Hadeland Lag Logo

 Home   Member Center   Calendar   Officers

 Lag History   Kontaktforum   Resources

  About Hadeland   Links   Inquiry Board

Club Room   Site Index   Search   Shop   Archive

 

Ola og Per

from the "The Promise of America" Website

From the mind of a Hadelending....

 

The humor of Ola and Per was the product of a Hadelending mind!  Peter Rosendahl of Spring Grove, Minnesota drew the comic strip that appeared in the Decorah Posten.

 

Ola and Per

There are two older fellows,
Whom I hold very dear;
The name of one is Ola,
And the other one is Per.
But whether they are real,
I certainly can't say,
I see them just as fantasy,
A dream by night or day.

The roles they play
In our Western Home out here
Are meant to ease and lighten
The burden that you bear.
For most of us can see
That when everything goes wrong,
A little fun and foolishness
Make it easier to get along.

There are some folks among us
Who think that it is bad
For us to laugh and joke,
Instead of looking sad;
But let them live their own way
In sad and solemn tune,
And then let them crawl back
Into their, own cocoon.

But we are glad to know
That living here and there
Are little boys or girls
Just waiting for our Per,
And for our Ola, too,
Without a cap, but snug,
Plus poor old Doctor Lars
With his musty, ancient jug.

Original printed in Decorah-Posten, January 8, 1926, p. 5)

Peter Julius Rosendahl (tr. E. Haugen

 

In the Upper Midwest humor lives among the descendants of Norwegian-American immigrants mainly in the tall tales spun by the coffee gang gathered in the small-town corner cafes, in the numbskull riddles and jokes passed on by the teenagers, and in the comic strip Han Ola og han Per. Drawn by Peter Julius Rosendahl from 1918 to 1935 for the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian language newspaper, the comic strip was reprinted almost continually until the paper ceased publication in 1972. [1] This comic strip created by a Spring Grove, Minnesota, farmer was one of the Decorah-Posten's most popular features. [2] Han Ola og han Per was also unique in the three major Norwegian-American newspapers which led a flourishing immigrant press from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. [3] By 1918 when the comic strip first appeared, the Norwegian-American immigrants constituted an ethnic group, numbering nearly two million, with established traditions and culture predominantly rural. An important recorder of the culture, the newspaper used the comic strip to build and maintain circulation among the Norwegian immigrants. During the 1920's the Decorah-Posten reached its top circulation of about 45,000 subscribers, most of whom were midwestern Norwegian-American immigrants and their descendants, but by 1950 the subscribers dropped to about 35,000. [4]

That the Spring Grove, Minnesota, farmer-artist was familiar with the Norwegian-American immigrant culture is evident from his biography as well as from the language and contents of the comic strip. Rosendahl's parents were Paul and Gunhild Rosendahl, early Minnesota pioneers who homesteaded during the early 1850's on a farm southwest of Spring Grove, Minnesota, the oldest settlement of Norwegians in Minnesota. The father, Paul, who emigrated from Hadeland, Norway, distinguished himself by his Civil War service, by being a Register of Deeds for Houston County, and later by being elected to the Minnesota State Legislature. Similarly, Peter Julius engaged in a variety of occupations besides that of cartoonist. Born in 1878, he lived his entire life in his home community, where he attended the public grade school. This rural community in southeastern Minnesota, almost on the Iowa border, was the scene he portrayed in his comic strip. His only formal training in art was a correspondence course from the Federal School of Applied Cartooning at Minneapolis during the years 1919-1920. Not only a farmer and a cartoonist, he wrote poetry and song texts, painted portraits, and made sketches and drawings. He drew many single cartoon-like pictures of personalities, inventions, and objects in addition to his weekly comic strip. A quiet, modest man, he married a second-generation Halling, Otelia Melbraaten, and they were the parents of four children. Rosendahl was not widely traveled, but he revealed his vivid imagination in the ludicrous situations in which he placed his protagonists and in the wild adventures which they survived. During the summer and fall when he was busy with farming, Rosendahl often had his comic strip characters bid the readers "good-bye" until fall. Frequently the readers then wrote letters to the editor to request that Han Ola og han Per return. After 1935 Rosendahl could not be persuaded to continue the comic strip. In 1942 he took his own life. [5]

Today Han Ola og han Per is significant because it illustrates the traditional primary values of humor: as entertainment, for anyone able to read "Spring Grove Norwegian", which is discussed in Einar Haugen's essay on the language; as literary and graphic artistry; and as history, with predominant folklore elements, which reflects mainly an immigrant society's pains and difficulties of adapting to mainstream America with its rapidly changing customs and attitudes. The artist described the roles played by Ola and Per in helping to lighten the burden in their "Western Home." He claimed:

When everything goes wrong,
A little fun and foolishness
Make it easier to get along.
[6]

He explained that people who thought it ridiculous to smile should be permitted to live in their own serious way, but he preferred to know those who eagerly awaited the weekly appearance of Per, Ola, and Dr. Lars with his old musty jug.

Rosendahl's comic characters made their first appearance on Tuesday, February 19, 1918, in the Decorah-Posten, and during that year five more comic strips appeared. These were representative in introducing the main farmer protagonists, Ola and Per, who had endless problems in coping with mainstream American life, and in exploring Norwegian-American vernacular. The first strip, ten scenes with captions along the bottom in addition to the dialogue given in the balloons, describes Ola's ride in his new car and the ineptness of his friend, Per, in helping him tame his "cyclone-pet," or in "Spring Grove Norwegian," "Karsen" [the car]. This strip sets the predominant plot pattern of the characters making an attempt to improve their lives, only to have their efforts end in disaster. The slapstick of the old Keystone comedy formula of pies in the face, punches on the nose, and falls in the mud characterized the series from the beginning.

The second strip, printed in seven vertical scenes on April 16, 1918, depicts the good neighbors' attempt to capture a skunk by following the instructions given in an English book which they had to interpret in Norwegian. Of course, something went wrong, and Ola hit Per instead of the skunk. This second strip also reveals that the series was used to solicit readers for the Decorah-Posten, for where else had the characters read that that newspaper offered five dollars for one skunk skin? Ola and Per decide to complain to the newspaper about the kind of fool who prints such misleading information. This second strip also sums up the philosophy of the series in the biblical saying that "the last will be worse than the first."

The third strip, three vertical scenes, published April 26, 1918, describes kind-hearted Ola's hypocritical sadness at Per's mistreatment of the pigs and the cow's contentment with Ola's fine care. This contrast of the highfalutin person who cannot carry out simple tasks with the common man who shows sensitivity in caring for creatures, and furthermore even with the animals that talk and express emotions, is basic to the series and well rooted in the native American humor tradition.

The last three strips of the first year continue these features while the artist was experimenting with format and developing the characters and situations. The fourth comic strip, which was nine scenes in length (Decorah-Posten, 28 May 1918), mocks Per's pretensions to success as a lover. Foiled by the girl's parents when he attempts to sneak into her bedroom by crawling up a ladder, Per at first blames the unpredictability of women as the cause of his misfortune but in the last frame, he wisely admits he had only himself to blame. This strip, incidentally, alludes to a well-known rural Norwegian custom known in New England as bundling.

The fifth strip, three large vertical scenes (2 August 1918), makes fun of the protagonists' inability to put a ring in the nose of the huge hog that Per owns. The beast bests them both and gives Per quite a ride on the hog's back while Ola hangs on to the hog's tail for dear life. Throughout the series animals outwit humans frequently, thereby suggesting the superiority of the animal to the human world.

The last strip of the year, a "drama in four acts" (13 December 1918), shows Ola being whacked by Per when he tries one of Per's inventions for slaughtering the hog that, of course, goes free. All these comic strips expose the world as being other than what it seemed to be. The implication is that since the universe was believed to be orderly or purposeful and man a rational creature, deviations from these standards were ridiculous. In this last strip the format changed; the captions disappeared and the four panels were published horizontally in double-decker fashion at the bottom of the page.

When the comic strips resumed publication in the Decorah-Posten on January 9, 1920, after the appearance of only one strip in 1919, the title, Han Ola og han Per, was used for the first time. But the next five strips returned to the vertical format. With the placement of the entire comic strip horizontally on April 30, 1920, the customary format of four panels across the bottom of the page, usually on page three in the Friday edition of the paper, began. The standard size and length of the comic strips were retained throughout the publication of the strips until they ceased their original run on July 19, 1935.

The "Ola and Per" series came into being slowly, and during the first four or five years it did not have the continuity it later developed. Usually during each year, too, the readers could count on Ola and Per's taking a vacation. This event was announced by a special ad in the Posten, and their return was heralded by sneak previews weeks in advance so that new subscribers could catch their first re-appearance. When Per and Ola returned to the newspaper, they always came back home to the vicinity of Decorah, Iowa, since most of the subscribers were familiar with the "home town." The only drawing of this city nestled among the hills seems to be authentic.

Rosendahl's creation fits in well with the historical development of the comic strip in America as it changed during the 1920's and 1930's from broad slapstick to the family funnies and later the adventure comic strip. The antics of Ola and Per suggest the "fall guy/straight guy" of gag and slapstick humor, as in Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. Then the family situation in the comics expanded between World War I and the Depression. As Sidney Smith's The Gumps and Frank King's Gasoline Alley showed the growth of a typical urban American family, Han Ola og han Per depicted the Norwegian-American immigrant family in its rural setting. Other influences appear in the antics of the American-German twins, Hans and Fritz, in Rudolph Dirks' The Katzenjammer Kids, and in the marital escapades of Maggie and Jiggs in George McManus' Bringing Up Father. Then beginning in 1922 adventures dominated Han Ola og han Per as Ola and Per took trips to Africa, Siberia, the North Pole, and tropical islands. This change is parallel to the change that came to comic strips with the adventures of Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs in 1924, George Storm's Phil Hardy and Bobby Thatcher in 1925-27, and Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie of 1924 which introduced exotic adventures with homespun right-wing ideas. [7] Also, Han Ola og han Per followed the custom of the early comic books which appeared as reprint collections of favorite comic strips. Beginning in 1921, Rosendahl's comic strips were reprinted in eight volumes which were intended as "come on" premiums for subscribers to the Decorah-Posten.

The family nature of the first years of Han Ola og han Per is in keeping with the tradition of Norwegian-American immigrant literature to depict the immigrant in relation to his family -- for the main motive for the Norwegian immigrant was a better life not just for himself but for his whole family. The cast of characters for the Ola and Per comics includes their relatives. The six main characters are Ola, Per, Lars (Per's brother), Polla (Per's wife), Værmor (Per's mother-in-law), and Dada (the child of Per and Polla). Most of the strips focus on Ola and Per but frequently a series features one of the other characters, and sometimes the characters play supporting roles or serve as foils to Ola and Per. Several times Ola's wife, Mari, enters, but she is usually said to be on her way to Minneapolis or Norway. Each of these characters is delightful mainly because each embodies incongruous traits and contradictions.

With Ola and Per as the center, the strips show two neighbors who go through an endless variety of experiences with one or the other coming up with some fantastic new idea. As the center of his family, Per is possibly the main protagonist. He is drawn as the tall, long-legged, full-bearded character who always wears his Prince Albert coat tails and his derby hat. In spite of his cultured appearance, he usually has a tool in his hand. His genius is coming up with new patents that make the farm family more dependent upon mechanical devices, possibly thereby reflecting Rosendahl's own interest in new inventions and certainly doing for rural life what George Derby's and Rube Goldberg's inventions did for the urbanite. These patents, however, serve mainly to complicate daily living, and their use results in chaos. But Per is no more successful as a Casanova. Once married to Polla and the father of Dada, he then assumes the role of head of the house who has the authority to make decisions, even though some of those decisions are forced on him by others. As the authority on inventions as well as family, Per plays the braggart or alazon role.

Ola is the good neighbor-farmer who offers friendly, free advice or seeks a solution from "Mr. Know-How" to one of his problems. Ola is the eiron character who remains quiet until his advice is needed or he needs assistance. Always bare-headed, he is short of stature, usually wears farmer's overalls, and often appears with his pitch-fork over his shoulder. Some of his main problems of coping appear to be caused by his lack of mechanical aptitude or at least unfamiliarity with operating mechanical devices. His consultations with Per often result in chaos, however, so that usually Per is the victim and Ola gets the last laugh, but sometimes Ola becomes a victim or they both are.

 

The main representative of the newcomer to America is Per's brother, Lars, who has been "educated" at both Oslo and Berlin. His role is clearly that of the "learned fool." His first reaction when he arrives on the scene from Norway is shock at the speed here. From then on, Lars is bounced from one shock to the next as he becomes involved in the most weird situations imaginable. He is often given tasks for which he says he knows "exactly what to do," but since he goes ahead without knowing anything about the chore, the situation can only end in disruption. His distinguished appearance -- he has an exceptionally long, narrow beard and always wears his black top coat with matching stovepipe hat -- hides his naiveté and lack of common sense. When he cannot cope with rural America any longer, the wise fool decides to go to China because he has heard that there one man could have several wives. En route he writes Per from Hollywood saying that he has accepted a post as a missionary there because he feels he can use his seven years of religious training to help so many "ungodly attractive" girls. His religious work ends quickly, however, probably because he has a constant craving for "home-brew." Seldom separated from his jug, Lars often shows the effects of inebriation. When he returns from New York, where he studied to be a chiropractor, he is soaked in more than learning. Whether "sacked out" under the haystack or "shined-up" to the point of sleeping with the pigs, he remains an entertaining outrage, the newcomer who is the object of ridicule.

Polla, Per's wife, is a plump city girl from Fargo, North Dakota, who knows nothing about rural life. She thinks Fargo is the center of culture because of the many dishwashing machines, wireless radios, and sleeping porches there. Although the circumstances of their meeting are not given, Per brings Polla home from Fargo one spring when he had gone there instead of plowing as his neighbor had. One week later when he returns with his "pie fæs," his friend Ola is flabbergasted. But marriage between the city girl and the country boy is not always strawberries and cream. Speaking English more than the others, Polla misses the city and finds rural life difficult; Per's ineptness does not make him an ideal husband either. Every now and then they leave each other, but they cannot stand to be separated and then reunite.

Polla and Per's problems are not helped by the arrival of Værmor, Polla's mother from Fargo (21 November 1924). She not only represents the stereotyped mother-in-law, but she also is the hardworking pioneer woman. Tough, like Mammy Yokum in Li 'l Abner, she finds no task too great, and nothing fazes her as far as work is concerned. Moreover, she cannot stand to see anyone loafing when there are farm chores to be done. But although she and Lars are unlike in their attitude toward work, they bear a startling resemblance in appearance. Neither is nature's prize. As Lars describes her, Værmor's "cheeks are pale . . ., her lips so red . . ., and her nose is like a rake handle". Yet as soon as she arrives on the farm, she and Lars fall so in love that neither of them can work. After marriage, Lars still has his Lizzies of earlier days write to him. Once when he takes off for Canada to give lectures on birth control, he says, he has Værmor immediately on his neck. Through all their adventures, however, and even with Værmor's constant sniffing out the "moonshine," she and Lars always end up together. On one adventure when Værmor is carried off by a gorilla, she is rescued by none other than Lars.

Dada, the youngest of the characters and the only child of Per and Polla, completes the family. She shows her precocious inheritance as a baby for when she is left in the bureau drawer, she calls "Dada". These amusing characters have become so familiar to many Norwegian-American families that they literally count Ola and Per as family members. They display enlarged drawings of them in living room photo galleries or even paint resemblances on kitchen match boxes.

Another aspect of the humor is the slapstick situation in which these unforgettable characters frequently find themselves. They are caught in a situation which can end in only one pattern -- violence -- but Norwegians miraculously survive. Somebody smashes the Ford, the mule smashes the person, or one character wallops another, but they come out of the catastrophe alive. There is no end to the ingenuity displayed in the creation of incidents. Per's gadgets shatter in bits and pieces; Ola's home remedies, such as washing hair in gasoline, bring disaster; and airplanes crash land, but there is never any bloodshed or fatal illness. Even when dynamite is used, and it often is, the situation explodes, but the characters involved are not hurt in the least, although they take a speedy space trip. The technique of exaggeration is used to blow up the situation to its wildest proportions yet still retain a relationship between the original situation and the exaggeration.

The literary artistry of Han Ola og han Per is evident not only in the characterization and situations but also in the imagery. The figures of speech, which are not overwhelming in number, are appropriately earthy and homely comparisons to farm life or the natural environment. Per gets wet as a herring, Lars sleeps like a pig and looks like a pighouse, the rain comes down like a waterfall, and Værmor's brow is like snow drifts. Some of the verbal play includes puns on Lars' being "soaked" -- with learning and liquor, Per's being saved by a bad "bumper" of the car, Per's being "finished" -- but unable to function, the battle of "Bull Run" coming in a new edition, and Per's asking, after the bus has gone off the road, "Is this Decorah?" only to hear, "No, it's an accident". Many proverbs are repeated in the titles, such as "The one who laughs last often laughs best", "Haste makes waste", and "One should not believe everything one hears".

From the standpoint of graphic artistry the cartoonist uses many of the usual comic conventions in a realistic, plain, rather crude style of drawing. The speech balloons are squared off in a box-like manner; hats rise from the heads to indicate surprise; sleep and snores are marked by the usual zzzzZZZZZ. One of the most interesting features is the close continuity of appearance and line from panel to panel and also from one strip to another. For example, when Lars loses part of his beard, the next series pictures him as partly beardless, but his beard slowly grows longer. When Værmor loses her hair, the next strips show her wearing a turban. The usual circles to indicate motions of characters are combined effectively with line continuity in many strips. Generally done in an understated style, the drawings nevertheless usually end with a climactic explosion of lines going in all directions. One of the most effective of all the drawings, however, is the depiction of back-seat driving which after a confusion of circles and balloons ends in a blank.

Beyond the literary and graphic artistry, the historical value of the comic strip lies in its revelation of the way the Norwegian-American immigrant community thought and lived. Despite the comic distortions and the incongruities between the realism of the setting and characters and the fantastic actions and situations depicted, the humor vividly portrays common men and their daily lives. In the depiction of folklife several themes are developed: 1) the pains and tensions for the immigrant who wants to retain his ethnic identity at the same time that he is adjusting to American life with its constant changes; 2) the disruptive effect of gadgets and machines and the absurd pretentiousness of automated life; 3) the confusion of the human condition, or the world as nonsensical; and  4) the demonstration that the human being endures even though he is foolish, weak, and undignified.

The main humorous theme is certainly the tension between the dream and the real worlds of the immigrant. Throughout the seventeen-year life of the comic strip the characters never forget their Norwegian roots, nor do they give up their language in spite of their initial problems in social matters because they misunderstand American speech or signs. For example, when Per complains that he never has a chance with the young girls, Ola advises him that the problem is simply that he cannot speak "Yeinki." Following Ola's advice the next time he meets a young girl, he lifts his hat and greets her, "Hello, Pie Fæs." Per lands in the gutter where he comforts himself with the favorite sentimental song of Norwegians in America, "Kan du glemme gamle Norge?" ["Can You Forget Old Norway?"]. Initially baffled by the speed at which all the vehicles move in America, the newcomer Lars falls off on his first motorcycle ride. Soon after, he tries to keep up with cars, tractors, and airplanes and keep away from salesmen and sheriffs. But the adjustments made by the city girl who goes to the farm are just as difficult, as Polla discovers.

The educated newcomer experiences the most problems in coming to the farm, however. Struggling with new customs, Lars' attempt to put the crupper on Kate ends in his being kicked out of the barn. Nor can he drive the team, feed the calves, manage the mules, or cope with snakes. When he cooks soup, he uses meat from the skunk, and finally when he tries to spray poison on the potato bugs, he admits he prefers beautiful old Norway. "It is not easy to be a newcomer," he says. Even after Per and Ola are sure Lars is learning, he shows his ignorance of tilling the soil when he interprets the direction to follow the cow literally. When Lars finds his consolation in "moonshine," he reveals his attachment for the old country by singing "Ja, vi elsker dette landet," the Norwegian national anthem, but often the effects of moonshine take him beyond chauvinistic consciousness. Eventually his ineptness leads only to a series of frustrated attempts at working not only as a farmer but also as a chiropractor, a missionary, a radio announcer, an artist, and a reducing specialist. His work efforts bring rags, not riches, so that finally his family threatens to put him in the poor house. Driven to near-madness by Værmor's domination, he ends up standing on top of the chimney and throwing bricks down on the people. His experiences bring him closer to insanity than success in a reversal of the "American Dream" theme which was also satirized by Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other critics.

Among the reasons for the immigrant's survival, however, are his willingness to attempt the impossible in spite of the odds and his insistence on retaining customs from the old country. In carrying out the impossible, Per and Ola each reveal themselves to be among the "natural born fools," such as Sut Lovingood created by George Washington Harris of the Southwestern humor tradition. The fools' actions bring punishment to themselves, and sometimes these foolish endowments help to reveal the hypocrisy of supposedly respectable members of society and then to punish them appropriately. When trying to control the cattle, Per's "natural born" characteristics get the better of him and he tries to stop the cattle from sneaking back into the barn and into another cow's stall. As often happens, the wrong object or person becomes the victim of a violent accident. Usually, however, the fool becomes the victim of his own "know-how," as when Per attempts to start the manure spreader. Only too often Per is laughed at by the people he tries to help, but sometimes they become the targets of ridicule. His most common means of coping with his world and realizing his dream is to come up with some complicated gadget. One example of this is his "sow force-feeder" which he plans to use so that the three pigs he will ship to market weigh 1500 pounds, thereby bringing him many thousand dollars. He is confident of his success because "it is a business which has never blown up, so to speak" until his pig explodes. Another invention of the mechanically inclined Per is his perpetual motor. This time the "educated fool" is helped by the practical Ola, who cranks the motor so that the machine runs.

When members of mainstream society interfere with Per's, Ola's or Lars' likes, the Norwegians are not silent or inactive. The main victims of Per's dislike are book agents, unless they are girls. Also subject to ridicule are dentists, chiropractors, the sheriff, the local bureaucrats who administer farm relief and the politicians in Washington who passed a wife-exchange law which Lars took advantage of to exchange Værmor for a peanut roaster. The hard-working pioneer woman who ends up as boss in the house, as Værmor often does, is the target of much satire. The worst Værmor receives for spying to see if Lars has moonshine is a manure pie in her face, but other objects come her way as well. Actually there is always a type of justice meted out, as the immigrants disliked anyone who posed as high and mighty. There is a devastating attack on mankind in general when human beings are depicted as having non-human or animal qualities, especially when Per mistreats animals, and when Lars makes love to Værmor, praising her animal features at such length that he "falls in weakness and lies like a swine", as he also does when he over-indulges in his jug. These attempts to expose that which was not what it seemed to be were further manifestations of the basic desire for regularity and congruity in life. Deviations from a rational, purposeful creation are ridiculed. The comic strips also suggest that in pioneer times people had to cope by many means -- not the least of which were physical pranks, such as the upsetting of love-making by bringing in a cow. Any attacks on persons in authority reflected the basic attitude, but questionable logic, that "everybody is as good as everyone else -- and a bit better."

Retaining ties with the folk culture and customs of Norway also contributes to the humorous situations of the immigrant. A typical Norwegian, Værmor must take time to have a little "kaffi-skvet," a wee drop of coffee, before she leaves the house even though the flood is coming with full force. On another occasion coffee revives Værmor when all other remedies fail, just as whiskey does for Lars. When Ola and Per are stranded in the North Dakota blizzard, whose skis do they find to save their lives but the ones they attribute to Per Hansa in Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth. When Lars downs rat poison, he shows the effect on him by vigorously dancing the Halling hat dance. Other evidences of Norwegian folk culture are found in telling numbskull stories, in blaming ghosts for the appearance of strange creatures, in recalling troll mischief, and in singing traditional Norwegian songs, such as the national anthem, "Yes, We Love This Land of Ours", the nostalgic "Can You Forget Old Norway?", and "How Glorious is my Land of Birth". The traditional habit of the Norwegian's finding the chief nourishment in "graut" or porridge is a theme of the strip from the first issues to the last. If the porridge has not been made with cream from the cow that has just calved, the quality is inferior and not suitable, according to Ola's wife. Talking with his wife about her Ford, Ola quotes from Ibsen's Peer Gynt. "You can tell the big shots by their mounts," referring to Peer Gynt's riding into the Dovre mountains with the Greenclad Woman on a huge pig. Also ridiculed is the habit of joining fraternal organizations, such as the Sons of Norway, just for the sake of belonging to an "old outfit" of people from the Old Country. The best satire is on the currently popular search for ancestral roots, for when Ola and Per haul out the books to find out where the family stems from in Norway, Per points to the picture of grandpa -- a gorilla.

Some of the best humor concerning the immigrant experience comes in a delightful parody of the adventure motive for immigration. The immigrants coming home from Siberia aboard the "Spirit of Decorah" land on an island where they undergo a series of fantastic encounters. After frightening meetings with snakes and gorillas, they decide to build their "castle in the sky" only to lay the foundation on stones which prove to be large turtles that wake up and walk away, wrecking the house. One of the first visitors to the island is Smart Aleck, an agent selling the "Sure Grip Automatic Monkey Wrench." When Per discovers the "artocarpus flapjackus" or pancake tree, he overeats to the point where he thinks he is dying, so he wills his hat to the Decorah Museum, the main Norwegian-American immigrant museum. After having difficulties in crossing a river, the immigrants are threatened by volcanic eruption, from which they take shelter in a bat-filled cave. After meeting a dinosaur, they tangle with a monkey who steals Lars' clothes. Værmor cries because Lars has to go naked, but he says that is nothing to get excited over. The New World Adam has an extra suit of clothes in the airplane. Eventually the group finds a home in a huge stove pipe, and then Værmor builds a raft to carry them back to civilization. But "things look dark for the pioneers." After several unsuccessful attempts to return to America, they finally arrive. They know they are home because Ola sees a vehicle marked "bus," but Per comments, "It says 'booze' on it so we are in the U.S.A." This delightful series of adventures ends with Ola and Per's appreciation speech upon being back in America. This is interrupted by Polla's announcement that down by the haystack there is a sleeping tramp -- Lars with his jug.

The adventures of immigrants are mocked frequently in other trips: a North Pole trip where the immigrants find Amundsen's plane and Andrée's balloon; a trip to North Dakota during which, after being buried by a blizzard, they set up a shopping center with Per and Ola's runabout 5 and 10 cents store, Polla's lunch counter, Værmor's "bjuti" shop, and Dr. Lars' "redoosing" specialist's salon; and an attempted visit to the Chicago World's Fair which ends with a robbery that eventually brings Ola and Per a large monetary reward for their return of the gold. These Gilligan's Island adventure series are not only directly related to immigration humor but they parallel the changes noted in comic strips of the late 1920's and 1930's from family funnies to adventure series. [8]

The other themes, already mentioned briefly in the main theme of immigrant adjustment, are developed quite extensively throughout the comic strip. Per's perpetual invention of a complex mechanism that wears itself out and everyone connected with trying to make it work appears throughout the entire series. Whenever Per encounters a little commonplace problem whether in the house, the barn, or the field, he attempts to "solve" it by inventing a fanciful machine. For the house he created the dirty clothes chute, a dishwashing machine, a hoist for bringing dishes to the table, a Hoover Commission kitchen-floor cleaning device, a gimmick for emptying the dish water, the "lazy man's jump bed" and an electric comb. Of course, part of the irony of the humor is that many of these gimmicks anticipated real technological developments.

The endless contraptions for the farm work included a knock-out grub machine, a staple puller, a weather balloon, an electric fan to drive the windmill, an egg-cleaning machine, a wood-cutting machine, an electric pig fence, an air-pull cultivator, a cyclone chicken house cleaner, a self-cleaning cow barn, a rotary hog feeder, an air-push hog loader, a haystack loader, a whirl-wind steam chopper, a Model 34 Farm Bjuro [dresser] operated by compressed air, an iron cow, a tip-over, quick-oiling windmill, a high-speed manure spreader and even a shock-absorbing wall. A lightning postpuller illustrates how these inventions symbolized man's ability to expend maximum effort to create a machine to achieve what can be done more simply by hand, for Per and Ola spend more time getting the gadget in working order than Lars does in completing the task with the spade. But with the machine the person becomes a working part, usually the one who botches the mechanism. These inventions remind us that the automated life is not everything it is supposed to be. Far more rigid than man, the contraptions suggest that human values can survive in the New World only as long as man is flexible and able to laugh at his own creations. As Walter Winchell quipped about Rube Goldberg's works, "Generations of Americans have roared with laughter at Rube Goldberg's machines -- but the combined scientists of the world cannot and never will -- produce a machine which laughs at a man." [9] For this, Rosendahl's Brave New World offered no possibilities either.

The Norwegian's gadgets were used to control people, too, such as the device to get rid of book agents, the safety pedestrian catcher, and the gimmick Lars used to seed from an airplane. The changing world of machines is also evident in the vehicles -- from the motorcycle to the Ford, to the airplane, and finally to a "new grasshopper" that looks like the helicopter. Other inventions which the immigrants learn to use are the telephone, the wireless, and the Victrola. The basic point behind all of these strips seems to be that in spite of technological advances human beings never really change. Although man may expand his control of his environment or enlarge its sphere by coming to a new land, he does not change radically either his character or the meaning of life. But life changes, and people have to adjust -- or be destroyed by violence. Progress is really an illusion. We human beings delude ourselves into "thinking that we're pushing ahead, but when we stop we're at the start." [10]

But if human beings don't change, the one certain result of their simply being alive is confusion. Much of the humor of the immigrants is the result of the characters' merely trying to adjust to the inevitable changes of daily life brought on because people choose different clothes styles, need cures for disease or weakness, fall in love and marry, struggle with daily tasks, and even spend a few hours in recreation. In Han Ola og han Per, Værmor throws away her out-dated knickers; Lars' clothes shred into rags; Værmor tries Dr. Lars' home hair treatments; Værmor and Lars find their courting interrupted by bees, wasps, and cows; Per and Ola use nitroglycerin to blow the skins off baked potatoes; and the whole group barely survives playing checkers and listening to the radio. Often these simple activities explode into fiery violence, sometimes caused by the use of dynamite. These fumbles and falls dramatize the limitations of all human beings and suggest that chaos is the basic human situation.

The final theme then is that in the humorous struggles of the human being as he bridges two worlds -- both the geographical one of the Old and New Worlds and the technological one of the mechanically complicated versus the simple -- the individual endures. Certainly Ola and Per grow to mythic proportions, for despite their hardships and catastrophes, they end their existence by going off on a trip to Norway. They take in stride the daily frustrations and problems, and despite constant disaster, they continue to work to improve their lot. Værmor, too, is put to the greatest test not only by her family but also by social enemies, yet she wins by foiling robbers and even helping Lars to regain his self direction. Lars is the one who comes closest to succumbing to the insanity of life in the New World, yet in the last strip he is running to catch the plane.

The humor of Rosendahl's Han Ola og han Per is valuable for history and literary art. As history it depicts the tension between the immigrant's vision of the Promised Land and his actual encounters with the New World with its increasing reliance on technology to complicate even the most simple human process. As literature it offers vivid characters who survive the chaos of everyday living as well as the violence of fantastic adventures. Best of all, Rosendahl's comic strip offers these riches with amusement. Han Ola og han Per deserves a special place not only in Norwegian-American immigrant culture but in American and Norwegian culture at large.

 

Notes:

  1. Han Ola og han Per is currently reprinted in The Western Viking, published in Seattle, Washington, and in several Minnesota newspapers such as The Valley Journal and The Starbuck Times.

     

  2. Each of the 599 comic strips of Han Ola og han Per is identified by parenthetical reference to the number of the comic strip in the "Order of Publication." This list of comic strips arranges them by date of issue in the Decorah-Posten, but adds the Rosendahl number, the volume number of the collected edition in which the comic strip was reprinted by Anundsen Publishing Co., Decorah, Iowa, and the page of the strip which was assigned by numbering consecutively within the volume.

     

  3. Odd S. Lovoll, "Decorah-Posten: The Story of an Immigrant Newspaper," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 27 (1977), 77 and 96.

     

  4. N. W. Ayer & Son's American Newspaper Annual and Directory (Philadelphia, 1920), p. 291; 1935, p. 287; 1950, p. 323; and 1972, p. 343. The circulation of Decorah-Posten numbered 29,545 in 1935 and 5,867 in 1972.

     

  5. Interview, Frederick Rosendahl, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 10, 1981.

     

  6. Decorah-Posten, 8 January 1926, p. 5. Printed in translation p. 5.

     

  7. Jerry Robinson, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1976), pp. 57, 71, 88.

     

  8. Stephen Becker, Comic Art in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), p. 86.

     

  9. Peter C. Marzio, Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1973), p. 197.

     

  10. Marzio, p. 175.

Published on "The Promise of America" website

http://nabo.nb.no/trip?_b=EMITEKST&urn="URN:NBN:no-nb_emidata_1302"

Author: Buckley, Joan N.
Title: The Humor of Han Ola og Han Per
Host document: Han Ola og Han Per
Author: Rosendahl, Peter J.
Printed: Oslo 1984
Published: 1984
Owner: Nasjonalbiblioteket, avdeling Oslo - Norsk-am. saml.

 

 

Top

 Return to the Last Page Viewed

Would you like to join the Lag?

Visit the Member Center

Did you find valuable genealogical information?

Support the Website

Copyright © 2002-2014
Hadeland Lag of America. All rights reserved.

Terms of Use 

Privacy Policy     Contact Us

Last update: December 31, 2013

 ICRA