Ibsen in Wahpeton
Along the south drive entry to the North Dakota State School of Science campus, in Wapeton stands a bronze bust of Henrik Ibsen on a base of stone. It might seem self-evident why a bust of the great Norwegian playwrite should stand in Wahpeton. Indeed, in 1897 the board of a newly created township in Richland County named the place Ibsen Township, indicating the high regard of at least some Norwegian immigrants in the area for Ibsen. Judging by the research done by one of my fine seminar students, Jennifer Raveling, the story of the Ibsen bust in Wahpeton is not nearly so straightforward as you might assume. As she notes, “The bust has traveled long and far to get where it stands today,” and indeed, it had “troubled origins.”
Norwegian immigrants constituted a powerful memory group in North Dakota a century ago, and they created many monuments—to Rollo the Viking, to Ivar Aasen the linguist, to Hans Nielsen Hauge the theologian, and to the poets Henrik Wergeland and Bjornsterne Bjornson. Wahpeton was not a particular hotbed of Norwegian activism, however; it didn’t even have a Sons of Norway lodge.
Nor was Ibsen necessarily popular among Norwegians. His works are often bitterly ironic. He never felt appreciated in his native Norway, and so spent most of his working life in Italy or Germany. His plays, while often brilliant, are not exactly congenial.
In 1885, though, while on a return visit to Norway, Ibsen sat for the sculptor Jacob Fjelde. Eleven sittings allowed Fjelde to create a detailed plaster model, capturing Ibsen’s wrinkled visage and trademark sideburns. Fjelde was unable to sell the resulting bronze bust, however, and so before emigrating to the United States in 1887, he donated it to a gallery in Bergen.
Subsequently, for some reason, possibly to attract Norwegian trade to the town, the Wahpeton Commerce Club decided to acquire a bust of Ibsen. Herman Fjelde, uncle of Jacob Fjelde, and a mover and shaker in most all of the Norwegian monument placements in the Red River Valley, got involved, with the result that his nephew’s plaster model was brought from Norway and a new bronze cast at a foundry in New York.
The Ibsen bronze was exhibited at the Richland County Fair of 1911, unveiled in a ceremony at which a band played music by the composer Edvard Grieg. (I might add in passing, it seems odd that I know of no monument to Grieg in the region, which is a significant omission.) After that the Commerce Club gave the bust to the city, which didn’t really know what to do with it. The county commissioners didn’t want it at the courthouse—two Norwegians on the commission voted in favor of it, but they were outvoted by two Germans and an Irishman.
The president of NDSCS, however, accepted the monument, which was dedicated on campus on Syttende Mai of 1912. After which it was pretty much forgotten, although students sometimes hung Christmas garlands around Ibsen’s neck, and on one occasion stole the bust as a prank.
Then in 1966, by some misunderstanding, campus groundskeepers removed the Ibsen monument and dumped it into a coal bin. Townspeople protested this indignity, and the monument was replaced. In fact, when the Sons of Norway organized a lodge in Wahpeton in 1985, they named it the Henrik Ibsen Lodge. We can presume, I hope, that its loyal members now stand guard against any future outrages against the bust of Ibsen. He may not be a likeable playwrite, but he is their playwrite, after all.