Ethnicity on Parade: Inventing the Norwegian American through Celebration

By April R. Schultz | Go to book overview

1
Ethnic Identity and
Celebration: An Introduction

In the Centennial's souvenir program, Professor O. M. Norlie asserted, "It might be said that every nation is a peculiar people, called of God to perform a peculiar service for mankind. The Norwegian people in times past have been called to perform a great mission in the world. . . . they have been the bearers of personal independence and liberty under law, they have been champions of the home and the school, the church and the state." Norlie concluded, "The Centennial will renew and enforce the faith in our precious heritage."1 As this statement demonstrates, the "peculiarity" of Norwegian Americans as outlined by Norlie was clearly compatible with middle-class American ideals. Indeed, Centennial organizers argued that Norwegian Americans, descendants of Viking explorers who not only had discovered America but had conquered much of northern Europe, were better Americans than "Yankees" were. From the perspective of the Centennial's middle-class organizers, the celebration was a process of cultural legitimation. Their representation of Norwegian-American ethnicity was "safe" and nonthreatening to American business, politics, and culture in the 1920s. Such a "safe" vision would allow these organizers to maintain their positions as ethnic leaders in an ethnic community without challenging American ideology. In many ways this celebration of progress paralleled dominant Anglo-American progressive history in its emphasis on expansion, individuality, and linearity. This representation, however, was based on a use of the past that rendered the organizers' conservative narrative highly unstable and contradictory. The Centennial celebrated not American progress, but Norwegian-American progress. A historical memory of Norwegian romantic nationalism subverted the organizers' narrative and inverted the dominant assimilationist ideology. The Centennial

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