Academic journal article MELUS

Abandoned in America: Identity Dissonance and Ethnic Preservationism in Giants in the Earth

Academic journal article MELUS

Abandoned in America: Identity Dissonance and Ethnic Preservationism in Giants in the Earth

Article excerpt

"To those of my people who took part in the great settling, to them and to their generations I dedicate this narrative."

--Dedication of Giants in the Earth

Believing in the existence of a Norwegian American people, O. E. Rolvaag dedicated his writing to the past and future of Norwegian American society. (1) During his career, Rolvaag argued against Anglo-American nativism by advocating a culturally pluralistic American vision in which ethnic American enclaves would be allowed to co-exist and thrive. Questions of assimilation and belonging particularly compelled Rolvaag because he was a Norwegian immigrant himself; his immigrant trilogy consisting of Giants in the Earth (1927), Peder Victorious (1929), and Their Father's God (1931) deals with these questions deeply. This essay examines Rolvaag's rhetorical construction of ethnic identity in Giants in the Earth in light of his ethnic preservationist politics. Rolvaag speaks through his character Beret in order to advocate a return to the "indispensable" traits of Norwegian ethnicity, as he formulates them. These traits are strong religious faith, respect for one's parents, love of home, and an appreciation of a collective ethnic past. Rolvaag associates these characteristics with principles he sees declining in his time. He values Norwegian ethnicity highly because he associates it with a familiar, comforting view of the world. Thus, he privileges Norwegian ethnic identity over other formulations of individuality.

Giants in the Earth, the first and most famous novel of Rolvaag's trilogy, tells the story of Per Hansa, Beret, and their family as they settle in South Dakota. It was Per Hansa's decision to immigrate: in the spirit of pioneering ambition he dreams of a big white house with green cornices and a great red barn with white ones (52). But Beret's heart never leaves Norway. When we first see the family, they are lost on the desolate plains, their little caravan like a boat in the ocean of prairie grass. Eventually, they recover their course and settle on the prairie with the friends and neighbors with whom they emigrated. Beret continues to miss Norway terribly, even at the price of her sanity. A regretful Per Hansa is so moved over his wife's distress that he confesses to a traveling minister: "[Beret] has never felt at home here in America ... there are some people, I know now, who should never emigrate, because, you see, they can't take pleasure in that which is to come--they simply can't see it!" (440). Per Hansa's vision is set on the future, while Beret is "borne back ceaselessly into the past," to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald's words in The Great Gatsby (1925). When Per Hansa suddenly dies at the end of the novel, it falls to Beret to realize all of the dreams her husband had set out. Circumstances force Beret to become the successful pioneer her husband would have been, but her suffering continues, even increases, and her heart remains in Norway. Yearning for a home she can never return to, Beret is abandoned in America by her own refusal to integrate the American landscape into her identity.

Giants in the Earth was written in Norwegian and published in Oslo in 1924-1925 in two volumes under the titles Ide dage (In Those Days) and Riket grundlaegges (Founding the Kingdom). Two years later it was translated by Lincoln Colcord in conjunction with the author and published by Harper and Brothers in the United States, where it enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. Although the novel was originally published in Norway, Rolvaag described his work as American literature that happened to be written in Norwegian (Zempel 13). He dedicated the novel to his "people who took part in the great settling," and it is evident that that the problems of Norwegian American immigrants were of special concern to Rolvaag in this work.

By the time Giants in the Earth was published in the 1920s, Norwegian American society was flourishing with a network of thriving cultural institutions such as newspapers, theaters, publishing houses, churches, language programs, and fraternal organizations. …

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