Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Holger Drachmann in America

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Holger Drachmann in America

Article excerpt

On Friday, September 23, 1898, the emigrant ship Thingvalla set sail from the harbor of Copenhagen with a load of Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes eager to start a new life in America. Among the passengers on the deck stood a tan, white-haired, middle aged man in a large, soft hat and cloak. He was the Danish author and painter Holger Drachmann. He too had decided to leave Europe for a while, maybe forever, and to try his luck in America. On Monday, May 28,1900, the steamer Columbia docked in Cuxhaven, the harbor town of Hamburg, with Holger Drachmann on board (Rubow, Sidste Aar 10, 32; Ursin, Drachmann 2:166, 172). After just over one and a half years, he returned to Europe. Except for four articles in the newspaper Politiken, Drachmann left few written records of his time in the United States, and others, too, have written little about it. What made Holger Drachmann go to America? How did he feel about his experience? What resulted from his stay?

Between the years 1868 and 1914, almost three hundred thousand Danes decided to leave Denmark for the United States emigrating to escape the difficult conditions at home and to create new lives for themselves abroad. Some did not see their dreams fulfilled and returned home again. Others planned a short stay--lasting from a few months to a few years (Pedersen 11-15; Hvidt 80-81, 324-30). Drachmann's personal dream of America included escape from the old world's small towns to a new, young country. He imagined he could easily support himself by making recitation tours through the Scandinavian settlements in the United States, a plan that would also leave him with uninterrupted time to work on a number of major literary projects.

Drachmann toyed with the thought of going to America as early as 1892 (Borup, Breve 3:471; Loerges, Edith 144,146, 151, 164). In 1896 his daughter Gerda emigrated to Boston, and her letters were a factor in his decision to follow (Borup, Breve 4:104). As soon as he announced the idea of a visit, invitations from Scandinavian societies, clubs, and private individuals streamed in. In addition, in 1897 and 1898 his private life became rather chaotic, making the idea of a trip even more attractive (Ursin, Drachmann 2:164-66).

Another influence on Drachmann's journey to America was Edith. In 1887 he left his second wife, Emmy, and their children in order to be with the vaudeville singer Amanda Nilsson, whom he called Edith. During the next ten years, they lived together, and Edith proned to be an ideal companion for him. She was independent and able to support him through financial troubles (although his pride actually forbade it); she successfully encouraged him when he was depressed and inspired and delighted him with her gentle nature. But in the beginning of 1897, Drachmann's situation took a downward turn. After meeting the young Norwegian lute player Bokken Lasson at an artists' party in Hotel Foniks in Copenhagen and hearing her sing excerpts from his novel Forskrevet to her own lute accompaniment, he arranged a concert for her in Copenhagen. In May 1897, he engaged her as a secretary and invited her to join him at the Gausdal Sanatorium in Norway. There he dictated his play Brav-Karl to her while longing for Edith, who was in Germany (Lasson, Slik 174-77 and Ursin, Drachmann 2:151-53).(1) Bokken admired Drachmann highly and called him "Kongen" [the king] (Lasson, Livet 8: 11). However, when Edith arrived in Gausdal in june and found Bokken so comfortably installed, she soon left Norway again (Rubow, 1878-1897 227). Naively, Drachmann had expected Edith to accept Bokken, who was merely his secretary and friend; Edith, in contrast, was his beloved. He bombarded Edith with letters and pled with her to return. Persuaded, she agreed to meet him only to find him dining with Bokken in a hotel room in Gothenburg. He realized too late that he had gone too far. He followed Edith to Hamburg but could not find her. Shortly before Christmas, he succeeded in locating her but was unable to sway her. …

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