerously ethnocentric view, presuming that we of the American "mainstream" have somehow already resolved this "ethnic-identity" issue on our own agendas. Yet the ancient philosopher Cicero declares that "he who is ignorant of his past remains forever a child." Polls indicate that Americans-more than many people elsewhere-are blithely unaware of their own ethnic/cultural antecedents and history.

This is why I am particularly pleased that, for the first time this semester, Dr. Lindemann of the History Department is offering a course in immigration history. What a marvelous opportunity for many of us to begin reawakening ourselves to ourown roots. In this way, we can better understand what it means to be an American. In our past, the melting pot has been a misnomer. All too often it became a pressure cooker. There were those who qualified for membership in "the club," while for others-regardless of their efforts-participation in the American Dream was denied. As I tell my students . . . the American Dream is alive and well today, especially among the immigrants. They still believe that in America there is a reward for hard work. Like our forefathers/ mothers, immigrants today are hopeful that opportunity and social mobility are still available to anybody willing to make the effort. Yes . . . as Americans, we are one, but we are also many. The immigrant experience can serve as the glue binding diverse people together.

In this light, not only do our ancestors need us, but more importantly, we need them. Their suffering and sacrifices can better inform our self-knowledge. Their experiences can teach us to be gentler, kinder and more compassionate toward those who dare to emulate the courage and determination of our forefathers and mothers a century ago.

The path toward Americanization is still a thorny one today, just as it was in times past. The pain and loss are no less great today. The debate between Preservationists and Assimilationists continues. How can a balance be achieved?

As we examine these glimpses of the immigrant experience in America, let us conclude by noting two remarks made by anonymous newcomers a century ago:

"Love for the motherland remained, while 
a greater love was added."




"The immigrant should love his homeland as his mother, but his 
adopted country as his bride."


Thank you very much.



Arlow W. Anderson, The Norwegian-Americans (1975). A general history of Norwegians who came to America        from 1825 to the present.

Odd S. Lovoll, The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People. (1984). A more recent        study to be read in tandem with Anderson's earlier publication.

Frederick Hale (edit.),Their Own Saga: Letters from the Norwegian Global Migration (1986). A collection of        representative immigrant letters from the 1880s until the 1930s.

Solveig Zempel (edit. and tr.), In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants (1991). A new compilation        of letters written by eight Norwegian immigrants.

Curtis B. Solberg, "The Scandinavians: Blueprint for Americanization" in American Ethnics and Minorities, edited        by Joseph Collier (1978). An essay exploring the problems facing Scandinavian immigrants in adapting to        American culture.

Dorothy Burton Skårdal, The Divided Heart: Scandinavian Immigrant Experience through Literary Sources (1974).        A fascinating study of the myriad problems encountered by Scandinavians who attempted to transplant their        roots to the United States.

Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (1951). A portrait of the psychological adaptations required of the European immigrants who settled in America.

Odd S. Lovoll (edit.), Cultural Pluralism Versus Assimilation (1977). A rich collection of essays by Waldemar Ager        and others focusing on the problems posed by the process of "Americanization."

____________, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America (1975). A study of the efforts of immigrants from rural        Norway a century ago to retain their regional identities from the Old Country.

__________, A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago before 1930 (1988). A work challenging older        Norwegian-American historiography which concentrated on immigration to and settlement of rural America.

Peter J. Rosendahl, Han Ola og Han Per: A Norwegian-American Comic Strip (1984). A valuable cultural resource,        evidencing a bilingual community in the process of transition from Norwegian to American identity. Translated        into English by Prof. Einar Haugen.



Musical score / Edvard Grieg; wind harp performance / Jan Garbarek; special audio-visual effects / SBCC Media Services; program design/ printing / SBCC Publications; and typography / The TypeStudio.


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