Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Norwegian-American Historians and the Creation of an Ethnic Identity

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Norwegian-American Historians and the Creation of an Ethnic Identity

Article excerpt

THE ENGLISH HISTORIAN Robin G. Collingwood once wrote that history is what the historian makes (Collingwood xii; Carr 30). Although most historians acknowledge that there are limits to this creative process, in recent years they hare come to realize the importance of invented traditions and constructions in the writing of history. In writing the history of Norwegian immigration to the United States, Norwegian-American historians constructed a historical narrative that sought to legitimate and advance their group's position within American society. According to that narrative, Norwegians had a long and uninterrupted association with America since they were the first Europeans to "discover" the New World. Furthermore, Norwegian-American historians claimed that it had been Norwegians who had first introduced into the English-speaking world those values held so dear by Anglo-Americans, namely, a strong sense of individualism, love of freedom, and a desire for democratic institutions.

It should be noted that the concept of history employed by Norwegian-American historians, or other ethnic leaders for that matter, was a broad one. Those who authored the history of the Norwegians in America would never have considered themselves historians, and many of those who did had dubious credentials by today's standards. Their constructed history must be understood primarily as an ideological exercise designed to promote a self-aggrandizing Norwegian-American identity with historical accuracy occupying second place (Olson 106-7).

The emergence of the Norwegian-American identity coincided with the nascence of the filiopietistic tradition among the largely amateur historians, from roughly 1865 to 1925, though it lingered on into the 1930s. By 1925, professional historians started to supplant this approach (Barton, "Historians" 43-7). Although their history was not always accurate, the writings of the filiopietistic Norwegian-American historians formed the core of the Norwegian-American ideology. Hence, the study of that historical construction tells much about the Norwegian-American self-image. They created a Norwegian-American history that claimed that the Vikings had discovered America; that their ancestors were among the first European colonists; that Norwegian immigrants had settled and tamed much of the American frontier; and that Norwegian-American heroes had contributed to the success of America through both service and sacrifice.

The attempt to gain recognition was common to all immigrant groups. As Victor Greene has shown in his study on American immigrant leaders, two major concerns affected every immigrant group. The first was the need to impress Anglo-Americans, while the second was the need to impress other immigrant groups. Greene points to two strategies used to accomplish these goals. First, the immigrant group had to demonstrate that it had a long involvement in American history. The second was to show that it shared similarities with Anglo-American culture and ideas (Greene 12-6, 140-2). An additional function was the need of the immigrants to impress themselves with their own worth in a new and challenging environment (Olson 105).

A sense of history was basic to implementing these strategies. In his study of Swedish-American identity, Dag Blanck demonstrates how Swedish Americans of the Augustana Lutheran Synod combined elements of three historic traditions, namely, those of Sweden, the United States, and Swedish America to create a Swedish-American history that addressed the present-day needs of Swedish immigrants and their children in the United States (Blanck 184-6).

H. Arnold Barton observed a similar tendency in his study of the evolving Swedish-American identity. He notes how their principal spokesperson, Johan A. Enander, created a history that emphasized Swedish contributions to America's history. Their Viking ancestors had been the real discoverers of America in the seventeenth century, and the Swedes had been one of the three northern European powers to colonize America. …

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