Rölvaag, O. E.

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O. E. Rölvaag

Born April 22, 1876

Rølvaag, Norway

Died November 5, 1931

Northfield, Minnesota

Novelist who focused on the lives of immigrants in Minnesota and South Dakota

"[There] will scarcely be a life history which it would not be interesting to look at if it were singled out for scrutiny. Human portraiture has no end."

O . E. Rölvaag is best known for his novels centered on the experiences of Norwegian Americans living in rural areas of Minnesota and South Dakota. His main characters face conflicts as they try to maintain their self-identity while adapting to new social and physical surroundings. Drawing on his own experiences, Rölvaag created many characters who welcome their new world while struggling with spiritual and cultural ties to their past.

Born in a fishing village

O. E. Rölvaag was born Ole Edvart Pedersen on April 22, 1876, one of seven children of Peder Benjamin Jakobsen and Ellerine Pedersdatter Vaag. He was born in the family's cottage in a small fishing village on the island of Dønna, near the Arctic Circle in Norway. The settlement had no official name, but it was referred to as Rølvaag, the name of a nearby cove where the fishermen kept their boats. The rough landscape and surrounding sea inspired young Rölvaag as he dreamed of becoming a poet. As a boy, Rölvaag read books he obtained by walking several miles to use libraries that served the fishing community.

From Little Opportunity to a Big Decision

O. E. Rölvaag tried for three years through letters to convince an uncle who lived in South Dakota to help him immigrate to the United States. He saw little opportunity in his native land, other than a hard life as a fisherman. Finally, when Rölvaag was twenty years old in 1896, a letter from his uncle arrived. The uncle invited Rölvaag to come to America and included a ticket to cross the Atlantic Ocean by boat.

However, the owner of the fishing fleet where he worked took Rölvaag to a town one morning where a large new boat was for sale. "If you will send back that ticket to your uncle," the fishing fleet owner told Rölvaag, "I will buy [a] boat for you. You shall command her; and when she has paid for herself [brought in enough money from fishing to cover the cost of buying the boat], she shall be yours."

After believing he had a bleak future of hard work in a harsh environment, Rölvaag suddenly had two options: he could work to become a captain of his own boat, or he could travel to an uncertain future in America. He sat on a hillside and considered his options all that day. Finally, he returned to the fleet owner and said, "I'm sorry, but I cannot accept your offer. I am going to America."

Rölvaag's American life did not begin on a good note. He arrived in New York City with no money to buy food and faced a three-day train ride to South Dakota. When he arrived in South Dakota, his uncle was not there to greet him—there had been a mix-up in schedules. Speaking no English, Rölvaag wandered for two more days before he found someone who spoke Norwegian and could give him directions to his uncle's farm. When he finally reached his uncle's farm, he was warmly greeted and given a farm job. That job, however, proved to be as difficult, demanding, and uninspiring as the one he left behind in Norway.

Rölvaag's formal schooling ran for nine weeks a year over seven years. His education ended when he turned fourteen and joined a fishing fleet. Attracted by opportunities in the United States that were described by immigrants in letters and during their visits back to Norway, Rölvaag wrote several letters to an uncle who had immigrated to South Dakota, asking for his help so he could go to America. His opportunity to travel to America came at about the same time he was offered the position of captain of his own boat in a fishing fleet. The twenty-year-old Rölvaag boarded a boat for New York.

Returns to school

Rölvaag traveled to Elk Point, South Dakota, where he worked on his uncle's farm, but he found it as difficult and dreary as his life as a fisherman. Encouraged by a local pastor to continue his schooling, Rölvaag left his farm job in November 1898 and traveled to Minnesota. He entered Augustana Academy in Canton, Minnesota, and changed his last name from Pedersen to Rölvaag, the name of the cove near the village where he was born. (The spelling of his name differs from that of the cove: for his name, he used the "ö" common in many European languages instead of the "ø" that is more specific to Scandinavian languages.) Augustana Academy was a preparatory school where teenagers were trained for college. Rölvaag was twenty-two when he began classes, spoke little English, and had not been in a classroom in years. But being around books again inspired him, and he soon became an excellent student. While at the Academy he met a fellow student, Jennie Marie Berdahl, who would later become his wife.

After graduating from Augustana Academy in 1901, Rölvaag enrolled at St. Olaf College, a Norwegian Lutheran school in Northfield, Minnesota. He supported himself and paid for his education by working in a kitchen, delivering wood for heating stoves, and painting buildings on campus. During his junior year, he began writing a novel, but he never completed it. To earn extra money during summers, Rölvaag went on teaching assignments to work with immigrants in Nebraska and Wyoming.

Rölvaag had opportunities to continue his studies by focusing on theology, or the study of religion, but he wanted to marry Berdahl and viewed teaching as a career through which he could support a family. Following graduation from St. Olaf, he was offered a teaching position at the college on the condition that he first spend a year studying at the University of Christiania in Norway. (The city of Christiania was renamed Oslo in 1925). His experience returning to Norway was enlightening. Rölvaag discovered that he and many other immigrants felt they did not fully belong in their new home or the one they had left behind.

Rölvaag returned to St. Olaf in the fall of 1906. He and Berdahl were married in 1908, the same year Rölvaag became a naturalized American citizen. The Rölvaags would have four children. The first child, Olaf, was born in 1909 but died at age six from illness, and the youngest, Paul, was born in 1915 but died from drowning in 1920. Two children survived to adulthood: Ella, who was born in 1910, and Karl, who was born in 1913. Karl Rölvaag would serve as governor of Minnesota from 1963 to 1967 and as ambassador to Iceland from 1967 to 1969.

Novels published

While teaching and raising a family, Rölvaag resumed writing. He had written poetry in Norway and began a novel that he never completed while at St. Olaf. His first novel, Amerika-Breve fra P. A. Smevik til Hans Far og Bror i Norge (1912; later translated into English and published as The Third Life of Per Smevik in 1971), was printed by a publisher of Norwegian books in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rölvaag wrote it under a pseudonym, Paal Morck, because the novel was so closely based on his real-life experience and people he knew. Like Rölvaag, the novel's protagonist, or principal character, is a Norwegian fisherman who immigrates to America, travels in a strange countryside without help, and becomes disenchanted with the Americans he meets. They seem interested only in their jobs and making money. This theme is repeated in To Tullinger: Et Billede fra Idag (1920; revised and published as Pure Gold in 1930), which focuses on a couple so obsessed with material gain that they abandon the values of their heritage.

Rölvaag's next novel, Længselens Baat: Film-billeder. Første Bok (1921; translated as The Boat of Longing in 1933), on the other hand, traces the struggle of a sensitive, talented violinist who comes to America hoping to fulfill his dream of living a life where art is appreciated. The English-language edition of this novel featured a quote by Rölvaag on the cover that sums up the theme of the story: "It is a mistaken belief that the immigrant has no soul." The violinist, Nils, leaves Norway to pursue his art, but he and his friend Per struggle in hostile environments in Minneapolis slums and the Minnesota wilderness. "Chief among the hidden arguments of the novel is the contention that the 'soul' needs continuity if it is to grow," wrote Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum in Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography (1939). "The great misfortune of Nils and Per is their rootlessness," they added. "And this rootlessness is the eternal tragedy that accompanies any migratory movement like a dark shadow."

An American best-seller

Rölvaag won national attention in the United States in 1927 when the first of a trilogy of novels was published. To prepare to begin writing what Rölvaag saw as his most ambitious project, he took a year's leave from teaching at St. Olaf in 1923 to concentrate on writing. He also benefited from long talks with his father-in-law, Andrew Berdahl, whose grandparents were early white settlers in South Dakota. Berdahl provided great historical material for Rölvaag's two-part novel, published in Norway as I de Dage: Fortælling om Norske Nykommere i Amerika (which translates as In Those Days: A Story of Norwegian Immigrants in America) in 1924 and I de Dage: Riket Grundlægges (which translates as In Those Days: The Founding of the Kingdom) in 1925.

These works were popular and critical successes in Scandanavia, which led to a feature article on Rölvaag in the Minneapolis Journal newspaper in 1926. It described Rölvaag as a little-known local professor who was a major literary sensation in Europe. The article was read by Lincoln Colcord (1883–1947), a journalist who had an editorial contact at a major book publisher in New York City. Colcord met Rölvaag and encouraged him to work with translators to make an English-language version of the novels. Colcord reviewed the translation and convinced his friend at the Harper Company to release the English-language version as one book, to be titled titled Giants in the Earth.

Published in 1927, Giants in the Earth was a popular and critical success in the United States, selling more than eighty thousand copies that year. The novel follows a couple of second-generation Norwegian Americans—a daring man and his timid wife—as they struggle to survive as early pioneers in the rough environment of South Dakota. The husband is obsessed with becoming prosperous through farming, while the wife grows increasingly isolated. They grow apart during a series of failures on the farm, most of which result from the harsh environment of long frigid winters and brief scalding summers.

Giants in the Earth forms a trilogy with two later novels, Peder Seier (1928; translated into English and published as Peder Victorious in 1929) and Den Signede Dag (Their Father's God, 1931). The title character of Peder Victorious rebels against both his mother's stern religious beliefs and the local community after it shames a poor immigrant girl for having a child out of wedlock. She commits suicide. Peder's "victory" is ironic—he loses connection with his heritage in order to become more like Americans he admires.

In Their Father's God, Peder and his wife live on a farm begun by their parents—the protagonists of Giants in the Earth—that is now prosperous. When a prolonged drought threatens

Rölvaag's legacy

Rölvaag's health was failing while he was working on Their Father's God. He suffered several heart attacks before dying on November 5, 1931, shortly after the novel was published. The trilogy brought national recognition to Rölvaag, but he already enjoyed several other accomplishments. At St. Olaf, he developed and taught one of the first courses on immigrant history in the United States. He helped found several organizations to preserve Norwegian culture, including the Norwegian-American Historical Association, which was still active in the twenty-first century. He was Knighted (Order of St. Olav) by King Haakon VII (1872–1957) of Norway in 1926. The Ole Rölvaag Memorial Library at St. Olaf was named for him in 1944.

Rölvaag on Peder Victorious

In a letter, dated January 2, 1929, to friend and journalist Lincoln Colcord, O. E. Rölvaag discussed the title character from Peder Victorious:

The theme of Peder is revolt…. He, like all the others of his class, had to revolt in order to gain foothold in American life. I doubt that even your clear seeing eye can discern what that means for the child of a non-English speaking immigrant. That process is tragedy of the purest kind. Wonder if it ever will be understood? The break between two languages is simply terrible. For it means the changing of souls.

His enduring literary legacy prompted a new collection of his short stories, When the Wind Is in the South and Other Stories (1984). A documentary film, Letters from America: The Lifeand Times of O. E. Rölvaag, shot in Norway and the American Midwest, was produced with the help of Rölvaag's family and scholars of Norwegian American culture and is narrated with Rölvaag's observations. In a work reviewing the film and Rölvaag's literary work, author Peter Thaler observed that Rölvaag applauded "the financial success of Norwegian Americans, but he was dismayed at the spiritual impoverishment that seemed to accompany it. In their rush for material goods," Thaler concluded his summary of Rölvaag's view, "many immigrants discarded their cultural and spiritual traditions."

—Roger Matuz

For More Information


Haugen, Einar. Ole Edvart Rölvaag. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Jorgenson, Theodore, and Nora O. Solum. Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1939.

Reigstad, Paul. Rölvaag: His Life and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

Rölvaag, O. E. Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. New York: Harper, 1927. Multiple reprints.

Simonson, Harold P. Prairies Within: The Tragic Trilogy of Ole Rölvaag. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Thaler, Peter. Norwegian Minds, American Dreams: Ethnic Activism Among Norwegian-American Intellectuals. Dover: University of Delaware Press, 1998.


Eddy, Sara. "Wheat and Potatoes': Reconstructing Whiteness in O. E. Rölvaag's Immigrant Trilogy." MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (Spring 2001): pp. 129–49.

Web Sites

"Minnesota Authors Biographies Project: Ole E. Rölvaag." Minnesota Historical Society.http://people.mnhs.org/authors/biog_detail.cfm?PersonID=Rolv336 (accessed on March 24, 2004).