“HOW THE FUR WILL FLY”
A STUDY OF AUGSBURG PROFESSOR SVEN OFTEDAL’S RESPONSE TO NORWEGIAN-AMERICAN LEADER RASMUS B. ANDERSON
By JAMES L. JOHNSON
Reprinted by permission from the author.
Section Eight – LAST YEARS
Oftedal spent his final years of ministry before his death in March 1911, teaching New Testament at Augsburg, editing Folkebladet, volunteering at his home congregation of thirty-eight years, his beloved Trinity Lutheran in southeast Minneapolis.
There he served faithfully as a deacon, volunteer leader, and sometime interim pastor.
While Professor Anderson hob-knobbed with King Oscar and Queen Sophia, and his upper-crust connections of his world in Copenhagen, Boston, and New York, Professor Oftedal rubbed shoulders with commoners, the working class pioneers of Minneapolis, Fargo, Valley City, and Thief River Falls.
As Eleanor Hain points out in “He Walked the Earth a Free Man,” the professor to the prairie people was also called on “to act as an interpreter, a liaison officer, or contact man in one or the other of a dozen languages he could speak fluently.”
As Hain so aptly describes Oftedal:
“Prisoners appealed to him. Refugees sought him out. . . Immigrants trusted his judgments and accepted his advice.” (74)
Oftedal spent his time caring for people, not looking for them to serve him.
The Augsburg leader devoted himself to prayer, gave his extra time to serving as guest preacher for the many Lutheran Free congregations that invited him or at the Czech church near Seven Corners or as a frequent teacher at the Greek Orthodox fellowship in Minneapolis.
Oftedal was known to be fluent in English, French, Czech, German and Greek, and worked with up to twenty languages, as well as being a master of the Norwegian language. (75)
Theodore Blegen, the respected dean of the graduate school at the University of Minnesota, described Oftedal as “an orator and scholar feared for his wit and admired for his versatility,” as one of the prominent Norwegian-Americans who helped establish the “Saga Hill Association,” a resort colony on Lake Minnetonka. (76)
Publishing colleague N. N. Rønning remembers Oftedal as a positive leader, happy-minded Christian, a people-person who would enjoy singing gospel-oriented music late at night with friends, praying on his knees, or calling up a younger colleague for a spontaneous trip in the afternoon to pick flowers at Minnehaha Falls.
Rønning remembers Oftedal not as stern, but as a sociable man who loved to mix with a crowd.
“He was at his best. . . ”
says Rønning, during men’s ministry gatherings.
“He met all who entered the room with a smile, a pleasant word and a hearty handshake. There was one thing I liked about him—he was always himself, never tried to pose or to impress people. He made every man feel that he was his friend, his brother.” (77)
Anderson, on the other hand, spent his last years defending himself, editing Amerika during its “colorful years” from 1898 to 1922, then living with his daughter Carletta, recalling his personal exploits to the upstanding people who would listen to him and supplementing “his monotonous diet of shredded wheat with a hot meal now and then” from his neighbor and friend, Mrs. E.B. Steensland. (78)
Anderson’s experience as a university professor, traveling insurance sales representative, concert and lecture tour promoter, and diplomat in Europe afforded the former professor decades worth of opportunities to rub shoulders with the high and mighty.
There in Denmark, Boston, Chicago, or Copenhagen, the natural conversationalist took pleasure in chatting up young American up-and-comers, talking with European government leaders, or rubbing shoulders with Norwegian upper-class friends who wanted him to introduce them to each other.
Most of those he met provided Anderson later with ample fodder for criticism.
He thought playwright Henrik Ibsen was a drunk (79), Russian Czar Alexander III was an awkward snob (80), Kaiser Wilhelm II was a bore (81) and that King Edward VII, was a piece of cake at whist—losing 100 crowns to Anderson in a point-a-crown challenge match (82).
Anderson also disparaged two other young stars he thought were bores: inventor Thomas Edison and the future lauded writer Knut Hamsun.
Anderson bumped into Edison on a ship liner between New York and Liverpool in 1873 and felt trapped by the inventor’s zeal to explain the power of charged particles.
“The eagerness with which he [Edison] wanted to tell everybody all that he knew about electricity and its possible uses,”
“made many of the passengers actually shun him.” (83)
Anderson saved even more disdain for Hamsun, the novelist famous for winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920, and infamous for supporting Adolf Hitler during World War II.
Hamsun visited Anderson at the recommendation of Bjørnson. (84)
It was years before the writer would gain fame as a novelist and decades before Ernest Hemingway would claim that “Hamsun taught me how to write.” (85)
But the long-haired man who came to Anderson’s door named “Knut Pederson,” had no formal education and lacked any significant writing experience.
Anderson recommended “Pederson” find a better last name.
“Hamsund” was the name of the family farm in Norway, and that sounded better. (86)
Anderson also found the new immigrant his first two jobs in America—the first as a clerk in a store, the second as an assistant to Unitarian pastor Kristofer Janson in Minneapolis.
Hamsun lost the first job, but kept the second for three years, even though his sermons seemed to Anderson
“. . . like nonsensical and incoherent twaddle. There was a superabundance of words that gushed from him like peas poured from a bag.” (87)
For that reason, reviewing Anderson’s memoir of meeting Hamsun as he lay “dying” at age twenty-six is most amusing.
Anderson said he had come to visit Hamsun who was boarding with the Jansons in south Minneapolis in 1885.
Janson was out, but the pastor’s wife, Drude, told Anderson that Hamsun didn’t have many days left to live.
Anderson went upstairs, found the future literary Hamsun lying “pale, emaciated, and utterly despondent,” not far from the Augsburg campus, thinking he was dying of consumption.
Former Augsburg professor, August Weenaas had been called, and Hamsun made his confession and received the last sacrament.
Hamsun claimed Weenaas had led him back to the Lord.
The failing Unitarian assistant pastor had “repented his treason to the Lutheran Faith,” and had come to peace with God and was now ready to die. (88)
Anderson did not buy the story.
He thought Hamsun, ever the dramatist, had a severe case of bronchitis and needed a kick in the pants.
He grabbed Hamsun by the feet, pulled him out of bed and told him,
“My dear Hamsun; you are not as sick as you think you are. The weather is beautiful. Get up and dress yourself and go with me for a walk.” (89)
Anderson came down the steps with the struggling young assistant and told Drude Janson the two were going for a walk.
“The air was bracing,” said Anderson, soon he was talking about going back to Norway to be a witness for the Lord.
But when Hamsun returned to the homeland, his health improved, however, and “in the same degree as he found his health,” said Anderson, “he lost his religion” and became a successful writer instead. (90)
- Eleanor Hain, “He Walked the Earth a Free Man,” Christmas Echoes (Minneapolis: The Messenger Press, 1947), 57.
- Jensson, 559-560.
- Theodore C. Blegen, The Saga of Saga Hill (Minnesota Historical Society: St. Paul, 1970), 16-17.
- N. N. Rønning, Fifty Years in America (Minneapolis: The Friend Publishing Company, 1938), 140.
- Knaplund, “Rasmus B. Anderson, Pioneer and Crusader,” 42. http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume18new/vol18_2.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).
- Anderson, 484.
- Ibid., 470.
- Ibid., 536.
- Ibid., 541.
- Ibid., 192.
- Ibid., 305.
- Elmira Alieva, “A Complex Legacy: The Hamsun Fest Finale Pushes Norwegian Culture to the Forefront,” The St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 6, 2009.
- Anderson, 307.
- Ibid., 308.
- Ibid., 309.
- Ibid., 310.