Ethnicity on Parade: Inventing the Norwegian American through Celebration

By April R. Schultz | Go to book overview

Conclusion
Historical Memory and Ethnicity

The pageant finale, with its unveiling of a Civil War hero preceded by a parade of "successful" Norwegian Americans from every profession, is emblematic of the conservative nature of the Centennial celebration. But there were other stories told at the Centennial that are emblematic of the contingent nature of that same celebration. President Bothne's powerful reference to Norse mythology--leaving one's eyes (one's subjectivity, one's ability to understand) for a drink of magic water (material wealth)-- speaks to the profound costs of emigration. Indeed, Rolvaag argued that one cannot remain human while acquiring wealth if one does not take a piece of home--of culture, values, and ideals--when leaving. Such contradictory stories competed with each other within the Centennial's larger construction of Norwegian-American ethnicity. In his powerful words on historical memory, cultural critic Walter Benjamin argues,

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was." It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool for the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. 1

The Norse-American Centennial was not indicative of an inevitable assimilation process from a static Norwegian "folk" culture to "100% Americanism," but was a complex dialogue at a historical "moment of danger" within the Norwegian-American community. Their reinvention of dominant American history to integrally include Norwegian ideals and virtues

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