A Pilgrim Visits Eau Claire
One April afternoon in 1989 or 90, a tall, distinguished man
came to my office in the English Department at the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He had come to the campus seeking
someone who might be able to tell him where he could find the
home of Waldemar Ager. A faculty member who knew of my interest
in Wisconsin writers had sent him to me. That was my
introduction to Øyvind Gulliksen, and also the beginning of my
own serious interest in Waldemar Ager's work and his home here
in Eau Claire.
I had known about Ager, of course. I had used
Sons of the Old Country
in my Wisconsin Writers classes, but beyond
Trygve Ager's widow, I had never talked with anyone else about
the book outside of class, so I knew very little about his life
or his achievements.
I also knew where to find the Ager house. I had been there many
times, but I had not gone to the house on a literary pilgrimage as
Øyvind had. I had gone to buy used dishes and kitchen
appliances. I had gone to Waldemar Ager's house because it was
then "The Red Carpet," a "thrift" shop operated by the Luther
Seeing with Øyvind's Eyes
Shortly after Øyvind's visit, I made a fresh visit to the house,
and saw it through his eyes. I saw the home of Eau Claire's most
prolific and influential writer cluttered with used clothes and
miscellaneous household goods, but I saw no marker of any kind
to reveal the unique history of the place. None of the women
working in the "Red Carpet" on the day of my visit knew anything
about Waldemar Ager. The house, and Ager himself, seemed
forgotten. At that moment, I realized that, as a student and
teacher of Wisconsin literature, I would have to do what I could
to bring Ager's work and his home into more clear and prominent
light for the people of Eau Claire and beyond.
I began by reading. Professor Gulliksen provided me a copy of
Cultural Pluralism versus Assimilation, The Views of Waldemar
Ager, and I began to see the connections between Ager's work and
other American writers of the period. I read Haugen's Immigrant
Idealist, and I began to see the scope of Ager's work, not only
as a fiction writer, but as a social reformer and civic activist
in Eau Claire and beyond. I read
Christ Before Pilate and
I Sit Alone,
and I began to see the power of his fiction, and
since I do not read Norwegian, I began to wish there were more
works available in English translations.
Though I became more aware of Ager's importance, neither I nor
anyone else did much toward preserving the Ager house. Øyvind
Gulliksen wrote to me to encourage action. He also alerted Odd
Lovoll and Einar Haugen, two scholars who had written about
Ager's work, and they, too, wrote to me about the future of the
house. Through these contacts and by teaching Sons of the Old Country,
I became better acquainted with Ager's significance.
But I had other projects underway, and the administration of
Luther Hospital who owned the house had promised that it was
New Incentives, New Initiatives
In the summer of 1993, however, I learned that the hospital had
decided to tear down the house to provide more parking spaces
for a major addition to the hospital. It finally nudged me to
take some action. Through the years I had met other people in
the Eau Claire area who knew Ager's work and were interested in
preserving and promoting his contributions. We decided to
We sent out a press release and direct mail invitations to a
list of people who we knew were interested:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE OCTOBER 13, 1993
FUTURE OF WALDEMAR AGER HOUSE UNCERTAIN: ASSOCIATION FORMS
A recent decision by Luther Hospital to close the Red Carpet
Thrift Shop will soon leave the historic Waldemar Ager house
vacant and its future uncertain.
A nonprofit "Waldemar Ager Association" is now being formed to work with the
Hospital and others to see that Ager's house continues to be
preserved, and to help insure that the people of Eau Claire and
Midwest become aware of Ager's accomplishments.
The organizational meeting of the Association will be Wednesday,
October 20, in the Eau Claire Room of the L. E. Phillips Public
Library at 7:30. Everyone interested in the life and works of
Waldemar Ager is invited to come.
The purpose of the Association will be:
- to preserve and promote the literary contributions of Waldemar Ager.
- to identify and appropriately preserve and display manuscripts,
documents, and other artifacts connected with Waldemar Ager's
life and work.
- to preserve the Waldemar Ager House in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,
and to find appropriate functions for the building.
- to encourage and support scholarly activity on the life and work
of Waldemar Ager.
The local newspaper published the release, and thirty-three
people came to the organizational meeting, including several
members of the Ager family still living in the Eau Claire area.
A great-granddaughter of Waldemar became the new organization's
Secretary. She had not known anything about his literary work
until she took the Wisconsin Writers class and did her research
I Sit Alone, her great-grandfather's last novel.
The Ager Name Again in View
Since that first meeting almost ten years ago, a great deal has
happened to "reconstruct" Waldemar Ager. Our initial attention
and our efforts focused primarily on saving the house. Luther
Hospital merged with Mayo Clinic of Rochester, Minnesota, and a
new "hospital campus" plan was prepared. The Waldemar Ager house
was in the way. Both the local newspaper and the television
station carried feature stories --"David vs. Goliath" -- about
how our new little organization was standing up to the giant
medical corporation. They ran large photos of the house, and
thousands of Eau Claire Citizens learned about Waldemar Ager for
the first time. The local Historic Preservation Association
became interested in the house and began to consider having it
designated as a historic landmark. The hospital administration
lifted the house off its foundation and offered to give the
house to an appropriate organization if they would move it. This
happened in early January, two months after our first meeting,
and we had as of yet no where to take the house. The newspapers
and the television stations ran another series of articles. The
television footage especially brought us support. The local
evening news showed the President of the Ager Association
standing in front of the forlorn house, torn up from its
foundations. Raw wind and flurries of snow swept through the
scene as he gestured toward the house and declared what a shame
it was for the community and for the hospital to have the house
uprooted to make space for cars.
The hospital received many phone calls, and they began to see
the public relations dangers and potential benefits in the Ager
House. They eventually were quite generous. They offered to
build a new foundation for the house, to move it to the site,
and to reconnect utilities. The City of Eau Claire provided the
Ager Association a free lot just three blocks away from the
original site, and the house was moved in June of 1994. Once
again, the press covered the City Council meeting during which
the Council voted to give the Association a city lot. The house
was moved very early Saturday morning, and the Sunday morning
newspaper carried a dramatic half-page photo of the house moving
North on Whipple Street on the front of the "Community Events"
section. By that time, fewer people continued to ask "Who?" when
Waldemar Ager's name was mentioned.
Although the house was moved, it remained in the neighborhood
where it had always stood-- the "Norwegian" center of the city.
All of the contexts for Ager's life in Eau Claire remain-- Half
Moon Lake, the Hospital, the Lutheran churches favored by
Norwegians. All of these points are recognizable to readers of
Waldemar Ager as "American Writer"
Though the Waldemar Ager Association is very pleased to have the
Ager house, we realize that the house would be just another
house if it had not been the home and working station for an
important historical and literary figure. Having the house as a
focal point helps us to bring other parts of the Ager story to
the community. We want to "reconstruct' Ager, not just as an
important Norwegian-American, but as a writer of excellent
fiction, as the editor of an influential newspaper for forty
years, as a civic leader, and as a popular speaker through the
world. We want to draw out all of the "contexts" for Waldemar
Ager's remarkable presence in the first four decades of the
Waldemar Ager's identity as a "hyphenated" American has worked
toward his "reconstruction" in at least two ways. First, Ager
and his work are important to those Americans who share his
Norwegian heritage. Then, too, the assumptions about what
constitutes "American Literature" have undergone dramatic
changes in the last twenty years. These two reasons are related,
though in somewhat ironic ways.
The last twenty years of American culture are frequently
referred to as "Postmodern," a loose term which means many
different things. A key notion, however, is the sense of
anonymity-- rootlessness, lack of connection, emptiness of the
spirit. A corollary movement in literary studies is the changing
of the literary canon away from what are sometimes called the
"old, dead, white guys"-- an Anglo-oriented, Harvard and Yale
educated, hegemony of writers, publishers, and scholars--, and
movement toward formerly forgotten writers-- women, writers of
color, regional writers, writers who wrote in atypical genre,
and writers who did not write in English. Such a shifting in the
canon-- the works published and studied in schools-- clearly
favors a writer like Waldemar Ager. Ironically, however, Ager--
at least in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin-- is usually
classified with the other "old, dead, white guys."
Ager struggled passionately against the Anglo-American pressures
toward assimilation, but he clearly lost. In 2003,
Norwegian-Americans are not a struggling ethnic minority; they
are part of the dominant culture in a city like Eau Claire. An
Ager novel does not qualify as an "ethnic" novel any longer.
"Ethnic" in Wisconsin now means Hmong, Native American,
Hispanic, or African American. English departments in the United
States are broadening their notions of "American Literature"
more each year. Ironically, for those of us who are interested
in Waldemar Ager, it is too late. He no longer qualifies as
That's not all bad, of course. Those many Americans who identify
themselves as "Norwegian-Americans," are drawn to Ager's work
and life precisely because knowing about him strengthens their
sense of connection. It helps them maintain a clear identity in
a "post-modern" world. Most of the support for the Ager
Association projects comes from people who enjoy a visceral,
perhaps even spiritual, resonance from a reminder that they are
rooted in things Norwegian. In most cases, the Ager supporters
themselves grieve that their parents encouraged assimilation,
that they had not been taught Norwegian as children. Among such
supporters are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Ager
himself. Several members of the family have been extremely
valuable members of the Association, including Ager's oldest
son, Eyvind Ager, who worked closely with his father at
Reform office until it closed in 1941.
There is a second advantage for Ager scholars to have the
"ethnic" label lifted from his work. It enables us to place him
the larger context of American writers. We have the opportunity
to read his work and compare it to other very successful writers
of the period-- Sinclair Lewis, Hamlin Garland, Zona Gale, Edna
Ferber, Sherwood Anderson. These are writers who were part of
the literary canon of the period. Like Ager, they wrote about
small-town life in the upper Midwest. Like Ager, they frequently
used satire to lambaste pettiness, smugness, small-mindedness,
and lack of generosity. But they wrote in English, and that is
the most important difference between these writers and Ager.
Studied now in comparison with them, even in translation, Ager
holds up very well. He is often as good; often better.
I would like to see Ager's work examined more closely, not in
relationship to other "Norwegian-American" writers, but in
comparison to other American writers of the period who were
considered successful. I find it puzzling that Einar Haugen,
Harry Cleven, Odd Lovoll, and even Øyvind Gulliksen seem to feel
it necessary to apologize for didacticism and other "flaws" in
Ager's fiction. Sinclair Lewis is often very didactic. Sherwood
Anderson frequently preaches against excess. In subject matter,
style, theme, and narrative approaches, Ager is much better
matched with and compared to Anderson and Lewis than to Rølvaag,
for example. Rølvaag writes heroic drama, steeped in archetype
and myth. Ager writes psychological studies and social satire,
full of clever dialogue and subtle irony. Ager and Rølvaag are
easy to contrast, but difficult to compare. They were much
closer as friends than they were as writers. Much more work
needs to be done to "reconstruct" Ager as an American novelist
as well as a Norwegian-American novelist.
One extremely important step toward the "reconstruction" of
Waldemar Ager into his appropriate place among other American
writers was the publication of the new Harold Cleven translation
the Way to the Melting Pot. A major grant from NAHA
contributed significantly to the success of that project.
Hundreds of people who had not even heard of Waldemar Ager five
years ago are now reading his fiction.
The Ager House: A Center for the Study of Immigrant Culture
While planning for the construction of a new sign at the front
of the Ager house, the Association gave the building a name: "The
Ager House." as a sub-name, we call the house "A Center for
the Study of Immigrant Culture." We recognize that Ager's work
examines concerns important not only to Norwegians but to every
group of recent immigrant groups who confront difficult choices
between preservation of "Old Country" ways on one hand, and
social and economic ascendancy on the other. Among our efforts
to "reconstruct" Ager's work in this larger context, we
participated in a "Sesquicentennial" celebration of Wisconsin's
beginnings as a state. As our part of the project, we prepared a
display in the house to exhibit the important role of
non-English newspapers. While the most prominent part of the
display will focuses on Ager's newspaper,
The Reform, we will used German-language newspapers,
Polish-language newspapers, and Finnish-language newspapers. We
use Ager's writings in The Reform to set four themes: 1) Issues of assimilation, 2)
Non-English newspapers during war-time, 3) Recent immigrants and
public assistance, and 4) Recent immigrants and the arts.
Around these displays we scheduled programs, lectures and
discussions. Three times the Ager house was featured on the
house-tour of the Eau Claire Historic Preservation Association.
One-hundred and twenty people visited the house each time. We
have also sponsored a number of meeting in the house on Ager's
life and work, on local genealogy, and other topics of historic
or literary interest. The Sons of Norway have met there.
Nordmanns-Forbundet met there. The house still needs work, but
it has already become a favorite meeting place.
Continuing to "Reconstruct"
Restoration of the house has progressed dramatically. Following
the leadership of Tom Tompkins, Rod Johnson, Bob Osterhus, and
Irv Dehnke the Association has "reconstructed" the interior and
the exterior and landscaping. Generous donations and memorial
gifts have funded the project. Many able people are working hard
to sustain the original purposes of the
Ager Association. If you would like to
the Ager Association, please send $20 US to: The Waldemar
Ager Association, Post Office Box 1742, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
54702-1742, or call Tom Tompkins, the current organization
president You will receive our monthly newsletter so that you
will have a regular record of the organizations activities. You
may, of course, contribute larger amounts to help in the
"reconstruction" and to support the Association's projects.
I will be delighted to show you the house--both as it is now,
and our plans for how we hope it to be very soon. Never again
will I feel the shame of having neglected the house or the work
of Waldemar Ager as I felt on the day that Øyvind Gulliksen made
his pilgrimage to Eau Claire and found the house used as place
for used rummage. Waldemar Ager is certainly in the process of
"reconstruction." The Ager House has been included on the
National Register of Historic Places, and also recognized as a
Literary Landmark by the National Association of Friends of
We are proud of the house. Our building crew finished up work on
a ramp to make the building wheel-chair accessible. The basement
level is available for meetings, and the front entry have been
completely refurbished. We now have a new roof and it is paid in
full, and we can begin reconditioning the second story spaces.
The house is busy throughout the year with many visitors and
festivities. In August this year we were pleased to welcome to
the Ager House members of the Sognefjordlag Stemne, and in
September, the members of the Romerikslaget Stevne. These
visitors, some from as far away as Norway, told us how much they
admire and appreciate the work of the Ager Association. Word
about the Ager Association is reaching California in the West
and Maine in the East. The Pie and Ice Cream Social in August
and Advent at the Ager House in December have become pleasant
traditions. The weather again gave us a chance to eat our pie
and drink our lemonade outside. And again, our Advent
celebration featured singing, good food, gifted artisans, and
fun for folks of all ages.
The Ager Association works because of the interest,
participation, and financial support of its members. We invite
you to join with us as we continue offering exciting programs
for our community. This coming year we will begin work on the
upper level of the house-- a library space for our growing
collection of valuable books and other materials, and office
space for organizational and research projects.
We have been blessed by grants from the Charlotte and Walter
Kohler Charitable Trust and from the children of Genevieve
Hagen, but the heart of our organization continues to be
memberships. We invite you to join with us. Visit our web site
at www.agerhouse.org, or call Ager Association president Tom