“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 Two – ANDERSON, THE MAN
Rasmus Bjorn Anderson (1846-1936) was stubbornly successful.
Few Norwegian-American personalities earned as broad a range of praise and criticism during the late 1880s and early 1900s as the Wisconsin professor, diplomat, and newspaper editor.
An ambitious leader and a prolific writer, the Wisconsin native left a legacy of books, articles, memoirs, insults, and translations.
Family lore claims it was Anderson’s phenomenal memory that carried him to his academic achievements.
He could recite more than 100 poems into his old age; and once while in college, he had learned 750 lines of Greek “just to show his classmates that he could do it.” (10)
His family claims Anderson was fluent in seven languages, speaking Swedish, Norwegian, Danish with the ease of his native English, as well as having working competence in German, Icelandic, and Czech.
He served as a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison for fourteen years.
He published a newspaper, Amerika, for twenty-four years.
He served as United States Ambassador to Denmark from 1885-1889.
He authored sixty books—a solid run for a man who never quite graduated from college.
Anderson was expelled from Luther College in Decorah during his final semester. (11)
But the dismissal from Luther led Anderson to a job recruiting new students for Albion Academy, a private Baptist school near his boyhood home.
There at Albion, the entrepreneurial Anderson helped raise enrollment from 40 to 302.
That success earned him a chance to teach at the University of Wisconsin, where President P.A. Chadbourne hired him to recruit large numbers of Norwegian immigrants to enroll there. (12)
In achieving that coveted university professorship by age twenty-three, penning several books by age thirty, and eventually securing a role as American Ambassador to Denmark by age thirty-nine.
Anderson became a byword for success among people who could speak and read the Norwegian language.
Among his other notable “fast friends” were renowned violinist Ole Bull, Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg, as well as the aforementioned Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson, the Norwegian writer who won a Nobel Prize for poetry in 1903. (13)
Anderson was wooed by U.S. Senator William F. Vilas for an ambassadorship (14),
Anderson smoked cigars with Henrik Ibsen, (15), fished with William Jennings Bryan, (16) sold insurance to Georg Sverdrup, (17) and snapped Nobel prize-winner Knud Hamsun out of depression in Minneapolis. (18)
He broke bread with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge, (19) gave a reading to Oliver Wendell Holmes, (20) and met privately with German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, making the founder of modern Germany so angry the Iron Chancellor slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “Mr. Anderson…I am master of my own house!” (21)
He also beat the future King of England in a game of whist and won a hundred crowns from the Prince of Wales in the process. (22)
Socio-linguistics scholar Einar Haugen, a long-time Harvard academic who devoted forty-five years of his career to Scandinavian studies, called Anderson “one of the most fascinating personalities in the history of Wisconsin.” (23)
His biggest break into the celebrity world, however, came in January 1868, when Norway’s Ole Bull, possibly the world’s best-known violinist of his era, was giving a concert in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Anderson slipped into the hotel where Bull was staying and passed word that his mother, Abel Catherine von Krogh, was a distant relative.
That was his break. Bull invited Anderson to his room, gave the professor a backstage pass, and the two started conversing during breaks in the music.
After the concert, Bull asked the new professor to accompany him on the carriage ride between Janesville and Milton.
By the time they reached the hotel in Madison, Bull “secured me a room next to his own,” Anderson said, and appointed the young teacher “his representative to whom visitors would have to apply to have audience with his majesty, the king of the violin.” (24)
Four years later, when Anderson was raising funds for the new Scandinavian studies library in 1872, Bull brought his extra-long bow and four-stringed harmonies to a Seventeen of May Celebration in Madison to help.
They raised $1,000 for the library that night. And the success of that Syttende Mai concert became the inspiration for Bull to plan a similar tour in Norway. (25)
With Bull sponsoring his travel expenses and Anderson serving as the maestro’s personal assistant, the team raised support to advance the cause of Norwegian culture and Norway’s independence.
They arrived in Norway in mid-June 1872. Anderson began purchasing books, met “well-to-do people,” and visited relatives. (26)
The next year Anderson returned for a second tour to raise funds for a monument to Leif Erikson in America, using a four-stop concert tour to Christiania, Bergen, Christiansand, and Stavanger.
For the tour, Bull and Anderson recruited Bjørnson, author of the country’s national anthem, Ja, Vi Elsker Dette Landet, to join them as lecturer as well as Edvard Grieg, composer of Peer Gynt Suite and Piano Concerto in A Minor. (27)
Grieg was Norway’s most lauded composer at the time, and Bull in his last decade was still playing violin with the vigor of an athlete.
The tour raised between $1,500 and $2,000 for Anderson’s library in the summer of 1872. (28)
In the middle of the tour, the Wisconsin native became something of a celebrity himself. Armed with his recommendation letter from Bull, Anderson gained access to entrances few could garner in Norway.
He drew praise in Norway and plaudits in America for his translations of Scandinavian literature, and within two years, he would receive honors for his 1874 book, America not Discovered by Columbus, and Anderson ate it up.
As Knaplund states it:
The visits to Norway and the connections thus established gave Anderson prestige. At no time did he hide his light under a bushel-quite the contrary, for at times it seemed as if he had set up a series of reflectors to intensify it. For him publicity was meat and drink. . . .He wrote frequently for the university newspaper, for local Madison papers, and for the Norwegian-language press in America. Ole Bull helped Anderson to establish contacts with New England men of letters, to publish in periodicals such as the Nation, and to contribute articles on Scandinavian subjects to several encyclopedias. (29)
- Lester W. Hansen, “Life of Rasmus B. Anderson,” n.p. https://sites.google.com/site/rasmusbanderson/home/biography (accessed May 3, 2014).
- Hansen, “Life of Rasmus B. Anderson,” n.p.
- Paul Knaplund, “Rasmus B. Anderson: Pioneer and Crusader,” Vol. 18, 23. http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume18new/vol18_2.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).
- Anderson, 198.
- Ibid., 371.
- Ibid., 484.
- Ibid., 666.
- Ibid., 366.
- Ibid., 309.
- Hansen, “Life of Rasmus B. Anderson,” n.p.
- Anderson, 546.
- Ibid., 461.
- Ibid., 541
- Einar Haugen,“A Critique and a Bibliography of the Writings of Rasmus B. Anderson, 255. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/wmh/id/11105 (accessed February 25, 2014).
- Anderson, 104-107
- Anderson, 147-148. Einar and Eva Lund’s book on Bull’s concert prowess, and the violinist’s interactions with his new in-laws, the Thorpe family, sheds more light on the dynamics of Anderson and Bull. For more, see: Einar and Eva Lund Haugen, Ole Bull: Norway’s Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriarch (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993). For a listen to the power of Bull’s music, the writer recommends: Ragnhild Hemsing fascinating study, Ole Bull Documentary: Ragnhild Hemsing and Eldbjørg Hemsing Searching for the Tone of Ole Bull. The file can be uploaded at Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/18657045. Violinist Charlie Seim also plays captivating renditions of Bull’s music. His music is available on Youtube at the following: Charlie Seim Plays Ole Bull, July 6, 2011. On-line video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcyUqTiNjJo.
- Ibid, 172-173.
- Ibid., 194-200.
- Ibid., 200.
- Knaplund, “Rasmus B. Anderson, Pioneer and Crusader,” Vol. 18, 23. http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume18new/vol18_2.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).