Hreinsson (The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 1997, etc.) translates and abridges his award-winning two-volume biography of Icelandic émigré poet Stephan G. Stephansson.
Born in 1853, Stephansson is introduced as a freethinking poet, pioneer, farmer and naturalist whose strong leftist politics grew following his immigration to America, in 1873, and later to Canada, where he spent over half of his life. After an enigmatic foreward by John Ralston Saul about Canada’s cultural legacy, in addition to remarks from the poet’s grandson, who supported and financed publication, the author includes a brief history of Iceland—a welcome beginning for those unfamiliar with the fjords, volcanic eruptions, ancient forests and dispersed, pious, agrarian people of the Nordic island during 19th and early 20th centuries. Hreinsson, writing “from an Icelandic point of view,” convincingly shows how his and Stephansson’s home country—with its rich mythology, respect for nature and pastoral literary tradition—shaped “Stephan G.’s” poetry. Still, the Icelandic universe can be difficult to navigate: Young Stephan had an aunt named Helga, who had a daughter, Sigridur, and another first cousin named Helga Sigridur, whom Stephan later marries. The core source material is Stephansson’s verse and correspondence to and from the poet, which Hreinsson translates and incorporates into the text to varying effect. Biographical notation and excerpts illuminate the braiding of Stephansson’s agricultural and literary work, while providing a feeling of coevolving with the poet. In addition to the language barrier, the biography is littered with indefinites—“probably,” “might,” “likely,” “seems” and “we can imagine”—and the author sometimes obfuscates his sources. Yet the man who emerges from this portrait is complicated and real. Hreinsson’s Stephansson is proud, questioning and sagacious—an Icelandic heir to Emerson, Whitman or Thoreau. Perhaps the book’s most noticeable misstep, though, is its inconsistent description of the poet’s apostasy, his conviction that women should have equal rights, and his self-identification as “a Non-Partisan, a Socialist, a Bolshevik.”
A deferential, unsentimental portrait that ably captures Stephansson’s life and legacy.