In pages 347 to 361 of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, there is a description of everything that took place to get his poetry published in book form. It seems both sad and appropriate that I should be reading these pages as news has come that Douglas&McIntyre, Canada’s largest independent publisher has declared bankruptcy. With the demise of D&M, a Canadian voice has been stilled.
When Stephan G. was publishing, there was, as yet, no Canadian voice. His writing was in Icelandic and was read by people in Iceland and by the Icelandic immigrants and their descendants.
After Eggert Jóhannsson suggested that money be raised to publish Stephan´s poetry in book form, Stephan wrote back to say that he could not keep operating the farm and prepare such a manuscript. He said that he´d need $20.00 a month so that he could hire someone to do the farm work while he edited and rewrote.
How little times have changed. This correspondence takes place in 1906. It is now 2012 and very few Canadian writers can survive without a day job. Many, such as David Arnason and Kristjana Gunnars, have held or are holding, teaching positions. Other writers are carpenters, lawyers, farmers. Like Stephan, they fit their writing into the nooks and crannies of their days.
In Stephan’s case, his friends and supporters do raise money to provide him with the time to work on his manuscript and to publish it. To publicize the book and promote sales, he goes on a tour. By so doing, he begins a tradition that has become critical to any author. Viðar Hreinsson, with the support of the Icelandic National League and various Icelandic Canadian clubs, has just finished a tour promoting and selling Wakeful Nights. It seems ironic, reading about Stephan´s tour—Winnipeg, Marshland, Argyle, Shoal Lake, New Iceland, Duluth, Gardar, Churchbridge, Wynyard, Foam Lake, etc.—that his biographer has just completed a similar tour, giving presentations in many of the same places.
Andvökur was published privately. Now, these many decades later, the English language edition of Stephan´s biography, Wakeful Nights, had to be published privately. There are many reasons for that. The Icelandic North American community is small and widely scattered. Although, Stephan G is well known among older members of the community, he is no longer well known among the younger generations for he wrote in Icelandic and the language has largely been lost. Canadian publishers such as D&M have fierce competition from American publishers who have the advantage of their much larger population that is, by and large, only interested in American authors and American subject matter. Publishing a book about an author whose work is of interest to a small ethnic group makes no financial sense.
Viðar says in his preface, “Funding the work on this biography was difficult. I worked at various odd jobs, borrowed money, and finally entered into arrangements with three funding sources: the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, a genetics company and a bank.” It took a lot more than Stephan’s need for $20.00 a month so he could edit his poems. But then, the editing could be done by Stephan at home and didn’t require international travel, years of research in Iceland and North America and writing that was yet to be done, not already done.
There are those, unfortunately, who believe and espouse a market place view of life to the exclusion of all other values. Nothing should be allowed to exist unless it makes a profit. These are the progeny of the money changers whom Christ drove from the temple. They are inclined to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. If it were for them, there would be no published poetry by Stephan G and no biography. Nor much of anything that we might call culture or history.
Although I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba which many see as the heart of all things Icelandic in North America, I never heard anything of the religious conflicts that divided the community. My father regarded the church with utter contempt and, if he ever spoke of it, he chose no sides. His contempt was universal. My mother was Irish, didn’t speak Icelandic, and as an outsider, was not privy to the fierce gossip that raged around kitchen tables or the attacks and counter attacks in Logberg and Heimskringla. The papers were still published in Icelandic and that kept the internecine warfare private. The British overclass wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in Icelanders ranting and raving about obscure religious opinions. The result was that when I was growing up, I knew about King William and the Battle of the Boyne but not the battles that took place in the West End of Winnipeg.
Wakeful Nights has made me aware of some of the religious undercurrents, the Lutheran/Unitarian divide, the secular divides over women’s rights, capitalism and, although, I haven’t got there yet, the divide over active participation in WWI vs Stephan’s pacificist ideas. I’ve always regarded Icelandic Canadians, myself included, as rather stodgy, phlegmatic and reserved. We’re inclined to make long speeches and be rather uptight about a lot of things. It comes as a revelation that behind this mask are raging, tumultuous emotions. I assume this is the lingering effect of a Viking heritage.
When Stephan went to Winnipeg, Viðar says, “There was still strong antagonism in the Synod and Stephan’s supporters wanted to steer him clear of this dispute.”
Stephan arrives in Winnipeg on November 3, 1908. The city has grown to 150,000 but the Icelandic community was still raging about opposing religious views.
Ours was a small, very small, tiny, teeny ethnic community, in a much larger immigrant community. Stephan G was the most talented, productive writer we produced. Like any writer, unless he is going to write romantic pap, he’s going to write works based on his beliefs. Our community is now even smaller in proportion to Canada’s population, never mind to the USA’s population. Writers from other immigrant groups have created Canadian literature. The Icelandic place in Can Lit is very small. It is Stephan’s accomplishments that may give us a place in Canadian literature, and that is only because his work was able to overcome the opposition by people who disagreed with his view of life.
That place in Canadian Literature is still tenuous because translating poetry into English from Icelandic is filled with problems, many of which seem insurmountable. That Wakeful Nights has been published is a great help. It may be that because of it, Stephan G and the Icelandic community will be recognized in Canadian literature courses. However, it is one thing to say “Stephan G was a great writer. One of the best.” But then Guttormur Guttormsson, the poet from Riverton, did say in a one of his poems that we know we’re great because we say so. Without translations of his poems that prove Stephan’s a great writer, it is still just an assertion. Anyone can claim that.
I laughed out loud when I read one of Stephan’s comments. Rögnvaldur Pétursson wrote to him asking for a poem for the publication, Heimir. Stephan eventually sent him “‘Landnámskonan’ (The Settler Woman).” “Everything in it, however, challenged generally accepted views, he pointed out, adding that he preferred that his revolutionary poems be published in the “most acrid reactionary papers” rather than liberal papers, as the healthy have no need of a doctor.’” What a hoot! That’s like saying I’ve written an article that sex is bad and I want it published in Playboy. For a guy sitting on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, he certainly knew how to get under people’s skin.
Canadian literature, as can be seen by the repeated bankruptcies of Canadian publishers and Canadian bookstores, is under threat. With it, our Canadian identity, which never seems quite certain, loses an important way of defining ourselves. Stephan’s poems about the immigrant experience, about the landscape, about the conflicts, about the values tested and retested, can help with that identity. As Icelandic Canadians we need very arrow in our quiver and, it would seem, with current events, every arrow in our Canadian quiver.
Perhaps if Stephan had been the literary equivalent of Norman Rockwell, producing romantic, unrealistic but comforting clichés, he’d have had fewer people incensed by his writing but, then, he wouldn’t be considered one of Iceland’s great authors, nor one of ours. He’d just have been another public relations promoter for the moneyed class.