Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why this post?

Here we have a late Nineteenth Century photograph of Deadwood, South Dakota, by John C.H. Grabill, with an inset of James Butler Hickok, better known as "Wild Bill" Hickok.
The photographs of John C.H. Grabill
If someone were to ask me, "Why this post?" my response probably would be words to the effect:
"Just for the hell of it. Why ask me why I do anything? I like to say I have a reason for everything I do, but, sometimes, the reason escapes me, and just for 'the hell of it' seems as good an answer as any."
The long and the short of it is that I really am not sure of the reason. I encountered a few "stereoscopic" photographs by a guy named Grabill, surrendered to my curiosity, did a bit of research. The following paragraph is direct from Wikipedia:
"John C. H. Grabill was an American photographer. Little is known about his work. In 1886 he opened his first photographic studio in Sturgis, with studios in Hot Springs, Lead and Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He had presumably already been active in the area before this date. In this time he was the official photographer of the Black Hills and Fort Pierre R.R. and Home Stake Mining Company. From 1891 to 1894 he operated a studio in Chicago. Most is known from 188 photographs he sent to the Library of Congress between 1887 and 1892 for copyright registration. His work documents the frontier life in Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming. His photographs of Pine Ridge during the aftermath of Wounded Knee are most remarkable."
The reference to photographs from Wounded Knee is absolutely correct. Remarkable might not even be an expressive enough word to describe the photographs. I have a book, "Eyewitness at Wounded Knee," (Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul, John E. Carter / University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London) with more than 150 photographs contemporary to the 1890 event. For those not familiar with Wounded Knee, do a bit of your own research.
I have enjoyed photography since my pre-school years. My mother taught me with her camera, and I "stole" money (sort of) from my "piggy bank" (literally) when I was five years old to buy a camera and a roll of film. My interest comes and goes, rises and falls, and I have been a "serious photographer" (depending on the definition of serious) at times, like when I worked as a journalist.
I particularly like old photographs. I relish studying them in detail, often with a magnifying glass -- looking at faces, at buildings, at firearms, at dogs, at landscapes .... well, you catch my drift. I have found this to be an excellent means to study and to learn what was here before me, and, by that means, to learn more about myself.
Actually, that probably is a better explanation to the question of "why this post." It is sort of a "thank you" to Grabill for doing what he did: Take photographs of the world as it was during his lifetime for me to enjoy and to study during my lifetime a hundred years later .... and, I want to bring him back to life for a while, in a manner of speaking, so others might know of him and see his photographs.
Here are two internet websites which contain many of Grabill's photographs:





Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"It's a terribly difficult language to learn"

"But I'm beginning to see that I can't hold out for long in this life as a hired man. It is becoming more and more impossible. Not because the work is so hard; I could stand that and not grumble too much, but I have lost all interest in this kind of work. As long as it was new it was interesting, but after I had once learned it I could keep my thoughts on it no longer. They wandered off into other worlds. Therefore I have decided to try something else. I am going to attend a Norwegian-American academy this winter -- in order to learn English, if for no other reason. I will leave for school in a few months."
Education always has been important to immigrants, as illustrated in this photograph taken at a one-room, sod school house in Custer County South Dakota. The year the photograph was taken is not given, but evidently it was before the area residents were able to afford a wooden structure requiring the use of sod. It is fascinating to study the faces of the "schoolmarm" and her charges. Other than the clothing being worn, the individuals present might be those in a 21st Century school. Being the curious sort, I cannot help but wonder if these boys and girls had happy, healthy, productive lives.
Growing Unrest -- 1898
"The Third Life of Per Smevik"
(Third of three parts)
Some believe and would argue that everything begins at a tribal level, and that the first tier of tribalism is the family. I tend to agree with that position.
I recently completed reading, "The Third Life of Per Smevik," by Ole Edvart Rølvaag, also known by the pseudonym of Paal Mørck. The bottom line of any book, I think, is would one person recommend it to another individual. In the matter of Per Smevik, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Here are three examples of why.
Smevik (Rølvaag) is speaking about learning the English language: "I have gotten pretty good at English now, although I must admit that it goes more slowly than I had expected. It's a terribly difficult language to learn. The worst of it is, the words are spelled so differently from the way they are pronounced. You have to learn each word twice, both spelling and pronunciation, and that’s not so easy .... The English word 'honor,' for instance, is pronounced 'ahner' but it has to be spelled honor. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? But I don’t dare say anything about it or people will think I am dumb and don’t understand anything."
Later, Smevik (Rølvaag) is writing about a split in a church congregation which included a dispute between the church sexton and his wife: "One day as they were eating dinner -- they had had an especially lively debate at breakfast that morning -- Andreas suddenly began to heave the dishes at the wall, first the coffee cups, then the saucers, and then the cream pitcher. He didn't get any further than that in his berserk rage. For when the cream pitcher went, the Madam arose in all her dignity and power, grabbed the poker, and people swear it's the truth that she used it effectively, too .... This happened more than ten years ago, but those two old folks are still acting like idiots. Andreas subscribes to one church paper; Anna to the other. She supports one congregation; he the other. When he gave twenty dollars to his church, she forced him to hand over another twenty dollars which she conscientiously gave to her church. I know this is true ...."
Finally, when Smevik (Rølvaag) was a parochial school teacher, he was asked by a father to conduct a funeral service for the man's young son. Against his better judgment, he did: "When I found a Bible text I thought I could use, I asked the parents if the child had been baptized. 'Yes,' said the mother. 'No,' answered the father. Then a cold chill ran down my spine. I felt sick. How these two people could sit there with the dead child between them, and one of them lie, was more than I could comprehend .... Who lied about the child's baptism, I do not know. Presumably what the mother said was true. She may have had the child baptized without telling her husband. We can hope so, at least."
Time to go a-roaming with a few words: "The Boat of Longing," was Rølvaag's favorite book among those he wrote and my second favorite behind, "Giants in the Earth." Much of the story in The Boat is set in Minneapolis, and holding the book in one hand I was able to trace many of Rølvaag's footsteps and see places he described in the novel. The story relates the experiences of Nils Vaag, a young Norwegian immigrant who leaves behind the life of a fisherman in Nordland and emigrates to the New World in 1912. There -- in downtown Minneapolis -- he sweeps saloons while living in a boardinghouse called "Babel" for the many languages used by its residents. Actually, Babel was a hotel which still exists and, actually, Rølvaag lived and worked in downtown Minneapolis for a while.
Some have described The Boat as poetry in prose form. I would agree with that description.
It has been a number of years since I read, "Giants in the Earth," so recalling details and specifics from the story are entering the realm of shadows. Never-the-less, if anyone were to read only one of Rølvaag's tales, this novel would be the "king of the hill" and my first recommendation. Giants is the story of Norwegian settlers on the Dakota prairie. Central characters are Per Hansa, a natural pioneer who sees promise in the windswept plains, and his wife, Beret, who misses the ways of her homeland to the point loneliness overpowers the deeper reality of life lived on the American frontier. She eventually loses her sanity.
A man filled with blind ambition, perhaps, describes Per Hansa best. At the end of the novel, he ventures out into a blizzard on skis to find help for his dying friend, but he never quits thinking about taking more land and fulfilling his ambitions. Per Hansa stops to rest along the way and freezes to death. His body is found in the spring by a group of boys:
"To the boys, it looked as though the man were sitting there resting while he waited for better skiing .... His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west."
This seems like an appropriate place to end these commentaries about Ole Edvard Rølvaag and some of the stories he told ....

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Rølvaag & the question of roots

"After I read your letter, I put on my hat and coat and walked far out into the country to a lonely place.  I had to be alone. There I sat down and read your letter one more time. And then, finally, the dam broke, and I wept like a little boy who has had a whipping. It wasn’t very manly of me; but manliness would scarcely have given Mother back again. When I went home after a while, I felt as if a secret place in the innermost recesses of my heart had suddenly become locked and could never again be reopened. The worst of it was that in that inner room I had hidden everything that was beautiful and precious and worth preserving. At times I can hardly believe that Mother is really dead."
Losses and Gains -- 1901
"The Third Life of Per Smevik"
(Second of two or three parts)
Some believe and would argue that everything begins at a tribal level, and that the first tier of tribalism is the family. I tend to agree with that position.
I recently completed reading, "The Third Life of Per Smevik," by Ole Edvart Rølvaag, also known by the pseudonym of Paal Mørck. This novel is written in the form of letters from a young fisherman newly arrived in the United States from Norway at the close of the Nineteenth Century to his father and his brother back in Norway. The book contains passages with thoughts that never before occurred to me in terms of belonging to a place and completely uprooting oneself from that place and moving on into an alien environment. Here are some of those passages:
"When we severed our ties with our Fatherland, we became not only strangers among strangers, but we were cut off from our own nation and became strangers to our own people. Our pulse no longer throbs in rhythm with the hearts of our own kindred. We have become strangers; strangers to those we left, and strangers to those we came to .... Let me repeat: We have become outsiders to the people we left, and we are also outsiders among the people to whom we came. Thus we have ceased to be a harmonious part of the greater whole; we have become something apart, something torn loose, without any organic connections either here in America or over in Norway. Our souls can no longer burn with genuine national enthusiasm. That uplifting and ennobling of the spirit which every true citizen experiences in a national crisis can never be felt by us. In short, we have become rootless. One of our most important nerves has been cut. We are alienated. This speech is perhaps unclear to some of you. Let me, therefore, ask a question or two: Have you ever felt that you are a real American? Do you feel that the American people are really your people? A small, a very small percentage of Norwegian-Americans seem to feel that way but I doubt that they really do, deep down in their hearts. This I know, most of us do not; we are simply unable to. As a result, we can never enter into the public life of this country to the degree that our education and intelligence give us the unquestionable right to. Well then, suppose we sold out and went back to Norway to live. Would we not feel at home then, we who are so Norwegian in all respects? No, herein lies the greatest tragedy of all. We would feel like strangers there too."
It probably should be easier to capture those words and identify with them and understand them fully if an individual has read the entire book up to that point, but, even having done so, I remain bothered by them and cannot make an orderly transition between myself and Rølvaag with them.
I do have certain principles I will not break or even bend, but, conversely, I always have been a bit of a mercenary and can surrender most of myself to the highest bidder. That tendency has created some complicated situations, and a few awkward relationships. In fact, I often have described myself as a chameleon, able to identify with any individual in any role .... but, I am not certain that "talent" has ever been put to a severe test.
Then, too, I have a tendency to "write" myself into some stories, which is to say to compare a book character's actions and reactions to what I believe/feel/think my own actions and reactions would be in the same circumstances. In this instance, I can neither agree nor disagree with the actions/thoughts of Per Smevik. I have tried moving to other countries, and in a matter of months have jumped aboard an aircraft and returned to America, usually for a variety of reasons (rationalizations?). However, had I lived around 1900 or earlier when travel was much more difficult and time consuming, I am not so sure what I would have done –- stayed there, in the country to which I had "moved," or returned "home." That is a question which never can be answered. Another installment, perhaps the final one, will appear in a few days.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

"I'd rather live while I live ...."

"It is as if I have already lived two lives here on earth: the first was in Smeviken, and that lasted almost twenty-one years. The second one I lived through on the trip from Smeviken in Helgeland to Clarkfield, South Dakota. Now I am about to begin a third. Strangely enough, although the second life lasted only a little more than three weeks, it seemed much longer than the first. God alone knows how long the third will last or how long it will seem, and only He knows if I will ever experience a fourth life!"
First Impressions 1896 ....
"The Third Life of Per Smevik"

(One of two or three posts)
Some believe and would argue that everything begins at a tribal level, and that the first tier of tribalism is the family. I tend to agree with that position.
I recently completed reading, "The Third Life of Per Smevik," by Paal Mørck. It was the first book -- a novel -- published by Ole Edvart Rølvaag under the pseudonym of Mørck. For those unfamiliar with Rølvaag, he was a 20-year-old Norwegian fisherman who came to the United States in 1896. He arrived in New York -- friendless, alone, not able to understand a word of English -- using money loaned to him by an uncle who worked on a farm in Union County, South Dakota. A three-day train trip took him to Elk Point, the county seat of Union County. No one was there to meet him.
Of that event, Rølvaag wrote: "In that experience I learned the first lesson of the immigrant. The first and perhaps the greatest lesson: A feeling of utter helplessness, as if life had betrayed me. It comes from the sense of being lost in a vast alien land. In this case it was largely physical, but I soon met the spiritual phase of the same thing. The sense of being lost in an alien culture. The sense of being thrust somewhere outside the charmed circle of life. If you couldn't conquer that feeling, if you couldn't break through the magic hedge of thorns, you were lost indeed. Many couldn't, and didn't -- and many were lost thereby."
Rølvaag did survive the experience and flourished in America. 
A bit more about the novel: "The Third Life of Per Smevik," originally was written in the Norwegian language and appeared in 1912. Rølvaag confided that the subject matter of his first novel was so personal that he felt it was necessary to use a pseudonym, although he never explained why he selected that particular name. One of Rølvaag's two daughters, Ella Valborg Tweet, and a granddaughter, Solveig Tweet Zemple, translated it and an English language edition appeared in 1971.
Rolvaag also had two sons, one of whom died an accidental death at age five and the other, Karl, who became the 31st governor of Minnesota and later U.S. ambassador to Iceland.
A bit more about the author: Rølvaag stayed in Elk Point (Clarkfield in the book) three years working on the farm where his uncle lived and worked, then enrolled in Augustana Academy at Canton, South Dakota. He graduated with honors in 1901 and tried a few odds-and-ends jobs before enrolling at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His initial classes were Latin, Greek, German, English composition, church history and mathematics, as well as courses in Norwegian language and literature.
Beyond those things, Rølvaag participated in the literary societies of his days, was involved in the Norwegian club, "Normanna," and wrote for the student newspaper and yearbook, as well. He began writing a novel his junior year, "Nils og Astri," which never was published. During summers he taught parochial school in Lime Grove, Nebraska, and Bisbee, North Dakota. Next he spent a year studying at the University of Kristiania in Oslo before becoming a permanent teacher at Saint Olaf in 1906. There he remained until poor health forced his retirement in 1931.
During his years at Saint Olaf, Rølvaag continued to write novels. Two years after Smevik, he dropped his use of a pen name and a second novel, "Paa Glemte Veie" (On Forgotten Paths) was produced under his own name by a Minneapolis publisher. His magnum opus, "Giants in the Earth," was first published in Norway in two volumes, "I de dage" (In Those Days -- 1924), and "Riket grundlegges" (The Founding of the Kingdom -- 1925). An English edition appeared as a single volume in 1927. The video focuses on Rølvaag's Giants, but it provides background about him and tells a similar story about the life of Norwegian immigrants.
Rølvaag authored Norwegian language textbooks, a dozen novels, essays and poems about the Norwegian-American immigrant experience. In October 1931, Rølvaag suffered a severe heart attack and died on November 5 at his home in Northfield at the age of 55. The next segment will appear in a day or two or three ....

Friday, March 1, 2019

March arrives a lion, hopefully leaves a lamb

The Iceman Cometh .... with apologies to Eugene O'Neill, who wrote a play by that name. Winter made its presence known in Minnesota during February, with enough snow to set a new record for the month -- somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-odd (40) inches, which makes it the snowiest February ever in Minnesota and the fourth snowiest month ever of any in Minnesota. Additionally, some days and nights had record-setting cold. When February began, there was barely a trace of snow present; now, this is the sight one sees. Note the mailboxes in the photograph. Personally, I have lived in locations where a single snowfall over a span of two or three days might leave this much on the ground, but this February has seemed relentless with snow coming down every second or third day. March apparently is going to give February a run for its money: As many as six more inches of snow are predicted for today (it is coming down right now) and the actual air temperatures for the next few nights are expected to be in the ten- or eleven-degree range (Fahrenheit) below zero. One can only hope the adage about March coming in like a lion will be matched by it fading away like a lamb. For a trivia point today, March once was the beginning of our calendar year. The United Kingdom and its colonies changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and it is only since then when the year begins on January 1.



Something special ....