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  • From America to Norway: Norwegian-American Immigrant Letters 1838–1914 ed. & trans. by Orm Øverland
  • Jennifer Eastman Attebery
From America to Norway: Norwegian-American Immigrant Letters 1838–1914. Volume Three: 1893–1914. Ed. and trans. Orm Øverland. Northfield, MN: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 2016. Pp. 630.

Volume 3 of From America to Norway brings to near-completion the massive and significant project of curating and translating to English a generous selection of letters—310 in Volume 3 alone—written by Norwegian immigrants to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Volumes 1 and 2 came out in 2013 and 2015, respectively. I write "near completion" because this third volume will be followed by a fourth containing indices and extensive bibliography. But here we now have the primary texts, translated by probably the best scholar who could take on such a project, Orm Øverland, professor emeritus of the University of Bergen. Øverland has devoted his career to the study of Norwegian American literature and cultural history. Volume 3 of From America to Norway selects from the seven-volume Norwegian-language letter collection Fra Amerika til Norge, as did Volumes 1 and 2. Øverland was also involved in Fra Amerika til Norge. The Norwegian-language original is drawn from Norway's national archival depository Riksarkivet. Together, these volumes in Norwegian and English may represent the most comprehensive attempt to gather, transcribe, translate, and publish the epistolary writing of immigrants from a broad period.

One might wonder why translating letters of immigrants is important, beyond providing information to their Anglophone descendants. Translation, especially into a shared academic language such as English, is particularly significant in enabling comparative work. The project of telling America's multi-ethnic history requires access to sources from multiple groups, and few scholars are fluent in the full range of language groups that came to America. Comparativists in immigration history, literary studies, folkloristics, and American studies will be able to turn to this substantial corpus as they probe and construct analyses and narratives of America's complexities.

For this volume, Øverland has produced an introduction revised from previous essays appearing in the Norwegian edition and elsewhere. Entitled "The Land-Taking: Troubling Silences and Evasions in Immigrant Letters," the introduction takes on the important contexts of cultural encounter and colonialism. Interestingly, grappling with traces of encounter and [End Page 297] land-taking in the letters is as much an interpretation of silence as it is of explicit passages. Øverland tells an evenhanded narrative overall, representing both Native American and immigrant perspectives, even though his primary textual evidence is limited to the non-Native American materials. There, he identifies tropes through which the immigrants filtered encounters—tropes of bloodthirsty tribes, whiteness, and home-making. This introduction makes excellent reading as a new and more comprehensive version of ideas we've seen in Øverland's earlier work.

A wide range of information about the everyday life of immigrants can be found in these letters, as noted in the preface by Norwegian-American Historical Association editor Todd W. Nichol. The wealth of information in this material has only begun to be studied by scholars. While much of what we would hope to gain from letters is not ordinarily present in this genre—because letter writers tend not to write about the matters that they take for granted—we do learn about the nature of travel and its challenges; Christmas and other traditions; everyday objects and entities that were valued such as prized tablecloths, crops, and livestock; and how people fit into local economies. There are aspects of life that receive more detail, most especially the specifics of household and business economies, sometimes penciled out in dollars or kroner (Norwegian crowns). Also ever-present and prominent are concerns about illness and its treatment. Relationships among people are front and center for many writers. And on occasion, we see traces of evidence regarding matters that are usually elided, such as premarital sex. In essence, immigrant letters embody immigrant life, telling of the people who wrote and the physical realities that dominated their lives.

As with the historical questions that may be investigated through the massive amount of material available in these volumes...


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