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The Juanita Brooks Lecture Series

the cover of “A Sense of Humus”

A Sense of Humus: Scandinavian Mormon Immigrant Humor

Dr. William Mulder
Professor of English
The University of Utah

Delivered at the St. George Tabernacle
May 24, 1985

About Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks was a professor at Dixie College for many years and is a well-known author.

She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set her fellow historians more stringent standards of scholarship to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner have been lifelong friends of Mrs. Brooks and it was their wish to perpetuate her name through this series. Dixie College and the Brooks family express their thanks to the Tanners.

A Sense of Humus: Scandinavian Mormon Immigrant Humor

by William Mulder

The invitation to deliver the Juanita Brooks Lecture this year came as a genuine surprise. I can think of others more deserving, but I am glad to be in such good company and to have this opportunity to express my admiration for Juanita’s life and work, an admiration—and affection—I tried to convey in a review of her memoir, Quicksand and Cactus,1 when it appeared, a memoir which had lain in manuscript for forty years but speaks to us now of her girlhood and growing up in the clear tones and fresh colors of unclouded early memory. Dale Morgan, who saw chapters of these reminiscences in rough draft, called them “rich and heart-warming,” and told Bernard DeVoto that no one could read them “without a renewed sense of the worth of human living.” I find dignity and delight in equal measure in these remembrances of things past as Juanita moves from innocence to knowledge, a knowledge of the larger world beyond Bunkerville and Dixie. In one episode she encounters a stranger who comes to town and who is not, she discovers, one “sitting in darkness” but instead one who fires imagination with possibilities, a shock of recognition which proved crucial to her literary awakening.

Throughout Juanita’s memoir we catch glimpses of the curiosity that led to her historical researches: the chagrin she felt at the chance she missed to record the story of a survivor of the Mountain Meadows massacre; her quickening pulse as she realized the worth of the John Pulsipher journals in her husband’s family; her lucky rescue of the Myron Abbot journal about to be used to start fires in the owner’s kitchen stove.

Plucky, curious, adventurous and even willful as a girl, courageous and resourceful as a young widow left, with a child, to earn her own living, Juanita emerges as a strong, tough-minded skeptic who has experienced enough of the miraculous to keep her faith in a providence she would rather understand than rely on. Hers was a skepticism already present in a young girl’s clear-eyed assessment of “those in authority;” she was reluctant to accept official explanation for matters that left too many questions unanswered. She “got mad” at Brigham Young early, for a number of reasons, reasons her later scholarship only strengthened. Yet, a simple “Thank you, Lord,” concludes every trial. Emerson’s metaphor of knowledge as a straight line, wisdom as a square, and virtue as a cube suggests the dimensions of Juanita’s life and work: the knowledge of Mormon ways in a frontier community, the wisdom born of independent observation of these ways, and the virtue of a strong central character who, despite doubts, performs her duty, participates loyally in the life of the community, and perseveres in her private vision.

My impressions of Juanita as a person and as a student of Western history and literature were formed, of course, long before her memoir appeared. One summer nearly thirty years ago was particularly memorable. Because no record of it appears anywhere else, I want to describe it briefly and, on this occasion, deposit this slender file of correspondence in the Brooks family archives.2 The correspondence grew out of a request from Juanita, writing from St. George on August 2, 1956, at the suggestion of Harold Bentley, then Dean of Extension at the University of Utah, to do some directed reading on Western America for three credits the school board insisted she needed as part of her teaching re-certification if she were to teach English “C” legitimately.

You can imagine my astonishment. A fresh Ph.D. hardly dry behind the ears, I could only reply that recommending books on the West for her to read was like carrying coals to Newcastle. She should, I told her, be my mentor. But we pooled bibliographies and she sent me a list of reading she had already done, “without rhyme or reason,” she said—histories by Bernard DeVoto, Dale Morgan, Wallace Stagner, Nels Anderson, LeRoy Hafen, and so on, and fiction by Jonreed Lauritzen, Virginia Sorensen, Sam Taylor, Ardyth Kennelly, and Maurine Whipple. She closed her preliminary report with a characteristic bit of information: “Right now,” she wrote, “I’ve been plowing through diaries and journals, and am right excited by the promise today of a 2-volume, handwritten one by D. D. McArthur, which the family has kept hidden all these years. You can easily see my blind spots,” she said, “so start me on something before I come up to complete my registration.”

It was easy to get Juanita started—with Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land and Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains, and to keep her going with Willa Cather’s My Antonia, A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, and Andy Adams’ Log of a Cowboy, among other titles. By the end of November she had read and reported on an impressive range of “Reading Around in the West,” as she described it. Her evaluations were rooted in life as much as in literature, filled with astute if unconventional commentaries which led my colleague Don Walker to say, “She has her own firm way (stubborn in the best sense), but that makes her comments all the more interesting.” Juanita’s letters and reports that summer and fall described arduous days, work interrupted by family duties and community calls and by visits from government agencies and scholars from eastern campuses researching her files for both sides of what at the time was called “the Piute problem.” She reported that she read Smith’s Virgin Land “with a pencil” and made an eight-page precis for her own files. She did the same with Webb’s The Great Plains. Most valuable for her, she said, was the fresh outlook these books had given her. “No neat answers tucked away in a pigeonhole somewhere.” In one letter she explained the reason for a delayed report: “The deer hunt is upon us.” (That hunt, by the way, was one Karl Brooks invited one of my sons to go on, a son who years later found himself flying helicopters in Vietnam and who remembered, I am sure, his first lessons in responsibility in the field with Karl.) In another letter Juanita confessed that she began reading The Big Sky with resentment, partly because “the print was so small as to be murderous to my eyes,” she said, and partly because the first fifty pages were too full of improbabilities measured against her own pioneer experience. She wanted to “argue a little” with Guthrie about a corpse he kept around too many days before getting it buried. But she liked the book better as she got into it, and even stayed home from stake conference one Sunday to read all day long, in spite of the fact, she said, “that our visitors were Adam S. Bennion and J. Reuben Clark. I found myself so engrossed,” she said, “that I came up out of it as though I had been on a cheap drunk. Actually,” she said, “it took until Monday night to finish it; what with teaching five classes that day I could put in only the short in-betweens.”

This correspondence, I think you will agree, is vintage Brooks, worth the rather long footnote to her personal history I have indulged in. The footnote leads me to my topic because Juanita is not only a fine historian; she is also a born storyteller, and Scandinavians, despite their scarcity in Dixie, figure in several of the anecdotes she recounts in Quicksand and Cactus. One of them, about how Chris Lingo undertook to secure a second wife, has made the rounds for years, but in her girlhood recollection of it as she heard it we get setting, characterization, and a sense of an authentic source, not the quickly told hearsay joke that gets into the folklore collections.

“The Big Ditch was cleaned once a year,” she remembers. “This was usually done in the late fall after most of the crops had been harvested, and each man worked out his assessments in proportion to the land he cultivated… Before work began each morning the Watermaster stepped off the stints and drove in a peg to mark the place of each man. At eight o’clock each was in his place and did his stint, going ahead to do another at the head of the line as soon as he finished… What discussions developed during the noon hour”—discussions Juanita would overhear when she brought her father’s lunch to be eaten in the shade at the top of Uncle Andy’s field. “Men who would shrink from speaking from the pulpit would wax eloquent over the shovel handles; men who turned to stone if asked to address the meeting could entertain the crowd with ease. Here the cloak of sanctity was torn off, tainted jokes were told, testimonies of the overzealous were repeated amid hilarity that was suppressed in church. Here, too, originated tall tales that became legend.” Juanita remembers how Nephi Hunt told about Chris Lingo: “His name ain’t really Chris Lingo, but everybody calls him that because he talks so much. He lives down in San Juan country now, I believe… He came down to this part of the country one fall and stopped over by the cotton factory just at noon. They had between fifty and sixty girls working there then. They brought their lunches and spread them out under the trees, and Chris thought this would be a good time to look the material over. He was out in search of a second. Well, he wanted to get acquainted, and didn’t know a better way, so he went and stood on a big rock not far from their table and took off his hat. You know he was tall and good-looking and had a fine head of curly hair. ‘Give me your attention,’ he called. ‘I have just come from Sanpete County in search of a second wife. Will you young ladies please look me over and if any of you think you would be interested, I would like to talk to you when you finish your dinner.’ Well, the girls did look him over. They joked among themselves and dared each other to talk to him. Finally, quite a crowd did go. He picked out Serenie, and later he married her!”3

Chris Christensen’s story is situation comedy, wholly indigenous and, although without benefit of dialect, is of the earth earthy, what I mean by a sense of humus. It fertilizes the imagination and we find ourselves laughing, but not at Lingo’s expense. Sometimes the humor is verbal, but rooted in circumstance, the language inseparable from the scene, as in Juanita’s reminiscence about the Scandinavian brother’s marvelous barrel of molasses. She remembers how he bore his testimony about it: “We used from it all winter,” he said, “and our married children used from it, and our neighbors used from it. And I am sure that the Lord had his hand in it too.” “We knew,” says Juanita, “that he didn’t mean it like it sounded, but we couldn’t resist repeating it.”4

Humor is no respecter of persons or boundaries, and these stories were echoed, or stories like them originated, wherever the Scandinavians settled in Mormon country. Sanpete and Sevier counties, especially, as centers of Scandinavian settlement, yield a richer harvest than Dixie. St. George and Scandinavia have a common bond in Erastus Snow, who founded the Scandinavian Mission in 1850 and colonized the Cotton Mission in the 1860s, but few of the converts followed him to Dixie. By then, beginning with the first company of Saints who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley from Denmark in 1852, the Scandinavian immigrants had been directed north to Boxelder and south to Sanpete and Sevier counties,5 with Salt Lake City’s Second Ward itself becoming a Little Denmark. Charles L. Walker, whom we associate with the Southern Mission and whose diaries tell us so much about the pioneering generation, resided in the Second Ward before his call to Dixie and had already started his daily entries. On Sunday, October 23, 1859, he noted that he had “calculated to go to the Tabernacle but a Danish Brother came for me to settle a difficulty between him and a scotch man both parties were near to fighting point.” After “laboring with them for about 2 hours” Walker got them to shake hands and feel “pretty well toward each other.”6 Such a dispute finds its echo, with a flourish of dialect, in the anecdote about a Welsh and a Danish brother in a congregation in Malad, Idaho, where the Scandinavians were in the minority. As Sherrie Sorensen tells it, the bishop called the Danish brother into his office and asked what the problem was between him and Brother Jones. Said the Danishman: “Vel, dat old Velshman called me a Danish s. of a b. Now, vouldn’t dat make you upset vit him?” The bishop replied: “No, it wouldn’t bother me at all; I’m not Danish.” Whereupon the Danish brother retorted: “Vel den, vat if he called you dat kind of a s. of a b. vat you are?”7

As in Juanita’s story about the molasses barrel, the humor is linguistic but arises from a realistic situation. A similar comic realism figures in Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, in which Lars Hansen and his wife the Yeast Lady, the novel’s token Scandinavians, enliven the story whenever they appear. Lars made furniture and played the fiddle. “He had decided to go heavily into the cradle business, he told Abijah; that was one market that never ran out in Zion.” And Sister Larson could clack her store teeth and drop her upper plate in “a ghastly misplaced grin” that on more than one occasion scared the Indians off when they were about to steal precious bread. They believed it to be “Mericat-medicine that could make a smile wander at will.”8

I find few references to Scandinavians in Walker’s journal after he moved south. Scandinavians, however, may not have made history in Dixie on the scale they did elsewhere in the state, but a second-generation Swede certainly wrote it, and in passing I want to acknowledge the debt we owe to the late Andrew Karl Larson for his histories and biographies—The Red Hills of November, I Was Called to Dixie, his life of Erastus Snow—which comprise a matchless regional legacy.

And now I see humor in my own situation, standing here presuming to tell you what you already know so well. Compared with Andrew Karl Larson, I am an imposter. I was born in Holland. I am Scandinavian only by adoption. My only credential is that I am a card-carrying member of the Ola Nilsson Liljenquist Family Organization. It came about this way; In 1947, after I had completed a master’s thesis at the University of Utah on “Utah’s Nordic-Language Press,” which I described as “An Aspect and Instrument of Immigrant Culture” and in which I stretched my Dutch to acquire a reading acquaintance with Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, I went off to Harvard carrying my thesis under my arm the way Benjamin Franklin entered Philadelphia with his bread rolls, and signed up for a seminar on the history of immigration with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. He took a look at the thesis and said I ought to capitalize on my Mormon background and do a full-scale history of one of these immigrant convert groups. I chose the Scandinavians because after half a century of proselyting, from 1850 to 1905, the Mormon migration from Scandinavia was as large as the Puritan migration to New England before Cromwell, a movement substantial enough for any history. A paper from Schlesinger’s seminar would be a start.

The American Civilization Program at Harvard in those days required preparation in five areas, one of them in a foreign field related to one’s specialization. With a visiting professor from the University of Uppsala at Harvard that year offering a course on Scandinavian history, I took Providence by the hand and met Sven Liljeblad, an ethnologist who, it turned out, had a special interest in the West because he was constructing a written language for the Bannock Indians of Idaho. While he taught me about Scandinavia I filled him in on the Mormons. One day he called my attention to a notice from the Swedish-American Line announcing an essay contest on Swedish influence in America to commemorate the Swedish Pioneer Centennial in 1948. Professor Liljeblad said I should write an essay on one of my Mormons, and when I told him the sources were in Salt Lake and I was too broke to go home over the Christmas holidays to dig into them in time for the deadline, he reached into his wallet and pulled out the trainfare. I could pay him back, if ever, at my own convenience. “You must go,” he said, and I went. I remember stopping off at the Church Historian’s Office on South Temple on my way home from the Union Pacific Station, impatient to look up something on Ola Nilsson Liljenquist, Hyrum’s Swedish bishop whom I had heard about and who had led in building the town “from the stump up” in the 1860s. Through his enterprise as mayor the town became celebrated in local history as “the cooperative city.” A polygamist with three wives, he knew something about cooperation. At the Historian’s Office I learned about a surviving son, a respected math teacher in the city, who welcomed my inquiries and brought out his father’s letters and a diary.

To make a long story short, I went back to Cambridge after the holidays, essay in hand, showed it to Professor Liljeblad, sent it in to the contest and, back home for the summer, nearly fell out of a cherry tree in our orchard in Mill Creek when a long-distance call from New York in June asked me whether I could take a trip to Scandinavia that summer as one of the prizewinners. The trip was a godsend because, with letters of introduction from Professor Liljeblad to curators and librarians, I got into collections of Amerikabreven, or letters from America, and many printed accounts about the Mormons in Scandinavia, material that ultimately found its way into my dissertation, “Mormons from Scandinavia, the Story of a Religious Migration,” which the University of Minnesota Press published in 1957 as Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia, and which has found its way into many a footnote since.

The point of all this is that the Liljenquist family, proud that their ancestor had made his way into a collection widely distributed during the Swedish Pioneer Centennial, considered me a member of their clan and invited me to annual reunions in Hyrum. Hyrum did not have Ephraim’s reputation as a town that laughed at itself, but during the reunions I heard stories as good as were being told elsewhere. Scandinavians there, like the immigrant convert in nearby Mendon, could complain during the days of anti-polygamy raids when federal marshalls spied out the countryside: “Haf de lies dey tells about us, isn’t trew.”9

At one of these reunions I met Emma Anderson Liljenquist, Cache Valley’s “Aunt Emma,” who at 89 could look back on a long life of service as a pioneer midwife. She remembered an epidemic of sore throat one time and the great many children who were sick. A well-intentioned lady eager to aid went around swabbing the throats. “But she used the same swab for everyone,” said Aunt Emma, “so I guess she spread the trouble instead of curing it.” Aunt Emma’s father was Gustave Anderson, a master stonemason from Sweden who, with his Norwegian wife Maren, came to Utah in 1857, settling first in Salt Lake City’s Second Ward and then, in 1866, in Hyrum. He had a passion for neatness. Aunt Emma told me. He held great pride in his work and in his person. In neither could he ever excuse any carelessness. He was careful to make the well-tailored clothes brought from the Old Country last as long as possible. As soon as he came home from meeting he would take off his Sunday best and required his family to do the same. Whenever the children walked with him to church, they had to walk either well behind or before him lest they kick dust on his polished boots. With walking cane, white shirt, and vest and gloves, he seemed the aristocrat. He set a standard for the town. He extended his desire for neatness and order into a public duty and built a snow plow which he drove himself to clear Hyrum’s paths after a storm. At church conference time he would lend the bishop his own best suit of broadcloth to be worn on the stand; he took pride in having his bishop as dignified as the visiting brethren.

Aunt Emma’s reminiscences, a genteel humor of situation, do not fit the familiar cycle of more robust stories the Scandinavians love to tell on and among themselves. Apostle John A. Widtsoe, himself of Scandinavian stock, once told me, with a twinkle in his eye, a story on Bishop Liljenquist himself, one closer to the kind of humor we expect the minute somebody lapses into dialect: the good bishop, the story goes, was once discovered behind the barn enjoying a cigar, but he was equal to the occasion: “It’s yust too bad,” he said, “to leef all da goot tings to da yentiles.” I took that to be a great original line until I discovered it to be a staple of Scandinavian humor, a hardy perennial in a cycle of stories centering on the Word of Wisdom. The Word of Wisdom cycle, and the cycles centering on polygamy, Indians, natural calamities, testimony meetings, irrigation, domestic matters, and church authorities, are cycles within the large distinctive cycle of Scandinavian humor seen as part of the history of Mormon immigrant literature. These have been collected for pure enjoyment in such retellings as Grace Johnson’s Brodders and Sisters and Woodruff Thomson’s unpublished “Ephraim Stories: The Tellers and the Telling,” or for critical analysis by professional folklorists like Hector Lee in his and Royal Madsen’s “Ephraim’s Nicknames” in the Western Humanities Review in 1949, Thomas Cheney in an article on “Scandinavian Immigrant Stories” in Western Folklore ten years later, and William A. Wilson in several articles in the 70s and 80s, such as his “Folklore of Utah’s Little Scandinavia” in the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1979. Inevitably students and storytellers alike are drawn like flies to the molasses barrel of Ephraim’s stories and storytellers, and within our cycles within cycles, as prominent and well-defined as the Wakefield and Coventry cycles of England’s medieval mystery plays, is the Ephraim Cycle of Scandinavian humor. In a recent issue of Sunstone devoted to “The Seriousness of Mormon Humor” and “The Humor of Mormon Seriousness,” Richard H. Cracroft of Brigham Young University, Mormondom’s unofficial court jester, says that “Our Mormon jokes collect about those points on which we feel the greatest strain—the Word of Wisdom, the amount of money we are required to give to the building of the kingdom, the time spent by each of us and especially our lay leaders, in directing the work of the kingdom, and the austere and self-sacrificing life of the Mormon missionary.”10 Cracroft’s collection points may be the centers of what I have called cycles.

Richard C. Poulsen, also at BYU and a student of material folk culture, laments what he calls “vernacular regression” in the Scandinavian artifacts left in the Sanpete-Sevier region. Pressures on settlers of foreign birth to adopt the manners and customs of the American people are responsible, he believes, for the loss. “The symbolic repetition of forms,” he says, can structure and become a “liberating force in the lives of the people.”11 Fortunately, in Scandinavian immigrant humor we seem to have a hardier strain than in folk art and architecture. Old World ways and attitudes persist, and, to argue from Poulsen’s principle of repetition, the repeated cycles of storytelling create a community bond. In that sense, the storytellers form a guild and guarantee continuity.12

I was lucky enough to get down to Ephraim nearly forty years ago, before the generation of classic anecdotalists and raconteurs like P.C. “Petee Bishop” Peterson had died off. I was working on that master’s thesis I mentioned earlier, and I had been reading correspondence from Ephraim that appeared in Bikuben (The Beehive), the Danish-Norwegian weekly published in Salt Lake City. One correspondent in 1876 was disturbed about “the opinions that many of our foremost towns have concerning us poor ‘Sanpeters’ that the cats and pigs keep the milk pans clean, and the hens lay their eggs in bed, while the milk pans standing on the shelves above them receive the rising dust from the ground, afterward to be mixed with the butter.” Signing himself “Arbeidsbi” (Worker Bee), the correspondent wished to turn loose Bikuben’s whole swarm on such ignorant impressions. To be sure, he said, “since about two thirds of the total population in Sanpete is Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, it naturally follows that many of our national peculiarities survive here—some good, others less good.” But things were improving: “Even our social enjoyments are undergoing a thorough reform.” Cardplaying, drinking, riotous feasting, fighting, and using tobacco were now rarities. Ephraim had built a little theater and the last winter had seen several dramatic productions and concerts “of an instructive character.”13

And it was in Bikuben that I learned about Carl Christian Anton Christensen, painter and poet whose Danish verse was bringing Ephraim and Sanpete as much fame as its good butter. In Bikuben or Skandinavins Stjerne (the Scandinavian Mission’s Star) I read his rhymed letters and humorous sketches and got a foretaste of the comic spirit that animated the whole community. “There are guests in the parlor, but what’s in the pot?” asks a dismayed housewife in one of his sketches. “Man kalder mig Digter, jeg er kun Maler/Og Dansk er det Sprog, jeg daglig taler....” “They call me a poet,” he recited at a Scandinavian festival in Logan in 1892, “but I’m only a painter, and Danish is my daily speech.”14 However slightingly he may have regarded his avocation as a writer of familiar verse as compared with his professional interest in brush and canvas (his work, rediscovered, is now on permanent display in the Church Museum of History and Art across from Temple Square in Salt Lake City), whatever his devaluation of his verse, his ear served him as well as his eye and he recorded the characteristics of his people in authentic accents. To the familiar, the cherished, the sentimental, and the comical in their lives, he gave dignified or witty or gently satirical expression as the occasion demanded. Sometimes the expression was felicitous enough to become memorable and part of the oral tradition of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Saints alike, for all read him. “Den sode Lotte” was often sung to an old-world tune, “Den lille Ole”:

I know a maid and she is fair,
But she is hard to please, I swear;
When her caprices rule her mind
She’s still becoming, but less kind....

She passes lightly in the dance
And easily from Ole to Hans
Who must confess like Samson old
That men are weak and women bold.

(You will have to forgive my inadequate translation.) “Jo, Jo,” heads would nod: “Yes, yes, C.C.A. has said it.” A long comic poem describing a Christmas party at the home of Hans the tilemaker and his good wife Martha appeared on the front page of a December issue of the Utah Posten in 1874, too long, I’m afraid, to recite here, but it would demonstrate that the Scandinavians had as much trouble with the warning in the Doctrine and Covenants that “much laughter is sin” as with observing the Word of Wisdom.

C.C.A.’s verse commentaries on the times and his description of the local scene and the characters he knew provided perennial entertainment. The formula in his “Rimbrev,” or letter in rhyme, varied little, but the observations and witticisms were timely. He described life in Ephralm during one cold February: to keep warm in the evenings the young people waltzed to the music of a rather imposing assemblage of instruments: three violins, two flutes and a dulcimer, a bass viol, a clarinet, guitar, mandolin, and five harmonicas “which the boys can play.” There were also a silver cornet, a trumpet, bassoon, harp, organ, and piano. The town was currently doing well with a homemade remedy for sick folk that sold at a very high price "because what is expensive is considered good,” and people bought it up at a great rate. The fact, said C.C.A., that the concoction contained a generous quantity of brandy may have had something to do with its success. To be sure, one had to have a doctor’s prescription, but it was easy to develop symptoms which miraculously disappeared on purchasing the “medicine.” So the “Apotheket,” where the jars bore Latin titles “to hide from common folk what was in them,” was doing a thriving business; it was the drugstore where all kinds of goods were sold—brushes, coffee, tobacco, oil, and where, moreover, in one corner, was found the post office, on Fridays the rendezvous for people from all around as they awaited the arrival of Bikuben:

Then Danish speech falls on the ear,
The sweetest sound a soul can hear.

C.C.A. loved “det Danske Sprog” and took every opportunity to make the immigrant feel proud of it. He had only scorn for those who hid all old-world books and bric-a-brac and tried to conceal their foreignness. He was willing to hope the Adamic tongue had been a form of Scandinavian, and in several allegorical poems in which the scene is laid in the hereafter, he peoples the spirit world with his “soskende,” has them speak their own Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish, and organizes the Mormons among them into a Scandinavian Stake! Once at a Scandinavian entertainment in Manti, C.C.A. was asked for a speech: in rhyme, as usual, he summed up the panaceas of gold and silver and anti-trust laws and tariffs, and then presented his economic dream for Sanpete, guaranteed to give every family a new carriage, an organ in the parlor, perhaps even a “Klaver” or pianoforte, and new clothes for the womenfolk from head to toe. His plan, he said, was simpler than any that had been proposed: let the chickens lay twice a day; see that eggs sell for a dollar a dozen, wheat for three dollars a bushel; let the cows give milk in rivers that never run dry, and the churns always yield premium butter; and when it rains, let it rain cabbages and potatoes.

C.C.A. was fond of “homespun”—it stood for quality: he might have welcomed the word as a judgment of his verse. In the poem “For og Nu” (“Then and Now”) read at an Old Folks’ gathering in Ephraim in 1909, he satirized the attitude of the younger “enlightened” generation in their belittling of everything associated with the past. Grandfather’s shirt, he said, was always white; it was made of the best linen spun at home by grandmother’s devout hands. It was paid for with an honest kiss, and lasted many a year. C.C.A. was old-fashioned in things he thought counted. He could praise the Lord or poke fun at his people’s foibles. He knew their nearness to sentiment and tears, but he also knew their capacity for laughter. He was a salutary influence then, as he is a delightful memory now.

C.C.A.’s humorous verse, available to whoever can take the trouble to translate it, is the less familiar part of Ephraim’s legacy, though it prepared me for the part that is more familiar, what I would call the congregational humor that seems to be every Ephraimite’s birthright, stories in Scandinavian English that have survived the years like hand-me-downs but today, I am afraid, somewhat the worse for wear as the retellings by the likes of Petee Bishop and Dr. H. Z. Lund, long since gone to their reward, lost their accent. In 1949, Lucille Johnson Butler, Grace Johnson’s sister, descendants of first settlers, aided and abetted by the Ephraim Enterprise, made a determined effort to collect authentic versions while the veterans were still alive. Speechless before professional folklorists and collectors from outside who had tried to record their lore, the local storytellers came alive in a series of dinner gatherings in Ephraim and Salt Lake, where Mrs. Butler recorded their favorite stories onto disc and wire recorders, transcribed them, and submitted them with commentary as a master’s thesis at the University of Utah in 1950, a thesis unaccountably neglected and seldom cited. Mrs. Butler, more entrepreneur than scholar, nevertheless salvaged a considerable body of townlore in the nick of time and gave it a rough classification. Just an M.A. myself at the time, I was only unofficially on her committee, but by then I had my Scandinavian card, had sampled Ephraim’s wonderful variety of nicknames in person, and had heard and seen Petee Bishop and Dr. Lund “in living color.” Whatever re-told, half-told, twice-told tales I know about what the Salt Lake Tribune once called “the funniest town in Utah,”15 I owe to my brief but delightful association with Mrs. Butler and her project. Mrs. Butler classifies the 140 anecdotes in her collection into eight divisions: Nicknames, Farm Life and Industry, Town Life, In Church, Polygamy, Domestic Life, The Coarse Grain, and a concluding anecdote about the storytelling itself which she calls “The Last Word.” In it Christian Hall is doubled over in Fred Nielson’s butcher shop laughing uncontrollably over Fred’s stories and crying, “Fred, qvit now, qvit now, I cannot any more, I cannot any more, I cannot any more.”

We have a Golden Legend, the stories that cluster about J. Golden Kimball kept alive through impersonation; we may some day have a one-man or -woman revival of the Ephraim cycle. Some of Mrs. Butler’s collections, after twenty years, did find its way into her sister Grace Johnson’s booklet Brodders and Sisters in 1973.16 Many of these anecdotes, I am sure, are familiar because they have circulated like old coins minted from true metal.

In these stories even calamity begets humor. It is a humor like Lincoln’s, the Lincoln who could say of a sentry who had fallen asleep at his post and was marked for execution, “Well, I don’t believe shooting will do him any good.” With Mark Twain, these Scandinavian settlers say “Facts are awful, but you can be honest if you laugh.” When the bishop thanks the Lord for last night’s storm, he qualifies, “Dat iss, if it hasn’t done more damages than good.” When he prays for rain he reminds the Lord there will be less tithing if the harvest is poor. When a luckless Dane loses a finger to a buzz saw and his companion chides him, “Why, you fool you. You put your finger right into the saw,” he says, “I dit not; I yust vent like dat—oops, der goes de udder vun.” When the alarm goes out that Indians are raiding the hayfields and Niels Thompson sees his companions who are working on the fort wall fall on their knees and begin to pray he turns to swearing, “Get the hell off your knees! Get the hell on your horses! Get the hell out in the field!” He is “stuck off the kirk” (excommunicated) for his profanity, but one of the church authorities comes down to hear the case and reinstates him, saying, “There is a time to pray and a time to swear. And when the Indians are killing your people, there is no time to pray.” When her neighbor commiserates with her over the loss of her husband, a widow says, “That was the first experience I had with that, but then I could have stood that, but less than ten days after, our Jersey cow died.” When Lars Larsen is accused of stealing water and is confronted with one witness who says he was just fifty yards away when he saw Lars take the water, and another who was sixty yards away “and he seen you,” Lars tells the justice, “Dey are both liars. Dey vas more dan two hunnert yards avay ven I steal dat vater.” “Then you did steal the water?” “Dat,” says Lars, “remains for de yury.”

In these stories Brother Thompson wonders why the town needs a fence around the cemetery: “Those inside ean’t get out and those outside don’t want to come in.” In these stories Sarah Ann Peterson’s Danish dumpling soup wins a war when Black Hawk eats his fill and, with swollen belly, leaves satisfied and peaceful. In these stories Brother Yergensen, appraising material for his wife’s burial clothes, says, “It look all right, but vill it vear?” (In some versions the deceased is his mother-in-law.) In these stories funerals and weddings lose their solemnity in unexpected turns of phrase, as when Brother Peterson laments the death of a member of the congregation: “It vas only yesterday he vas in our midst; now all that lies before us is the old carcass.” And when the bishop joins Yon Jacob Jorgensen and Helena Sophia Torkelsen in marriage he does so “vit all de authority I has under my vest” and pronounces them “vater and mutter.”

In these stories an irate first wife throws pig slops on her husband and the younger, more comely second wife in bed. In these stories the bishop warns the young people not to play “run, sheep, run” after dark because he doesn’t “vant a lot of little lambs running around in de spring.” In these stories a father warns his son that a girl he has been seeing in Salina has been “monkeyin’ vit efry poy in dat town” and the son answers, “Hell, Dad. Salina ain’t such a big town.” In these stories the “biscop” interrupts a dance at the meeting-house: “Shtop de music shtop de music, dey is drummers in our midst.” But the bishop emerges smiling after a hurried conference with strangers: “Iss awright, iss awrlght; dey is drummers from de ZCMI.”

In these stories Brother Petersen is asked to close the meeting with prayer, and half the men in the congregation come forward. “I mean Peter Peterson,” and half of those sit down. In these stories nicknames are necssary to make distinctions: Cooper Pete, Baler Pete, Big Pete, Little Pete, Pete Bishop, Petee Bishop. All are Peter Petersens or Petersons. In these stories Brother Yohanesen drinks too freely of his elderberry wine, and Brother Justensen sneaks his cop of coffee. But he exonerates himself: “It vas no sin. It don’t boil.” In these stories some Scandinavian Saints are so devout they abstain from drinking coffee on Sunday, and everyone is sure the Lord approves of Danish barley beer.

In these stories, finally, while the Saints struggle with nature and human nature, with sin and syntax, the Indians, it is said, learn to speak English with a Scandinavian accent.

Reduced to the mere point of the story, Mrs. Butler’s collection can induce indigestion or eventually jade the palate. We miss the tellers of the tales, their voice and nuances. It is better when the lore gets into the storytelling, as we have seen in Juanita Brooks’ reminiscences, or in Virginia Sorensen’s fiction, or in the regional dramas of Wanda Clayton Thomas, the way the oral literature of England’s Wessex, say, gets into Thomas Hardy, or of the Mississippi into Mark Twain.

In the title story of Virginia Sorensen’s collection Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, Brother Tolsen kills a neighbor caught stealing water, one of those shovel murders not uncommon in irrigation country. Brother Tolsen turns himself in to Bishop Peterson and is acquitted by a jury to whom “stealing water is stealing life itself.” When, years later. Brother Tolsen dies, Virginia as narrator, a young girl at the time of the murder, thinks, “Well, another one is gone; soon there won’t be a real Danish accent left in the whole valley.” Amid the details of irrigation, the ritual of Water Turns, the importance of the Water Master, we get a child’s reminiscence: “I loved to hear Bishop Petersen tell about Denmark, from which he had come as a young man. I asked him all sorts of questions to keep him talking, for his odd accent and laughter pleased me… The water was to him, next to the Gospel itself, the unmistakable sign of the Kingdom.” One other memory lingers: after the trials, the young Virginia is driving along with her family and sees Brother Tolsen out irrigating: “Dad and Mother waved and called to him. He lifted an arm to answer, and I saw that he held a shovel in the other hand. ‘I wonder if he bought a new shovel,’ I said suddenly. For a minute, the air seemed to have gone dead about us, in the peculiar way it sometimes can, which is so puzzling to a child. Then Mother turned to me angrily. ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you say a thing like that again!’ she said. ‘Brother Tolsen is a good, kind man!’ So until this very hour I never have.”17 We have moved from the crude humor of “Dey vas more dan two hunnert yards avay ven I steal dat vater” to the unintended irony of a young girl’s “I wonder if he bought a new shovel.”

In “The Vision of Uncle Lars,” in the same collection, Great-Aunt Anegrethe reminisces about how she and Lars, who became her husband, knew they were meant for each other. The tale is told over coffee to Virginia, who remembers the eipsode as a young girl. In the parlor, Great-Aunt Anegrethe begins with a story about Virginia’s great-grandfather who crossed the plains in the early days and who had an abiding love for his Danish Johanna and was never converted to polygamy. “When Brighm Young advised him to take a second wife (since he could afford it and she wanted him) he complied to the extent of a ceremony and giving her his good name. But according to the family legend, he fitted out a small house for her, with Johanna’s help, and never so much as spoke to her again. Her maintenance was attended to as long as she lived, arriving promptly every month, by mail.” Aunt Anegrethe said, “Polygamy and the Word of Wisdom—we Danes didn’t take to either one.”18

Then Virginia as narrator, and, as an Eggertsen and a Sorensen, a Scandinavian twice over, describes the coffee ritual; “Coffee is the heart of breakfast, the true beginning of the day. It is the soul of late afternoon when work is finished and friends and relations can gather over a table laden with fine pastries and thick cream and sugar, all set out splendidly in Royal Copenhagen china on a white linen cloth with a bouquet of flowers in the center and, more often than not, especially in wintertime when dark falls early, candles burning. There is laughter and relaxed conversation. Good bread is brought from the oven in the nick of time, its incomparable fragrance the natural twin of that aroma sweeter than any other, coffee just come to the boil. It is made properly in an open pot, the grains held by egg beaten with its shell, so the coffee is settled and sparkling and clear… ‘Brother Joseph never meant that Word of Wisdom for Danes!’” And Aunt Anegrethe takes delight in pointing out a book to her young listener which says that the Prophet himself sold coffee in his store in Nauvoo and that Brigham Young had served it in fine silver in the Beehive House. And once she triumphantly points out part of a journal by the wife of Colonel Thomas L. Kane about a dinner party given “right here in Provo,” and how a long grace was said before meat. “I noticed,” wrote Mrs. Kane, “that President Young’s eye had wandered over the table, to see every cover lifted, even the glass top of the butter dish. The stoppers were taken from the decanters of homemade wine. I once saw, at a Mormon dinner party in the city.” Mrs. Kane continues, “the corks drawn from the champagne bottles which effervesced in accompaniment to the speaker.” And Aunt Anegrethe points delightedly to the end of the menu: “And ‘tea and coffee’!”19 In the concluding story, “The Secret Summer,” the narrator remembers a 24th of July parade with a handcart float: “one of the little carts carried a fluttering Danish flag.”20

In such literary re-creations of the Scandinavian Mormon past, the humor has undergone a sea change, to be sure, but the indigenous anecdote and the elegant reminiscence serve the same function: they are the tie that binds, the descendant learning to cope and accommodate, through irony, as once the ancestor did through humor.

Let me conclude with a moment from Wanda Clayton Thomas’ dialect play, “Celestial Bliss, or Heavenly Marriage,”21 which she describes as “A farce in one act” and dedicates to “those delightful Danishmen in central Utah, whose wonderful sense of humor made this possible.” The play is about a polygamous Danish family trying to outwit the federal marshalls who are confused by the plethora of Ole Olesons and Peter Petersons in the same community. Though the characters are fictitious, the episodes are inspired by “what actually happened,” the story of these escapades coming from the mouths of their descendants.

As the curtain rises, Steeny Peterson, the first wife of Peter Peterson (otherwise known as Peter Crumbs), stands in stern authority over young Peter Peterson (otherwise known as Peter Woodenhead), a 12-year-old, slow-witted boy. Beany Pola, his mother, is the second wife: Treeny the third. There are two mothers-in-law, Treeny’s deaf mother tearing and sewing rag rugs, and Steeny’s fat mother crocheting. Woodenhead is front and center, as Steeny, playing the part of a marshall, tries to teach him what to say should the feds really come:

STEENY: Who...iss...your...Papa?


STEENY: Who iss your Papa!!

PETER (stricken): Huh?

STEENY: Voodenhead! Peter Voodenhead, who iss your Papa?

PETER (hesitantly): He… he is out in da grain’ry.

STEENY: No! Ach… fe’scrackly! For fifty times, NO! You are not to say he is in da grain’ry. Vot you should say?

PETER (looking helpless): I don’ know.

STEENY: Dot’s it. “I don’ know!” You don’ know who is your Papa. Ferstaya? Now… Who is your Papa?

PETER (looking in terror at his mother who tries to mouth the message, “I don’ know”): I don’ know.

STEENY: Ach! Dot’s gut. Ven da Marshalls is coming an’ saying “Who is your Papa?” Dot’s vot you say… “I don’ know.” You don’ vant your Papa vit his head shaved off sitting in yail vit stripes around mit. Ve try vonce more. Sister Treeny! Git out vit da duster on. Da Marshall Clauson you is being!…

Peter Woodenhead, needless to say, fails to meet the test; he reveals his father’s hideout and Papa goes to jail. Were there time we could regale ourselves with a cycle of polygamy anecdotes. In them, the Scandinavians are hardly the depressed and apprehensive figures portrayed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for December 15, 1883, under the caption, “The Twin Relics of Barbarism—the Wolves and the Lambs,” showing the “Arrival of Scandinavian Converts in Charge of Mormon Missionaries, at Castle Garden, en Route for Salt Lake City.”22 If these women got to Ephraim, they cheered up considerably, I’m sure. Mark Twain was certain there was no humor in heaven, in which event the Scandinavian Mormons would hardly feel at home there. Theirs was indeed a “sense of humus,” a humor of the earth, earthy. Ex-Ephraimites, I am told, want to be taken home to Ephraim when they die. They would prefer, even in death, to be with a people who had the gift of laughter.

  1. The review, excerpted here, appeared in Western American Literature, 19:2 (August 1984), 167-68.
  2. The file was handed over to Karl Brooks at the conclusion of the lecture.
  3. Juanita Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1982), pp. 107, 109. After my lecture, I received a letter about Chris Lingo from Don Pipkin of Enoch, Utah, prompted by his reading an account of it in the St. George Spectrum for May 31. Mr. Pipkin reminisced: “I remember him from when I was a small child growing up in Monticello, San Juan County. I remember well two of his sons and one daughter. One son, by the same name as his father, was a respected farmer and San Juan County Sheriff for a number of years. Another son by the name of Joseph married my grandmother’s sister. Chris Lingo lived for some time at a small community six miles south of Monticello and his son Joseph used to be known by this handle: ‘I am Dick Hootin McGrue, Chris Lingo’s kid from South Verdure Creek.’ ‘Dick Hootin’s’ kids are my second cousins and the originators of the tourist attraction known as ‘The Hole in the Rock’ located about 12 miles south of Moab. I appreciated your Danish humus…” It’s nice to have the Chris Lingo story not only confirmed but enhanced.
  4. Brooks, p. 113.
  5. Scandinavian first settlers in Sanpete County were among the 309 heads of families recruited for the Cotton Mission in the fall of 1861. See Andrew Karl Larson, I Was Called to Dixie (1961), p. 13. Larson cites James G. Bleak’s manuscript Annals of the Southern Utah Mission and notes that Bleak does not list those who came from Sanpete.
  6. My notes derive from the three typescript volumes of Walker’s diary I consulted years ago at the Utah State Historical Society. It is now available in two volumes edited by A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980).
  7. Quoted in William A. Wilson, “Folklore of Utah’s Little Scandinavia,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 47:2 (Spring, 1979), 163.
  8. Maurine Whipple, The Giant Joshua (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1941), pp. 276, 277, 288.
  9. See my article “Prisoners for Conscience’ Sake” in Lore of Faith and Folly, ed. Thomas E. Cheney (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1970), pp. 135-44, and my essay “Ola Nilsson Liljenquist and His Cooperative City” in The Will to Succeed: Stories of Swedish Pioneers (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1948), pp. 88-99.
  10. Richard H. Cracroft, “The Humor of Mormon Seriousness,” Sunstone, 10:1 (1985), 15.
  11. Richard C. Poulsen, “Folk Material Culture of the Sanpete-Sevier Area: The Problem of Vernacular Regression,” Chapter 6 in The Pure Experience of Order: Essays of the Symbolic in the Folk Material Culture of Western America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), pp. 70-95.
  12. On how shared storytelling can create a bond, see William A. Wilson, On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1981). Wilson emphasizes what telling the stories means by way of affording an initiation, an identification, and in letting off steam, dealing with pressures.
  13. Letter to the Editor, n.d., Bibuken (Salt Lake City), October 1, 1876.
  14. See my article “‘Man Kalder Mig Digter’: C.C.A. Christensen, Poet of the Scandinavian Scene in Early Utah,” Utah Humanities Review, 1:1 (January, 1947), 8-17, from which several of the passages that follow are adapted.
  15. Tom Mathews, “The Funniest Town In Utah,” Salt Lake Tribune Magazine, January 8, 1950.
  16. Grace Johnson, Brodders and Sisters (Manti: Messenger-Enterprise Printing Co., 1973, 56 pages).
  17. Virginia Sorensen, Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963), pp. 3-15.
  18. Sorensen, pp. 161-62.
  19. Sorensen, pp. 162-63.
  20. Sorensen, p. 202.
  21. Wanda Clayton Thomas, Five Original Dramas, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Utah, 1957. The other plays are “They Shall Inherit the Earth” (also a Danish dialect play), “Vengeance is Mine,” “Hans Clodhopper and the Princess,” and “Peterle.”
  22. Reproduced in Gary Bunker and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983), Fig. 67 in Chapter 4, “Troublesome Bedfellows: Mormons and Other Minorities,” pp. 75-94.

William Mulder


University of Utah, Salt Lake City

William Mulder was born June 24, 1915, Haarlem, Holland, where his father was a printer. The family came to the United States in 1920 as Mormon converts headed for Zion. They lived in New Jersey for six years to repay immigration debts, finally reaching Salt Lake City in 1926, where they have made their home ever since.

Dr. William Mulder is Professor of English at the University of Utah, where he has taught since 1946. The University gave him a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1977. He has both his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University, and his Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard (1955). He has been editor of The Western Humanities Review and was founding director of both the Institute of American Studies and the Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of Utah. He has taught summers at the University of Washington, Sonoma State College, Brigham Young University, and the University of California at Berkeley, and for one year was visiting instructor at Duke. In 1978, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters and presently is serving as its President-elect. He was honored by the Academy with the Charles Redd Award in the Humanities.

Dr. Mulder served as a communications officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II and had a tour of duty on Okinawa.

Dr. Mulder has been to India six times on educational assignments on leave from his university: in 1957-58, he was Fulbright lecturer in American literature at Osmania University in Hyderabad; in the summer of 1962, he lectured throughout India as American Specialist for the State Department; from 1965 to 1968, he served as Director of the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad, a bi-national undertaking, and served there as Visiting Consultant during a sabbatical quarter in 1974; in December-January, 1978-79, he lectured at Indian universities and participated in a seminar at the dedication of a new building for the center, and in July 1979, he returned to India with his family for another three-year term as director of the center.

Dr. Mulder has served on the national American Studies Advisory Committee for the Fulbright program (1969-72) and was Secretary-Treasurer of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association from 1974-77.

In the summer of 1977, Dr. Mulder visited Japan under the auspices of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission to evaluate American Studies collections at seven universities.

In 1976, Indian scholars published a festschrift in his honor, Studies in American Literature, edited by Jagdish Chander and Narindar Pradhan (Oxford University Press, New Delhi).