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Christ Letters and Others

Christ was a Norwegian American. He wrote letters.

Letters of Immigrants

"America fever" was nourished by what Norwegian emigrants wrote to the friends and families. Thus, letters can open a way into immigrant minds too. In the book In Their Own Words, Solveig Zempel traces the stories of nine Norwegian immigrants and passes on valuable information from the lives of new settlers. The letters are "vivid stories" that form a colourful mosaic, depicting working, marrying, other outstanding experiences, and passing on private communications. Zempel writes that

immigrants during the period of mass migration faced different problems than the pioneers . . . they endeavoured to find a meaningful place . . . they faced political, social, and personal problems . . . Because the history of this period is so often told in terms of statistics and generalities, we must seek out other sources to help us find those individual personalities concealed within the mass and understand how individual immigrants perceived and experienced the process of migration, assimilation, and acculturation (Zempel 1991, p. xi-xii).

Not all "America letters" encouraged Norwegians to cross the Atlantic. Below is a sample:

Andreas Jerpeland:

I must say that I have not seen such natural beauty as in Norway. Here there is rolling prairie with a little woods and some valleys. Still, there is beauty in nature here, too . . . on the whole I believe that the horses are somewhat larger, but not better, scarcely as good as in Norway. - A. Hjerpeland, June 24, 1871 (In Zempel 1991, p. 4-5).

Are you writing in your true mother tongue, the Gudbrandsdal dialect? . . . The language [New Norwegian] that Kristofer Janson and Ivar Aasen have served up . . . is just a patchwork, pieced together from several country dialects . . . my dear friend! . . . I don't really understand how language reform will improve the lives of people in Norway. I think that it is unnecessary, fruitless nonsense . . .

The land here is mountainous, and as far as I know, there is no land in America that resembles Norway as closely as Oregon and Washington Territory. There are both valleys and mountains here, mountains so high that they are always covered with snow. The lower mountains are closely overgrown with large pine and fir forests. - A. Hjerpeland June 23, 1874 (In Zempel 1991, p. 8-10).

You say that you don't like the girls in Vågå, because they are a bunch of dull clotheshorses. I know that you prize simplicity, and so do I. But yet I dare say that you haven't seen anything of clotheshorses [ie, conspicuously dressy persons, literally: a frame to hang clothes on], in comparison to me . . . here in America it is very difficult to find a girl who according to your definition would not be considered a clotheshorse. Yes, I have often been irritated by all the vanity and pomp, which the girls here are loaded down with . . . each one of these poor people wants to be like all the others, and I can only hope that under the fine clothing beats a humble heart. - A. Hjerpeland, July 24, 1878 (In Zempel 1991, p. 14-15).

Right now I will tell you a bit about the schools in America. I agree with you that the Norwegian school here stands on altogether too poor a footing . . .

I have no news that could be of any interest . . .

A. Hjerpeland, Lanesboro, Minnesota, December 7, 1878 (In Zempel 1991, p. xx).

I have taken a trip to look around, and have just gotten back. I liked the places I visited very much; the worst thing I could discover about that country is that it is almost completely lacking in trees . . . - A. Hjerpeland, Lanesboro, Minnesota, July 9, 1879 (In Zempel 1991, p. xx).

When I close my eyes I can see them all [most of the people in Gudbrandsdal] yet. But unfortunately the sight gives me only a caricature of most of them. I wonder if you are enough like the Ivar Kleiven I once knew that I would still recognize you. - Affectionate greetings, A. Jerpeland. Daily, North Dakota, January 7, 1891 (In Zempel 1991, p. xx).

After plowing and sowing for three years and harvesting little, a great many farmers around here have sunk deeply into dept. I for my part have managed well, for when I haven't had wheat to sell I have sold wood. I can - just to brag a little - say that I am free of debt . . . and am living as usual . . . - A Jerpeland, Daily, North Dakota, September 11, 1891 (In Zempel 1991, p. xx).

As you have told me about your circumstances, this time I will do that same and tell you how rich I have become in America. I took 160 acres of land on a "homestead" which I now have gotten the deed to, so it is my own property. I have a pair of good horses, four cows, three two-year-old bulls, one three-year-old heifer, four one-year-old heifer, four one-year-old calves - and still another little bull a few months old. I have all the equipment necessary to run a farm except a reaper. For all this I do not owe a cent, yes, if I look really hard, I may even find that I have fifty or sixty dollars to the good. In addition I still have my whole crop (805 bushels of wheat), together with fifty bushels of the crop from 1891 . . . I have not become a millionaire yet, but I have had a rather good income, and, if nothing untoward happens, can live free of worry about financial difficulties.

My dear Ivar! If only my dream could one day come true, that I would see you once again . . . Since you heard from me last I have been in good health except for sometimes being plagued by rheumatism in my arms and legs, as well as headaches . . . - A Jerpeland, Daily, North Dakota, February 24, 1893 (In Zempel 1991, p 22-23).

Berta S. Kingestad:

Berta Serina Kingestad (1885-1893) was single when she came to America, and married another Norwegian-American after living in America for a number of years. (Zempel 1991, p. 24) She did not exactly like to be in the "so-called marvelous West", for her thoughts dwelt among the hills and rocky slppes far, far away, in Norway, she wrote to a dear sister in Norway. (Zempel 1991, p. 31)

In the last letter in a collection, her husband Knut had had pneumonia for almost a month, and they had had big snowstorms.

Little Grant is big and healthy. He could walk when he was ten months old. He has five teeth now, and runs around the house and plays with Sven, who is a big tall boy. He goes to school when the weather is passable." - Bertha (Zempel 1991, p. 53).

Gunnar Høst:

We got a real fright when we returned from our work. We had been told that the whole prairie on this side of the Red River had burned . . .

It is strange to live so completely cut off from the civilized world . . . I have no idea how things are going out in the world. - Gunnar Høst [1883-1905], October 7, 1883 (In Zempel 1991, 59-60).

I am now free of my jaundice . . . Then I couldn't help thinking about the pleasant fall and winter evenings in Dræggen, and it cannot be denied that tears threatened to flow . . . - Gunnar Høst, Grand Forks, (Dakota,) November 13, 1884 (In Zempel 1991, 62-63).

My hands have been terribly sore from cutting wood, and now I have a badly swollen finger . . . - From your, Gunnar Høst, Grand Forks, Dakota. April 25, 1885 (In Zempel 1991, 68).

I have finally gotten the underclothes from Miss Keding, and they are absolutely wonderful . . . - From your, Gunnar Høst, Grand Forks, Dakota. August 17, 1885 (In Zempel 1991, 69).

You can have no idea how terrible it is in America right now. Millions of people without shelter and food. What the end will be is a common question, and no one can answer it, no one can give hope and comfort to the hungry masses . . .

Tell Salma that the potted meat was excellent and that I am now eating pork pancakes and rice cakes every week. - Your brother, Gunnar Høst. McIntosh, Minnesota, February 2, 1894 (In Zempel 1991, 74-75).

Bergljot Anker Nilsen;

Karl isn't completely well . . . Thanks for your last letter . . . - Yours, Bergljot [Bergljot Anker Nilsen (1923 or 1891 - 1929)]. Chicaco, Illinois, October 31, 1928.

Zempel writes that Bergljot Anker Nilsen was born in 1923 [!] and 1891 in an urban professional milieu in what is now Halden. She gave birth in 1922. In the early 1920s her husband Karl, herself and their boy Jens finally settled as Norwegian middle-class citizens in Chicago (Zempel 1991, 157).

Letters of Christ:

The letters of Christ Gundersen, (1875–1949) give us a tantalizingly brief glimpse of what life was like for a Norwegian-American in Brooklyn during the first half of this century, writes Zempel (1991, 185). Gundersen came to Brooklyn in 1900, was trained as a mason, and worked in construction for forty-six years - through the prosperous years of the 1920s and through the hard times of the 1930s. The Gundersen children were all well educated. Christ died in 1949. Christ wrote most of his letters from Brooklyn, New York, between 1908 and 1945. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Karl Skogstad. (Ib.)

On September 29, 1918, Christ writes his brother Karl:

I won't have to go [to war in France] since I have such a big family . . . Uncle Sam has people, money, and everything that is needed . . . . Christ Gundersen, (in Zempel 1991, 190)


Norwegian-American immigrant letters, Literature  

Zempel, Solveig, ed., translation and introduction. In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants. Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

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