Saving Ager's House and Legacy

by Tim Hirsch, Association Founder, for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (2002)
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 Hospital Auxiliary.

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 safe.

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 organize.

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 paper on 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 his fiction.

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 twentieth century.

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 ethnic.

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 The 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 in 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 of On 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 join 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 Public Libraries.

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 Tompkins.