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Friday, January 4, 2013

Literary Minnesota--The Anderson Gift to Saint John's University

Several titles by Martha Ostenso (1900-1963), a Norwegian immigrant author,
who wrote several novels located in Minnesota and Canada.

In April 2012, members of the T.R. and LaJean Anderson family approached HMML to offer a gift of books focusing on Minnesota history, literature and culture.  The Anderson family has long been friends to Saint John's University, the College of Saint Benedict, and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in particular.  LaJean was a 1937 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict. In the HMML files, I found a photograph of the HMML Board of Overseers dated June 28, 1988, which includes many familiar names--Fr. Colman Barry, OSB, Julian G. Plante, Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, and several others.  Standing in the back row is also T.R. Anderson.  The photograph appears to have been taken by HMML's round table (not the Arthurian kind), when it was still located in a different part of the library.

Before there was a "Central" Minnesota:  a map from 1843 shows the upper Mississippi
several years before statehood, when the area was without any settlements.

After T.R.'s death in 1989, LaJean and her family continued their generous support of HMML's preservation work overseas.  At the same time, they took great care of T.R.'s fabulous collection of books about Minnesota.  When LaJean passed away in 2009, discussions began about the possible donation of the collection to Saint John's.  In 2012, these talks gave way to action, and the collection came to HMML from Nisswa, Minnesota, in two truckloads.  In the end, the gift included about 5000 volumes, many of which were neither rare nor directly related to Minnesota. However, the bulk of them do relate to Minnesota, and many are not widely held in other libraries. After several months of unpacking boxes (as many as a hundred remain!), we have now started cataloging some of the rare items--including several that bring new aspects to the research collections at Saint John's.

Today, I would like to introduce one of the Minnesota authors who was well represented in the gift:  Martha Ostenso (1900-1963), who situated most of her stories on the great plains of the upper Midwest and Canada.  Ostenso was born in Norway, but came to Canada and then the United States when only a very young child.  She and her parents lived in several locations in Minnesota,
South Dakota, and Manitoba.  Ostenso's works are especially welcome in our collections as they were only barely represented in out book collections.

Two works by Martha Ostenso, with illustrated dust jackets, from the Anderson Collection.

Ostenso's most famous work, Wild Geese, was published in 1925, and brought the young author a lot of attention.  The gift includes two editions of this book, one with a dust jacket.  The later edition even includes some photo stills from the movie adaptation that came out in the same year.  The blurb on the jacket describes the main character as follows:
"Caleb Gare is the most prosperous farmer of Oeland, but that is because the bitter soil has imbued him with all its harshness.  His one passion is a lust for black acres, and the endless yearly nursing of them.  His wife, unprotesting for the sake of her first son--who is not Caleb's--and his children, held in thrall to the power of his single-minded personality, are to him merely servants in the service of his one great mistress, the soil."

While Wild Geese takes place in Manitoba, her next novel, The Dark Dawn (1926), is situated in Minnesota. Again the title is represented in two editions, with differing dust jackets--and modes of depiction.  Here, the central character is Hattie Murker, described as: "a woman of indomitable will and ruthless ambition" (the other edition calls here "beautiful, unloving and domineering").  Hattie marries a good-natured "farmer's boy" to try to ingratiate herself to her neighbors.

In the edition on the left, Hattie is looking straight at a man (presumably her
husband, Lucien Dorrit), but he only appears on the back of the volume.

A tense moment out on the prairie.

Unfortunately, my work leaves me precious little time to actually read these books. Although, I must say that the covers and the blurbs have left me wanting to spend some time reading their contents!  At least these works have now been cataloged and are available for students, faculty and researchers who may want to learn more about how one person (who grew up as an immigrant in Minnesota) imagines life on the prairie.  Other titles by Martha Ostenso (not all of them with dust jackets) in the gift include:
  • The Mad Carews (1927)
  • The Young May Moon (1929)
  • The Waters Under the Earth (1930)
  • Prologue to Love (1932)
  • The Stone Field (1937)
  • The Mandrake Root (1938)
  • O River, Remember! (1943)

Two works by Martha Ostenso that take place in a mythical valley in Minnesota.

By no means is Martha Ostenso the only author represented in the Anderson Collection.  Other names that appear frequently include Maud and Delos Lovelace, Frederick Manfred, Margaet Culkin Banning, James Gray, Walter O'Meara, Darragh Aldrich, Herbert Krause, as well as first issues of works by Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Beyond these, there are hundreds of non-fiction works on the history of Minnesota, the explorations of the upper Midwest and Northwest Territory. While nearly all of these await cataloging, many of these works will be the subject of a small exhibition at HMML--perhaps one case of "fictional Minnesota" and one of "non-fictional Minnesota" (starting in January 2013, I hope).

Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict have always had wonderful resources for studying the history and culture of Minnesota and its neighbors.  With the Anderson Collection, the library may now have one of the premier collections of such materials outside of the Twin Cities.  HMML (as the stewards of the Saint John's Rare Books collection) is deeply grateful to have the opportunity to share these materials with the world!

Civilization (?) at last:  Sauk Rapids appears on an 1851 map
 (at the confluence of the Osakis (Sauk) and Mississippi Rivers.

Detail from the map for the Minnesota Year Book of 1851.
In the coming weeks, I hope to introduce more snippets from the Anderson Collection to readers of this blog. We will continue to unpack, document and catalog the collection over the next several months.

(For more on Martha Ostenso, see the article at the Saint Olaf College website:

Until then, Peace to all in the coming year!