SJOLANDER, JOHN PETER (1851–1939). John Peter Sjolander (pronounced Sholander), Swedish-American farmer-poet known as the "Sage of Cedar Bayou," was born on March 25, 1851, in Hudiksvall, Sweden, the son of Olof and Margreta (Larsson) Sjolander. His father, who was dismissed from naval service for nonconformity to the state church and whose children were denied access to the state schools, drowned when Sjolander was five years old. He was taught English, German, and Swedish by his mother. At the age of fifteen he went with an importer to England, where he visited classes at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and browsed in the library. A devotee from childhood of Walter Scott and Robert Burns, young Sjolander made a pilgrimage to Burns's grave, where he met an American admirer of Burns, Charles Peterson of Peterson's Magazine, Philadelphia. Peterson offered the youth a position if he should ever come to America. From England Sjolander went to Germany, was imprisoned during the Franco-Prussian War, and was paroled to Copenhagen with orders to return to Sweden. Instead he caught an English ship, visited a sailor brother at Cardiff, Wales, and together they signed for a voyage to Galveston, Texas, where they landed on Sjolander's twentieth birthday. Disliking the tyrannical master, the brothers slipped away up Cedar Bayou, where they found work in a brickyard. From 1871 to 1876 Sjolander built boats, sailed Galveston Bay and connecting waters, captained a lighter, and absorbed the lore of the coast. Visiting the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, he took an editorial position on Peterson's Magazine, but his heart was in Texas. In the fall he returned to Cedar Bayou.
Sjolander married Caroline Johanna Busch on May 23, 1878. They had six children. Farming for a living, building an occasional boat, rearing a family of six, and writing poetry as the spirit moved, he won many friends and a little money as his work began to appear in publications throughout the country, including Peterson's Magazine, the New York Weekly, and the New Orleans Times-Democrat. He refused all requests to write on regular assignments, declaring that his expression "must come from an inward urge." The result was a spontaneity and a sincerity that characterize his works. Many of his poems were translated into foreign languages. His "Song of the Corn," "The Bluebonnet," and others went into school readers. The only volume of his work in book form is Salt of the Earth and Sea (1928), a compilation by Hilton R. Greer. Sjolander's most prolific period was between 1876 and 1910, but he never lost the master's touch. His poems were always offered first to Texas publications and were usually accepted, the Galveston News and Farm and Ranchqqveing his principal media. Their lack of national circulation and the absence of a potent Texas literary cult during his prime left Sjolander without the national recognition of which his work is worthy. But he preferred the rural life which produced "The Dusk," "Night Amid the Farms," "The Wise Husbandman," "To a Clod," and "The Little Road," which could have never been written in a metropolitan environment, where he might have commanded a wider audience. Sjolander died on June 15, 1939, and was buried at Cedar Bayou. He was a Methodist, a Mason, and a Democrat. In 1968 a historical marker was erected near the old Sjolander home northeast of Baytown, honoring the poet.
Houston Post, June 16, 1939. Barbro Persson McCree, John Sjolander, Poet of Cedar Bayou (Austin: Eakin Press, 1987). Leonidas Warren Payne, Survey of Texas Literature (New York: Rand McNally 1928). T. C. Richardson, "The Sage of Cedar Bayou," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 48 (January 1945).
T. C. Richardson
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