Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Swedes, Mormons, and Impossible Bodies: Scandinavian Whiteness in the American West

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Swedes, Mormons, and Impossible Bodies: Scandinavian Whiteness in the American West

Article excerpt

White men-from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians--became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping black women.

--James Baldwin, "On Being 'White' ... And Other Lies" (1)

After watching the finale of the second season of the television Western Hell on Wheels, I was struck by how neatly the narrative of the perplexing and enigmatic Norwegian immigrant Thor Gundersen, nicknamed "The Swede," aligns with Baldwin's one-sentence summary of the genesis of American whiteness. In this episode, "Blood Moon Rising" (Hell on Wheels 2012a), after committing murder and fomenting violence between the white workers, freed slaves, and Sioux who populate the makeshift railroad town from which the show takes its title, The Swede escapes execution by leaping off the bridge from which he is to be hung. I assumed that the character would be killed off between seasons, or, worse, would become one of the gentle Swedes so common in our imagined western past, as evidenced in the jolly quotation from Terror in a Texas Town (1958) that begins the "Swedes" entry in The British Film Institute's Companion to the Western: "Swedes in this country, they keep popping up like jack-rabbits" (Buscombe 1991, 432).

But rather than die or be tamed, in the third season of Hell on Wheels, The Swede becomes a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the episode "Get Behind the Mule" (Hell on Wheels 2013b). By joining a group whose presence, like that of Scandinavian immigrants-because of Scandinavian immigrants-transformed the American West, The Swede again aligns himself with the progression of American whiteness by becoming a progenitor of the subcategory of whiteness whose motifs and societal impact I set out to describe and analyze: Mormon Scandinavian whiteness. By bringing together the disparate histories and bodies of theoretical work focused on whiteness and Scandinavian conversion and immigration within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints framework, it is my goal to define and offer some comments on the formulation of an American identity that, in challenging national identification and stimulating syncretic cultural combination, continues to shape our understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the West, and American subjectivity.

On Hell on Wheels-a show broadcast on AMC from 2011-2016, created and produced by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, on which John Wirth became showrunner from 2012's third season onward--The Swede's characterization deconstructs the "yumpin' yiminy" blockhead caricature of the nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigrant on the frontier while also functioning as Hell on Wheels's walking and talking analysis of the fluid problematics of race. Thor Gundersen's renaming as "The Swede" (occasionally formalized to "Mr. Swede") cannily comments on several layers of racial representation: first, the elision in nineteenth-century America of multiple Scandinavian nationalities into a flattened Swede; second, a postmodern nod to the popular Swede beta male figure in twentieth-century Western films; and third, metatextually, the creation and development of American whiteness. A liminal figure, The Swede straddles the boundary between mythologized homogenous and pluralistic national identities. Over the course of Hell on Wheelis four seasons, his Lutheran rectitude recedes in deference to a Loki-like propensity for inciting disorder, a character shift that demonstrates the destructive impact of ethnic white immigrants' assimilation to the cultural norms of American whiteness.

Despite the great diversity of the faith's adherents--and, paradoxically, given the Church's nineteenth-century characterization by hostile outsiders as racially impure and explicitly non-white--the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints most often positions itself as a white culture, a subcategory of whiteness at large, set apart by the strictures of the faith and the strong sense of commonality among Saints. …

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