Ethnicity on Parade: Inventing the Norwegian American through Celebration

By April R. Schultz | Go to book overview

2
"To Lose the Unspeakable":
Negotiating
Norwegian-American Identity

For historians of the Norwegian-American experience, World War I and its attendant Americanization "worked"; that is, merely accelerated an inevitable progression from Norwegian to American. Though this scholarship amasses a rich narrative of Norwegian-American culture in the twentieth century, the "facts" of the narrative are constructed according to specific assumptions about ethnicity, assimilation, and social change that limit the narrative's complexity. 1 Convinced of the desirability of assimilation, these historians read back into the past an inevitability that distorts the real historical choices, desires, and struggles of Norwegian Americans at the time. They view ethnicity as a static and finite construct, and they determine the "stage" of assimilation according to the "authenticity" of the group's ethnic forms. If so-called Old World values are no longer visibly utilized to survive in the American environment and if ethnic institutions are on the decline, then the group is reaching a state of assimilation with an equally static American culture. The periodization of Norwegian-American history is grounded in this assumption, which is itself predicated on particular ideas about social change. On this broader level of social change, the historians of Norwegian-American history chronicle a closed hegemonic process. Though the Norwegian-Americans in these narratives have a thriving ethnic culture for a time, it is merely a transitional culture--a bridge to becoming fully American. Then, when the dominant culture decides that even "safe" northern European immigrants must Americanize, the Norwegians hasten the process and assimilate. Even some of their own join the ranks of the Americanizers. In this scenario, the dominant culture's hegemony is complete.

The evidence, however, reveals conflicts and tensions that these historians have ignored. If we shift our view of culture and social change to a

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