Vilhelm Moberg, foremost chronicler of the Swedish emigration to America

Vilhelm_Moberg_1967 wikimedia commons photo

Arkiv 1967 – Vilhelm Moberg, porträtt, 1967. Foto: Okänd Fotograf Code: 190 COPYRIGHT SCANPIX SWEDEN (from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Saturday! For today’s post I thought I would feature a Swedish author and journalist whose novels and memoirs both inspired my novel and assisted with the research required to write it.

That novelist is Vilhelm Moberg, one of the leading writers in twentieth century Sweden and well known throughout the Swedish-American community. Those outside of Sweden who know of his work have likely heard of his Emigrants saga, which follows a family of Småland farmers as they emigrate from Sweden to Minnesota in the mid-1800s. The series follows the family through their long, perilous journey until their settlement in a small Minnesota town. Moberg himself had lost several family members to American emigration, that ‘great divider of families’ as he calls it in his novels.

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In his autobiographical novel, When I Was a Child, Moberg talks about how America existed in every Swedish household, through the photographs relatives would send back—they were always dressed in much nicer clothes than anyone had in Sweden—and which became their most valued possessions, to be shown off when company came. He writes: ‘In the letters from America relatives asked “how was it in poor, old Sweden?” Children thought that America was rich and Sweden poor’ (Chapter 1). Moberg himself counted more relatives in America than in Sweden.

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It was during his research for the series that Moberg himself moved to America—spending time in both Minnesota and California.  However, he never fully settled there and moved back to Sweden seven years later. While he appreciated aspects of America, especially getting to meet his countrymen and seeing how their lives had played out on foreign soil, many elements of the culture failed to agree with him (particularly the conservativism and religiosity of some of the settlers in Minnesota)[1]. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that his formative experiences contributed greatly to his writing. His biggest success as a writer was in his empathetic portrayal of the underclasses of Swedish society– ordinarily ignored by literature. His stories were written from the perspective of poor crofters, ordinary soldiers, factory workers and farmhands. In Sweden, at the time Moberg was writing, this was a ground-breaking achievement. As, perhaps, it still is today when the stories of the middle-class, white, male, straight and able-bodied are still more likely to be read than those written by or about minorities, women, the disabled and the poor.

It was this idea of immortalising the lives of common folk which led to my writing The Forest King’s Daughter as I felt that there were plenty of historical fiction stories out there about royalty and famous personages but few about the poor, and even fewer about poor women, especially poor women who dared to disagree with the establishment at a time when women’s place was in the home. If it weren’t for all the research Moberg put into his work, my novel may never have been written, as I drew on his sources and the details he provided both in his fiction and in his history series. So, thank you Vilhelm Moberg! 🙂

Which writers have influenced your work? Are there any writers you’ve read for research whose work you’ve later come to appreciate in a greater context? I’d love to hear, so please leave a comment in the box below.

[1] Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

Books by Vilhelm Moberg published in English (from Wikipedia):

The Emigrants (1949), ISBN 0-87351-319-3.

Unto a Good Land (1952), ISBN 0-87351-320-7.

The Settlers (1956), ISBN 0-87351-321-5.

The Last Letter Home (1959), ISBN 0-87351-322-3.

Memory of Youth

Ride This Night

A Time on Earth, ISBN 1-56849-314-2.

When I Was a Child, ISBN 0-8488-0302-7.

Nonfiction

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 1: From Prehistory to the Renaissance, ISBN 0-8166-4656-2.

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 2: From Renaissance to Revolution, ISBN 0-8166-4657-0. Both volumes translated by Paul Britten Austin.

The Unknown Swedes: A Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present, ISBN 0-8093-1486-X.

Sources drawn on for this post:

Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

When I Was a Child, by Vilhelm Moberg

http://www.kulturparkensmaland.se/1.0.1.0/752/2/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilhelm_Moberg#Works_in_English_translation

http://www.vilhelmmoberg.com/english.html

 

 

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