Culture, Difference, and Diversity in O.E. Rolvaag's Immigrant Epic

By Kongslien, Ingeborg | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Culture, Difference, and Diversity in O.E. Rolvaag's Immigrant Epic


Kongslien, Ingeborg, Scandinavian Studies


For when American literature was being established as a field of study, there was still a sense in the world of scholarship that the language and literature of the United States was a field not limited to English.

(Werner Sollors, in Shell 1)

ROLVAAG BELONGS TO THE GROUP of writers who, as immigrants America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, continued sing their native immigrant languages. In The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature edited by Werner Sollors and Marc Shell, this literary tradition is illustrated by the works of twenty-nine authors, many of whom write in European languages. The volume also includes, however, Arabic, Chinese, and some Native American texts, with English translations. This publication is an apt reminder of American literatures' multilingual past as well as a means of giving today's readers access to this tradition spanning three centuries. Although Rolvaag's novels are Norwegian literature in terms of language, they can also be considered American literature in that they were written in America and deal with American life. Sollor's term "American literary texts in languages other than English" (Multilingual America 6) is appropriate. These writers in numerous languages were anchored in their ethnic communities and often focalized the double perspective of old and new homelands. Some also reached back to the country from which they emigrated--as did Rolvaag--by publishing their works there. What is unique about Rolvaag's texts is their transnational and transcultural nature; Norwegian-American literature is, thus, the term that best defines them.

Contemporary American writers who are immigrants to the United States have, unlike Rolvaag and his generation, mostly opted for English as their literary language. Examples abound ranging from twentieth-century canonical luminary Vladimir Nabokov through today's prominent authors like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, and Bharati Mukherjee to name just a few. They are what Steven Kellman calls "translingual authors," i.e. they have chosen the language of their new homeland for their artistic endeavors, not their mother tongue. With migration and exile as such prominent aspects of our contemporary life, the translingual writer is also common in European literatures including Scandinavian. Today's writers from migrant backgrounds in the Nordic countries (the most prominent example being the Swedish author Theodor Kallifatides) have mainly chosen to write in the Nordic languages in contrast to the practice of the earlier Scandinavian immigrant writers in America who wrote primarily in their first language. These facts offer an interesting backdrop for studying Rolvaag and provide a contextualization of different transcultural, translingual, and transnational combinations that may be open for worthwhile comparisons.

Very few literary works belong to three literary traditions as is the case with O.E. Rolvaag's immigrant epic I de dage, Riket grundlogges, Peder Seier, and Den signede dag published in 1924, 1925, 1928, and 1931 respectively. Written in Norwegian, in the Norwegian-American community of the upper midwest, which maintained a lively literary tradition from roughly 1870 to 1930, Rolvaag's novels were published in Norway as rare examples of works by writers from Norwegian-America. In English translation, they were widely read contributions to American literature. Giants in the Earth, consisting of volumes I and 2 of the Norwegian edition, was published in 1927 and subsequently offered as a Book-of-the-Month selection. It was followed by Peder Victorious in 1929 and Their Fathers' God in 1931. They are, thus, a tetralogy in the Norwegian original, but a trilogy in the English version.

The translations, authorized by Rolvaag himself, are in part rewritings, especially in the case of Giants in the Earth on which the author and translator collaborated in a way that they called the "double action" (Haugen 94). …

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