Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927) was born at Kirkjuhóll, Skagafjörður. In 1873, he emigrated with his parents to the United States. He was three times a pioneer, first in Wisconsin in 1874; then in North Dakota in 1880; and lastly in Markerville, Alberta, in 1889, where he lived as a farmer for the rest of his life.
Despite the hard toil of pioneer farm-life Stephan G. Stephansson was a prolific writer. And he is the most acclaimed of the immigrant writers by critics both in the East and the West. Stefán Einarsson (History of Icelandic Prose Writers 1800-1940, Islandica 32-33, Ithaca, 1948) calls him “the greatest American-Icelandic writer” (p. 243), Watson Kirkconnell (in University of Toronto Quarterly 5 [1935-1936], pp. 263-277) argues that he is “Canada’s leading poet” (p. 263), and F. Stanton Cawley (in Scandinavian Studies and Notes 15 , pp. 99-109) claims that he is “the greatest poet of the Western World” (p. 99). His poems and essays, many of which appeared in Western Icelandic newspapers and periodicals, were later published in the collections Úti á viðavangi (Winnipeg, 1894), Á ferð og flugi (Reykjavík, 1900), Andvökur I-VI (Reykjavík and Winnipeg, 1909-38), Kolbeinslag (Winnipeg, 1914), Heimleiðis (Reykjavík, 1917), Vigslóði (Reykjavík, 1920), Jökulgöngur (Wynyard,1921), Andvökur. Úrval (Reykjavík, 1939), Úrvalsljóð (Reykjavík, 1945), Gullregn úr ljoðum Stephans G. Stephanssonar (Reykjavík, 1967), Bréf og ritgerðir I-IV (Reykjavík, 1938-48), and Frá einu ári. Kvœði, bréf og erindi frá árinu 1891 (Reykjavík, 1970).
Though chiefly a lyric poet, Stephan G. Stephansson also wrote a number of short stories. During the years between 1894 and 1901, he wrote a series of sketches called “Ar” (“Motes in a Sun-Beam”). These sketches – “Buried Alive,” “The Morning Breeze,” “Greybeard,” “Charity and Fairness,” “Foreboding,” “The Last Plover,” “The Death of Old Guðmundur the Student,” “The New Hat,” and “The Seventh Day” – are translated from “Kviksettur,” “Morgunvindurinn,” “Gráskeggur,” “Kœrleikur og Sanngirni,” “Fyrirför,” “Seinasta lóan,” “Fráfall Guðmundar gamla stúdents,” “Nýi hatturinn” and “Sjöundi dagurinn” in Heimskringla 1894-1901. Five of these sketches (“The Morning Breeze,” “Greybeard,” “Foreboding,” “The Last Plover” and “The Death of Old Guðmundur the Student”) were reprinted in Einar H. Kvaran and Guðm. Finnbogason, eds., Vestan um haf (’Reykjavík, 1930), pp. 552-572. All nine sketches were published in Bréf og ritgerðir IV, pp. 41-76.
1. Buried Alive
NOW AND THEN you’ve urged me to recite for you a verse, dear children. If you think that I did it to please you, I must be straight with you. I merely recite verses in order not to have to listen to you, so that your yelling doesn’t drive me crazy. You’ve long been displeased with me, because my poems are about clouds and woods and other such incomprehensible and indigestible things, and because I’ve never bothered to recite hymns or flattering verses about you, nor panegyrics about Titus Tallowshield of whom you are so fond because he pretends to be the son of a rich man. You’ve not been particularly interested in my epics, because no one’s skull has been cleaved nor has anyone’s heart been pierced, for if any of my heroes have felt a bit of pain, although caused by people, it was nonetheless always by what you call accidents, and not with spears and bullets. And your brains and hearts are still so small that one needs binoculars to see them, as you might say. I hope they grow, grow a lot, later – and then ...
No, I shall make no guesses. But now I intend to be entertaining and compose in the way I expect you to like best. I shall write about the things you all believe in, that this world is nothing but a large soup bowl around which we’re all sitting, and that the happiest is the one who snatches the most and the fattest bits; and to console the ones who get nothing or who sit with thin soup, I shall compose as poignantly as I can verses relating that above us all hangs an even larger soup bowl, where one day everyone will get more, and more than enough, and no one will be excluded. In addition, I intend to place distinguishing numbers on the clouds, so that you know which one Tm writing about each time, and then my poems will be approximately as follows, with regard to title and content.
Poem about the black cloud number two, which sits on the ridge of Skollakollur:
The rain will come from it, I think,
so that the dry earth moist grows.
Our cows will then be in the pink,
and from them delicious cream flows.
Perhaps it’s not possible to sing this verse, although it is a tetrameter; but I hope I’ll improve so that eventually I’ll be able to compose octametric hymns like the ones you learn in Sunday school, dear children.
But it just so happens that today I don’t feel like composing. I’m like a fiddle that has been stored in a damp place – I’ve lost my tune. Therefore, I want to tell you a story, but it’s not about me, rather, it’s a story about a man who was buried alive. I hope you’ll understand it, especially those of you who fear more than anything to end up being buried alive.
Everywhere, on streets and stairs, in towns and houses, he met them, these miserable dwarfs, with bony hands and bent backs, with downcast countenances and misty eyes. He felt sorry for them and asked who had hurt them and stopped their growth. They all told the same story, and they all told it in the same way. They took him to a private place, where they thought no one would see them or hear them, stretched up to his ears, cupped their hands around the words, so that they streamed straight into his ear, and were not whispered to the public out of the side of the mouth that turned away from him.
“Our hands have become bony from all the hard work, especially over the last years, for us to have food to eat sometimes and towards a pension for Capitalist, our bankrupt merchant and his family, who in ten years became so wealthy that he’ll never have to work again, although he’s not even forty years old. Our backs have become bent from carrying the burden of taxes, which the government places upon us, for raising horses for fun and for riding, while using us as packhorses. And we have such downcast countenances, because Reverend Steinn and the Church have threatened to call us heathens and villains, if we don’t humbly believe that our children, on whom the government takes revenge by hanging them for what it calls a serious crime, are still tortured in hell, on the other side of the gallows and the grave mound. But we’ve never been able to believe that about our own children, although we consider it likely about the children of Unitarians. God help us! We’ve had to brood on this but never dared to say it aloud, because we want to have priests and churches, and not to become fools and villains, but instead be Christians like we are. The misty cloud over our eyes is from staring. From as far back as we can remember, we were not allowed to look away from these three things: faith, law and custom. Those in power imprisoned all who deviated from these. Now and then they executed them, but for us, who were obedient and helpful, they held a punishment-celebration to keep us going.”
Then he asked them if they were pleased with these conditions, and if they desired any changes.
“Yes, in God’s name, in God’s name,” they shouted, those who writhed with hunger. “In the name of fairness,” others interrupted, and rubbed their bony hands. “In the name of humanity and brotherhood,” some mumbled and hung their heads imploringly. “In the name of reason and progress,” others quickly added, and rubbed their eyes. “In the name of freedom,” they shouted with one voice. “We’d reward him well who’d set us free.”
On Monday he wrote in his paper, Frankness, an article about how the property of destitute people was tricked away from them. He tried to demonstrate that under the present financial laws of so-called civilized people, poor people paid the highest taxes, and that reliable people had to pay indirectly the debts of the dishonest. He also pointed out that the ones who owned nothing but made a living from toil alone, paid taxes to others on all necessities in this country, where all goods were taxed, because he could not grant himself anything, and that through trickery in sales and purchases, slyness had made them provide sufficiently for itself by estimating ten to twenty-five percent of the price of many popular goods as money lost into the hands of stupid and dishonest debtors, and the smaller merchants then followed the same rule. Therefore, they increased the price for those who paid, about ten or twenty-five percent in order to avoid losses, and as a consequence they were twenty-five times wealthier. He referred to Capitalist, the bankrupt merchant, whom all knew began from nothing and went bankrupt with enormous debts, which he never paid, and whom all knew now to be an idle, wealthy man. Such men, he said, were in reality worse than arrant thieves.
The day after Capitalist had read the article about himself, he was highest on the collection list with a $100 gift to the famine-fund, so that the hungriest got a free meal each day, while the outburst of compassion among the rich people was hottest and the bad weather of Providence coldest. When this had become known and when the crowd of those with bony hands and misty eyes met the bankrupt merchant in the street, they moved aside for him and bowed gratefully, as those who are doomed bow before a guardian spirit. Those who themselves had always shirked their work, when the foreman looked away, found that it was a unique, meritorious conscientiousness that once in a while voluntarily paid human society one millionth of the interest on capital which it had unlawfully acquired.
On Tuesday his paper included an article about highwaymen in politics. In this article he attempted to demonstrate that in no other country were half the taxes paid by the citizens used for general necessities. Paupers were called “welfare cases,” and that was considered a degrading word. “Political paupers” were called “government officers,” because people had agreed that it was a title of honour. This often constituted the whole difference among people. He used their government as an example of the manner in which expenditure was decided upon, and mentioned some political welfare cases by name, such as Error Backpack, who was sent all over the country with an empty government bag in his possession, with the sole purpose of giving governmental pretence to his $3,000 annual salary. He concluded by saying that their so-called liberal government was in reality a gang of robbers and tyrants.
The next day Error Backpack carried around a petition for signatures, declaring that the government should cease giving funds to road repairs and water culverts for the bogs in the remote settlement, Heath Thing; the taxes were too high for the general public, because of the costs involved. Those with bent backs and downcast countenances all wanted to sign their names, and the most keen were the ones who could not write their name themselves but had to get others to do it for them. They themselves lived in cities with paved roads and didn’t give a damn if their fellow countrymen in Heath Thing were stuck in the bogs out there. It was too much to expect them to pay to help drag them out of the bogs; they could do that themselves. In the evening they added a new redeemer to their faith: Error. He was after all the only progressive man who would do something to the advantage of the general public. How could they reproach him for accepting what was handed to him by the government charlatans and not refusing what they knew he did not work for – they who themselves were never satisfied with life, because they so rarely got something for nothing, merely because they had been slighted by Providence in getting their share of craftiness or because they had not been sent to school in their youth.
On Wednesday his latest essay came out, about spiritual financial tricks. He said that the Church and the schools were partners in extinguishing and hiding any spiritual spark among the common people, which, they feared, could light up and become a fire. They tried to tread it down in the ashes of burned-out figments of the imagination, under the heavy arrogance of scholarship and words of contempt. While this took place, there was little light and warmth, and therefore the earth was crawling with all kinds of spiritual cripples, of whom sincerity, strength of thought, and noble-mindedness had been squeezed out. He considered it likely that many teachers like, for example, Reverend Steinn Parrot, taught the way they did, merely because the Church, which they served, was stronger than their own convictions; they dared not change anything, because that would be to pull down the house over their own heads. He concluded by saying that such people were seated at tables with popes and hypocrites.
In the evening there was a meeting of the congregation in Reverend Steinn’s chapel. To pass the time those with bony hands and bent backs, with downcast countenances and misty eyes, showed up. They wanted more than anything to be called Christians. It was explained to them that they could continue to keep that name unchallenged, although they did not believe some of the things they had been taught, as long as they did not mention it aloud in the same way as their first Christian ancestors were allowed to expose their children – as long as they did it in secret. The priest encouraged them to practise concealing their opinions. Those with bony hands and misty eyes welcomed this change; it suited them so well. They could not imagine a more perfect man of God than Reverend Steinn nor a man more liberal. They did not find it offensive, although he did it to retain his peaceful life and his honourable position, to permit people to doubt in secret the truth of what he himself taught them; nor was it to be expected that he taught what he believed in. They knew that there was only a very slight difference between his dishonesty and theirs – they who were all bought on the last election day for an insignificant honorarium to vote for the policy of a minister, which they suspected was worse.
He came to them on Thursday where they were loafing about at their workplace, happier and prouder than usual, because now “the biggies” had been defeated. “No w I have to rely on your honour, good brothers,” he said. “I think I can find refuge here. I’ve supported your case to the best of my ability, though little has as yet been accomplished. Perhaps we’ll achieve more later if we stick together. But as a result the ones in power hate me, and according to the laws of this country anyone who is thus hated and is poor and supports himself by manual work must be buried alive. These laws do not apply to wealthy people. I need money to save my skin. There are many of you, my brothers, and I’ve spoken our common cause. Can you help me?”
“Help you with money, give you money? No, never. We’re hard up even without you. Supported our cause! Yes, we’ll believe that! If you’ve done anything in that direction, it’s been in your own interest, to get at your enemies and scold them, but we don’t get involved if you and your enemies quarrel. We don’t scold anyone publicly, and you’ll have to be responsible for your actions. You’ve called a generous man an arrant thief, a friend of the public a tyrant, and a liberal priest a hypocrite. No, this can’t be salvaged. We don’t need your words any more. What we didn’t like is now being corrected. Moreover, we’ve got no money.”
He clenched his teeth while they spoke, held his breath, and kept each nerve in his face still as the grave, like when people pull themselves together to do something they find disgusting, such as pushing away a dead snake. There were no more emotions in his voice when he answered them than in the voice of a prisoner who had heard his death sentence, which he knew from the beginning he would get, but who was kept waiting until he had become tired of being in prison.
“It’s a misunderstanding that I’ve scolded people in my fury, but like lightning, truth doesn’t make a detour, and if you find the air cleaner and easier to breathe than before, it’s because of that. Let’s not talk about merits or sympathy, let’s simply say that it’s my nature, or fate, to advocate the cause of wretched people. I trust that it’s in accordance with your kind heart to save a person who is to be buried alive. It’s more painful than being hanged. What is your daily salary now?”
“We recently got a raise to two dollars, at long last. But if you can raise the salary about fifty cents, then we’ll give you our raise on the first day.”
“No, there’s no way of doing that today. Tomorrow is Friday, and then I am to be buried alive. I only asked to point out that one day’s salary could save me.”
“One day’s salary for all of us? We’d starve to death if we lost that. No, never, never.” He left them without any success.
On Friday morning when those with bony hands and bent backs, with downcast countenances and misty eyes, went to work, someone said, “Today is the day of his burial.”
“His burial! Yes, I’d forgotten all about it.”
“I’ve never seen a man being buried alive.”
“It’s probably weird. Shouldn’t we go and have a look?”
“But we may lose our jobs and salaries.”
“Never mind, we have so few days off. We can’t miss an entertainment; we have so few of them.”
They all took the day off to see what it was like to be buried alive.
Translated by Kirsten Wolf