Howard and Edna Hong

Howard and Edna Hong
Howard and Edna Hong

Howard and Edna Hong

Howard and Edna Hong graduated from St. Olaf College in 1934 and 1938 respectively. Howard earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1938 and was on the faculty of St. Olaf College, Department of Philosophy, for 40 years formally retiring in 1978. Together the Hongs have advised and supported several generations of St. Olaf students.

From the late 1930’s on, the Hongs developed a passionate interest in the works of Søren Kierkegaard. This interest grew over the years. After Howard’s retirement, the Hongs devoted themselves to the task of providing a new English translation of Kierkegaard’s writings. In order to understand and translate Kierkegaard, it was essential to become richly acquainted with the works which informed Kierkegaard’s thought. In the course of their translation efforts, the Hongs collected an enormous body of literature which includes writings from Kierkegaard’s contemporaries and the thinkers who influenced him as well as interpretive studies about Kierkegaard. Their private collection was donated to St. Olaf College in 1976 as the foundation of the present Howard V. and Edna H. Kierkegaard Library.

The Hongs’ first large-scale Kierkegaard project was the seven-volume Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. In 1968, the Hongs won the National Book Award for their translation of Volume 1 of this set. Howard and Edna translated Kierkegaard’s Writings, the 26-volume edition of the complete works, completed in 2000.

Howard and Edna Hong received honors and awards during the course of their work including Knight of the Order of Dannebrog in Denmark in 1978. In 1992, Howard received an honorary D.Th. degree from the University of Copenhagen. Edna received the Wittenberg Award in 1993 from the Luther Institute in Washington, D.C. for her outstanding service to church and society. The Hongs were the first recipients of the Minnesota Humanities Commission’s annual Public Lecture Award. Edna was a prolific author who was highly regarded for her poetic and insightful novels, religious writings, historical fiction, and children’s books.

Statues of Howard and Edna Hong, located in the Kierkegaard Library.
Statues of Howard and Edna Hong, located in the Kierkegaard Library.

Howard Hong Obituary, 2010
Howard Hong died on March 16, 2010, from the effects of a fall on October 27, 2009. He remained in convalescent homes until Christmas, when he returned to his house near Northfield, Minnesota. There his daily view was of a wooded ravine and Heath Creek below. Eight days before his death, he moved to a private home in Northfield licensed to provide hospice care. On October 20, 2009, a day after he turned 97, he had been feted at a local restaurant by family and friends. He was then mobile and enjoyed bantering and matching wits with the guests.
A memorial service for him was held in Boe Memorial Chapel, on the campus of St. Olaf College, on Saturday, March 27. The burial service was at Trinity Lutheran Church, Hovland, Minnesota, on Monday, March 29.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Peter B. and Ada Hong; by his siblings, Harold, Helyn, Gertrude, Theodore, and Paul; by his wife Edna; by a granddaughter, Blitz O’Sullivan; and by a great-grandson, John O’Sullivan.
He is survived by his children (Irena, Erik, Peder, Rolf, Mary, Judith, Theodore, and Nathaniel) and spouses; and by twenty grandchildren and twenty-three great-grandchildren.
Howard Hong was born on October 19, 1912, in Wolford, North Dakota. His father went there from Willmar, Minnesota, to start a bank near the east-west route of the Great Northern Railroad. His venture was supported by the Willmar Commercial Club. With an eye chiefly on the grain trade, the railroad built a spur line north to Wolford and a new elevator nearby. The elevator was named “Hong” in honor of the banker, a fact that later delighted the banker’s son.
Before this son began school, the Hong family moved back to Willmar, where the father became the president of the Kandiyohi County Bank. Howard Hong grew up in Willmar and always regarded it as his home town, even as he always recognized himself as a son of its Vinje Lutheran Church. He graduated from high school at 16 in 1929 and then went to the American Business College in Minneapolis. He left after one school term and returned to Willmar, where he divided his time between work at the bank his father headed and at Gamble- Robinson, a food distribution warehouse.
He entered St. Olaf College in 1930 and graduated in 1934. He studied English there and became the business manager of the student newspaper. His interests ranged widely and he found himself reading Ibsen, whose volumes he had seen in his father’s library. He learned from a biography that Ibsen had been influenced by Kierkegaard. The name registered because his father had spoken of a farmer he know who owned books by Kierkegaard. He then began to read Kierkegaard, what little there was of his work in English at the time.
He was a graduate student in English at the University of Minnesota from 1934 to 1938, when the university awarded him the doctorate. While at Minnesota, he had taken a course with the Kierkegaard scholar David F. Swenson; after graduating, he and his new bride Edna Hatlestad went to Copenhagen, learned Danish, and translated Kierkegaard’s For Self-Examination into English. Their life-work as Kierkegaard translators had begun. It was to include a six-volume edition of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers(Indiana University Press) and the twenty-five volumes of Kierkegaard’s Writings (Princeton University Press). The Hongs have been celebrated and honored for their work as translators. In 1968, they won a National Book Award for their translation of the first volume of the Journals and Papers; in 1998, when the Princeton edition reached its conclusion, the Times Literary Supplement(London) said of it: “All honour to the Hongs; Kierkegaard Writings is one of the outstanding achievements in the history of philosophical translation.”
The Hongs, Edna as well as Howard Hong. At the time of her death in 2007, a friend of hers wrote that she was “a faithful friend to many, well-disciplined, accomplished, a woman of the church, always funny, a skilled and loving sparring partner with her husband.” When her husband claimed that his dinner table proclamations were based on principles, she would gaze merrily at him and say, “Prejudices, Howard, prejudices—don’t be an harangue-a-tang.” He called her his “partner in words” and his “partner in seventy years.” After her death, he spoke of those who are “lonely, broken-hearted, and of a contrite spirit.” Habitually indirect, he was speaking of himself.
Howard Hong taught philosophy at St. Olaf until he retired in 1978. His student Harold Ditmanson, later a colleague, remembered him in the classroom, “rocking back and forth from heel to toe, with arms extended and thumb and forefinger pressed together as though shaking the dirt from an imaginary radish, and saying ‘Radish, radix, radical, root—to be truly radical is to get at the root of things’.” That was his aim in teaching: “to get at the root of things.” Students flocked to his classes and many of them came back to Northfield to visit him. Even in the last weeks of life, visiting students might be startled to find him wagging a finger at them and warning them against such infamies as the fused participle and the use of “nauseous” when “nauseated” is required. He remained the teacher: he took delight in word play to the end of his days.
President Lars M. Boe appointed him to the faculty in 1938, but Howard Hong won a scholarship and the Hongs spent that school year in Copenhagen. He later enjoyed saying that he was “gone the first year he was here.” He did teach at St. Olaf from 1939 to 1941, but then left the college and worked with prisoners of war in this country during World War II and with refugees in Germany from 1946 to 1948. He worked first at camps in Missouri and notably at a camp in Algona, Iowa, under the authority of the War Prisoners Aid of the World Alliance of YMCAs. In Germany, with his young family, he was both the director of the Lutheran World Federation Service to Refugees and the senior field officer of the Refugee Division of the World Council of Churches. His refugee work bore fruit back in Northfield, where he helped resettle over 250 refugees, chiefly from Latvia. In the refugee camps, the Hongs saw squalor and lives torn apart by war. Desolation was all about them, yet they believed with Kierkegaard’s Works of Lovethat “love builds up by presupposing that love is present in the ground” or basis of human lives, even under the most desperate of circumstances. This book inspired the Hongs in their work with refugees, and it became their first post-war translation project.
Howard Hong’s Northfield life was rich and varied. He not only became a prominent St. Olaf faculty member, directly involved in the everyday life of the college; he and his wife also established the Kierkegaard Library, which is housed at the college and bears their name. This library was originally their private collection, assembled over many years in support of their work; its core is substantial reconstruction of Kierkegaard’s own library, in the same editions he owned. The Hongs gave their library to St. Olaf in 1976 and it has become an internationally renowned center of Kierkegaard research. The Hongs were also active members of St. John’s Lutheran Church, as well known in the congregation as they were in the college. They offered an abundant hospitality to friend and stranger alike in their remarkable house. He built this house himself, of the native limestone he and his colleague Arnold Flaten quarried, and with materials he scavenged. It was first located on “Pop Hill,” next to the campus; in 1961, he orchestrated a dramatic move of the house, deemed unmovable by “experts,” a mile to the west, from its hilltop location to a lovely prominence on the edge of Heath Creek.
Another Minnesota place figured importantly in Howard Hong’s life; since 1945, he and his family have lived during the summers at Hovland, next to Lake Superior, north of Grand Marais and near the Canadian border. They invested themselves in Hovland, as they did in Northfield. He worked with fellow members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Hovland in planning for a new church building, which was built by St. Olaf students in three successive summer work camps (1947, 1948, and 1949) under the supervision of his friends Arnold and Evelyn Flaten. He bought many tracts of land around Hovland, logged over by timber companies and sold for taxes, which he restored largely at his own expense and according to a plan devised by him and an experienced forester, Dave Eggen, of Moose Lake, Minnesota. His restoration work was officially recognized: in 2001, he and Edna were given the Minnesota Outstanding Conservationist Award by the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The eminent Kierkegaard scholar Howard Hong came to enjoy introducing himself as a “forester.”
Howard Hong was a “local.” He invested himself in a large family, in a house, in St. Olaf, in the Kierkegaard Library, in Northfield, in Hovland, in two congregations; and he remained loyal to Willmar. He was also a “cosmopolitan.” He had an intimate knowledge of Danish and German, together with an abundant love of forms and variety of the English language. He was at home in Copenhagen as in Northfield or Hovland. He had many friends in all walks of life scattered around the world and throughout the United States.
In the early 1950s, he went to a silversmith in Copenhagen, and had her make sterling silver brooches and cuff links, based on his sketch of five wild geese in flight. He gave them to close friends, the brooches to women and the cuff links to men. Kierkegaard’s parable, “The Wild Goose,” stands behind these gifts. On Kierkegaard’s telling, the wild goose urges the tame geese to fly and get beyond the comforts of domesticity, but it is always aware of the danger of itself becoming simply a domestic creature. The wild goose soars; the tame goose does not, but merely flaps its wings, quacks away, and remains earth-bound.
In the companion parable, “The Tame Goose,” Kierkegaard imagines a goose who makes money, becomes “somebody in the world,” has “many children,” and is “successful.” As much and more could be said of Howard Hong, yet he never rested content with his accomplishments. He was always a seeker, never a tame goose. This fact made his local investments complicated indeed. But local he was, as well as cosmopolitan. He aimed at free flight and would have others do the same.


Edna Hatlestad Hong Obituary, 2007

Edna Hong died of congestive heart failure on April 3, 2007, at her home on Heath Creek, west of Northfield, Minnesota. She was 94. Pastor Mark Ditmanson conducted the funeral service for her at Trinity Lutheran Church, Hovland, Minnesota, on April 5, 2007, Maundy Thursday. She was buried in the Old Cemetery of Trinity, near both Lake Superior and the place in the woods where she and her family lived in the summer since 1945. Pastor Ditmanson also conducted the graveside service. There was a memorial service for her at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield on April 7, 2007, Easter Saturday, conducted by Pastor John Quam.

She was preceded in death by her parents, Otto and Ida Hatlestad; by her siblings Agnes, Carl, Margaret, Alfred, and Bernard; by a granddaughter, Blitz O’Sullivan; and by a great-grandson, John O’Sullivan.

She is survived by two of her siblings, Joseph Hatlestad and Eleanore DeWitt; by her husband, Howard, and their children (Irena, Erik, Peder, Rolf, Mary, Judith, Theodore, and Nathaniel) and spouses; and by twenty grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren.

Edna Hatlestad was born on January 28, 1913, on a farm near Neillsville in Clark County, Wisconsin. She was the sixth of eight children. Her family later moved to a farm in Holway Township in Taylor County, near Medford. She grew up in Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, three and a half miles from the Hatlestad farm. Our Savior’s formed her: she later wrote that here is where she “learned by heart” Luther’s Small Catechism and Pontoppidan’s Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism. She attended country school near the farm for eight years before renting a room in Medford and attending its high school. She graduated in 1930. She then took a teachers-training course through the Extension Division of the University of Wisconsin to qualify herself for teaching country school, which she did for three years. Her purpose was to save money so that she could attend St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Edna Hatlestad entered St. Olaf in 1934 and studied chiefly history and literature during her four years there. She also wrote a humor column for the student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger; served as the editor of the St. Olaf Quarterly, a literary journal; and wrote an honors thesis titled “The Nature Tradition in American Literature.” According to the college yearbook in her senior year, the 1938 Viking, she wrote “very extensive and original papers in literature,” was “keen and intense,” had “convictions,” and aimed to “live genuinely.”

She met Howard Hong in the spring of her junior year. He had graduated from St. Olaf in 1934, had already discovered the nineteenth-century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, and was studying at the University of Minnesota. They were married on June 6, 1938, at St. Olaf, in the lounge of Mellby Hall, one day after she graduated. Two months later, after she had typed her husband’s dissertation, they hitchhiked to New York and then sailed to Copenhagen, where they lived for a year and began their study of the Danish language and of Kierkegaard.

When they returned to Northfield in 1939, Howard Hong began more than forty years of teaching at St. Olaf College. They raised a family of eight children, two of them Latvian refugees they adopted during the years when the Hongs lived in Germany and worked to resettle displaced persons after World War II.

Edna Hong will be remembered as a Kierkegaard translator. She and her husband worked as a team, first translating For Self-Examination (1940), then Works of Love (1962). Two major translation projects followed: the six volumes of Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, and an index volume (1967-78), and the twenty-six volumes of Kierkegaard’s Writings, also with an index volume (1978-2000). The first two volumes of this last series were published in 1978, when she and her husband were sixty-five, the year that he formally retired. For twenty-two years, they continued to work at top speed, translating all but four of these volumes themselves. Commenting on this last major project, the Times Literary Supplement (London) said, “All honour to the Hongs: Kierkegaard’s Writings is one of the outstanding achievements in the history of philosophical translation.”

She will also be remembered as a writer of stories, essays, and books. Some of her twelve books grew out of her early years as a farm girl. One of these is her memoir, From This Good Ground (1974), dedicated to her parents and siblings, and another is Muskego Boy (1943), the latter a work of fiction written with her husband. It portrays the first Norwegian-Lutheran congregation in Wisconsin, Muskego, founded in 1843, only sixty years before the founding of her home congregation. Other books grew out of disturbing experience. One of the best-loved of these is Turn Over Any Stone (1970), in which she struggles with the doubt that gripped her after she saw the “paindom” of a beautiful granddaughter who was profoundly retarded. Another is Bright Valley of Love (1976), which has been published in twelve countries. It tells the story of Bethel, an institution she discovered in Germany after World War II. Bethel was home to epileptics and other damaged human beings, whom the Nazis had planned to exterminate. Pastor Fritz von Bodelschwingh, the courageous director of Bethel, successfully fought the plan and spared the residents a grim fate. The central character in the story is Gunther, a “pilgrim soul” with a “flippering walk” and “crazy crooked hands,” who prospered there under von Bodelschwingh’s ministry. The book’s epigraph comes from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love: “To love forth love is to build up. But to love forth love means precisely to presuppose that it is present at the base.”

In addition to her work as a translator and writer, Edna Hong will be remembered for the zest and variety of her Northfield life. She tended her large family, befriended the many souls in need who came to her door, and was an active member of St. John’s Lutheran Church. A legendary Sunday-school teacher there for thirty years, she also taught midweek religion classes at the church and wrote the history of the congregation for its centennial: The Book of a Century (1969). She reached beyond St. John’s, when invited, and gave original and highly energetic talks at other churches and larger church convocations.

Edna Hatlestad Hong’s merry spirit flourished at home. She baked whole-wheat bread that she gave away freely, tramped along Heath Creek with friends, fed the birds and squirrels, carried on an extensive correspondence, gardened, and read widely.
Honors came her way, sometimes given jointly to her and her husband. Among these were a National Book Award for volume one of Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers in 1968, knighthoods conferred by the Queen of Denmark in 1978, and the Christus Lux Mundi Award from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1998. She was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree by St. Olaf College in 1977 and the Wittenberg Award by the Luther Institute, Washington, D. C., in 1993. The citations that accompanied the most local of these awards, the ones from from St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary, touched on the amplitude of her life, for they recognized not only her achievements as a translator and writer but also her everyday discipline and the works of love that were integral to it.

She ran at full stretch for the whole of her life, until her final illness. In For Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offers a parable that points to what was essential in her. He first depicts a pair of horses who had grown slack, with “dull and drowsy eyes,” who had been driven only according to “the horses’ understanding” of their work; but then he shows these horses after they had submitted to the discipline of “the royal coachman,” when they were in top form and could go long distances “in a stretch without stopping.” Edna Hatlestad first learned the discipline of the royal coachman, of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the home of her parents and at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Taylor County, Wisconsin, and submitted to it for the rest of her long life.


From the Interesting to the Simple: Eulogy delivered at the memorial service for Howard Hong, March 27, 2010

View the archived video of Howard Hong’s memorial service here.

Thank you, Mary Hong Loe and Erik Hong, for entrusting me to speak here to your family and to friends and neighbors of St. Olaf College.

What does it mean to be, to become a Christian?

The movement of the religious, according to Søren Kierkegaard, is not “the movement from the simple to the interesting, but from the interesting to the simple—becoming a Christian” (Point of View, 94).

What Kierkegaard so compactly suggests is this: To become a Christian is to move toward the simple that is the eternal and away from the interesting that is the worldly. It’s possible. More often than not, however, what halts such a movement is that the simple is difficult. But, then, nobody ever said becoming a Christian was going to be easy, which is why the simple aligns itself with the difficult. As Herman Melville writes in his famous whale book: “In this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all” (Moby-Dick, chap. 85). And what makes the simple knotty is that it is not very interesting because the only thing that moves a person toward the religious is what Kierkegaard humorously calls elsewhere “the boring categories of the good” (Point of View, 92).

Here’s an example:
The essential simplicity of Howard Hong was that he never stopped with the interesting alone, for he knew that the interesting merely grabs your attention, and anything can do that. The interesting, in other words, is incidental and comes at you from the outside and from every imaginable direction every day in this confusing and contradictory and colorful world.

But Howard didn’t just want to be grabbed, only to be grabbed again by the next “interesting” thing that crossed his path. He wanted his attention held, for he knew that the only crucial and viable thing that could hold the attention of any person until the end of time was not the incidentally interesting that wades in the shallows of our lives but…the essentially simple that descends into the depths of our very beings. And so he began to move, precisely because he had become moved by the simple—which is to say that he not only deliberately chose to become a Christian, he actually began to make the movement of the religious by deliberately choosing it again and again each and every day. He never stopped. It was, on occasion, maddening for some of us even to witness his movements. His tenacious repetition, however, was precisely the kind of movement that was necessary to find meaning in life—for even imagining a meaningless life was a living death to Howard. Repetition, then (and as Kierkegaard suggests), is the very signpost of eternity and thereby the way one moves from the interesting to the simple—becoming a Christian.

That said, Howard Hong is the most interesting person I have ever met. For what else do you call a man who chooses to live a simple life, while also deliberately marrying and committing to the marriage for nearly 70 years, during which time he also committed to learn Danish, raise eight children, manage a home and two north woods cabins, develop and curate a world-class research library, teach thousands of students over the course of more than forty years, and translate and painstakingly edit, footnote, read, or otherwise have a hand in developing 15,887 pages of a difficult Dane? And that is just the primary tier of his accomplishments. The secondary tier includes things like reforesting large tracks of the north woods, reading voraciously, sniffing out the best cheeses in the Midwest, collecting balls of twine……Will somebody please stop me?

It’s not that he wasn’t intimately acquainted with the interesting. In fact, I can’t remember a single time when he wasn’t responding to the interesting that was always and everywhere swirling around him: worms crawling out of their underground tombs and onto St. Olaf College campus sidewalks each spring (“Look!” he would say like Zorba the Greek, “It’s a miracle!”); a choice passage near the end of Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (“Look!”); the dance of light on Lake Superior waters at 5:30 on a July morning (“Look!”); or—and this stands alone because of his eternally eye-popping and childlike expression whenever he saw her—that forever interesting, forever simple Edna (“Look!”).

So what is the simple? It’s passionate engagement. It’s stoic. It’s focused. It’s saintly. It’s plain. It’s pure of heart. It’s ethical and committed and purposeful and packed full of meaning. It’s what Melville calls “mute calm” and “eternal mildness of joy” that exists even “amid the tornadoed Atlantic of [our] being” (Moby-Dick, chap 87).

How do I know all this? Less from thinking abstractly and more from witnessing concretely the plain and simple example that was Howard’s life. Hearing Howard speak and observing him make the movements of the simply “boring categories of the good” was never boring. Why? Because he always sought meaning and he helped us to see that meaning is never boring. “What does it mean”—and then, arms folded, he’d look up and squeeze the questions out of himself—”What is it mean…to be a human being?”And: “What does this word and this word and that word really mean?…What are their radical meanings?…their root meanings?” He grabbed you with these apparently impossible questions in such a way that suggested that such questions were by no means impossible but instead simply questions that evoked the possible in us all. And not only that; Howard then held you and continued to hold you until you came to hold yourself.

The season of Howard’s life that we look back upon and memorialize today always seemed to be the long, simple season of Lent, which ends this very day. Just as Socrates—whom Kierkegaard always called that “simple wise man”—…just as Socrates knew where his knowledge ended and his ignorance began, so, too, Howard knew where his understanding ended and where that which passeth all understanding begins.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. May we turn our heads away from the interesting here and now and see the simple,
eternal carpenter’s son make His way into our hearts and minds and souls forever and ever, Amen.

– Jamie Lorentzen
Chairperson, Friends of The Hong Kierkegaard Library