Capturing the dream of America

An interview with Sverre Mørkhagen, expert on Norwegian migration to North America

Mørkhagen books

Rigmor Swensen
Norwegian American Historical Assoc.

Sverre Mørkhagen tells three gripping stories about the Norwegian immigration to America in his trilogy: Farewell Norway, The Dream of America, and Norwegian America, which await translation into English.

At the beginning of his first visit to America, Mørkhagen visited the Norwegian Historical Association, Inc. seeking information about the New York Norwegian-American community. After that, he crisscrossed the States and Canada, chasing the Norwegian immigrant story back to its very beginning in 1825.

Mørkhagen claims that history is not a compilation of events and dates. History is the story of those who lived in the past, how they coped with life in their times and how that story affects us today.

Photo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag Sverre Mørkhagen.

Photo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag
Sverre Mørkhagen.

Perhaps it is a good idea to start at the very beginning with this question.

Rigmor Swensen: Why did you write about the subject of immigration from Norway to the United States?

Sverre Mørkhagen: I had come to a turning point in my professional life—10 years in journalism, 20 in publishing. If I were to independently produce a substantial work, perhaps a classic work with my signature on it, I had to grasp the opportunity when there still was time for it.

I had some ideas, and my editor some others. Why not a comprehensive study of the Norwegian emigration to America?

We looked at each other. We knew something about the topic, but not very much. Why didn’t we know much more? It was evident to us that this considerable migration must have had a huge impact on Norwegian society. However, Norwegian historians and chroniclers have not given the subject very much attention.

This was so despite the enormous number of contemporary Norwegian families living today who give evidence of what did happen during the 150 years. Many can tell about a grandfather who disappeared into America. In parts of Norway you can still see houses left in disrepair because the owner never returned, and so on. Families were left home in poverty. Empty farms became wastelands. Or on the contrary—farmhouses were restored with money from brothers or uncles in the New World. One parish gained new churchbells with grants from America, another a new organ. Norwegians who settled in America often sent money home to their villages, to build technical schools, homes for the elderly, etc. You can find memories that remind of what happened in recent history all over the U.S.

The causes of emigration to America were many and varied, but an overriding reason was the huge gap in the society. On the one side we find the small, ruling group of wealthy people, officials, some remains of the aristocracy, and new rich patricians. At the other end was the comprehensive group of commoners, unpretentious farmers, and hard-working laborers. With the opportunity of emigration—they wanted to create better lives for themselves in another place.

A second major reason was the sudden rise of the population in the 1800s. Within 70 years, from 1820 to 1890, the population doubled, which created unemployment to an extent unknown in Norway up to that point. The resulting poverty drove many to look over the Atlantic to earn a living.

But the migration facts of the 1800s did not conform to the plans of the officials setting up the climate of enthusiasm and confidence in the newly established nation. That is probably the reason why emigration has been more or less ignored in the established version of Norwegian history.

I left the editor’s office and needed only 24 hours to think it over. Then I went back to him and said: “I will do it.”

RS: What were your sources of information?

SM: Just around the corner, in the National Library in Oslo, curator Dina Tolfsby had built up the largest collection of literature about the Norwegian emigration to America in existence. Mrs. Tolfsby encouraged me in several ways. I received access to the collection. Moreover I was assigned a reserved, free, working desk in the library for the duration of the project.

Several authors had made significant contributions to the entire story, most of them Norwegian-Americans. However, the Norwegian historian Ingrid Semmingsen’s books are a very important work, even though they were edited more than 50 years ago.

In America, an impressive number of historians have made worthy efforts to secure different parts of this immigration history. Theodore Blegen’s well-written, analytic two volume collective work is much like a Bible—written with great authority. In the postwar period, Odd Lovoll has carried on the tradition with supplements to the Blegen/Semmingsen achievements. I owe them sincerely my great esteem. But there were two additional principal elements necessary to comply with the challenge of popular enlightenment.

Foremost, I saw the challenge of going deeper into the Norwegian history of the 1800s to find a more profound way of explaining why the Norwegian emigration to America started so early and grew into those huge numbers. If we talk about the European continent—Bristish Isles excluded—immigration from Norway was the largest group.

Why was this so?

This question more or less forced me to look back at Norwegian society as it was 150-200 years ago, not from the viewpoint of the political leaders, but from the perspective of the lower classes. This eventful century in Norwegian history gave honor and favors to the ruling officials and the upper classes in general, while the common people had to pay the cost of it. The degree of suppression and frustration was evident.

It is an interesting fact that the victories in Norway’s struggles for independence from Sweden and Swedish influence, especially in 1884 and 1905, did not deter the number of people leaving the country at all.

Another issue that occupied me was the need to present this history in a more anecdotal way than what had been done so far. All history is a countless number of stories about individuals, families, orphans, heroes, careers, adventures, groups, losers, victims, and so on. Stories link the reader closer to the history, and at the same time certain tales can illustrate the process of social dynamics in an informative manner. The task is to find the right, representative, and eventful stories.

In a few words, I had to use all kinds of sources—general works, special studies, statistics, annuals, newspaper reports, magazine articles, letters, and meetings with immigrants and their descendants. Meeting still-living sources in America has been of great value.

RS: How do you decide what to include and what to omit?

SV: To work out a three-volume history in a limited time, you have to make compromises. Private letters to and from the homeland most frequently talk about personal concerns: children, health, small family events, perhaps a new horse or a new stable, and so on. These are easy to exclude, and they shall be excluded. In many other cases an author is forced to use his nose. A glimpse on some pages of a book—does this author write comprehensively enough? I cannot guarantee that I haven’t missed information of crucial importance—and I’m pretty afraid I have done so now and then. But I hope the total result gives a representative impression of what this amazing and all-embracing Norwegian-American history really is all about.

RS: Did you expect to write a trilogy when you began the project?

SM: No, the contract with my publisher mentions only two volumes—one about Norwegian history, the second to describe how the immigrants fared in America. The period extends over 150 years—from 1825, when the first emigrant ship Restauration crossed the Atlantic, until 1975.

As my editor followed the progress of the second book, he was increasingly worried. Time seemed to be running out. I tried to keep him calm, saying “Let us see, I had the same worried feeling when working on volume one.” But with only one year left to the time for launching, I had to face reality. It was necessary to divide the new material into two books, one describing the first 75 years, another one the last 75. That meant one more book and two more years of working. Altogether 1,800 pages. I have lived intensively with Norwegian-American history for eight years.

RS: How did you manage to write three long, comprehensive books in such a short time?

SM: I think my 10 years in journalism taught me how to find out what is essential and what is not, in an effective way, without wasting too much time and energy. I am also thankful that I have a strong physical constitution.

Yes, in one way these eight years’ period have gone by quickly. I do not feel that I have spent eight years sitting at a working desk in the library. I haven’t either. Much time is used for traveling around, first in Norway, later in America. Through more than half a year altogether I have traveled in America and Canada, visiting 26 American states and four Canadian provinces.

Looking backwards, life seems a little different. When I started, my two children were still in school, but long before I finished they had left the house and started life as adults. Now we are only us—me, my wife, and the cat.

RS: What are the major challenges you faced in writing these books?

SM: To be honest, it was the reaction from part of the professional milieu working with Norwegian-American history. Some reckoned me as an unwanted intruder. I was surprised and confused when that occurred. Maybe it was a human, understandable reaction. However, I want to emphasize the name of professor John Gjerde from Berkeley. He died far too early in 2008, but I was happy to meet him, and he was always encouraging and eager on my behalf. I deeply regret that he passed so suddenly, and I miss him very much.

RS: We know your books are factual history. However, is there a message you would like your readers to grasp from the whole story?

SM: It’s hard to point out certain issues from a very exciting and interesting history, but I have an extra feeling for all the everyday heroes, especially in the settling period.

I think it is important to study the generations before us: their dreams, their ambitions, their views, and their hopes for the future. And then perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are fighting for the same goals as they did, or if we aim for less respectable targets.

RS: How did researching and writing these books affect you?

SM: I learned to be deeply impressed by, and respectful towards, all the people who had the courage to break free from their homeland and go for a new life under totally unknown and foreign conditions. Usually they lived through a lot of suffering before they eventually could relax in their golden years, confirming that they in one way or other had made it.

I think we, the following generations, too easily forget their efforts and their concerns for the future. To say it with Churchill’s words: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.