Academic journal article MELUS

"Wheat and Potatoes": Reconstructing Whiteness in O. E. Rolvaag's Immigrant Trilogy

Academic journal article MELUS

"Wheat and Potatoes": Reconstructing Whiteness in O. E. Rolvaag's Immigrant Trilogy

Article excerpt

In a particularly tense scene in O. E. Rolvaag's novel of Norwegian immigration to the Great Plains, Giants in the Earth (1927), Per Hansa convinces his fellow Norwegians to forego fighting with a threatening band of Irish settlers, arguing that "these were white folks, with whom one could talk and reason; that wasn't so dangerous" (135-36). His emphasis on shared whiteness among these groups indicates a racial bond, a bridge between ethnicities that otherwise seem irredeemably different. This racial union is belied elsewhere in the trilogy, however, when Per Hansa's mother describes the Irish and Norwegians as "wheat and potatoes," racial groups best not kept "in the same bin" (Fathers 264), and is further complicated by Rolvaag's patriotic rhetoric in Peder Victorious (1929): "--By a wise Destiny the Territory had come to be occupied throughout by people of like race, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians--all cousins, so to speak" (121). These conflicting accounts beg the question: are these groups of putatively white peoples of the same race ("white folks"), of like race ("cousins, so to speak"), or of entirely different race ("wheat and potatoes")?

This inconsistency may come as a surprise to readers accustomed to a late twentieth-century understanding of race, and especially to readers who bring with them to a western American text the cultural assumption that a fully unified white race conquered the West in the name of Manifest Destiny. After decades of John Wayne movies and ubiquitous images of white Americans in prairie schooners, the Great Plains figure as homogenous, a mythical place with a simple Hollywood past of white versus red. Recent recovery work, however, suggests a more complicated picture of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century West, one in which societal definitions of race and ethnicity were not so clearly focused, and Americans did not take it for granted that physical similarities meant sameness of race. As many as 60,000 African Americans migrated to the Great Plains during Reconstruction, following rumors of free land and more tolerant racial attitudes. Similarly, thousands of European immigrants responded to pamphlets advertising a new Eden by leaving their homelands and settling in the central United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Jonathan Raban recently reminded us in his book Bad Land (1996), railroad "pamphlets were distributed by ... agents all over the United States and Europe. Every mass-circulation newspaper carried advertisements for them.... They were translated into German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Italian. They turned up in bars and barbershops, in doctors' waiting rooms, in the carriages of the London tube and the New York El" (22).

Far from a simple picture of white and red races, the Great Plains was--and to a large extent still is--a salad bowl of multiple ethnicities, many of which can now claim a privileged status as "white" that was not fully available to their immigrant ancestors. Whiteness itself, in fact, was hardly a codified status, and throughout immigrant fiction race is discussed with varying, sometimes conflicting, definitions: sometimes as what we would now call ethnicity, sometimes as nationality, and sometimes with the undercurrent of biology. The slipperiness of these racial constructions and divisions made it not immediately apparent to newly arrived Norwegian and Irish immigrants who was white and who was not, a confusion that reveals itself in fiction by immigrant authors such as Ole Edvaard Rolvaag. This article takes Rolvaag's novels as an example of immigrant writing from the homesteading era(1) in an attempt to explore some of the complexities of the construction of whiteness among white ethnics, particularly arguing that the Norwegian and Irish immigrants of Rolvaag's trilogy define each other's whiteness based on the presence or absence of a non-white other.

The confusion in Rolvaag's novels--and in other white-authored texts from this era--over a clear definition of whiteness arises in part from a certain indeterminacy in conceptualizing race. …

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