Winner of First Prize in the essay contest of the American Denmark Committee to the 1939 New York World’s Fair
By JOHANNES KNUDSEN
That Americans of Danish descent will have a place in building the world of tomorrow, there can be no doubt. No human being lives a life without result or significance, each has a part and a purpose. But there is a wide gap between part and importance of different individuals or groups. To illustrate: the geological foundation upon which Denmark rests is an immense chalk bed. This bed was formed by untold numbers of foraminifera whose place in the world of today is found in the mass of a foundation. Their place is important but without distinction. Americans of Danish descent are sure pf a place no less important. In comparison, the crystals of the diamond may also be minute, yet they sparkle and attract with individual brilliance. Americans of Danish descent have the possibility of scintillating service.
The possibilities of the Danish-American contribution are great, the probabilities must suffer the restraint of a question mark. Guided by true understanding and faithful devotion, the Danish-American contribution may become a gem; without these features it may be as colorless and undistinctive as that of the foraminifera. While indications are that the contribution will not be negative, the great numbers of Americans of Danish descent must increase their understanding and faithfulness considerably, unless the tase of contribution falls to single individuals or small groups.
Predictions are easy to make, but the test of time is hard to pass. The premises of a prediction are therefore all-important. When we consider these as the basis for our discussion, we are reminded of the answer given to Alladin by the Spirit of the Lamp in Oehlenschlager’s famous draw, that he who knows the nature of the soil of character and the seed of culture can to some extent predict the future. From a knowledge of the soil of character and the seed of culture we can discuss the future contribution. This is at best a precarious task, for even as the mechanistic theories of heredity were shattered by the discovery of mutations so might all our laborious predictions be put to rout by the unexplainable bloom of a genius. Cultural growth is inspirational rather than mathematical. A limited cultural significance may have been predicted for Grundtvig as the fruit of a fine old family, but the height and depth of his vision and insight could never have been anticipated. And who could, from character and culture, have see the swan in the ugly duckling or the peerless philosopher in the peculiar progeny of Kierkegaard, the wool-merchant. Nevertheless, knowing that reality may put our predictions to shame, we shall try to speak of future contributions on the basis of an analysis of the soil of Danish character and the seed of Danish culture.
Danish national character, formed and shaped through centuries of work and experience, seems not to follow one line but two. In mentioning these, we are not thinking of the usual cliches about Danish hospitality, Danish humor, Danish gratitude of the like. Such traits may indeed be found in many if not all peoples. We are thinking of a certain visionary quality on the one hand and a practical capability on the other. Denmark has fostered great thinkers, poets, and artists, but also men of great practical accomplishment. And the Danish spirit rises to its greatest heights where the two lines join in happy union.
Unfortunately, however, the two are not always joined in harmony. Where the visionary is not practical, he becomes a dreamer who plans but never fulfills. Of him the vacillating spirit of Hamlet is characteristic:
To be or not to be that is the question!
Whether’tis better in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of trouble!
Of such the history of Denmark gives many examples. The brilliancy of Anders Sørensen Vedel left few results of his far-flung plans. The tortured mind of Christian II suffered tragically under lack of decision. The faltering policies of the 1850s led to the loss in 1864.—Danish poets have seen and described this. Peder Paars was the antithesis of his own heroic posture. Erasmus Montanus did not have the courage of his convictions, and Henrik Pontoppidan has indicted the “brow-beaten spirit” of his countrymen when he speaks of “Danskens sløve Folkesind, som ingen Strid kan vække”
Too often the Danish emigrant has also been satisfied with dreaming and planning. He has wept sentimentally at the memory. of what was left behind. He has planned and talked of cultural achievements, but he has been less able to carry out his plans than most other emigrant groups. Hopes for future contributions will largely strand on the drifting sand-bars of uncertainty and indecision. Many of the Danish organizations in America remind us too painfully of Peder Paars in their insignificance. The contributions of Americans of Danish descent to the world of tomorrow will be seriously handicapped by this shortcoming.
Of the other characteristic, the practical capability, we find many examples own the past. From the conquests of the Vikings to the modern agricultural miracles and proud technological and commercial feats runs a strong and important line. And on this line we can string many a pearl whose lister shines even yet: Absalon, Margrete, Griffenfeldt, Rewentlow, Dalgas, Tietgen, and many others. And today we find them on the map of Greenland, of Asia Minor, China, Siam [Thailand] etc. , and on the seven seas.—The history of Danish science reveals them: Tycho Brahe, Ole Rømer, Niels Finsen, Niels Bohr, etc. They are indeed men who have carved their names in history by their accomplishments.
Also the Danish emigrant has often achieved brilliance. In American industry, commerce, agriculture, education, and politics the Dane is respected for his sturdy ability. But too often his practical side has also remained an isolated quality. The vision has stayed behind or has been compartmentalized in dreams or in private or organizational life. It has been absent in the workshop and the office, and future contributions will be seriously handicapped by the isolation also of this characteristic.
The two lines have many times been joined in close union, also in Danish-American history. When tis has happened, great personalities have influenced the world about them. If this happens in the future, and we can safely presume that it may, then the basis is laid for a contribution of importance, provided, of course, that the other factor, the seed of culture, be present.
The culture of Denmark has reached a high stage of development. It has found fine expression through the means of art, literature, and music. This is a flower of the Danish spirit which has inspired and enriched not only each new generation of Denmark’s own children but also those of many other countries, and it is valuable enough that it will inspire new and perhaps greater contributions in the world of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, however, this heritage belongs to but a small minority of Danish emigrants. Danish literature is read and followed ardently—by a small group, Danish pictures and Danish music are known in a small percentage of homes. Many people know about Throvaldsen, Gade, and Oehlenschlager, but how many are familiar with Jensen Klint, Carl Nielsen, and Kaj Munk? For the mass of the emigrants Danish art has become museumized, and it is no longer a living thing. Eventual contributions in this field will come from a favored few. And how can the finest products of culture grow without the soil of people?—A splendid exception is found in those groups, however, where Danish folk singing still lives.
Another cultural value is found in the social development of Denmark. The reclamation of the heath, the parcelling out of the old estates, the growth of the co-operatives, the development of agricultural and marketing techniques, the social legislation and social welfare, all of these are achievements which could be stimuli for further development in the new world. A splendid basis is here found for Danish-American contributions in a world which is at the threshold of a new age, and it is probable that this field will, in the future, show the greatest accomplishments from the immigrant group. It needs but to assimilate what has been accomplished and then go on. Until now the inspiration for such work has, however, only to a small degree been furnished by Danish-Americans. Denmark is held up as an example for the world, but those who have been leaders in incorporating such development into American life have not been its emigrant children. With but few exceptions they have left the pioneering work to others and are not as faithful as many other groups have been to their mother countries. Unless they do better in the future this heritage will not be lifted, or lifted only by individuals or small groups.
The same is true of that great Danish educational growth, the folk schools. No other single factor has been as instrumental in furthering and developing the culture of Denmark and its folk values as these schools, and American educators are even now working hard to follow their ways in our country. There is possibility of great future achievement, if immigrant children could continue this work in the people of our choice, but the prospects are small at present. The pioneering generations deserve praise for their effort to transplant the folk school to our shores, and the seed that has been sown there will yet bear fruit to an unexpected degree, but most of the schools have been forced to close their doors for lack of support. Unless we lose our infatuation in formalized education and wake up to the value of the folk school, another splendid opportunity for a unique contribution will be forfeited.
Besides the cultural field we must finally consider the church. Although Danish emigrants have to an unusual degree deserted the church, the church of our fathers nevertheless lives among us. That church, which through eleven hundred years has brought the lift of the gospel to the people of Denmark, will continue to bring this light so the coming generations in this country. Its contribution may not be different from that of many other groups, but even without distinction it still mediates the greatest contribution of all. If the church can be faithful to its call and continue to serve, the fruits of the spirit will be found in the life of the future.
But the contribution of the Danish church might become distinctive. It has possibilities of influencing American life to a far greater degree than any of the other factors we mentioned. When we say this, we are not considering those many features which the Danish church has in common with other churches, but of the one unique contribution which was given by the life and thought of N.F.S. Grundtvig. American church life is today struggling in an impasse with stagnated orthodoxy on the one side and frustrated liberalism on the other. Leading churchmen are groping toward that vision which can lead the way to the future. The answer to their quest has been given by Grundtvig, and some day his name may be symbolic of a new day in American church life,—if it is brought into that life. This possibility lies before the Danish-American group, which here has the greatest opportunity of all. If it is faithful!
We started by saying that there was need for understanding and faithfulness. Americans of Danish descent can fill a large place in the world of tomorrow if they understand their heritage and remain faithful to it, i.e. if they really live in it. When the two sides of Danish character, the vision of the great heritage with its possibilities for the future and the practical and energetic ability to carry it out, become merged in an individual or a group, then we may expect that there will be carved in the life of the future a place of unique importance.
Americans of Danish descent do live in a vacuum. They live in a country with a heritage and a nature of its own. This heritage may overwhelm and smother the Danish heritage, but it may also enhance and enrich it, may bring out the best in it. American vision and American ability can in turn be stimulated and aided by Danish characteristics.
As in the old Bible story, it took three generations before the blessing of Abraham blossomed out in the work of Jacob, so may we have to wait for a third generation Americans of Danish descent before we see the blessings of the heritage in new soil. Let us hope that the people will not be lost among the fleshpots of an Egypt so that, after four hundred years, it will need a Moses to liberate it!
Bridget Lois Jensen