Book review: The Rockey Mountain Poet

Viðar Hreinsson. Wakeful Nights. Benson Ranch, Inc., 2012, 607 pages.

In the 1870’s Icelanders began to emigrate. In Iceland times were difficult. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was so poor that massive numbers of Europeans were on the move. They were immigrating to places such as Brazil but the greatest number had as their destination, Amerika. Amerika was not a specific geographic place but a direction, a place of rumour, myths, and letters.

In Iceland, society was still medieval. Although the Icelanders like to point out to everyone that they had the first parliament in history, they conveniently leave out that this annual representation of the chieftains where real power was distributed and enforced lasted a short time. Internal conflict led to Iceland being ruled by the Norwegian king and, when Norway was taken over by Denmark, Iceland was, too. For hundreds of years Iceland was a vassal state, its resources and people sold off to commercial interests.

Although some English travelers in the 1800s made the mistake of declaring that because on Icelandic farms everyone slept in one room, ate in one room, worked in the fields or fished from the same boat, that everyone was equal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

What they did not take into account was who had the key to the food storehouse, who decided what and how much each person got to eat, what work they did, how many hours they worked, whether they would be employed or, if they were a tenant farmer (share cropper), whether their lease would be renewed. Only one percent of Iceland’s land is usable (not arable, for that assumes that it can be cultivated) and that was for pasture. Wealth was in sheep and milk cows and, for the larger farmers who had land on the sea shore, boats.

Stephan G Stephansson grew up in that society. He was “born in 1853, the population…roughly 60,000)”. It’s capital city was a village. There were no cities. People lived in little isolated worlds on farms in houses made of turf and rock and some wood from Denmark or driftwood. Wood was so precious that some houses used whale bones for rafters.

There were no crops except hay for no grain would ripen.

Stephan’s family was too poor to send him for a formal academic education. In 1873, he came to North America with some people for whom he had been working. His life was different from many of the immigrants right from the beginning because they did not go to Nova Scotia or Kinmount, Ont., or to New Iceland in what was to become Manitoba. He went to Wisconsin and began life as a farmer. He moved a number of times, settling, finally, in Alberta in the Markerville area.

His story is no different from many others except for one thing. In spite of his lack of formal education, he became a poet of great renown. He became known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains. His work was published in Canada, the United States and Iceland. However, he wrote in Icelandic and so, even though he took his material from daily life in North America, his audience was restricted to those who could read Icelandic. Today, as the Icelandic North American population continues to intermarry and disperse, there is the danger that Stephan G will be forgotten.

That is why Viðar Hreinsson´s new book, Wakeful Nights, published by Benson Ranch Inc., is particularly important.

Stephan G Stephansson was not just a poet, not just an excellent poet, but a man with a clear vision of what was right and wrong in society.  He was the conscience of society. He wrote about social issues, spared no one´s vanity or self-importance. His unwavering beliefs about social justice and religious matters brought him accolades but also enemies. His opposition to WWI resulted in a Manitoba MLA who also was of Icelandic background, trying to have him charged with treason.

The book begins with 65 pages of description of life in Iceland. I, personally, would have liked this section to be longer, more detailed, but that is because I’ve done a great deal of research into the 1800s in Iceland. For most readers this first part of the book provides a good historical perspective and solid base from which to understand the impetus for Stephan’s beliefs and actions.

The journey west which follows is well described. It has enough detail to keep the reader focused on what the trip was like rather than on some romanticized version.

The remainder of the book centres on the conflicts in which Stephan found himself embroiled. We are taken into the division of the community between Unitarianism and Lutheranism. Today, the remains of that battle can be seen in the capital of New Iceland, Gimli, Manitoba, with the Lutheran church on Third Avenue and the Unitarian church on Second Avenue and the gap between them like a vast crevasse on an Icelandic glacier.

“Over the years, Winnipeg had become the home of an increasing number of Icelanders in North America. They established newspapers, first Leifur, that lasted only a few years, then Heimskringla (1886) and finally Lögberg (1888).  The latter two papers became a spiritual and worldly battlefield between various groups of Icelanders. Lögberg was liberal in politics but conservative in religious matters, while Heimskringla was conservative in politics but liberal in religion.”

“Stephan examined social issues closely and developed a fascination with Felix Adler’s ethical movement. Adler, a German Jew whose family immigrated to America in 1857, had studied on both sides of the Atlantic and had read the works of Emerson and Kant. In 1876 he established an ethical movement, the Society for Ethical Culture, among radical intellectuals.” “Stephan with a group of farmers, established a society of liberal Icelanders who could accept neither the doctrines of the church nor the church’s declaration that religion was the fortress of culture and progress.”

Translations of Stephan´s poems appear throughout the book. The author does his best to provide the reader with translations of Stephan’s poetry but given the intricate forms that simply won’t work in English, settles for prosy translations that give the reader the meaning of what is being said. Creating translations of Icelandic poetry that capture the quality of Stephan´s work seems like an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that has already and will continue to keep English speaking readers from appreciating the genius that is declared in Iceland for Stephan’s work.

The book plays close attention to Stephan’s family life, the tragic death of one of his sons, the struggle to prosper at farming, his relationship with his wife and children. This helps to make him real, not a caricature of the embattled and battling poet. When he is honoured by being asked to visit Iceland and he tours the country to widespread adulation, Viðar describes Stephan as being worn and small, not the physical giant that some expected. The contrast between Stephan´s struggle to succeed as a farmer in difficult times and his success as a poet brings the reader close to the man whose search for truth in a world constrained by religious and secular dogmatism, makes him human.

I have found nothing to criticize about Wakeful Nights. There are a few typos in the text but nothing to distract the reader. I’m only grateful that the book has been written and published. For me, it has revealed and explained many things about my own ethnic community that I have not understood.

For many in the Icelandic North American community, the simple mention of the conflicts Stephan had with ministers, editors, members of the Winnipeg elite, will be enough for they will already know the background to the struggle. For readers outside the Icelandic North American culture, though, such references may hold no meaning, particularly those to do with the church. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary that explained each of those references but it would have made a large book even larger. One of the joys of Viðar’s writing is that it is easy to read. To have included more background detail in the text would have bogged down the story, taken away attention from the poet. Perhaps Wakeful Nights will inspire others to extract references and expound on them.

It would be wonderful if Wakeful Nights would help to establish a permanent place in Canadian literature for Stephan’s poetry. At the very least, this biography has brought us closer to knowing a remarkable man whose work bridged three countries.

(Wakeful Nights can be purchased from Tergesen’s bookstore in Gimli, from Jim Anderson, directly from Benson Ranch Inc, 251018 Tower Ridge Estates, Calgary, AB, T3Z 2M2 or from Amazon. Local bookstores will order it. Copies will be available at the next INL convention in Seattle.)



Stephan G honored in Iceland


On May 30th, 1917, Stephan G began his trip to Iceland. First from New York to Halifax and from there to Iceland. On board the Gullfoss, everyone treated him kindly and with respect. In Canada, there were some who had tried to have him charged with treason and put in prison because he disagreed with them about the slaughter in Europe. They saw glory in it. He saw nothing but tragedy and wasted lives. On the Gullfoss, people only wanted to honour him.

Of course, one has to remember that the attitude of people in Iceland, a country that was a non-combatant, was different from that in Canada which, as a colony of England, had soldiers at the battlefront. In Canada, some Icelanders hoped that the participation of young Icelandic men in the war would help Icelandic immigrants gain an honorable place in Canadian society.

However, Laxness describes in the section of Independent People called “The Years of Prosperity”, the attitude prevalent in Iceland. “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic Wars saved the nation from the consequences of the Great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil, yes, this beautiful war, and may the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest possible  moment”. WWI wasn’t Iceland’s war. It was an opportunity to sell wool and meat and fish to a host of “various ill-disposed citizens that…kept on hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough, for four consecutive years and more.”

On June 16, the ship arrived in the Reykjavik harbour. The invitation committee came onto the ship. A crowd gathered at the harbour to cheer Stephan. The next day was June 17th. There was a banquet that night with fine food and coffee. There were speeches, including one by Stephan.

He was a guest of honour at Women’s Day. He gave another speech and poetic toast. According to Viðar, “Stephan took long walks with some of Iceland´s most prominent intellectuals and attended an endless round of receptions and parties.” He went sightseeing and even managed, in spite of prohibition, to find a drink or two.

He traveled by boat along the coast, then by horseback. All this time, he was writing poetry.

It was at this spot in Wakeful Nights that I had to pause in my reading, deeply touched by the Icelanders’ greeting to him. To understand the significance of what happens, you have to understand the importance of hay making and the precarious weather of Iceland. There is only one crop, hay. No grain will ripen. The hay must feed the milk cows and sheep for it is upon them that everyone’s life depends.  In good weather, people will cut and rake hay for twenty-four hours a day. They work as if their lives depend on it and, in fact, their lives did depend on it.

“The group then took a ferry across the glacial river Jökulsá, while four men waited on the west side to accompany them through the geothermal pass known as Mámaskarð and down to Lake Mývatn.”

“as he and his companions descended from the pass, Stephan was astounded to encounter a crowd of people singing and celebrating as they rode to meet  him. ‘There, on the rocky path…where harsh lava and human habitation merge, people came riding in a long procession, evidently on their way to some gathering.’ Stephan first thought they must be riding to town, but then recalled that any towns were by the sea, not inland. When these people in the procession dismounted from their horses and waited for him he realized that this was in fact a display of Icelandic hospitality. Although it was a good dry day in the middle of the haying, people had left the hayfield to come and meet him.”

Stephan was escorted from farm to farm. He came to Iceland as a great poet but also as a farmer who had worked all his life to create a farm that would support his family and, as a farmer, he was interested in agriculture in Iceland.

“Wherever Stephan went on this trip, he was greeted with flags, speeches, and song. At Ytra-Fjall in the valley of Aðaldalur he had a lively discussion with farmer-poet Indriði Þorkelsson….Indriði had been mowing hay with his sons. He stopped cutting unusually early, however, went inside, washed his hands, and put on a clean jacket.” He was going to meet Stephan.

“As the group approached the village of Húsavík at 6 o´clock in the morning, the poet Hulda, together with her husband and a few dignitaries, rode out to meet them. That evening, a gathering was held in Stephan´s honour.”

As he traveled about the country, he was greeted as a great poet in a country which revered poetry. There were those who refused to participate in this homecoming, but from what I read in Wakeful Nights, it was not religious conflict that kept them away but secular conflict, the distaste of the wealthy and privileged for a poet who writes of financial and social injustice. What else can one expect? If the poet writes about the exploitation of the ordinary person by the privileged why should the privileged cheer him? If Stephan were alive today, he would surely have been composing poems about the banksters and politicians responsible for the kreppa. One would hardly expect the objects of his scorn to honour him.

As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in y our life.” Stephan stood up for something all his life.

I admire the Icelandic people because they honoured Stephan G in spite of the fact that he struggled all his life to be a good farmer yet never made much money. They honoured him for his poetry, for his talent, for his intelligence and for his bravery. Few of us are brave enough to stand up to those who are wealthy or hold positions of power. Then and now, those who are adept at making money, are quick to assume that having done so means that they are superior to others who have not done as well financially, and that their opinions on all things must also be superior. There is something about the making of money that feeds vanity.

However, Icelanders were well acquainted with men like Björn of Leirur from Paradise Reclaimed. Björn had married for money, had become “an agent for the Scots, buying up ponies and sheep on their behalf for gold.” He was always ready to take advantage of anyone who had fallen on hard times. He used bribery and attached himself to important people. Paradise Reclaimed is a novel by Laxness, a fictional account of life around the time of emigration to North America, but it is also an accurate account of the behaviour of many of those who prospered while others, faced with a harsh climate, harsh Danish rule and harsh local laws, worked endlessly just to feed themselves and their families. Björn is part of a small, corrupt group of the priviliged class. It is people like these that the emigrants fled. The people who emigrated did so for an opportunity to own their own land, to have a chance to better themselves and their families. However, there were those who came with them who wanted to perpetuate the old system. Stephan, to his credit, did not write in praise of the wealthy in order to receive gifts or favours from them.

There is no more dangerous person than the one who will stand up for his beliefs. Ask the Poles about Lech Walesa. Communism laid claim to represent the ordinary working class. It represented only the ruling class. To exploit others, you don’t have to be a capitalist. Every economic, religious, and social system contains within it, people who will use the system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. To them, the person who reveals what is being done is the enemy for such a person would incite others to take away privilege, distribute resources more fairly, and demand honesty.

Today, more than ever, we need Stephan G, we need  ten or a hundred or a thousand Stephan Gs, writing, speaking, publishing, broadcasting, investigating in the face of ever greater accumulation of wealth by the few and political and economic power by even fewer.

Meeting Stephan, many people were surprised, taken aback, because they saw a small, weather worn farmer when they’d expected a giant. He was a giant, a giant of words.

Like the people of Myvatn, we need to ride out to greet him, to honour him, to sing his praise, for it is of us and for us that he writes.

I do not understand the religious conflicts in which Stephan participated in Canada. Wakeful Nights refers to them but does not discuss them. From the perspective of 2012, with the sharpest rate of membership decline being in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with empty pews and few new clergy, the conflicts within the Lutheran church during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, seem strange, self-destructive, more about opinionated, self-righteous individuals and social class than about theology. Those conflicts have divided and weakened the church and driven away its members.

That’s not to criticize any of those involved in the conflicts. To criticize, I’d have to have a historical understanding and know enough about religion at the time to draw a conclusion about who was and who wasn’t being reasonable. Religion is not based on reason but on faith and history so that makes it even more difficult to understand. It may be that to understand the religious conflicts referred to, one would have to have a companion volume describing the positions taken and the reasons for them. Would anyone actually read it? I doubt it.

To me, the finest writing in Wakeful Nights is this section describing Stephan’s visit to Iceland. It describes  Icelanders in a way that makes me proud of my Icelandic background. The people ride toward him and sing just as they rode to greet King Christian IX in 1874. Their action reveals not just the esteem in which they hold the author of Andvökur but also their values, values that do them honour. This is Iceland at its best.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I had a number of people say, in one way or another, “I’m a proud Icelander.” Or “I’m proud  of my Icelandic background.” When I asked them what they were proud of, they seldom could pin it down to something specific. Buy Wakeful Nights, read it, if you don’t read all of it, read the section describing Stephan G’s triumphant visit to Iceland. Imagine the landscape, the mountains, the glaciers, the rivers, the narrow trails. Imagine the people on the farms setting aside their scythes and rakes, mounting their horses and riding to meet the poet of the Rocky Mountains.



Publishing Stephan G

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.