Vilhelm Moberg


In his emigrant novels (1949-59), Vilhelm Moberg tells the story of 16 emigrants from Ljuder parish in Småland, which emigrated and settled in Chisago county, Minnesota, in 1850. For twelve years Moberg worked on his emigrant epic, an enormous task based on sources from both Småland and America. The extensive research material was donated in 1968 to the SEI where it, along with a replica of the author's "writing cabin", constitutes a Moberg exhibition. The Moberg Room displays the original manuscripts, excerpts, notes, photos etc. in such a way that visitors get a feeling of meeting the auther in his workshop. The Vilhelm Moberg Society (1989) with headquarter in The House of Emigrants has the purpose to promote puplications, research and popular interest in Moberg´s works.

Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) by Gunnar Eidevall
Vilhelm Moberg stands out as on of sweden´s foremost 20th century writers. Some of his novels have already taken their place among the indispensable classics of swedish literature: his debut novel Raskens. En soldatsfamiljs historia (Raskens, the Story of a Soldier´s Family), his historical alegory from World War II Rid i natt! (Ride This Night), and his four-novel suite about emigration from Sweden to the United States Utvandrarna (The Emigrants), Invandrarna (Unto a Good Land), Nybyggarna (The Settlers) and Sista brevet till Sverige (Last Letter Home).

The books in Moberg´s emigrant tetralogy have sold nearly two million copies in Sweden alone, and his works have been published in more than 20 different languages. Because Moberg is so genuinely Swedish and Scandinavian, and because most of the characters in his novels have their roots in his native Småland in southern Sweden the number of translations may seem surprising. But the genuinely Swedish nature of his works is his greatest asset as a writer. Man and his thoughts, dreams, feelings and conflicts are essentially the same in all countries through the ages. This is why the major epic storytellers are read everywhere. When such writers throughly and intimately describe the people and the world which they themselves know, they are porttraying life of all mankind.

An Author For and Of the Common People by JoAnn Hanson-Stone
Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) stands out as one of Sweden’s foremost 20th century writer. Many of his novels have already become classics of Swedish literature: his debut novel Raskens. En soldatfamiljs historia (Raskens, the Story of a Soldier’s Family) (1926) ; his historical allegory from World War II Rid i natt! (Ride this Night!) (1941), and his four-novel suite about emigration from Sweden to the United States Utvandrarna (The Emigrants) (1949), Invandrarna (Unto a Good Land) (1952), Nybyggarna (The Settlers) and the Sista brevet till Sverige (Last Letter Home) (1959).(Eidevall:1996, 3).

There are no more avid readers than the Scandinavians, and none hold the creative writer in greater veneration. In Sweden, few authors have achieved such immense popularity as Vilhelm Moberg, whose four great novels about the early Swedish Emigration to America, published between 1949 and 1959, are believed to be the most widely read works of fiction ever written in the Swedish language. (Moberg: 1988, vii).

The books in Moberg’s emigrant series have sold nearly two million copies in Sweden (population 8.8 million) alone, and his works have been published in more than 20 languages. Translated into English by Gustaf Lannestock, the emigrant series have enjoyed great success in America, reinforced by Jan Troell’s epic film versions, The Emigrants and The New Land from the early 1970''s. (Ibid.).

It may seem surprising to some that Moberg’s Swedish and Scandinavian works have been translated into so many different languages. Why is his literary work so popular outside of Sweden? Gunnar Eidevall (1996:3) argues that the genuinely Swedish nature of Moberg’s works are his greatest asset as a writer. "Man and his thoughts, dreams, feelings and conflicts are essentially the same in all countries through the ages. When such writers thoroughly and intimately describe the people and the world which they themselves know, they are portraying the life of all mankind."

Moberg is primarily recognized as a novelist who has documented and dramatized the life of the rural peasantry of one corner of Sweden at various periods in its history. His characters are the small pesant farmers, crofters, soldiers, and emigrants of the province of Smaland. Unlike most earlier Swedish writers who portrayed rural life, Moberg was born into a crofting family and able to describe this world with knowledge and conviction. (Holmes:1980).

No modern Swedish writer has been more widely read or considered so controversial than Vilhelm Moberg. A man of strong opinion who describes himself as "easily moved, hot tempered and changeable," Moberg lived in a world of contrasts. (Moberg:1988, xiii).

Moberg was of humble, rural origins and maintained lifelong contact with the farmers and folks of his native province. Yet, he spent much of his adult life near Stockholm involved in public debate over government corruption and inefficiency. (Ibid.). Vilhelm Moberg was born August 20, 1898 in a tenant soldier’s croft in Algutsboda Parish near the village of Moshultamala, located in the southern part of the heavily forested, lake-dotted province of Smaland. It was a poor and infertile rural district, whose farms could not support a growing population. During the latter part of the 19th century a steady stream of emigrants left this area for North America.

The Smaland of Moberg’s childhood played a crucial role in his development as a writer. He was deeply conscious of his roots among the people of Varend. Varend, its landscape and historical periods, provided the setting for almost all of Moberg’s novels and a number of his plays. In his fiction, Moberg brought his forefathers to life. He created a place for them in the history and literature of his country. (Holmes, 1980:15).

Moberg’s Smaland is part of the medieval Varend, whose history fades into legends and myths (Eidevall,1996:4). Thousands of years ago a tribe of obscure origin, the Wirds, settled there and established a kingdom long before the founding of the Kingdom of the Swedes to the north. "Varend was a remote province, for centuries one of the poorest parts of Sweden with a landscape dominated by great brooding forests and dotted with tiny farms and crofts at the very margins of cultivation. Local people have always had to struggle to wrest a living from the poor rock-strewn soils of these uplands. The miles of stone walls and giant mounds of stone which lie like islands in the fields bear witness to the patient labors of the peasants down the ages in clearing the land" (Holmes, 1980:15).

For six hundred years, the forest wildernesses of Varend marked the border between Sweden and Denmark. The area frequently became a battleground, pillaged by armies from north and south alike. On many occasions, the traditionally "freehold" peasants of the borders demonstrated their independence of central authority by resisting the Swedish monarch’s call to arms against their neighbors the Danes and several times rose against their own king. The peasant farmers of Varend gained a reputation for being hard-working, stubborn, and independent-thinking folk much like Vilhelm Moberg himself (Holmes, 1980:16).

Moberg was born into this region with its distinct culture and history. As a writer, Moberg found the sources of his epic power and greatness both in the mythical Varend and in the real Smaland. "The grandeur and constant changeability of nature, the tales he heard from older people, the arduous life and work of the inhabitants, the old customs, superstitions and sayings - he remembered these things clearly throughout his life, and they all provided nourishment for his own storytellers world" (Eidevall, 1996:4).

Moberg spent his earliest years in a small family-cabin. His father, a career soldier, earned a meager government salary and farmed a plot of forest land. Carl Gottfrid Moberg served in the Kalmar Regiment under the long-established militia system by which each parish recruited an infrantryman for the ranks and furnished him with a cottage and croft on which to support himself and his family. In return for the tied "smallholding," the militiamen attended maneuvers for a month each autumn. The militia system was phased out after 1901. (Holmes,1980: 16).

Moberg’s mother, Ida Charlotta, also came from a local farming family. In 1907, with the help of relatives in America, his parents were able to purchase his mother’s childhood home near the village of Moshultamala and move out of their little tenant soldier’s croft. Vilhelm Moberg was the fourth of seven children. Even though he spent his first nine years in a small, crowded home, later he would speak of the great freedom he had felt outside the door of that cottage (Eidevall: 1996, 4).

Childhood memories run through Moberg’s literary works, in a strong yearning for home, which often turns into an equally strong yearning for freedom (Ibid.). Moberg writes fondly of his childhood home, calling it the place ‘where I ran barefoot,’ and remembers the people who made lasting impressions on him. At the same time, he recalls the frustration of trying to satisfy his hunger for learning in an isolated community where the school year was short, the teaching poor, and books scare (Moberg,1988: xiv). Moberg’s biographer Magnus von Platen (1978) describes the area as one "which must have felt like a prison for a young, highly gifted person. But at the same time it was the kind of place that can become the object of great longing for someone who has escaped it, only to face the problems of a more troubled existence elsewhere."

It seemed as though Vilhelm Moberg was deprived of a childhood which lasted only a few years before he had to work to earn his keep. Nevertheless, he returns to the images of childhood repeatedly in his novels, especially the wonderful summers when he wandered barefoot along forest paths and fished in local streams and lakes. According to biographer, Philip Holmes (1980: 17), Moberg, in his later life, "felt a great sense of loyalty toward the people he had encountered in his childhood. They were his own people in a very special sense, and he always belonged in part to them, regarding it as his duty to record their vanishing culture for those future generations who were not fortunate enough to have shared his experiences ."

In many ways, Moberg’s childhood and youth are typical of the self-taught working-class writers of the 20th century, a brief and inadequate part-time education - four months a year for six years, coupled with his early work experience in agriculture and as an 11-year old in a glassworks, later as a harvester in a peat bog and as a lumberjack (Eidevall, 1996:5).

Moberg’s basic education was very restricted as the school year lasted for only four months, and apart from reading and writing the children were taught only biblical history and Luther’s catechism. Moberg’s parents were very devout and he read the Bible from cover to cover at the age of ten (Moberg,1968:12-13). Although he lost his Christian faith when still a young man, Moberg’s interest in the Bible as a literary work continued throughout his writing career. Its influences upon motifs and style in noticeable in many of his works and grew stronger over the years (Holmes, 1980:17).

Moberg’s burning desire to read books and to write was long unfulfilled because of a lack of intellectual stimulation (Eideval, 1996:5). He had learned to read before starting school, and eagerly devoured the serial stories in the Swedish-American newspapers that arrived at his home (Ibid., 6). His hunger for reading matter other than spiritual works became a major source of frustration and conflict. "It was especially painful as his parents and neighbors showed a total lack of comprehension for his craving for books, which was considered quite unnatural in a farmer’s son (Moberg. 1968:20-24). He had to go to extreme measures to satisfy his needs for books and other reading materials (Holmes, 1980:18).

Moberg’s early working experiences had a profound impact on his politics and philosophy of life. From the age of 9, Moberg helped his father on the farm and when he was eleven he joined other boys his own age at the nearby Modala glassworks, carrying in wood to fuel the furnaces (Ibid). "There is a marked schism between the two worlds in which he moved in his teens, between the old peasant community with its values of conservatism, self-reliance, and religious conformity, and the new world of his workplace with its modern ideas of atheism and radical politics" (von Platen,1978).

Moberg became involved in politics at an early age as a member of the newly formed Young Socialist Club at the glassworks and later in the Social Democratic Party’s youth club. He became politically conscious during a period of social unrest in Sweden. Organized labor demonstrated its newfound strength in a General Strike in 1909, and a long struggle was engaged for reform of the franchise. In 1913, Moberg joined the Algutsboda branch of the Young Socialists, but soon changed his allegiance to the Social Democrats.

However, Moberg’s socialist beliefs always remained distinctly individualistic (Holmes, 1980:18) In his later life he refused to join a political party - a writer has to be free and independent, he maintained. His early political involvement did provide him an avenue to satisfy his desire to read books through membership in these clubs and, later, when he joined the temperance movement (Eidevall, 1996:6).

For a time, Moberg found santuary in the local branch of the Temperance movement whose "temple" he joined because of its much-coveted library. The temple became his second home much like a school. He borrowed and read the books in the library and learned how to express himself in the temple by chairing meetings and writing minutes. He would never forget what the temple meant to him (Holmes, 1980: 18).

By 1916, Moberg had become acutely aware of the limitations that his surroundings placed upon his personal development and decided to take the well-established escape route for young Swedes and emigrate. He intended to settle in Minnesota where he had relatives but at the last minute, his parents persuaded him to remain in Sweden. (It would be another 33 years before he saw America). The war years had been good for Swedish farmers (Holmes, 1980: 19). Moberg’s parents could now afford to send him to study for six months at the Kronoberg County Folk High School in Grimslov, and later Katrineholm, both in southern Sweden (Eidevall, 1996:6).

Folk High Schools in Sweden were founded to provide free tuition for those with no secondary education and were operated by local authorities and a number of "idealistic" organizations. In his education, Moberg’s development followed a pattern common to many Swedish writers from peasant backgrounds (Holmes, 1980: 19). At the folk schools, he had access to the school library, intensive contact with fellow students and a chance to take part in amateur theatricals (Eidevall, 1996: 6).

When the course ended at Grimslov, Moberg worked as a lumberjack and saved enough money to return to school. He, then, attended Katrineholms Praktiska Skola, a crammer where he studied day and night but never reached the goal of "Realexamen"( i.e., Middle School Examination). Weakened by overwork and a poor diet, Moberg contracted Spanish influenza during the pandemic of 1918 and nearly died. It took him six months to recover. Now, at age twenty, he felt he was too old to be sitting at a school desk and set out to find a career in earnest (Holmes, 1980:19).

Writing was a past-time for Moberg during his teens, a way to spend his evenings after laboring on the farm, felling timber, or cutting peat. He contributed some stories and articles to various newspapers on topics of nature and folk customs and some fictional narratives. After his illness, in May 1919, Moberg took a position on the newspaper Vadstena Lans Tidning in Ostergotland which published more than 60 of his stories (Holmes, 1980:20). Between 1919 and 1929, Moberg worked almost continuously as a journalist and editor at newspapers in the provinces of Ostergotland, Varmland and Smaland (Eidevall, 1996:6).

Moberg’s years as a newspaperman coincided with his apprenticeship as a writer. During this time he wrote more than 200 short stories that were published in newspapers and magazines throughout Sweden. In 1926, Moberg made his breakthrough as a playwright when his comedy Kassabrist (Deficit) had a successful run in Stockholm and published his first novel Raskens: The Story of a Soldier’s Family the following year (Eidevall, 1996:7).

According to Philip Holmes (1980: 22), Raskens was a mature work, far superior to those that had preceded it. "It was a generational novel which traced a soldier’s life with his family on a small croft in Smaland uring the last decades of the 19th century. Moberg provided a carefully researched and detailed reconstruction of a rural way of life that had continued unchanged for hundreds of years and which by the 1920''s was unfamiliar to most Swedes . . . this was the breakthrough Moberg had been hoping for. With this novel, a major strand of Moberg’s authorship was established which remained unbroken throughout his career - the authoritative chronicling of rural life."

The Emigrant Novels

The contrast between the old and the new remained a common theme in Moberg’s writings. From his youth, Moberg supported collectivism and socialism. As his thinking evolved, he strove to assert his independence. As a novelist he was intrigued with old Swedish folk culture, yet he dreamed of emigrating to America to make a name for himself and gain financial success in the new world.

Moberg grew up in a country in transition. Half a century before his birth in 1898, Sweden was an agrarian society with a rigid class structure. While the landless poor comprised the majority of the population, the upper classes controlled the government and most of the nation’s wealth, Moberg was limited by laws requiring passports for domestic travel and deposits of money prior to journeys abroad. Religious freedom was restricted by ordinances forbidding devotional services outside the auspices of the State Church (Moberg, 1980:viii).

By the end of the 19th century, Sweden was well on its way to becoming a modern industrial nation with extensive urban settlement, a vigorous labor movement, and virtual freedom of religion. Far out in the countryside, however, there were places where the old rural ways survived. One such areas was Kronoberg county in southern Sweden where Moberg spent his childhood. The general region was known as "darkest Smaland" because of the people’s religious conservatism and reluctance to accept other religious views. The horse was still the main form of transportation with one railroad station in the vicinity of Moberg’s home. Commodities were produced locally and, often, paid for by barter (Ibid., 7).

In the spring of 1927, Moberg stopped working as a journalist to become an independent writer. In 1929, he and his family left Smaland and moved to Stockholm where he spent the remainder of his life (Eidevall:1996,7). Once settled in Stockholm, he also became involved in debates about the social problems of the time. By principle a champion of the common folk and by temperament, ill at ease in subordinate roles, Moberg attacked the Social Democrats for their perpetuation of bureaucracy and their support of the State Church (Moberg:1988, xv).

When World War II broke out, Moberg criticized the Swedish government’s failure to take a firm stand against Nazism. His best selling novel Rid i Natt (Ride this Night) published in 1941 was set in the seventeenth century but could be read as a commentary on the tyranny of Hitter’s Germany (Ibid.).

In 1947, Moberg began a major novel project that would take 12 years of his life to complete. The result were four novels about Swedish emigration to North America, totaling 2000 pages. Moberg’s emigrant series gathers threads from all of his previous writings. According to Gunnar Eidevall (1966:20), "It was an epic about the need for freedom and individualism, about skepticism and faith, about anxiety and security, about escape and love of home, about revolt and opression, about loneliness and sense of community, about love, death and the meaning of life."

Moberg was interested in showing what life in the new world had been for those Swedes who left their homeland in the mid-19th century. The emigrant novels are based on solid documentary evidence, however, much to Moberg’s surprise, he found little information in the works of Swedish history and literature. He wrote of this discovery, "When in 1947 I began my novel about the first emigrants to North America, it became clear to me what I would do: I would write about people from Sweden whom the Swedish historians had forgotten" (Moberg:1988,29).

Moberg began his research by gathering materials from letters written home by emigrants, from church registers in the areas hardest hit by emigration (e.g., Smaland), and from the few published sources (Ibid). Among the sources Moberg consulted were contemporary diaries, brochures, church records, newspaper articles and numerous "America" letters. Moberg spent four years in the United States, mainly in Minnesota and California where his relatives had settled, researching Swedish American settlements. His experience and observations were instrumental in shaping the four novels and the development of their characters (Eidevall:1996, 21).

Moberg visualized a novel depicting people leaving Sweden during the period of mass emigration that followed the famine of 1868. However, he chose to set the emigrant novels in the 1850''s when only 15,000 Swedes had emigrated to America, in contrast to the nearly 200,000 during the 1860''s and 1870''s (Ibid). As Moberg had said, he was documenting and preserving the memory of the common people who had been forgotten in their homelands. He also wrote the novels as a memorial to his relatives who had left Smaland for the United States. Moberg wrote later, "I know that I have a genuine streak of stubbornness, a quality to be taken for better or worse. And I made up my mind that I was going to cross the Atlantic Ocean in search of my unknown relations. For I could not get their destiny out of my mind. The older I became, the more it interested me" (Moberg:1988, xvii).

References

Eidevall, Gunnar. Vilhelm Moberg. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet, 1996.

Holmes, Philip. Vilhelm Moberg. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Moberg, Vilhelm Berattelser ur min levnad (Tales from My Life) Stockholm: Bonniers, 1968.

Moberg, Vilhelm. The Emigrants (Translated by Gustaf Lannestock). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

Moberg, Vilhelm. A History of the Swedish People - From Renaissance to Revolution. (Translated by Paul Britten Austin). New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

Moberg, Vilhelm. The Last Letter Home (Translated by Gustaf Lannestock). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

Moberg, Vilhelm. The Settlers (Translated by Gustaf Lannestock). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

Moberg, Vilhelm. The Unknown Swedes: A Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present. (Translated & edited by Rogert McKnight). Cardondale, IL: So. Illinois University Press, 1988.

Moberg, Vilhelm. Unto a Good Land (Translated by Gustaf Lannestock). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

von Platen, Magnus. Den unge Vilhelm Moberg. En levnadsteckning (The Young Vilhelm Moberg). Stockholm: Bonniers ,1978