It has been said that
Waldemar Ager may have been the most interesting Norwegian who ever
migrated to America. Einar Haugen, that "grand old man" of Norwegian
studies agrees, in his recently completed book-length study of Ager's
fictional writings which will be published in 1989.
As an historian of Norwegians in America,
I was first stimulated to investigate his career and his impact because
of my childhood memories of him. Ager was an old man here in Eau Claire
when I was a small boy and my father knew him quite well — and used
to play whist with him regularly in the Sons of Norway Whist Club
that was very active at the time.
Ager was still publishing his newspaper,
Reform, at the time, but to an ever-shrinking
subscription list, barely making ends meet in the Great Depression.
As you know, Eau Claire and the surrounding area of northwestern Wisconsin
was a region of quite heavy Norwegian settlement. But when I was small,
in the later 1930's, there were only a few relics and reminders left
of the thriving Norwegian-American subculture that had once been so
alive here — and across the upper Midwest — only a few decades earlier.
And Waldemar Ager's little Norwegian-language weekly was one of those
relics — as was, in many ways, Ager himself.
Although I was only 7 or 8 years old,
I remember accompanying my father to Ager's old-fashioned newspaper
office and print shop on the second floor of a storefront building
near the Four Corners on Barstow Street. I remember being impressed,
as well as a bit intimidated, by that sprightly, witty, birdlike little
old man with the sharp, penetrating eyes.
But he was very kindly toward me. He
once gave me a slug of type from his linotype machine, which I treasured
and played with long afterward. My parents had quite recently emigrated
to America then and my first language of the home was norsk,
so I was able to speak Norwegian to Ager. That may be why he was particularly
pleased with me — for by then there were precious few small children
whose mother tongue was Norwegian in Eau Claire any longer — or anywhere
else in the Midwest for that matter.
In my adult professional life, as a
teacher and historian of the Norwegian ethnic group in America, I've
come to learn that the career of Waldemar Ager is not only interesting
for its own sake. His energetic activities in behalf of his countrymen
in America also illuminate, as the lives of few other important figures
of the time can, the achievements, the social dynamics and the fragile
texture of det norske Amerika in its most "golden age". That
"golden age" of retention of the Norwegian language and culture in
this land peaked during the decades from the 1890's to the 1920's
Waldemar Ager was a central figure in making it happen. His influence
was national — wherever there were Norwegians in ths land, far beyond
just Eau Claire and northwestern Wisconsin.
He was born in Frederikstad in 1869 and grew up
in Gressvik — just across the river Glåma. The street on which he lived
there is today named Waldemar Agers Vei in his honor and memory.
In 1885, at the age of sixteen, he emigrated
to America with his mother and two siblings to join the father in
Chicago — who had gone to America earlier. Ager learned the printer's
trade as an apprentice typesetter for Norden, one of Chicago's
large Norwegian-language papers at the time. He also became an active
member of a Norwegian temperance lodge there and began writing short
pieces for its little monthly paper. He would remain a dedicated avholdsmann
prohibitionist — for the rest of his life — perhaps because of his father,
who had drinking problems.
Ager moved to Eau Claire in 1892 when
he was 23 years old. He had been offered a job here as a typesetter
and fledgling journalist for a new Norwegian temperance paper called
Reform. Upon the death of its editor
in 1903, Ager succeeded to that position and eventually became owner
of the paper; he would be associated with the paper for the rest of
It was here in Eau Claire that he met
a young immigrant woman from Trømso, Gurolle Blestren, whom he married.
They were to raise nine children in the home he purchased on Chestnut
Street — which still stands.
Reform became the main pulpit from which
Ager pleaded his idealistic causes, urged his political opinions on
his readers, and worked to raise the ethnic consciousness of his countrymen
and women in the new land — as well as their moral and cultural level.
He shaped Reform
into a highly personal organ. It became recognized by friends and
foes alike as one of the most crisply edited and engagingly written,
although often controversial, Norwegian-language papers in America.
It never was a large, mass-circulated paper, but in the peak years
of Norwegian language retention in America before the First World
War, Reform had a respectable weekly circulation of some 10,000 copies.
It was read by farmers, urban blue collar folk, and most of the people
of prominence across the Norwegian American heartland from northern
Illinois and Upper Michigan in the east to the prairies of the Dakotas
in the west.
Reform became much more than
just a temperance paper in Ager's hands. It informed, educated, entertained,
berated, and, occasionally, no doubt, infuriated its readers. As in
all of his writings, Ager's provocative style combined wry irony,
clever satire and social criticism with wit, humor and a genuine folkevarme.
A fellow author and journalist once described Ager as a writer who
"had a lyre in one hand and a dissecting knife in the other".
Not surprisingly, the paper died when
Ager did, in 1941, when its readership had declined to a few hundred
old survivors of the Norwegian-American heyday that was now past.
Ager was also a man of apparently inexhaustible energy. Aside from
putting out his paper, he traveled widely and frequently throughout
Norwegian America for forty years, speaking, organizing and working
in behalf of his causes. He became a popular and well-known speaker
who was much in demand throughout the Norwegian-American world.
He was a captivating and witty story
teller at the lectern, just as he was in print, as he sought support
for his beliefs in a persuasive and, obviously, highly entertaining
way. He may have given at least a thousand speeches in his lifetime,
and his platform appearances were as ubiquitous as was his little
paper across Norwegian America.
Ager also found the energy and inspiration
to write six novels and eight volumes of short stories, as well as
occasional poetry. His creative writing was
done at night, he commented once, when his wife and nine children
were asleep and the house was quiet.
He also said once that he was eternally
grateful for having been blessed with a good memory, an appetite for
work, and little need for sleep. His career among his Norwegian countrymen
gives ample testimony to the truth of this statement, as he labored
tirelessly for over half a century in behalf of many causes whose
common denominator was the retention of norskdom ["norwegianness"]
in America. Although a short man of slight build, Ager remained a
dynamo of energy and activity until his rather sudden death of cancer
in 1941 at the age of 72. He was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Eau
His great causes — the wellsprings for a life time of idealistic crusading
First — and perhaps
foremost — he was an ardent Norwegian cultural and linguistic preservationist.
His dream, like that of a good many other Norwegian-Amercian leaders
at the time, was to build a permanent Norwegia-American subculture
within the larger American society. It would not be wholly Norwegian,
but not totally American, either, while retaining the best in the
Norwegian folk heritage. A bridge must be maintained between this
Norwegian America and Mother Norway, he insisted, and that bridge
was the language — the Norwegian language. When the language no longer
holds, he wrote often, there will no longer be a bridge.
Secondly, he was a lifetime teetotaler who agitated
passionately for personal abstinence among his fellow Norwegian-Americans
and the achievement of total prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The
temperance movement was broad-based and very popular among Norwegians
in America, and Ager became a major leader and spokesman for the cause.
He helped make temperance the most widely supported social reform
issue among Norwegian-Americans and no single cause concerned them
more. After the turn of the century, Ager helped found hundreds of
total abstinence societies and Good Templar lodges across the upper
Midwest — wherever Norwegians were clustered. My own research into
the movement shows that it was much more intensive and pervasive among
Norwegians in American than among the Swedes and the Finns, for example.
And the Danes — like the Irish and the Germans — cared for it not at
Ager's third major goal was to encourage the creation
of a uniquely Norwegian-American body of quality fictional writing
the Norwegian language. There were dozens of serious writers, along
with Ager, who worked at producing novels, short stories and poetry
in Norwegian America in those years — including Ole Rølvaag, Simon
Johnson, Dorothea Dahl, Jon Norstog, and many others. One among them
would eventually surpass the rest and gain an international reputation
for his work — that was Ole E. Rølvaag, the professor of norsk at St.
Olaf College, and Ager's close friend. Ager's own fictional production
is reckoned as being, on the whole, nearly as good as Rølvaag's best
Ager was surely the most talented short story
writer among Norwegian-Americans.
Ager was the first Norwegian-American
writer to be published by a major publishing house in Norway — Aschehoug,
in fact — when his novel of social criticism, Kristus for Pilatus,
came out in Oslo in 1911. His major novels Gamlelandets
Sønner and Hundeøine were
also first published in Norway in the later 1920's. (Both of the last
two are available in excellent English translations, should you want
to sample Ager's fiction, but can't read it in the original: Hundeøine
in English is called I Sit Alone.
Gamlelandets Sønner was issued [in 1983] with the title Sons
of the Old Country, translated by the late Trygve Ager, Waldemar's
son, who also lived most of his life here in Eau Claire.)
These were his great driving passions
to which he gave unstinting effort.
Ager also lent his support to a wide variety of
liberal and even radical reform movements in the upper Midwest of
his time, which sought to improve conditions for farmers and laborers.
He staunchly advocated the progressive reform goals of Robert M. LaFollette
here in Wisconsin, the cooperative marketing movement, and the socialistic
Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, for example.
A scan of Ager's editorials
in the first decade of the 20th century shows him also to have been
consistently supportive of women's suffrage and equal rights for women.
Such a stance set him apart from many other editors, public officials
and Lutheran churchmen in Norwegian America. He was ever quick to
publicize the rapid strides which the suffrage movement in Norway
was making, ahead of the American one, where women had got the right
to vote already in 1913 [U.S. women were enfranchised in 1920]. He
urged Norwegian- American women to become politically involved, as
women were doing in Norway, and he encouraged the growth of women's
suffrage groups among them.
But the common threads that run through
Ager's reformist impulses are those of democratic liberalism and moral
improvement intertwined with Norwegian ethnic solidarity and cultural
retention in America. He stood for bicultural pluralism within the
American society, with political loyalty to the American nation and
cultural loyalty to Norway.
Norwegian-American cultural and linguistic retention
bloomed between the 1890's and World War I; Norwegian America was
never more vibrantly ethnic — in dozens of cities of the upper Midwest
like Eau Claire, and across the rural countryside, wherever Norwegians
were clustered. Continuing mass immigration from Norway in those years
gave a steady infusion of fresh Norwegianness to these older settlement
regions which also helped keep the language and culture alive.
Over a million Americans used the Norwegian
language in their daily lives in those decades: in their homes, churches
and social circles — even often in their workplaces. Over 3,000 Lutheran
church congregations used Norwegian as the sole language of worship
and the readership of Norwegian-language publications was at an all-time
high. Some 600,000 homes received at least one Norwegian newspaper
in 1910, for example.
But despite the optimism for permanent
language retention in this subculture, it was to be a short-lived
"golden age" — shorter than Waldemar Ager or any of the other leaders
of the group could have imagined.
The dream of a permanent Norwegian subculture
in America was too impossibly visionary, likely, despite the arduous
encouragement of preservationists like Ager, and would have slowly
died out as successive American-born generations became increasingly
Americanized. But its demise was greatly hastened by a new, national
opposition to foreign ethnic retention among the native American masses
after 1914. America's entry into World War I gave rise to the most
wide-spread hysteria against non-English speaking minority groups
that this country has ever seen. National campaigns for "100% Americanism",
the censorship of the foreign language press, and a pervasive "Speak
English!" movement hastened the end of Norwegian America in just a
matter of years. German Americans bore the brunt of the intolerance
of the times, of course, but the irrational national crusade against
foreign cultures washed over onto Norwegian Americans as well.
Ager outspokenly protested
the foolishness of it all, but he and the other leaders of Norwegian
America couldn't stem the tide.
Into the 1920s, the maintenanceof Norwegian
declined rapidly in every phase and institution of Norwegian-American
life. The churches increasingly shifted to English, the readership
of Norwegian publications dropped off sharply, and ethnic associations
like the Sons of Norway and the bygdelags increasingly began to use
English in their meetings — all to show the cultural loyalty to America
that the larger society in this country now demanded.
Timorous Norwegian-American parents,
in ever-growing numbers, now encouraged their children to Americanize
fully — fearful that any signs of foreignness might stigmatize them
in the larger American society and hamper their chances for future
success in life.
The generation of Norwegian-Americans
that came of age in the 1930's was almost totally Americanized —
speech, behavior and cultural attitudes. They were not only largely
ignorant of the Norwegian language and heritage, but were often ashamed
of this background as well. The "golden age" was gone forever.
Waldemar Ager lived on to witness his great causes
disintegrate around him. Prohibition had proved a failure, Norwegian-American
literature had no future since fewer and fewer could read it, and
the language bridge to Norway no longer held.
But Ager remained a fighter to the end,
as his writings show. Ager, furthermore, seemed to delight in a fight
thought he knew it to be hopeless. He was, perhaps, too much of a
Christian idealist and visionary — but he never became bitter over
defeat, for he had the redeeming quality of seeing life ironically,
It seems to me that even though his great causes
ultimately failed, he was not a failure. He lived life fully, exhuberantly,
and purposefully — and seemingly took a great deal of pleasure in all
his labors. He left a legacy of having tried to do his best for his
people in their transition to a new land. His legacy is also an extraordinary
body of writings, both fictional and journalistic, which attest to
a time of heightened achievement and cultural creativity by the Norwegian
people in America.
Which brings me back full circle to
the spry little old man whom I met as a child. His heyday was behind
him then, as was the Norwegian America in which he had played such
an important formative role. Perhaps that boy from Frederikstad was
the most interesting Norwegian who ever migrated to America.
— Speech given at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, May 15, 1988