Jensen photographed in Chicago, 1902. The photo was used in the printed programme for the theatrical play ‘Trods’. Photo: The Royal Library.

Johannes V. Jensen first visited America in the autumn of 1896. The week-long crossing of the Atlantic onboard the emigrant ship SS Norge was paid for by earnings from his debut novel, Danskere (1896). Staying in New York, it is likely that he had hoped to find a job writing for a Danish newspaper and eventually settle down in the New World. This was not unlike many others from his native region, Himmerland, who had emigrated in the previous decades.   

However, Jensen did not become an American, and after three months he returned to Denmark. Nevertheless, his journey had made a lasting impression and America would become a focal point in both his literary work and worldview for the rest of his life.

After his breakthrough as a journalist and writer, Jensen visited America again in 1902/03 and 1905. He found inspiration for his ‘American-novels’ Madame d’Ora (1904) and Hjulet (1905), and authored a series of articles about America, which were later published in the book Den nye Verden (1907).

The breakdown of the old world order in the First World War led to a cooling in Jensen’s belief in technical advances and human progress. The same can be said of his fascination with modern America. It would be more than thirty years before he would again set out across the Atlantic. This time he travelled in the shadows of the advent of fascism and communism.

A short visit to New York in 1937 and a longer journey in 1939 took Jensen across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. New York and Chicago were seen in the rear-view mirror from a distance of almost forty years. Jensen travelled through the southwest and visited Los Angeles, where he toured the Walt Disney Studios and wrote about the bright future of motion-pictures.

The free States – has it ever sounded with a better and more hopeful tone, than now, now?” Jensen would ask rhetorically, in his publication Fra Fristaterne (1939), shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. The book would form his lasting homage to the American ideals of freedom and democracy that so profoundly marked his generation.

“A Danish author, in this city? Is it possible? Had they already discovered us back home? And is it possible that a Danish author, not to mention a well reputed one, can stand in our midst without us hearing about it for months and years in advance? …

Believe it or not, Johannes V. Jensen, the young Danish author, has come to Chicago, in fact he has already been here for a couple of weeks and won himself many friends by his straightforward and friendly appearance, readily sharing impressions from his long journey around the world, talking about his upcoming books and future plans.

Johannes V. Jensen is so different from other Danish authors. He has got something on his mind! Least of all he is counted among those spending three quarters of their time among dusty foliants. He takes interest in life itself, in people who live and in particular the people of Jutland… Over the last few years a number of young authors have emerged in all parts of the country but mainly in Jutland. They write about life in the parts where they have grown up. Life among peasants and in the provincial towns. Johannes V. Jensen is one of these young authors and perhaps the most skilful among them.

The book Himmerlandsfolk provides excellent characterisations of peasants and their life in northern Jutland in our own time. It is books like these we want to read. Books that make us think, and perhaps for the first time fully understand what once drove us here. The Danes living in Chicago will have an extra opportunity to enjoy Johannes V. Jensen’s talent, since he just recently completed a play, ‘Trods’, based on the same characters that he presented in Himmerlandsfolk.”

[The Danish Pioneer, 8th January 1903]

The catalogue for the play ‘Trods’. Press reviews were not favourable, and the piece was only performed once.

During his month-long stay in Chicago, Jensen managed to convert his short story ‘Cecil’ into a stage play and have it staged in Scandia Theatre, where the Scandinavians in Chicago usually met.

The play was entitled ‘Trods’ [Spite] with Jensen acting as both playwriter and instructor. The actors were all amateurs from the Danish colony in Chicago.

The play attracted a large crowd but ended up a disappointment. One reviewer wrote: “Only the prominent clapped at curtain fall after the first part, but three parts were still remaining, so even the prominent got tired before the bitter end.”

The author – “whose talent may never really flourish in the dramatic artform” – was nevertheless rewarded with the evening’s earnings and was able to add $400 to his modest travel funds, which was a minor fortune.

Amateur actors, 1908. Theatre performances in Danish were a popular occasion for meeting fellow countrymen.

On Memphis Station...

On his journey around the world, Jensen arrived in San Francisco in early October 1902, and soon after he headed to Chicago, where he spent the winter. With the advent of spring, Jensen took a hunting trip to Arkansas where he was stranded in the small town of Brinkely on the railway line between Memphis and Little Rock. His mood was not good, and this was reflected in his perhaps most famous poem:

Half-awake and half dozing,
Struck by a drear reality, but still lost
In an inner sea fog of Danaidean dreams
I stand teeth chattering
On Memphis Station, Tennessee.
It is raining.

The night is so desolate and extinguished,
And the rain flays the ground
With a senseless, dark energy.
Everything is clammy and impenetrable.

Why does the train wait here hour after hour?
Why has my lot ground to a halt here?
Am I to flee from rain and mind-numbingness
In Denmark, India and Japan
Only to be rained on and rot in Memphis
Tennessee, U.S.A.? […]

[Johannes V. Jensen: Digte, 1906]

Airship soaring over new York's iconic skyline. Photo by Johs. V. Jensen, 1939. The Royal Library.

Fødested for en ny menneskelighed ...

In the early spring of 1939 Jensen undertook a week of travel across the USA. It took him from New York to the South, across the Southwest to California and back.  While nationalism was haunting Europe, the sprawling life of New York came as a relief on the threshold to darker days.

“After centuries of Europe building its cells from different nationalities, different tongues, a new leap of history came when all the inequalities were shaken together in a new place, a new start, the chance to build one nation, one united people from all the discordant peoples of the old world. This is the formula for the new society beyond the Atlantic. A people united from scratch with all elements included. The process is still in the making but nowhere so all-encompassing and intense as seen in New York. More than any other place in the world, the city is a laboratory for anthropology, a birthplace of a new humanity.”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]

Lust for life is what comes to mind....

Jensen’s enthusiastic admiration for America and the Americans reached its climax in the first decades of the 20th century. To him the USA embodied the vitality and energy that he thought was practically absent in Denmark.

“Lust for life is the characteristic, that first comes to mind, if one is to give a quick description of the American. Lust for life and a basic vitality are the dominant traits, from which I believe all other American strengths, and some weaknesses, spring, a bright and enterprising atmosphere, freed impulses, sanguinity, all traits that have their roots in the traditions of the American people and have been potentiated by a large, condensed population of different national origins. (…) America emits shocks as if from a battery, and one can imagine all the United States being elements in it. The effect is generated by the blend of multiple ethnic groups into one nation of peoples, that in Europe are spread across several; many magnets have been arranged in the same direction. A climatic factor is present, all climates are found on the widespread continent. Here is the charge, here is where the spark springs from.”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Den nye Verden, 1907]

New York. The Chrysler Building in seen in the central background. Jensen thought the American automobile industry was a symbol of the American expansion. Photo by Johs. V. Jensen, 1939. The Royal Library.
Afro-American boy shining shoes in Central Park, NY. Jensen used the photo in his book Fra Fristaterne. Photo: Johs. V. Jensen, 1939, The Royal Library.

Of unmixed African type ...

Travelling through America, Jensen naturally encountered its large African American population. In several writings he reflected on its place in American society. Being a convinced Darwinist with a deep interest in anthropology and racial questions, he tended to view ‘the negro’ as representing an earlier stage in human evolution. Later generations have judged him harshly for some of his views and writings.

“In Central park my companion and I had our boots shined by a negro boy, of an unmixed African type with the swollen facial traits of a forest-man additionally sedated by puberty, a timid look up every once in a while, at the two gods before whose feet he was kneeling. It turned out, as we were about to pay, that neither of us had any change, and our smallest banknote was a five-dollar bill. We sent him out to change it, and he stayed away for a good while. It wouldn’t have surprised us in the least, had he taken off with all the money. But he showed up after having had some trouble changing the note. It had crossed our minds, that he might have let us down, but not his; thick-faced and ever faithful he returned to us with, what to him, would be a minor fortune. You shouldn’t conclude too much from a single experience, but then again, what else can you judge from, other than what happens to you?”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]

The brain of this one man...

Jensen wrote with great enthusiasm about the American president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s seemingly all-embracing and vigorous personality appeared to be the incarnation of the modern American nation.

“President Roosevelt can be seen as the average type of modern man. The leading man in a democracy doesn’t stand out for any other reasons than his widespread competences, apart from that, he is just one of many. Roosevelt is an American. His only title. The brain of this one man is at the centre of an ordered community of just about one hundred million people – each one carrying a watch in his vest pocket.

Fifty-six private telegraph and telephone lines – lightning tamed into obedience – radiate from the White House to all four corners of the world. Theodore Roosevelt sits in the middle. He receives a thousand letters every day. He is at the centre of the monstrous machine, whose function first and last is to ensure that every man in America is fed when he feels hunger, has fire in his stove, tobacco and a newspaper, and that all this is granted him as long as possible.”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Den nye Verden, 1907]

Præsident Roosevelt speaking at the inaurguration of The Sherman Monument, 1903. Monumentet. 1903. Jensen was fascinated by Roosevelt's vitality.
The leasure society in the making. Automobile traffic at the entrance of Lakewood Zoo, Holland, Michigan. o. 1930.

A steady stream of blood vessels ...

While Europe was on the verge of war, Jensen paid a visit to the World’s Fair in New York to report on the new inventions that were supposed to make life easier and more convenient. The showroom of the American car industry caught his attention. He noted that 68% of all cars in the world were driven in the USA.

“Seen from above, like e.g. from a famous Rainbow-Room Café, on the 65th floor of one of the colossal buildings in the Rockefeller Centre, the streets below resemble veins, containing a steady stream of blood vessels, somewhat like what you see looking at the webbed feet of a frog under a microscope, corpuscles that serve the city’s functions; on the roads leading to and from New York, crossing hanging bridges and viaducts, cars resemble ribbons of vehicles stretched out on the broad double-laned motorways, one ribbon in each direction. The gas stations outside the city in the direction of Pennsylvania add a special trait to American traffic, all trying with picturesque attempts, each one different, like small castles, by some trick try to catch the attention of the passers-by; they add their own particular mark to traffic on every road in wide-stretched America. Other new buildings group around them, bars, simple streets with the light wooden houses, characteristic of America outside the cities. The automobile traffic leads to a kind of metastasis, growing cells spread through every vein creating new points of growth.”

 [Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]

You write, and you travel...

Som yngre drømte Jensen om en journalistisk karriere og havde måske håbet at finde en stilling ved en dansk-amerikansk avis. Han var dybt fascineret af den amerikanske presse og den hastighed og energi, der prægede de skrevne massemedier, og især den berygtede amerikanske ”Gule Presse”.

“I have spent enough time in America to understand, that in our day, journalism is just about the only profession suitable for a man. It is the pastime that comes closest to war or explorations at sea, it’s the mercenary-job of our time; you write and you travel…

A photograph that I have of the streets of New York shows the crowd moving on both sidewalks with the characteristic outstretched legs, that people tend to have in photographs. People stand out perfectly clear even though you can see that they’ve moved a little bit during the exposure. But in one spot, close to the edge of the sidewalk, there is a foggy stain of human form – a person made invisible by his speed. It looks like a phantom, but it is in fact a journalist on his way to a row nearby.”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Den nye Verden, 1907]

Sculptor Carla Christensen’s bust showing Max Henius, 1937. For decades Henius played a central part in shaping Danish-American relations.

The celebration of America......

“Rebild Bakker was discovered, brought into the public light and its nature protected thanks to Max Henius, a brewer in Chicago but native born in Aalborg […]

A lifetime ago nobody knew Rebild Bakker, except for people living nearby; in Aalborg, people had begun arranging Sunday excursions there, for Max Henius it eventually became summer travels from Chicago. His longing for home crystallized around this very spot, that encompasses so many traits of Jutland’s nature. He acquired some of the hills and had them protected; with time his personal joy with the place was extended to the public by the initiative and energy he invested in arranging the popular meetings that are known nationwide. They carry a double, extended significance: they have opened the eyes of the Danish population to a national treasure and they link Danish emigrants in America to their homeland by the annual visits celebrated here.

The celebration of America is part of the festivity, the 4th of July is the American day of independence, the date when America declared its freedom, ‘the constitution’; the Rebild-day deepens Danish traditions and opens a view beyond the national boundaries towards what, for the moment, is the most vigorous nation of all.”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Rebild Bakker, 1927]

Max Henius’ chemist store in Chicago, c.1890. Son of a Jewish emigrant, he himself emigrated without severing his ties to Denmark.

Max Henius (1859-1935) was born in Aalborg and was the oldest son of Isidor Henius, founder of De Danske Spritfabrikker.

Having attained a doctor’s title in chemistry, Henius travelled to America in 1881. He settled in Chicago, established a laboratory for chemical analysis, and later became the founder of The American Academy of Brewing. Both in theory and practically Max Henius left a heavy impression on the American brewing tradition.

Max Henius was estimated to have crossed the Atlantic 80 times. For decades he was one of the driving forces in strengthening the bonds between Danish emigrants and their native country. He was among the founders of The Danish-American Company (1906), The Danish-American Fair in Aarhus (1909) and the national park in Rebild Bakker (1912). Towards the end of his life Max Henius was also involved in establishing the Danish Emigration Archives (1932).

Recently carrying weapons has been outlawed...

Jensen’s enthusiasm for America was not without reservations. Occasionally he used a more pessimistic tone, claiming that expressions like ‘The New World’ and ‘The Land of Freedom’ no longer applied in quite the same way as they used to.

“Just recently carrying weapons has been outlawed in America; any person apprehended with a firearm, or knife with a blade longer than 2 inches, is punished with prison. The consequence is that peaceful citizens stand completely defenceless before the criminal, who will break any law no matter what. Despite the ban, revolvers are being fired more often than ever, newspapers are filled with nocturnal cannonades, where unarmed decent people have no chance. The legend of American freedom is born from each man’s right to carry arms, making him a civil soldier, the same right that was once enjoyed by the peasant in Europe but lost in the Middle Ages; the personal freedom, origin of all nobility, is now part of history in America as well.

 [Johannes V. Jensen: Introduktion til vor Tidsalder, 1915]

The motion picture is a wonderful thing...

On his American journey in the autumn of 1939, Jensen stopped in Los Angeles and paid a visit to the film studios in Hollywood. He is particularly fond of Walt Disney, the animated cartoon and the modern motion pictures. Jensen holds no doubt that motion pictures are the artform of the future. Inspired by Walt Disney he writes a manuscript for an animated cartoon, “the most sovereign artform of all

“The most recent American talking pictures, that can be seen in New York’s  domelike, upholstered and comfortable movie theatre palaces where no smoking is allowed, reminds you, that culture prevails over there, whereas you are in ‘America’ when you find yourself sitting in smoke-filled and all by thinkable liberties marked movie theatres in Copenhagen… The American talking pictures of our day reflect an adult, refined American middle class, well mannered, bold and witty, but still distinguishable by the American preference for grotesque surprises. The pioneering days of the silent movie were an adolescence that Europe is presently going through. Europe is always quick to walk in the footsteps of America, but in the nature of things it will always be one step behind…”

[Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]

Jean Hersholt
Jean Hersholt (laying down) in one of his early films. He had his breakthrough in Eric von Stroheim’s film Greed (1924).

Jean Hersholt (1886-1956) was raised in a poor working-class family in Copenhagen. After spending 8 months in prison for his involvement in homosexual prostitution, he emigrated to Canada in 1908 and finally settled down in Hollywood, California. Hersholt, who originally trained a painter, had a considerable artistic talent. In the beginning of the 1920s he made a breakthrough as a character actor. During his long acting career he starred in more than 400 films.

Jean Hersholt was granted American citizenship in 1920. Alongside his acting career he engaged himself in humanitarian work and in the promotion of Danish-American cooperation. He translated all of H.C. Andersen’s fairy tales into English, and served in the National America Denmark Association, The Danish Chamber of Commerce and The Rebild Foundation. Hersholt’s humanitarian efforts were honoured at the annual Oscars ceremony with the the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

The first emigrant generation often kept a lifelong attachment to their native land. Royal Danish visit at a retirement home, Brooklyn, NY, 1939.

As the wave of Danish emigration ebbed in the first decades of the 20th century, it became increasingly difficult to preserve the heritage that knitted previous generations of Danish emigrants together.

In the 1920s and 1930s most Danish language newspapers saw falling numbers of subscribers. At the same time Danish origins were toned down in churches and schools.

As an exception, a few local communities with a Danish heritage, like Elk Horn, Iowa, and Californian Solvang, developed a peculiar Danish-American identity in the post war decades.

Second and third generation Danish emigrants in the suburban dream of America in the 1950s. Dick, Ricky, Danny and Tony, 1956
Solvang, California, 1918. A Danish settlement made famous since it began cultivating its Danish roots in the 1950s.