O. E. Rölvaag

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ole Edvart Rölvaag (ROHL-vahg) was born on the island of Dønna off the coast of Norway. His father, a veterinarian, came of a family of peasant fishermen, and for a time young Rölvaag, together with his brother Johan, also secured his livelihood from the sea. His formal education was slight, consisting of only a few weeks’ schooling every year. In 1896, determined to come to the United States, he refused the command of a fishing boat and instead emigrated to South Dakota. There he worked for a year on an uncle’s farm until he had earned enough money to attend college.{$S[A]M{oslash}rck, Paal[Morck, Paal];Rölvaag, O. E.}

In Norway Rölvaag had been regarded as a poor student, but he had always been an avid reader, particularly of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, H. Rider Haggard, Frederick Marryat, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Jules Verne as well as those of such Scandinavian writers as Zacharias Topelius, Jonas Lie, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. In the United States he added to his love of reading a strong incentive to learn. He first attended Augustana College, a small preparatory school in Canton, South Dakota, and from there went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he graduated with honors in 1905. He then returned to Norway for a year of graduate study at the University of Oslo before accepting a position at St. Olaf.

His association with St. Olaf continued until a few months before his death a quarter of a century later. He settled in Northfield, after marrying Jennie Berdahl in 1908, the year he became a U.S. citizen. In 1910, the year his daughter, Ella Valborg, was born, he received a Master of Arts degree from St. Olaf and eventually was honored with a full professorship. The Rölvaags’ first son, Olaf, born in 1909, and their third son, Paul, born in 1915, died at the ages of six and five; their second son, Karl, born in 1913, became a governor of Minnesota.

Rölvaag’s career as a writer began somewhat obscurely during his years of teaching. Upon first returning to St. Olaf he had written his first novel, Nils og Astri, eller Brudstykker av Norsk-Amerikansk Folkeliv (fragments of Norwegian American popular life), but this work had gone unpublished. He continued his literary efforts with Amerika-breve (letters from America), which was printed in Norwegian under the pseudonym Paal Mørck in 1912 (this work was not published in translation, as The Third Life of Per Smevik, until 1971). It was Rölvaag’s belief that close relationships between the American immigrants and their friends and relatives in the Old World should be maintained, and his early novels were an attempt to secure this relationship. Written in Norwegian, his books depicted the trials and the triumphs of pioneers in the New World.

Rölvaag’s interest in the preservation of his homeland culture caused him some difficulty with the rise of strong national feeling during World War I, but criticism only increased his determination. He continued to write in Norwegian and to advocate the maintenance of Scandinavian ways. This remained his belief and practice throughout his life, but for his writing he eventually dropped his native Norwegian for English. This change was brought about through the journalist Lincoln Colcord. Rölvaag had published two novels in Norwegian, both of which dealt with the struggles of the early Norwegian settlers in the Dakotas. Colcord, appreciating the power of these two works, persuaded Rölvaag to translate them into English, and he helped the novelist capture American idiom. The result was Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie.

Rölvaag wrote several more novels in English—Peder Victorious and Their Fathers’ God, which complete the Giants trilogy, in addition to Pure Gold and The Boat of Longing—following his first work in his adopted language, but it is on Giants in the Earth that his reputation as a novelist continues to rest. The book, praised by such critics as Vernon Parrington and...

(The entire section is 1,431 words.)