Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mormons of the North: A Review of Nephi Anderson's "The Castle Builder"



Little has been said about Norway’s influence on Nephi Anderson and his literary works even though the country figures prominently in Added Upon and other works. Anderson himself was born in what is now Oslo in 1865 and lived there until his family immigrated to Utah in 1871. He also returned in 1891 to serve a mission, and his letters and journals from this time period are open to researchers at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. I haven’t yet looked at them, but I imagine they have much to say about why Anderson carried his readers time and again to Norway. Was it nationalism? Love for the Norwegian Saints? A missionary’s zeal for his field of labor?

The Castle Builder, Anderson’s third novel, suggests it may have been a combination of all three. Set entirely in Norway, the novel follows the rags-to-riches life of Harald Einersen, a Norwegian sheep-herder whose ambition draws him away from his alcoholic father into a world of ideas. Thoughtful by nature, Harald nevertheless faces challenges in his education because of the economic advantages of others, his own economic disadvantages, and his penchant for free-thinking in matters of religion. These upsets, combined with his disillusionment in existing religious doctrines, lead him to a life of radical political activity that serves mainly to fill a spiritual void until something better comes along.

That “something better” turns out to be Mormonism, which Harald embraces midway through the novel after a soul-searching climb to the top of a mountain. Like Marcus King, the protagonist of Anderson’s second novel, Harald becomes something of a town pariah after his conversion. For Harald, however, the blessings and rewards of his new faith are enough to bring him through to the end of the novel.

In many ways, The Castle Builder is like Marcus King, Mormon in that it is a conversion novel about a young man who forsakes the earthly esteem of his community for the eternal esteem of Christ. Both Marcus and Harald share the trademarks of the Andersonian hero: sensitivity, intellect, ambition, and moral courage. Like Anderson, they also make school teaching their profession, although Harald ultimately leaves teaching for politics and the business world. Even this deviation, however, does little to separate Harald from Marcus. What differences the two characters share are suggested subtly through The Castle Builder’s theme of class inequality and its Norwegian setting. Unlike Marcus, in other words, Harald is one who works from the bottom up, a perspective that makes him sympathetic to democracy and the injustices of a religious system that damns those who never had a fair chance at hearing the gospel of Christ. For him, Mormonism becomes the solution to the disadvantages of his birth, a veritable renaissance of being:

Harald Einersen was now a "Mormon," and did not care how soon the world, his world at least, knew of it. The struggle had been long and hard, but it was now over, and he was satisfied. He knew now that if the political movement which he had helped to forward was to be carried on, some one else would have to do it. His leadership was at an end. He had gone into a new world, and this change was as complete as if he had died and had arisen in another sphere. (182)

Significantly, Norway serves meaningfully as the backdrop of this change. In the past, I’ve criticized Mormon literature for being too Utah-and Americentric, but The Castle Builder shows—along with Added Upon and Anderson’s A Daughter of the North—that Mormon literature has an old undercurrent of stories about international Mormonism. Indeed, The Castle Builder is particularly noteworthy because it features only one American character—the Norwegian-American missionary Elder Olsen—and its main characters choose to stay in Norway rather than immigrate to “Zion” in Utah. While this choice is based on practical necessity rather than religious convictions—Harald and Thora, his love interest, remain in Norway to care for their aging parents—it nevertheless anticipates and even reflects changing attitudes about international converts and the merits and practicality of gathering all Saints to a central location.

Other Norwegian elements abound in The Castle Builder. Anderson’s familiarity with the country is seen in the novel’s detailed descriptions of rural life, fishing, and folklore. Likely, a study of his mission record and reminiscences of Norway would turn up possible sources for these scenes, which are among the best in the book. In fact, readers will find the first half of this novel much more interesting than the second mainly because so much of its early chapters are devoted to capturing the beauty of the Norwegian countryside and the charms of its people. Anderson clearly loves Norway and The Castle Builder seems to be his affectionate tribute to his native land and the gospel he shared with it.

10 comments:

  1. .

    I can't remember the fellow's name, but there's a British academic who's written on Anderson's Norway connection. He's an acquaintance of a PhD-candidate-in-Scand-lit friend of mine.

    Wish I could remember his name . . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now that you mention it, I vaguely remember coming across something like what you are describing--but I'm remembering it being written in Norwegian.

      Sounds like I need to do some investigating.

      Delete
    2. .

      From an email this morning:

      "It was Ole Podhorny, a Norwegian church member, who wrote a master's thesis for the English department at the University of Oslo, on Nephi Anderson."

      Delete
    3. .

      Hey! Look what I found!

      https://www.facebook.com/ole.podhorny

      http://books.google.com/books/about/Christian_Nephi_Anderson_Popular_Mormon.html?id=23wIOAAACAAJ

      Delete
    4. Amazing. That's the one I came across. And it looks to be in English...which means I need to cancel the order I placed for an English-Norwegian dictionary on Amazon.

      Thanks for your researching footwork.

      Delete
    5. .

      Boy. Trudging through with a dictionary would have been miserable.

      Delete
  2. I'm a long time AMV lurker and I clicked over because I'm interested in Nephi Anderson as a tangent of my secondary research area, Scandinavian-American studies (my main area is German-American studies). I wrote a (hurried) research paper on Anderson last year for a Scand-American class and so I read Podhorny's thesis. The main thrust of his argument, as I remember, is that Anderson does not count as Norwegian-American literature because his narratives and themes are not typical of Midwestern Norwegian-American literature. I think that there can be a case made for including Anderson in the Norwegian-American canon, as much as that exists. I also think Anderson shows the formation of a transnational Mormon identity and uses Mormonism's radical sacralizing impulse to enfold the Norwegian (imagined) community almost effortlessly into the American church.

    Anyway, I wanted to say that if you want a copy of Podhorny's thesis (which also includes a summary of CHL archival material such as Anderson's missionary diaries), I have one scanned that I could send you. Just email me at screed AT wisc DOT edu

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. .

      Sheez. That's a narrow way to define the field. So if a Norwegian doesn't hail from Lake Wobegon, they don't count?

      Delete
    2. Now that I've read the Podhorny thesis, I can say that he definitely defines Norwegian-American literature too narrowly for my tastes--but he does make the interesting point that Anderson's fiction doesn't follow the same pattern as other Norwegian-American writers. I wonder if it has something to do not only with Anderson's Mormon environment, as Podhorny suggests, but also with how well-traveled he was. He was active in the Scandinavian community in Utah, but he never seemed to use it as a proxy homeland.

      Delete
    3. .

      As did those in Mennesota?

      Delete