The finest example of monumental statuary in all North Dakota is situated in Island Park, of Fargo. There stands the great bronze of the poet Henrik Wergeland fashioned by the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. One of my senior seminar students, Neil Anderson, has looked into how this notable work came to be emplaced in Island Park.
That energetic mastermind of Norwegian monuments, Dr. Herman O. Fjelde of Abercrombie, was behind it all. He commissioned the sculptor Vigland to cast a slightly larger than life bronze of the poet Wergeland. The plan was for it to be brought to a pioneer park in Abercrombie, and the people of that town purchased a $400 marble base for it.
Somehow, when the statue reached Minneapolis, other cities were allowed to bid for it. Ultimately Fargo got the nod, in accord with the sculptor’s wishes that his work go to a city in North Dakota, and Fargo reimbursed Abercrombie its $400. There may have been some hard feelings. Imperial Cass and all that.
Nevertheless, on June 17, 1908, more than 3000 citizens assembled in Island Park for the dedication of the statue of Wergeland. What they saw was the figure of the poet in a haughty stance, face uplifted to the sky, hands behind his back, gripping a riding crop. This was appropriate, as Wergeland was known to have enjoyed riding through the countryside, his long legs nearby reaching the ground beneath his little Nordic horse.
That same day in 1908 a duplicate bronze was dedicated in Kristiansand, Norway. It stands today in Wergeland Park, where every year hundreds of schoolchildren turn out to plant flowers. Notably, Wergeland’s best romantic verse was written for his wife, Amalie, the daughter of an innkeeper, and it featured floral images and symbols. To the credit of the guys in the Fargo parks department, they keep the area around Fargo’s Wergeland nicely planted with annuals, also. Moreover, the American elms planted nearby have grown into a graceful arch that centers the view on the statue. The plaster model from which both the Fargo and the Kristiansand statues were made is in a museum in Norway.
Romantic pleasantries are not what Henrik Wergelnd was known for, however. Born in 1808 and educated at the Royal Frederick University, Henrik Wergeland became a figure of both literary and political importance to the people of Norway. His poetry, although certainly Romantic in sentiment, took avant-garde form as modernistic free verse. A student radical, he took prominent part in 1829 in the Battle of the Square, where protesters hurled cobblestones to resist authorities and demand their freedom from political subservience to Sweden. Later Wergeland wrote and agitated to repeal the constitutional ban against Jews in Norway. The performance of a subversive play by Wergeland was disrupted by political conservatives who occupied seats front and center and blew horns; young female admirers of Wergeland responded by hurling ripe tomatoes at the hecklers; and a melee ensued.
The point being, the people of North Dakota did not choose some milk-toast mainstream figure to memorialize in statuary. The sculptor, Gustav Vigeland, too, was regarded as an artistic radical, mainly on account of his penchant for stylized nudes.
The observance of Norwegian culture in America today has become, pardon me for saying so, a preoccupation of rather elderly folk, but Henrik Wergeland is forever young. His insistence on participation in Syttende Mai revelries in 1844 exacerbated a lung disease that may have been tuberculosis, or may have been lung cancer from heavy smoking. Wergeland died at home in 1845, age 37.