Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vilhelm Moberg, 1898-1973

Recently, on a road trip through Minnesota, I passed through Chisago City, a small town of Swedish heritage about an hour north of the Twin Cities. My favorite historic sites and monuments are often those that are simply unexpected. I love stumbling across a little gem when my mind is elsewhere and Chisago City provided me with a thought-provoking example.

In the center of town there is a disused railway depot surrounded by the old storefronts of the 1800s, now somewhat restored and housing a few nostalgia shops and candy stores. In the center of the square is a monument to Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg. The statue at the top of the monument depicts Moberg himself, hands shoved in his trouser pockets, gazing intently off into the distance. Next to him stands a larger-than-life bicycle.

The plaque on the monument reads:
Vilhelm Moberg
Algutsboda, Sweden
Writer - Playwright - Journalist - Social Critic
Vilhelm Moberg was one of the foremost Swedish authors of the 20th century. His most famous characters, Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, were representative of the over 1.2 million Swedish emigrants that landed on our shores between 1846 and 1930. During the summer of 1948 he stayed in Chisago City and explored this area by bicycle. That research helped shape his most famous work -- the epic tetralogy "The Emigrants," "Unto a Good Land," "The Settlers," and "The Last Letter Home." In Sweden, thanks to Moberg's literary works, this land of Kichi-Saga--the Chisago Lakes Area--is probably the best-known area of the United States.
September 7, 1996

Regardless of whether or not "this land of Kichi-Saga" is indeed the "best-known area of the United States" in Sweden (New York isn't really on their radar, then?), the existence of such a monument beautifully sums up the lure of celebrity tourism and the desire people feel to attach themselves to a larger historical trajectory. Now, I did not grow up in a small town, but I have lived most of my life in a medium-sized city that sometimes has a tough time laying its claim to historical fame. Sure, a few eccentric musicians were born here, but they have now mostly eschewed their association with the town. We housed some noteworthy gangsters in our Victorian houses in the 1930s, but Chicago beats us with Al Capone. Railroad tycoons and famous authors once strolled under our elm trees (now long dead) on their way to the river, but we can't claim to be the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. (Although, perhaps this is a good thing--have you ever been to Hannibal, Missouri? The Twain kitschyness is suffocating.) So, long story short, I understand the need to feel a part of a larger story, to connect oneself with world-known romances or nationally recognized Civil War battles.

The Vilhelm Moberg monument in Chisago City is a physical expression of the human need to feel a part of something larger. I suppose this is often translated in a religious sense as being subject to Fate or God's Will, but I think historical identity is equally important. The residents of Chisago City--or, at the very least, those residents who erected the monument--want to feel like their town has played a deciding role in world history. Their "claim to fame" rests on the shoulders of the famous Swedish writer (whom I had never heard of) and his biking travels through rural Minnesota. I haven't quite decided what it means for people to need a "claim to fame," but I think it has something to do with a need to feel worth, to feel like one's life does not exist in a vacuum, that we are all connected--across time--and our paths cross in significant ways. Gazing up at Moberg's spectacled features, I wondered what he would think of the Chisago City monument and if he desired a connection to this place as much as it desired a connection to him.

As I drove out of town, I passed a farmhouse with an enormous sign in the front yard: "Vilhelm Moberg Slept Here." Then again, perhaps the city's need to associate itself with Vilhelm Moberg is just a need to attract tourist dollars from his most rabid fans. Any of you out there visited Chisago City?


  1. Hello - my name is Egon, I live in Denmark.

    My comment to your post will hopefully enlighten a few things.

    By coincidence, we both recently run into Chisago, you for real, I virtually only. How I came to lookup Chisago is a long and winded story, which you can read in my blog here


    Several phrases in your article immediately woke me up "lure of celebrity tourism", "claim to
    fame", "a deciding role in world history".

    I have to say, that I hold different opinions about the reasons for people of Chisago to erect the monument for Moberg.

    Let me begin with "I wondered what he would think of the Chisago City monument and if he desired a connection to this place as much as it desired a connection to him".

    Just 3 years after WW2, he travelled to Minnesota (not quite a risk free thing to by then from the war ravaged Europe), with this one purpose: To seek information about, what had become of the descendants of one quarter of the whole Swedish population, who emigrated to America because of famine, poverty and no way to make a living any longer, during the period 1850 - 1890. A big part of them emigrated to Minnesota. A neighbouring town by the name of Lindstrom, nowadays is called "Americas Little Sweden".

    After serious research, he went home and spent 11 years of his life to write, what should become a world famous masterpiece, the so called Emigrant Series.

    Then many years later in 1995 this musical "Kristina from Duvemala", written by one half of one of the worlds most famous pop-groups, ABBA, came along. It was based on Mobergs novels. In a beautiful and very moving way it told us about the suffering and endurance of these emigrants. In a Swedish TV-documentary from the following performance in 1996 at the Chisago Lakes High School, a Mr. David Monson (Monson Insurance, Rosewill, St. Paul, Minnesota), his great grandfather was an Swedish immigrant, was interviewed, and he said:

    "I am pleased that my grandfather, Svend Hessler, immigrated from Smaaland (A county in Sweden) in about the later 1850'ties".

    "It was a terrible struggle to clear land, to brake land, trying to get some cattle, trying to get a team of horses, trying to get some machinery, trying to build buildings, trying to raise and feed children and trying to get some education for the children".

    "I think they brought with them an awful lot of homespun wisdom from Smaaland. I mean it just did not happen because they were in Minnesota and had to do it. They brought with them good minds, good bodies and good spirit of sole. I think it was what helped make it go".

    Two more descendants were interviewed, and I believe that the people of Chisago take pride in
    their heritage. And here we have something, you and I agree upon: Peoples need to cherish
    something or someone, who is greater than themselves. And these early settlers came to a place with nothing, except good soil. They made this part of America, and their descendants are proud of them, respect them and honours them.

    Mobergs novels has given a lot to these people and others. They still inspires artists and
    playwrights to make things telling the tales. Chisago Heritage Assoication has this to say:

    "Vilhelm Moberg is probably the best-known Swedish author (he has been published in over 20
    languages). He wrote of the early lives of the Swedish settlers and their journey to the land of Ki-chi-saga – Chisago Lakes . Moberg is more popular today than probably ever before. He speaks to people as few can of hardships, love, politics, royalty, and society. His masterwork was “The Emigrant Tetralogy,” published between 1949 and 1959, and he did the research for these novels in 1948 while staying in Chisago City".

    I believe, that Moberg, if he was still here, would very much cherish Chisago, Stillwater and
    Taylors Falls.

    I humbly suggest reading Mobergs Tetralogy.

    Greetings from the cold Scandinavia

  2. Thank for your thoughtful reply. I appreciate the time you took to give me some background on Moberg. At your suggestion, I will try to find his trilogy at the library and read it over the holidays.
    Thank you!