The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

shifts in the axis of the primary relationship therein: the primacy of the lineal relationship between parent and child in terms of property devolution and implicit care of the aged in the German household pivoted to a prominence of the conjugal tie between Nina and Claude.


Conclusion

The drama played out between Nina and Claude reiterates central features of farm life in the rural Middle West. It is yet another example of the clear perceptions of difference in family life and patterns of power and authority that existed between cultural groups in the region. Specifically, it illustrates the chasm that divided European immigrants from their Yankee neighbors with regard to the lines and degree of family authority, as expressed by each in their praise for their own customs and in their condemnation of those of the other group. Yet it shows as well that even if rural communities were insulated from the outside world, they were not impervious to cultural diffusion. The fictional portrayals of Nina and Emma together reveal how outside cultural influences provided alternatives and created internal tensions. Claude and the lady, each in their own way, challenged the fundamental structures of the household by pointing out what they saw as inequities to individuals living under the auspices of family systems different from their own. Whereas German daughters such as Nina lived under the purview of a household morality that preached obedience, they often were tempted by patterns of individualism and conjugal affect found elsewhere. Yet again we perceive a situation in which the retention of palpably different cultural systems transplanted to the Middle West occurred at the same time that powerful forces prompted their modification. Indeed, the expectations of different individuals were often contradictory. Mothers, for example, like Nina's mother, voiced fears of the diffusion of new patterns of conjugal affect and intergenerational discontinuity. Wives, on the other hand, often welcomed such new patterns. One Norwegian American woman, in an illuminating inversion of immigrant men's observations, complained that "the men like to sit with their feet on the stove and watch the women work." When she quarreled with her husband, her rejoinders were ethnically defined: "The next time she married," she told him, "it would not be with a Norwegian." 106

Whereas these sentiments illustrate the structural incongruities that created long-term challenges for the European American household system, the Yankee system also encountered complications as the region developed. In the next chapter, we will focus on those challenges for individuals within the home and their impact on the community writ large.

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