Thursday, December 16, 2010

Report from the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago, Part Three

The third paper presented at the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago (October 16) was Úlfar Bragason’s “Rasmus B. Anderson and Vínland: Mythbreaking and Mythmaking.” Bragason’s connection to the Windy City dates back to his visiting position at University of Chicago in 1986. He holds a PhD in Norse Languages & Literature, and his main fields of research are medieval Icelandic literature and Icelandic emigration to North America. Bragason currently holds the position of Research Professor at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík.

Rasmus B. Anderson (1846-1936) was, according to Bragason, “the father of Nordic Studies in the U.S.A.” He introduced courses in Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin in 1869 and sponsored a concert series in Norway to raise money for a Leifr Eiríksson statue in Madison. He wasn’t able to gather the necessary amount, however, and the funds he collected were applied to the 1887 statue of Leifr in Boston.

In 1874, Anderson published America Not Discovered by Columbus: A Historical Sketch of the Discovery of America by the Norsemen in the Tenth Century. The prolixly-titled work was published in several editions through 1930. Although the work is of dubious scholarship, it is important for challenging the American myth of Christopher Columbus and both creating and publicizing the myth of Leifr Eiríksson in the United States.

The book’s stated goal is “to present a readable and truthful narrative of the Norse discovery of America,” but it was also written, in large part, to create American interest in Nordic culture. Anderson never implies that the book is based on his own original research, but he doesn’t cite his sources, either. This ambiguity of reference makes it very difficult to trace specific assertions in the book to specific authors or documents. Although Anderson’s goal was to prove that Nordic Studies were important for Americans, his book was seen by contemporary reviewers as a work of self-promotion for Anderson’s academic career and his Leifr Eiríksson monument.

America Not Discovered by Columbus advances a theory that Norsemen continued to visit America through the 14th century and that they introduced Christianity to the Native Americans (!). Anderson asserts that that Viking ships were “in no way inferior” to those of Columbus and attempts to date and pinpoint various postulated Norse voyages to America. Interestingly, Anderson draws parallels between the medieval settlement of Iceland and European immigration to the United States in the 19th century.

Anderson believed that Columbus visited Iceland in 1477 and learned about the route to America from the Icelanders. His book traces links between records of Norse discovery and Columbus, beginning with Guðríð Þorbjarnardóttir’s trip to Rome (see “Report from the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago, Part Two”). He draws lines of connection between Guðríð, the Greenland bishop who travelled to Vínland, and the report of Adam of Bremen.

Anderson’s book traces American concepts of democracy and freedom from the New World back to England, Normandy, and (ultimately) Norway. Although he uses the term “Norse” (a broader term than “Norwegian” or “Northmen”), his political goal is to justify a Norwegian-American claim to Americanness equal to that of Anglo-Saxons. His work also forwards a Romantic notion of “Old Iceland” that was common at the time. In the early 1870s, as Anderson was writing his book, the first Icelandic immigrants came to the United States and clustered in Milwaukee – not very far at all from Madison.

After retiring from his professorship, Anderson served as the U.S. ambassador in Copenhagen for nearly a decade. He is probably best remembered in America as the originator of Leif Erikson Day.

At the conclusion of Dr. Bragason’s presentation, Gísli Sigurðsson told me about the Italian scholar Paolo Taviani’s book on Columbus, which cites the diary of Columbus as evidence that the explorer did, in fact, know of the Icelandic voyages to America. Too bad the book came out a half-century after Anderson’s death!

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