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Wasteland with Words

By Jason Doctor

“One can see... in the Icelanders’ obsession with literacy, an urge to impose order on the desolation of the Icelandic landscape, to build a wasteland with words.

Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Wasteland with Words.

Between 1870 and 1914, over 14,000 Icelanders emigrated to North America. Most of those who stayed in Iceland abandoned the farm system, moved to Reykjavík, and joined larger fishing fleets or provided labor for large fish processing plants. This disruptive event was preceded by centuries of isolation. Living conditions for the majority of Icelanders before the 20th century were difficult, to say the least. Widespread disease and lack of food made the cold climate, harsh terrain, and long dark winter months a mortal challenge. There was a lack of basic sanitation and a need to work long hours making hay for the harsh winter months. This made life hard and short. However, despite these challenges, Icelanders enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe, surpassing even that of other European countries with mandatory schooling since the 18th century (Iceland did not make school mandatory until the 20th century). According to Sigurður Gylfi, author of Wasteland with Words, reading and writing were central to Icelandic cultural life, and despite their remote location, Icelanders were deeply interested in world events, European literature, science, mathematics, poetry, the Eddas, and the Icelandic family sagas.

To understand life in “Old Iceland,” Sigurður Gylfi uses a methodology called “microhistories”. He focuses on the detailed and private writings of two brothers, Halldór and Niels Jónsson, who each wrote a large number of manuscripts between the years 1888 and 1934. These “barefoot historians” left letters, poems, diaries, and handwritten newspapers. The written material generated by Halldór and Niels serves as a basis for reflecting on ordinary life before modernity. He cautions that we cannot generalize too extensively from the lives of these two men, but rather use their experiences as a way to reflect on what we know about macrohistorical events.

We are left with the impression that literacy was the result of several factors: the Church and its Confirmation of young adults, long winter evenings, and the kvöldvaka (evening wake) where families practiced reading and writing, as well as poetry and writing as a method for processing grief in a society overrun by death.

Western Icelanders are an integral part of understanding the transformation that took place in Iceland. Their choice was often to leave or die. Early immigrants kept traditions of writing and poetry and even dominated the literary scene in Iceland up through the 1930s and 40s. Slowly though progress overtook both Iceland and North America, and this compels us all to look back on how life was lived and how we can promote the literary tradition which is one of Iceland’s greatest achievements.

Learn more about Wasteland with Words


Get the book:

Magnússon, Sigurður Gylfi. (2010). Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland.

London UK: Reaktion Books. ISBN-13: 978-1861896612.

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Watch the Video:

Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon talks with Icelandic Roots about his powerful and detailed book on Iceland's history and its people's social life. He explains the lure of the New World and why many Icelanders went west. He also discusses the dissolution of the farm system and how Iceland became a large economy in the late twentieth century while retaining its culture and heritage. By examining the diaries and journals of everyday Icelanders, Magnússon has drawn conclusions about cultural and social life throughout Icelandic history.



Meet Sigurður Gylfi on Samtal Hour

On April 22, 2024, members of Icelandic Roots will meet with Sigurður Gylfi at noon central time (5:00 pm in Iceland) to discuss the book, ask him questions, and learn more about the important lives of our shared ancestors. Members will receive their zoom link in their Samkoma News the day before the event. See the Icelandic Roots Event Calendar for additional information.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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