"The Day of the Great Beast":
World War I, Americanization,
and a Community in Crisis
In a moving passage from his 1920 novel Pure Gold, O. E. Rolvaag poignantly addressed the transformative effects of World War I on Norwegian-American ethnicity, Americanization, and nativism.
Everything about her spoke of American efficiency. Take her name, for example--Hazel Knapp, so short and with such a snap to it, with no trace of foreign origin, neither in sound nor in spelling. . . . There was hardly a soul in America to whom the World War gave greater moments of exaltation; it inspired her so. Her enraptured enthusiasm changed into religious worship to which she surrendered herself completely. How could she help it? The war was so mighty, so beautiful, so noble. Hazel saw clearly that an era of sweet brotherhood was dawning upon a sick world. . . . America had been chosen by God to lead the war, her country and its noble Allies! . . . To her there were only two classes of people: the real Americans who in her terminology included those who saw the war through her eyes, and on the other hand these--these-well-- these infamous foreigners who invariably had pro-German leanings. 1
In the context of World War I, the Red Scare, and a widespread campaign for "100% Americanism," Rolvaag's novel serves as evidence of the tensions within his community over cultural identity. In an article two years earlier, the author had declared, "Everything that is not of Anglo- American origin has been rendered suspect to an ominous degree. . . . In some places ill will and suspicion turned into the most rancorous persecution. . . . All that was strange was dangerous; so it had to be extirpated. They were not particular about the means, and woe to anyone who tried to object."2 Though Americanization movements had a much longer history, World War I exacerbated and accelerated American nativism into an often