See the hovering ships on the wharves! The Dannebrog waves, the workmen sit in circle under the shade at their frugal breakfasts; but foremost stands the principal figure in this picture; it is a boy who cuts with a bold hand the lifelike features in the wooden image for the beakhead of the vessel. It is the ship’s guardian spirit, and, as the first image from the hand of Albert Thorwaldsen, it shall wander out into the wide world. The swelling sea shall baptize it with its waters, and hang its wreaths of wet plants around it; nor night, nor storm, nor icebergs, nor sunken rocks shall lure it to its death, for the Good Angel that guards the boy shall, too, guard the ship upon which with mallet and chisel he has set his mark.
—Hans Christian Andersen
The real businesslike biographer begins by telling when his subject “first saw the light”–by which he means when the man was born. In this instance we will go a bit further back and make note of the interesting fact that Thorwaldsen was descended from an ancestor who had the rare fortune to be born in Rhode Island, in the year Ten Hundred Seven.
Wiggling, jiggling, piggling individuals with quibbling proclivities, and an incapacity for distinguishing between fact and truth, may maintain that there was no Rhode Island in the year Ten Hundred Seven. Emerson has written, “Nothing is of less importance on account of its being small.” And so I maintain that, in the year Ten Hundred Seven, Rhode Island was just where it is now, and the Cosmos quite as important. Let Pawtucket protest and Providence bite the thumb–no retraction will be made!
About the year Eighteen Hundred Fifteen the Secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society wrote Thorwaldsen, informing him that he had been elected an honorary member of the Society, on account of his being the only known living descendant of the first European born in America. Thorwaldsen replied, expressing his great delight in the honor conferred, and touched feelingly on the fact that while he had been elected to membership in various societies in consideration of what he had done, this was the first honor that had come his way on account of his ancestry. To a friend he said, “How would we ever know who we are, or where we come from, were it not for the genealogical savants!” In a book called “American Antiquities,” now in the Library at Harvard College, and I suppose accessible in various other libraries, there is a genealogical table tracing the ancestry of Thorwaldsen. It seems that, in the year Ten Hundred Six, one Thorfinne, an Icelandic whaler, commanded a ship which traversed the broad Atlantic, and skirted the coast of New England. Thorfinne wintered his craft in one of the little bays of Rhode Island, and spent the Winter at Mount Hope, where the marks of his habitat endure even unto this day.
The statement to the effect that when the Indians saw the ships of Columbus, they cried out, “Alas, we are discovered!” goes back to a much earlier period, like many another of Mark Twain’s gladsome scintillations. So little did Thorfinne and his hardy comrades think of crossing the Atlantic in search of adventure, that they used to take their families along, as though it were a picnic. And so Fate ordered that Gudrid, the good wife of Thorfinne, should give birth to a son, there at Mount Hope, Rhode Island, in the year Ten Hundred Seven. And they called the baby boy Snome. And to Snome, the American, the pedigree of Thorwaldsen traces. In a lecture on the Icelandic Sagas, I once heard William Morris say that all really respectable Icelanders traced their genealogy to a king, and many of them to a god. Thorwaldsen did both–first to Harold Hildestand, King of Denmark, and then, with the help of several kind old gran’mamas, to the god Thor. His love for mythology was an atavism. In childhood the good old aunties used to tell him how the god Thor once trod the earth and shattered the mountains with his hammer. From Thor and the World his first ancestor was born, so the family name was Thor-vald. The appendix “sen,” or son, means that the man was the son of Thor-vald; and in some way the name got ossified, like the name Robinson, Parkinson, Peterson or Albertson, and then it was Thorwaldsen.