Solveig Zempel remembers O.E. Rolvaag

Giants in the Earth author’s granddaughter speaks about her famous immigrant ancestor

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni Professor Solveig Zempel (right) and her daughter Liv.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni
Professor Solveig Zempel (right) and her daughter Liv.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Professor Solveig Zempel was the guest speaker at the January meeting of Lakselaget (Salmon Club) D.C. Chapter. The title of her talk was “O.E. Rolvaag: Author, Professor, and Immigrant: His Life and Works.”

O.E. Rolvaag was Solveig’s grandfather. He is best known for his novel Giants in the Earth in which he describes the Norwegian immigrant experience in America. This book was followed by Peder Victorious and Their Father’s God to form a trilogy.

Solveig began by describing Rolvaag’s early years in Norway which certainly did not foreshadow his future literary career in America. He was born in 1876 on Dønna, an island of fishermen just a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Rolvaag was confirmed at the age of 14. His confirmation meant that he had become an adult and that his education was finished. It was time for him to start to work, and he had no choice but to become a fisherman. He was not happy with this life, however. Surprisingly, he told his family that he wanted to become a professor. This seemed a highly unrealistic dream for someone in his situation.

This young man, however, was very determined and he was fortunate in that he had an uncle living in America. When he turned 20, his Uncle Jacob sent him a boat ticket and he eagerly left his family for a new life.

When he arrived in South Dakota, Rolvaag began work as a farm hand. He had not gone to America to be a farmer, however. After one year of farming, he was able to continue his education. With the help of the pastor of his church, he attended Augustana Academy in Canton, S.D. He graduated in 1901. He then went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he earned both a B.A. and an M.A. He also went back to Norway and studied in Oslo for a year.

His improbable dream to become a professor was realized in 1906 when he was invited to become a member of the St. Olaf faculty. He taught Norwegian language and literature as well as the history of immigration. He went on to become head of the Norwegian Department in 1916.

In addition to his teaching, Rolvaag also wrote many novels about the immigrant experience. Since his audience was the Norwegian-American community, he wrote in Norwegian and his message was always the same: Hold your Norwegian heritage dear. Do not lose your traditions.

He did not have much success with his early novels. He went to live in Oslo for a while where he finished writing Giants in the Earth. It was published in Norway and became an instant success. Rolvaag, therefore, was first recognized in his native land. He also became quite well known throughout Europe. He then finally gained literary fame in the U.S.

In 1926, shortly after the success of Giants in the Earth, Rolvaag was knighted in the Order of St. Olav by King Haakon VII of Norway. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. (He did not win the prize, which went to Sinclair Lewis, another Minnesotan.)

St. Olaf College was founded by Norwegian immigrants for Norwegian immigrants. Rolvaag made a significant contribution to the literature on immigration. He did not depict the life of an immigrant as a glamorous adventure. Leaving one’s native land and beginning anew in another country was difficult. He admired the Norwegians who settled in America and considered them giants because of the enormous hardships that they had overcome.

He exhorted these Norwegian immigrants not to jump into the American Melting Pot and become assimilated. He believed that they should maintain their language and their culture. He told his fellow immigrants over and over again that they best contributed to their new country by keeping their heritage.

He had a very distinguished academic career. It was cut short in 1931 when he died of a heart attack at the age of 55. His memory was honored when the St. Olaf library was named the Rolvaag Memorial Library in 1944.

Rolvaag died before Solveig was born, but he would undoubtedly have been proud of her for her dedication to her heritage. She earned a B.A. at St. Olaf College and M.A. and PhD degrees at the University of Minnesota in Norwegian Studies. She then had a distinguished career as Professor of Norwegian Studies at St. Olaf College and is now Professor Emerita.

Although St. Olaf’s mission today is no longer to help Norwegian immigrants adapt to life in the U.S., Solveig emphasized that immigration is still very much a concern of faculty and students at the college. Current immigrants are encouraged to live by O.E. Rolvaag’s words and maintain their cultures while becoming full members of U.S. society. She also said that it is important for everyone to respect all immigrants by understanding what it is like to begin life in another culture and to help them in their adaptation.

To hear Solveig speak on this topic, go to a YouTube video to hear her 2009 Opening Convocation Address at www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv6ggTykxx4.

In 2008 His Majesty King Harald V named Solveig to the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. She received this prestigious honor for her outstanding efforts to strengthen Norway-U.S. relations, for her research on Norwegian language and culture, and for her dedication to educational exchange between the two countries.

Solveig can, of course, be proud of her grandfather for his well-known contributions to American society. All Norwegian Americans, however, can be proud of their immigrant ancestors. They were all giants in enduring hardships, overcoming obstacles, and in contributing in many different ways to American society. And many of these immigrants would be proud of and probably amazed at their descendants who, as Solveig, continue to maintain a strong love for and interest in Norway.

For more information about the D.C. Chapter of Lakselaget, an organization for professional women who are interested in contemporary Norwegian issues and all things Norwegian, go to www.lakselagetdc.org.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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