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Ole Edvart Rølvaag

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Ole Edvart Rølvaag

Ole Edvart Rølvaag
Born (1876-04-22)22 April 1876
Dønna, Norway
Died 5 November 1931(1931-11-05) (aged 55)
Northfield, Minnesota, United States
Nationality Norwegian-American
Occupation Novelist and professor
Known for Giants in the Earth

Ole Edvart Rølvaag (Rølvåg in modern Norwegian, Rolvaag in English orthography) (April 22, 1876 – November 5, 1931) was a Norwegian-American novelist and professor who became well known for his writings regarding the Norwegian American immigrant experience. Ole Rolvaag is most frequently associated with Giants in the Earth, his award-winning, epic novel of Norwegian immigrant homesteaders in Dakota Territory.[1]


  • Biography 1
  • Personal life 2
  • Career 3
  • Literary style and themes 4
  • Giants in the Earth 5
  • Memorials 6
  • Selected bibliography 7
  • References 8
  • Additional sources 9
  • External links 10


Rølvaag was born in the family's cottage in a small fishing village on the island of Dønna, in the far southern district of Nordland county, Norway. Dønna, one of the largest islands on the northern coast of Norway, is situated about five miles from the Arctic Circle. He was born with the name Ole Edvart Pedersen, one of seven children of Peder Benjamin Jakobsen and Ellerine Pedersdatter Vaag. The settlement where he was born had no official name, but was referred to as Rølvaag, the name of a narrow bay on the northwestern point of the island where the fishermen kept their boats. At 14 years of age Rølvaag joined his father and brothers in the Lofoten fishing grounds. Rølvaag lived there until he was 20 years of age, and the impressions he received during the days of his childhood and his young manhood endured with him throughout his life.[2]

An uncle who had emigrated to America sent him a ticket in the summer of 1896, and he traveled to Union County, South Dakota to work as a farmhand. He settled in Elk Point, South Dakota, working as a farmhand until 1898. With the help of his pastor, Rølvaag enrolled in Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota where he graduated in 1901. He earned a bachelor's degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1905, and a master's degree from the same institution in 1910. He also had studied for some time at the University of Oslo.[3]

Rolvaag died November 5, 1931 in Northfield, Minnesota.

Personal life

In 1908 he became a United States citizen and married Jennie Marie Berdahl, the daughter of Andrew James Berdahl and Karen Oline Otterness. They had four children: Olaf, Ella, Karl and Paul. Their son, Karl Fritjof Rolvaag, served as the 31st Governor of Minnesota.[4]


In 1906, Rølvaag was recruited as a professor by St. Olaf College president John N. Kildahl. Rølvaag was made head of the Norwegian Department at St. Olaf College in 1916. In 1925, Ole E. Rolvaag became the first secretary and archivist of Norwegian-American Historical Association. He would hold both positions for the remainder of his life. Rølvaag was knighted in the Order of St. Olav by the King Haakon VII in 1926.


Literary style and themes

Ole Rølvaag wrote in the Norwegian language, however his novels have a distinct American flavor and theme. Rolvaag was deeply influenced by earlier American writers who, writing in the Norwegian language, had faithfully portrayed the experiences of so many Norwegian immigrant pioneers. In this he was strongly influenced by Hans Andersen Foss and Peer Stromme, both of whom had written novels which provided realistic aspects of the homesteader’s experience. The Emigrants by Norwegian author Johan Bojer, which was first published in 1925, follows many of these same themes. Rølvaag in turn provided an equally strong influence on future Scandinavian writers. Rølvaag attracted a number of gifted young Norwegian-Americans to St. Olaf College, among them Einar Haugen. Written decades later, Vilhelm Moberg's novels would depict the experience of Swedish-American immigrants.[7][8]

Giants in the Earth

Rølvaag's authorship and scholarship focused primarily on the pioneer experience on the Dakota plains in the 1870s. His most famous book is Giants in the Earth (Norwegian: Verdens Grøde), which is part of a trilogy. It features the story of a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. The book was based partly upon Rolvaag's personal experiences as a settler and as well of the experiences of his wife’s family who had been immigrant homesteaders. The novel realistically treats the lives and trials of Norwegian pioneers in the Midwest, emphasizing their battles with the elements. The book also portrays the trials of loneliness, separation from family, longing for the old country and the difficulty of fitting into a new culture .[9]

The book was originally written in the Norwegian language and subsequently translated into English. The book reads as an American novel while stemming from an old-world literary tradition. It provides dramatic contrast between Per Hansa and his wife Beret. Per is a natural pioneer who sees promise flooding the wind swept plains. Beret hungers for the home ways and in her heart loneliness gathers, penetrates to the deeper reality of life lived on the American frontier.

Giants in the Earth served as the basis the an opera by Douglas Moore and Arnold Sundgaard; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1951.[10]


The Berdahl–Rølvaag House in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Selected bibliography

  • Amerika-breve fra P.A. Smevik til hans far og bror i Norge – American Letters (1912)
  • Paa Glemte Veie – On Forgotten Paths (1914)
  • To Tullinger: Et Billede frå idag – Two Fools: a Portrait of Our Times (1920)
  • Længselens Baat – The Boat of Longing (1921)
  • Omkring fædrearven – Concerning Our Heritage (1922)
  • I de Dage – In Those Days (1923)
  • Riket Grundlægges – Founding the Kingdom (1924)

The following three books form a trilogy:

  • Giants in the Earth (combined version of I de Dage and Riket Grundlægges – translated and published in 1927)
  • Peder Seier – Peder Victorious (translated in 1929)
  • Den Signede Dag – Their Father's God (translated in 1931)

Last release:

  • Pure Gold (translated in 1930)
  • The Boat of Longing (1933)


  1. ^ John Heitmann (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume XII: Page 144)Ole Edvart Rølvaag
  2. ^ ( Julius E. Olson. Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume VII: Page 121)Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 1876–1931 In Memoriam
  3. ^ . (Einar I. Haugen. Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume VII: Page 53)O. E. Rølvaag: Norwegian-American
  4. ^ (My Genealogy)Jennie Marie Berdahl
  5. ^ . (Kenneth Bjørk. Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume XI: Page 114)The Unknown Rølvaag: Secretary in the Norwegian-American Historical Association
  6. ^ . (Theodore Jorgenson. Norwegian-American Historical Association.Volume X: Page 135The Main Factors in Rølvaag's Authorship)
  7. ^ by Arthur R. Huseboe, Augustana CollegeRølvaag and Krause, Two Novelists of the Northwest Prairie Frontier
  8. ^ (W. Scott Nelson. Humboldt State University May, 2005)The Viking Invasion: An Historiography of Norwegian-American Literature And Its Role In Norwegian Immigration And The Founding of Vesterheimen Within America
  9. ^ . Copyright 1929 by Harper and Brothers.Giants in the Earthto the text edition of
  10. ^ {US OperaGiants in the Earth, Libretto by Arnold Sundgaard after Rolvaag. March 28, 1951
  11. ^ Rolvaag, O. E., House
  12. ^ Berdahl–Rolvaag House

Additional sources

  • Jorgenson, Theodore and Solum, Nora O. Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography (Harper and Brothers, 1939)
  • Reigstad, Paul. Rolvaag: His Life and Art (University of Nebraska Press, 1972)
  • Thorson, Gerald. Ole Rolvaag, Artist and Cultural Leader (St. Olaf College Press, 1975)
  • Simonson, Harold P. Prairies Within: The Tragic Trilogy of Ole Rolvaag (University of Washington Press, 1987)
  • Moseley, Ann. Ole Edvart Rolvaag (Boise State University Bookstore, 1987)
  • Eckstein, Neil Truman. Marginal Man As Novelist: The Norwegian-American Writers H.H Boyesen and O.E. Rolvaag (Taylor & Francis, 1990)
  • Haugen, Einar Ingvald Ole Edvart Rölvaag (Boston: Twayne Publishers,1983)

External links

  • Ole Rølvåg
  • Minnesota Historic Society – Minnesota Author Biographies Project
  • St Olaf College – Rolvaag Memorial Library
  • . (Texas Christian University Press, 1998.)Two Novelists of the Northwest Prairie Frontier
  • by Raychel A. Haugrud (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume 26: Page 103)Rolvaag's Search for Soria Moria
  • by Einar Haugen (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume 31: Page 269)Dear Sara Alelia: An Episode in Rølvaag's Life
  • by Neil T. Eckstein (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume 24: Page 112)The Social Criticism of Ole Edvart Rølvaag
  • by Einar Haugen (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume 32: Page 209)Rølvaag’s Lost Novel
  • by Dorothy Burton Skardal (Norwegian-American Historical Association. Volume 21: Page 14)The Scandinavian Immigrant Writer in America
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