Notable Insomniac

  • Viðar Hreinsson
    Wakeful Nights—Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic–Canadian Poet. Benson Ranch (purchase at
Reviewed by Birna Bjarnadottir

Originally published in Icelandic in 2002 (Vol. I) and 2003 (Vol. II), Viðar Hreinsson’s biography Wakeful Nights—Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic–Canadian Poet, is a landmark publication in the field of Canadian literature and culture. Hreinsson’s aim with the abridged English version is to present—to the English speaking world—“a comprehensive biography of Stephan G. Stephansson.” The result is an immensely rich story about the life and work of an Icelandic–Canadian poet, farmer, essayist, pacifist and social prophet. Born in 1853 in a remote fjord in the northern part of Iceland, Stephan G. immigrated with his parents to North America in 1873. He was a pioneer in Wisconsin and Dakota Territories until 1889 when he homesteaded in Alberta. He passed away in Markerville in 1927.

Given the cultural scope of the subject matter, and the way in which the story of Stephan G.’s life and work crosses both centuries and continents, the biography also serves as a significant source on the history of emigration, the ideologies of modernity, and the turmoil of the First World War. Last, but not least, the biography reveals the inherent drama in the making of cultures: Stephan G.’s towering status as a poet within the Icelandic community on both sides of the Atlantic somewhat intensifies the fact that his contribution to Canadian literature and culture has been recognized by only a handful of his non-Icelandic fellow countrymen in Canada.

As to be expected, Hreinsson is fully aware of the challenge of his subject matter. If anything, he may be too cautious in his Preface where he advises the reader to keep in mind that this biography was originally written “for Icelandic readers, from an Icelandic point of view. Had it been written by a Canadian, it would be quite different. This abridged version is an attempt to present the life and work of Stephan G. in a narrative manner without intrusive authorial comments.” However, Hreinsson’s precaution may, in turn, encourage the reader to reflect upon the urgency of the book’s subject matter. Here, I am not only referring to Stephan G.’s consistent and deep running views on religion, capitalism and warfare. As it is, these views set him apart from many of the Icelandic immigrants in both Canada and the US, and the controversy that followed is carefully documented in Hreinsson’s book. What is no less compelling to observe is the nature of the cultural “crack” at play in a biography like this one. For what is the “light” that pours through the Wakeful Nights?

“I have acquired somehow no fatherland,” composed Stephan G. in his poem “Exile”; a prevailing existential condition that never inspired him to write his poetry in English. Thereby, he contributed—like the Icelandic-Canadian writers Guttormur J. Guttormsson and Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason—to the strange beauty of a remote region in Canadian literature and culture. As such, this book has also much to offer to the subjects of the poetics of immigration and the translation of cultures. As a living testament to Northrop Frye’s view that literature shapes cultural identity, readers can make themselves familiar with the Icelandic immigrant who became a key writer of Icelandic literature on both sides of the Atlantic; the farmer who ferried with him an entire cultural heritage across the Atlantic; the disciple of Emerson in the ranks of North American poets and philosophers; and the notable insomniac in the world of literature who worked in the field during the day and read and composed in the night.

This review “Notable Insomniac” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 164-165.

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