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Subject: Waldemar Ager - Preface - 6
Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2004 10:48:35 -0800

The following selection is taken from "Imigrant Idealist: A Literary
Biography of Waldemar Ager, Norwegian American" Einar Haugen and
published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) in
1989. The Volume is out of print and is not available from NAHA at where you will also find the first
33 volumes of Studies and Records online as well as Theodore C. Blegen's
2 volumes on Norwegian Migration to America. This chapter is published
with the kind permission of NAHA. The book this selection is drawn from
is under copyright and permission has been granted for educational
purposes and it is not to be used in any way for any commercial purposes.

The figure that appears on the cover and title page of this book is one
of the twenty-four letters in the older Germanic runic alphabet used in
the Scandinavian countries from about 200 to 800 A.D. In addition to
representing the sound "m," approximately as in modern English, it also
has a name, meaning "man" or "mankind." It thus serves here as a symbol
for the humanities.

Immigrant Idealist
A Literary Biography of Waldemar Ager,
Norwegian American
The Norwegian-American Historical Association
ISBN 0-87732-077-2
To Clarence Clausen and Clarence Kilde

Waldemar Ager
WALDEMAR AGER, as editor and author, was one of the most original and
influential men of letters among Norwegian Americans. He was an idealist
who tirelessly and valiantly did battle for the causes he believed in,
the two major ones being temperance and Norwegian-American cultural
growth. The foremost expression of the latter would be an independent
immigrant literature.
The present volume, Immigrant Idealist: A Literary Biography of Waldemar
Ager, Norwegian American by Einar Haugen, is a well-informed and
sensitive scholarly statement about Ager's own contributions to this
literature. He produced many Volumes of fiction-short stories and
novels-and wrote numerous polemical articles, editorial opinions, and
reports. But the study moves substantially beyond a consideration of
Ager's literary products and situates him and his life's work in the
larger context of the immigrant world, its place in an evolving
pluralistic American society, and its relationship to Norway. We are
pleased to publish this volume as the seventh in our Authors Series.
Einar Haugen is Victor S. Thomas Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian and
linguistics in Harvard University. He is a member of the Association's
publications board and is recognized for his many publications within his
field and the related areas of Norwegian-American history and literature.
In editing this volume for publication I had the competent assistance of
Mary R. Hove, which I wish to acknowledge with warmest thanks. She also
prepared the index.
St. Olaf College

I HAVE DEDICATED this book to Clarence Clausen, not only because he is my
oldest living friend, but also because I learned a great deal from him
during our three years together in graduate school at the University of
Illinois. Over the years it has been good to know that he was there, at
St. Olaf College, and when he asked me to write a sketch of Ager's life,
it was a pleasure to consent.
I have also gratefully dedicated it to Clarence Kilde because he
entrusted me with the Ager collections that he had gathered over many
years. Without his devotion to Ager's memory it would have been
impossible to compose this book.
Beyond these two I owe a great deal to the staff of the
Norwegian-American Historical Association Archives at St. Olaf College,
including Professor Lloyd Hustvedt, Charlotte Jacobson, and Ruth Hanold
Crane. They have helped me find the materials I needed, including
pictures and other memorabilia. I also had valuable assistance from the
Rølvaag family, especially Solveig Zempel, and the faculty of Norwegian,
especially Margaret O'Leary. Odd S. Lovoll, as the editor of the
Norwegian-American Historical Association, was a helpful resource at
every turn. Finally I wish to mention my hosts Ella Valborg Tweet and
Helen Wilbur. On my visit to Eau Claire Peggy Hager was my ever-present
helper, guiding me to a valuable interview with Ager's son, Eyvind.
Howard Lutz was also a useful intermediary. While Eyvind was the only
member of the Ager family I met, I had epistolary contact with his sister
In Norway the staff of the University Library in Oslo was most generous,
above all Johanna Barstad, who furnished me with bibliographies and
access to the Norwegian-American collection, and enabled me to copy
hundreds of pages from the microfilmed files of Reform. On a visit to
Fredrikstad and Gressvik to see Ager's early home, I benefited from the
guidance and hospitality of Finn Andersen and his wife. In Oslo Herborg
Handagard gave me access to a bibliography of her father's writings and
kindly xeroxed his letters from Ager (1897-1935).
A special thanks goes to my wife, Eva, who has read the chapters as they
were ready and has corrected my more egregious errors.
Finally, a personal note: I learned to know and admire Waldemar Ager when
I was still a young man. He came to Sioux City, Iowa, to speak and was a
guest in my parents' home. Later, in Madison, Wisconsin, he was the guest
of my wife and me. These brief encounters and my ardent reading of his
writings are ever present in the background of this book.
July 22, 1987 EINAR HAUGEN

3. FORMATIVE YEARS: 1892-1899 25
4. IN THE STREAM: 1899 34
6. TO THE EDITOR'S CHAIR: 1900-1905 47
7. SHORT STORIES: 1905-1910 54
9. FROM PEACE TO WAR: 1911-1917 73
10. THE MELTING POT: 1917 88
11. FROM WAR TO PEACE: 1917-1921 97
12. LOOKING BACK ON THE WAR: 1922-1923 108
13. SONS OF THE OLD COUNTRY: 1924-1929 116
14. I SIT ALONE: 1929-1931 129
15. LAST YEARS: 1931-1941 144

Waldemar Ager Frontispiece
Ager as a Young Man 8
"Excelsior" Temperance Lodge, Eau Claire 9
Ole Br. Olson 10
Masthead of Reform, 1893 12
Martinius Ager and Four Brothers 17
Waldemar Ager as a Boy 19
Ager Family in Chicago 21
Mathea Ager 23
Gurolle Blestren Ager 30
Temperance Movement Leaders 31
Ager as a Young Editor 50
Ager as a Young Man 52
Ager in the Editor's Office 74
Masthead of Reform, 1917 75
Fremad Publishing Company 85
Statue of Colonel Hans C. Heg 86
Ager Home in Eau Claire, Side View 89
Ager Home, Front View 89
Ager's Cabin on Lake Chetek 101
Ager Fishing with Son Trygve 102
Ager with Order of St. Olaf 114
Ager and Rølvaag 125
Ager at St. Olaf College, 1929 126
Ager and Son Trygve 127
Cover of Ager's Last Novel, 1931 130
Immigrant Idealist
Ager Family about 1935 146
Ager with Granddaughter Barbara Bergh 147
Monument on Ager's Grave 153
Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations come from the collection of
the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

WALDEMAR AGER (1869-1941) was the founder of a movement to develop a
Norwegian-language literature among immigrants in the United States. From
the 1890s to the 1920s he was the central figure in what he insisted on
calling a "Norwegian-American" literature. As he saw it, this was a
secular literature that had its roots in Norway and bloomed in America.
By using the Norwegian language it maintained a link with the early lives
of the emigrants in their native land, but by drawing its observations
from the American lives of the immigrants it was a true reflection of
their experiences in their new homeland. As long as one maintained the
Norwegian language and the native culture embodied in it, there would be
no break in the continuity of the immigrants' lives. They could grow
right into the new land and make their contribution to it, not only as
hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as partners in the building of a
new American civilization.
This idealistic view of America and its potentiality for incorporating
elements of non-English culture was probably widespread among immigrants
from various countries. It conflicted with the usual Anglo-American
concept of assimilation, which required that immigrants give up any
allegiance not just to a foreign government but also to a foreign culture
and language. Immigration was a one-way process whereby foreigners were
to become Americans, but Americans did not in any way accept foreign
languages or customs. Immigrant experience was to be a conversion, a
transformation, in which the immigrant shed the "old Adam" and came forth
in a new guise as a good American citizen.
Ager fully accepted the notion of becoming an American citizen, a new
political creature, but he saw no disloyalty in maintaining alongside an
American life a Norwegian culture which did not involve resistance to the
democratic institutions of America. Nor did he object to learning
English, but he wished to maintain within his family and in his church
and his friendships the language of his ancestors. The difficulty was
that American life was forever nibbling at his base, luring away his
children and exerting a subtle influence on him, an influence that was
intensified by the crises of World War I. These factors will be explored
at some length in the following account of his life. The aim of this
study is to present a full-length portrait of an important figure in the
development of an American immigrant group. Not every aspect of his life
can be considered, for he was fluent and active in many fields, as
journalist, speaker, and author. The stress will be on his literary
career, with glances at other relevant areas.
He came to America when immigration from northwestern Europe was at a
peak, in the mid-1880s. While Norwegians had been trickling into the
United States since 1825 and had already discovered the Midwest as their
mecca well before the Civil War, the end of the war opened the floodgates
and turned Norwegians loose by the thousands. During the 1870s and 1880s
the emigration was so heavy that it carried with it more than the natural
increase of the population. In 1814 Norway had less than a million
inhabitants; an estimated 750,000 left the country during the century of
immigration. In the top year of 1882 more than 28,000 Norwegians
emigrated. It is commonly said that only Ireland had a heavier proportion
of emigrants.
The early emigrants were drawn mostly from the farming population and
they sought out the open, arable lands in the upper Midwest, from 1840
streaming into Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. They
organized Lutheran churches which conducted services and instructed the
children in Norwegian. Hundreds of congregations were founded, books and
newspapers were published, and for some decades one could speak of a
"Norwegian America." From the 1880s emigrating families were outnumbered
by individuals, many of them urban, seeking work, often in American
cities. Cities like Chicago and Minneapolis became magnets for the new
migration, along with many smaller towns like Eau Claire, Wisconsin,
where Ager would settle.
In the climate of settlement secular literature did not flourish. The
leaders of the Lutheran churches held that the reading of anything but
the Bible and the hymn book was a frivolous exercise, not conducive to
the goal of salvation. If journals were started, they should be guided by
the clergy. This pattern was broken early by persons of a more worldly
persuasion, but it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that major
newspapers sprang into being. Such journals as the weeklies Skandinaven
and Decorah-Posten were founded in 1866 and 1874 respectively in Chicago
and in Decorah, Iowa. But there were also numerous minor efforts, often
with special interests, like Reform, the temperance weekly which became
the voice of Waldemar Ager after it moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in
1888. In an age before the automobile, electricity, radio, and
television, these newspapers all fulfilled a purpose by informing a
widespread clientele about news not only from the homeland overseas but
also from the life of fellow countrymen in America.
Such journals also became the early repositories of letters, travel
accounts, poetry, and even fiction, either translated or original, often
reprinted from Norwegian sources. While not the first Norwegian-American
writer, O. A. Buslett in Wisconsin was a pioneer, described as "poet,
storyteller, dramatist, and reformer." His first story "Fram" (Forward)
appeared in 1882; he became an early friend of Ager, who would later
characterize him as one who "had a lyre in one hand and a dissecting
knife in the other." {1} Another early author, H. A. Foss, wrote
Husmandsgutten (The Cotter Boy, 1889), a best-seller, though it could
hardly be classified as great literature. Peer Stromme was an
author-pastor-lecturer who made his mark by writing Hvorledes Halvor blev
Prest (How Halvor Became a Pastor, 1893). All these were earlier than
Ager's first book, which came only in 1894. But Ager was the first to
launch the idea that Norwegians in America had the makings of a
literature of their own, distinct from that of the motherland but still
reflecting their own lives in a language they all knew from childhood.
For a generation he would be not only its leader but also its chief
It should perhaps be made clear just what Norwegian is or was. While it
is by definition the language of Norway, the term can be ambiguous. The
picturesque land of Norway, the northernmost and almost the westernmost
country of continental Europe, became a distinct entity some thousand
years ago, in the ninth century A.D. The language spoken, usually called
Old Norwegian, was a branch of the Scandinavian languages, which included
Danish and Swedish as well as Icelandic, with which Norwegian was most
closely allied. Norway had its own government until 1450 A.D., when it
was dynastically united with Denmark, an arrangement that lasted for
nearly four hundred years. In effect, Denmark became dominant and Norway
fell into a dependency which accepted the language of the Danish court as
its written language. Although the union with Denmark was broken in 1814
and a new union with Sweden established, this had no effect on the
language. Norwegian was still written identically with Danish, but
Norwegians spoke a multitude of rural dialects, and the urban elite had
created a Dano-Norwegian speech form that was radically different from
Danish. This was the language of Ager: speech that was urban Norwegian, a
written language that was Danish. To him these two forms were quite
simply spoken and written Norwegian.
During his lifetime Ager was certainly the best known Norwegian American,
widely heard and read by all segments of Norwegian-American society.
His newspaper of opinion was noticed, quoted, and argued with, and he
himself had his fingers in innumerable pots, particularly those that
concerned prohibition and the cause of the Norwegian language. Since his
death in 1941 silence seems to have fallen over his figure, in part
because, as someone has said, "his work is frozen in a foreign language."
This book will be an attempt to rescue him from the oblivion that seems
to have settled on his work and personality. He was a good man and a
great one, whose idealism inspired him to do everything he thought best
for his fellow countrymen. He should be honored, not forgotten. He was
one who kept faith with his ancestors by projecting an America he loved
and wished would live up to the future it ought to have.


1869 Born March 23, Fredrikstad, Norway, to Martinius Mathisen Ager of
Eidsberg and Fredrikke Marie Johnsdatter Stillaugsen, known as Mathea, of
1871 Family moves to Græsvig (now Gressvik), across the Glommen (now
Glåma) river from Fredrikstad.
1873 Enters school at age four and a half.
1882 Family having moved to Christiania (Oslo), Waldemar leaves school at
age thirteen to find employment.
1883 Father Martinius emigrates to America to settle in Chicago as a
custom tailor.
1885 Mother Mathea and three children emigrate to Chicago; Waldemar
begins as apprentice printer at Norden, a Norwegian-American weekly
1887 Joins the Harmony Total Abstinence Society, becomes its secretary.
1891 Becomes editor of Templarbladet, a four-page temperance monthly
published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Becomes a naturalized citizen of the
United States.
1892 Moves to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to work as a printer in the office
of Reform, a weekly Norwegian newspaper advocating temperance and
1894 Paa drikkeondets konto: Fortallinger og vers published in Eau Claire
at Reform's printshop. Father Martinius dies in Chicago and is buried in
Mt. Olive Cemetery. Mother moves to Eau Claire.
1896 Promoted to business manager and co-editor of Reform.
1899 Marries Gurolle Blestren from Tromsø; wedding trip to New Orleans. I
strømmen, en fortælling published in Eau Claire.
1900 First visit to Norway since emigration.
1901 Afholdssmuler fra boghylden published in Eau Claire.
1903 Becomes editor of Reform.
1905 Starts and edits Kvartalskrift, journal of Det Norske Selskab i
1906 Fortællinger for Eyvind published in Eau Claire.
1907 When You are Tired of Playing: Stories for Eyvind translated by J.
J. Skørdalsvold and published in Eau Claire.
1908 Becomes a member of the Eau Claire Public Library Board.
Hverdagsfolk, short stories, published in Eau Claire.
1910 Kristus for Pilatus. En norsk-amerikansk fortælling published in Eau
1911 Presten Conrad Walther Welde, Norwegian title of Kristus for
Pilatus, published in Christiania by Aschehoug publishers.
1912 First Eau Claire citizen to appear in Who's Who in America.
1913 Mother Mathea dies in Chicago and is buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery.
1914 Second visit to Norway: director of Wisconsin exhibit at
Constitution Centennial, Christiania.
Edits Afholdsfolkets festskrift, published in Eau Claire.
1915 Edits Norge i Amerika, a reader, with G. Bothne, published in
Christiania by Dybwad publishers.
1916 Fortællinger og skisser published in Eau Claire. Oberst Heg og hans
gutter published in Eau Claire.
1917 Paa veien til smeltepotten, a novel, published in Eau Claire.
1918 Udvalgte fortællinger published in Minneapolis by Holter publishers.
1919 Fiftieth birthday, honored by friends with a gift of a thousand
dollars; buys cottage on Lake Chetek.
1921 Ny samling. Fortællinger og skisser published in Eau Claire.
1923 Awarded Order of St. Olaf by King Haakon of Norway. Det vældige
navn. Et drømmebillede fra verdenskrigen published in Eau Claire.
1924 Christ before Pilate: An American Story published in Minneapolis by
Augsburg Publishing House.
1926 Gamlelandets sønner, a novel, published in Oslo by Aschehoug
1929 Receives honorary Doctor of Letters (Litt. D.) from St. Olaf
College, Northfield, Minnesota.
Hundeøine, a novel, published in Oslo by Aschehoug publishers.
1930 Underforvandlingens tegn. Fortallinger og saadant published in Eau
1931 I Sit Alone, translation of Hundeøine by Charles Wharton Stork,
published in New York by Harper's.
1934 Third and last visit to Norway, lecture tour sponsored by Nordmanns
Forbundet, with daughter Valborg.
1938 Skyldfolk og andre, short stories, published in Eau Claire.
1939 Receives St. Olaf medal from King Haakon.
1941 Dies August 1, and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Eau Claire.

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