Lost Houses of Lyndale
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The Poet

Jakob & Johanna Bonggren purchased the house at 3101 W. Lyndale in August 1886. The couple were originally from the small city of Mora in Dalarna, Sweden. Jakob had been postmaster in Mora, while writing poetry and newspaper articles in his spare time. After publishing a book of poems critical of the conservatism and inequality of Swedish society, he decided to leave the country. With a job offer to become a correspondent for an American newspaper, he and Johanna and their three children first came to Moline, Illinois in 1882 before moving to Chicago the following year.

Portrait of Jakob Bonggren from Dec 17, 1893 Chicago Tribune

There were as many as 1,500 small newspapers and magazines published in Chicago in the nineteenth century, in every language of its citizens. The weekly Svenska Amerikanaren was first published in 1877 as a liberal and radical counterpoint to the Lutheran-affiliated Hemlandet (The Homeland). By the time Bonggren arrived it had changed ownership and toned down its politics, but was still strongly associated with Republicanism and secular views.

Jakob Bonggren was a prolific writer for the newspaper. He wrote opinion columns, book reviews, and a weekly poem which was published on the front page. In 1888 he became editor of the paper and served for twenty years.

Professor Anna Williams writes that Bonggren's poetry and views changed after his arrival in America. Leaving behind the radical criticism of his youth, he later looked back on his homeland with an emigrant's nostalgia. His writing shifted from the social-realism style such as his contemporary August Strindberg to an idealization of the traditions of his heritage, perhaps in opposition to the empty capitalism he saw in America.

During Bonggren's time on Lyndale he became a well-known intellectual in the Swedish-American community. He was invited to speak at public events, banquets and festivals, where he often read a short poem or dedication composed for the occasion. His translation of Ignatius Donnelly's dystopian novel Caesar's Column was well received in the Swedish literary world. He was also becoming known as a speaker on Theosophy. As president of the local Scandinavian Theosophical chapter, Bonggren gave monthly lectures on esoteric topics such as alchemy and King Solomon's Temple.

Sunday morning lecture by Jakob Bonggren at the Masonic Temple building, Dec 26, 1897, Chicago Inter-Ocean

One wonders what Bonggren's working-class neighbors thought of the famous free-thinking poet in their midst. Did he and the tailor August Lindquist who lived next door chat about the weather over the fence? Bonggren attended services now and then at Saron Lutheran Church, and even wrote a poem for the 20th anniversary of the church in 1898, but he was not a member, and perhaps would not have been fully accepted due to his heretical views.

Some of the poems that Bonggren wrote for the Svenska Amerikanaren were collected in a 1902 volume entitled Sånger och Sagor (Songs and Stories). The subject matter varies from odes to literary and popular figures, romantic journeys in the ancient past and admirations of nature. When the Bonggrens first moved to Lyndale street, it would have been easy to walk out on the prairie just a few blocks west, but urban development soon smothered these remnants, to the loss of any poets looking for quiet inspiration.

Sånger och Sagor

Though none of the poems in the book specifically reference Lyndale, the following verse may evoke a feeling of walking down the street on a windy day (please forgive my poor translation):

I staden

För prärieland
för köpmannadörr
jag sjunger ibland;
men sången, som förr
sig höjde så lätt,
lik lärka i sky,
förklingar på slätt,
förkväfves i by.

Ej ängar – blott grus!
Ej kullar – blott sten!
Hur trångt mellan hus!
Hur tråkig allén!
Här springa de fram,
barn, kvinnor och män.
I larm och i glam
småsjunger jag än

Min konstlösa sång
klang bättre ändå
i skogen en gång,
bland furorna grå.
Längt bättre de var
bland bärgen, på mon,
där eko gaf svar
på hvar liten ton.

Af husgaflars mängd
och rökmoln är skymd
förtjusande ängd,
safirfärgad rymd,
där deliern mild
med molnlamm går vall
och ler mot sin bild
i böljans kristall.

Så trist och så grått
i staden är allt,
och folket så smått,
och hjärtat så kallt.
Finns genklang väl här?
Hvem sjunger jag för?
Månn' här någon är,
som sångaren hör?

Du vänliga vind,
så rask och så rar,
som smekar min kind!
Tag med, när du far,
min sång till den trakt,
som jämt är mig kär!
Hvar blomma ger akt
på tonerna där.

(1899)

In the city

On the prairieland
by the merchant's door
I sometimes sing;
yet the song, which before
lifted itself so lightly,
like a lark in the sky,
fades away on the flatland,
chokes in the village.

No meadows – just gravel!
No hills – just stone!
How crowded between houses!
How boring the avenues!
Here run the façades,
children, women and men.
In noise and in merriment
still I sing softly

My artless song
once sounded better
in the forest anyway,
among the gray pines.
Far better it was
among the rocks, in woods,
where echoes gave answers
to each small note.

The crowded house gables
and smoke clouds obscure
lovely meadows,
sapphire colored space,
where soft dreams
with lamb clouds go to pasture
and smile at their reflection
in crystal waves.

So sad and so gray
is everything in the city
and the people so small,
and the heart so cold.
Is there a resonance here?
Whom do I sing for?
I wonder if anyone is here,
who hears the singer?

You kind wind,
so brisk and so sweet,
who caresses my cheek!
Take with you when you go,
my song to the country,
that is still dear to me!
Every flower pays attention
to the tune there.

(1899)

The Bonggrens lived at 3101 until the 1910s. Johanna passed away here in 1903 at age 53. Two years later Jakob married 37 year-old Olga Lundin, who sadly died the following year, just a few weeks after giving birth to a baby daughter. After this Olga's older sister Eva came to live with the family.

In the last years of his life, Jakob moved to Oakland, California with his grown children. He was knighted by Swedish King Gustav in 1933 and passed away at age 85 in 1940.