Giants in the Earth Essay - Critical Essays

O. E. Rolvaag

Critical Evaluation

O. E. Rölvaag was born in the Helgoland district of Norway and lived there until he was twenty years of age. He attended school irregularly; his ambition to become a poet, once broached in the family circle, brought a discouraging barrage of ridicule. At age fourteen, he left school entirely and went out with the Lofoten fishing fleet. He seemed destined to pursue this hard vocation all his life, and the prospect brought him little contentment. Although considered by his family as too stupid to learn, he read voraciously, both Norwegian and foreign authors. His reading gave him a view of the possibilities of life that made the existence to which he was bound seem intolerably circumscribed. When he had been a fisherman for five years, something occurred that forced him to a decision. The master of his boat, whom he greatly admired, offered to stake him to a boat of his own. Rölvaag realized that if he accepted the offer, he would never be anything but a fisherman, so he declined it and emigrated to America.

For three years he farmed for an uncle in South Dakota; then at the age of twenty-three, with great trepidation, he entered a preparatory school in Canton, South Dakota. Six years later, he was graduated cum laude from St. Olaf College. After a year of postgraduate study in Oslo, he took the chair of Norwegian literature at St. Olaf, which he held until his death.

By the time Rölvaag began work on Giants in the Earth, at age forty-seven, he had already written five novels, of which four had been published. All were written in Norwegian, published in Minneapolis, and read exclusively by the Norwegian-speaking population of the Midwest. All the works deal with aspects of the Norwegian settlement and appealed strongly to an audience of immigrants. Giants in the Earth is actually an English translation of two novels previously written in Norwegian: I de dage and Riket grundlgges. This novel and its sequel, Peder Seier (1928; Peder Victorious, 1929), spring from a European artistic tradition but treat matters utterly American. They are perhaps unique in both American and foreign literature.

The European and specifically Norwegian elements that distinguish Giants in the Earth are its orientation toward the psychology rather than the adventures of its characters and its strain of Nordic pessimism. The...

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