In her recent monograph, The Viking Immigrants, the University of Toronto historian L. K. Bertram poses a difficult question: “How should a history of an ethnic community be written?” (p. 19). Debates over this problem have been fraught among North American immigration historians. The paradigm of assimilation has faced heavy criticism since the 1960s, but debates over the exact relationship between immigrants and the broader society have persisted. The recent scholarly discussions over European immigrants’ encounters with race and colonialism in North America, for example, have brought forth difficult questions about how immigrant ethnic identity relates to systemic racism and white supremacy. Two recent studies of Scandinavian immigrants in North America – Bertram’s The Viking Immigrants and Anita Olson Gustafson’s Swedish Chicago – provide insight into these debates. While they focus on Scandinavians, they also explore broader themes that are pertinent to all students of ethnic and migration history.
Bertram’s The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans explores how Icelandic immigrants and their descendants have used material culture to construct ethnic identities in North America from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Some 14,000 Icelanders – a fifth of Iceland’s population – migrated to North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, settling mostly in Western Canada and Upper Midwest United States. In the course of the twentieth century, the Icelanders and their descendants learned English, became citizens, and adapted in other ways, but the Icelandic identity persisted. Its popularity even grew at the turn of the twenty-first century, when the number of Canadians identifying as Icelandic increased from 70,000 (1996) to over 100,000 (2016). This paradox is at the core of Bertram’s study. She asks how the Icelandic North Americans’ “sense of identity and cultural continuity persisted after a century and a half of dramatic change, anglicization, and conflict” (p. 3).
Bertram approaches this problem in innovating ways. Drawing on theories on identity construction as a multisensory process – as well as her own lived experience as an Icelandic-Scottish Canadian –, she studies the Icelandic North American community through various “alternative archives” (p. 7): food, clothing, folktales and other sources previously deemed trivial. She examines both the historical genealogies and present-day manifestations of such cultural practices as coffee making, telling of ghost stories, and the baking of vínarterta, an Icelandic fruit torte. To collect material about these practices, Bertram has done extensive archival work in Canada, the United States and Iceland. She also engages thoroughly with Icelandic and North American research on Icelandic immigration, and offers a powerful corrective to traditional historiography. As she notes, Icelandic immigration history has been often written from the perspective of male-led ethnic organizations, and told as a celebratory narrative of progressive assimilation. Experiences of female, disabled, working-class or other marginalized Icelanders have attracted less attention. For her part, Bertram “seeks to provide an alternative road map to immigrant community life and cultural formation” by “attending to the different forms of expression embraced by Icelandic immigrants” (p. 19). For example, the study of clothing and cooking, practices usually associated with women, allows Bertram to explore experiences of gender from unique perspectives.
The structure of Bertram’s book is chiefly chronological, but every chapter focuses on a specific object or practice. The first two chapters examine the early immigrant generation’s (c. 1870–1900) inner social tensions and its anxieties about outside perception. The first chapter focuses on clothing and fashion, the second on consumption of coffee and alcohol. Clothes and drinks are ways to explore deeper questions of nation, class and gender: how Icelanders used objects and customs to communicate social identities to varied audiences. The third chapter turns its focus to an intra-communal cultural practice: the telling of ghost stories and other folktales. Through these previously untranslated Icelandic immigrant stories, Bertram examines how the community dealt with taboo subjects, such as gender inequality, class conflict and colonial trauma. The fourth chapter again focuses on Icelandic immigrants’ anxieties over external representation, now within the context of interwar era nativism. Here Bertram probes representations of the Viking in Icelandic immigrant homes and communities. By associating themselves with Viking history and Norse mythology, Icelanders claimed belonging to whiteness and distanced themselves from the Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and other purportedly undesirable immigrant nationalities.
The final chapter explores the historical trajectory of vínarterta, a nineteenth century fruit torte with roots in Viennese and Danish bakeries that became the symbol of Icelandic heritage in Cold War North America. The torte came to symbolize hospitality – particularly female hospitality – in an effort to highlight the friendliness of Icelanders – particularly Icelandic women – towards their Western allies. To be sure, vínarterta was not all geopolitics. Bertram dissects carefully the delicacy’s mid-century symbolic use from its more diverse present-day significance. She uses interviews, media accounts, and recipes to trace what the torte has come to mean for its bakers and consumers. The vínarterta has become “more than a symbol” for modern Icelandic North Americans, Bertram argues; “it acts as a kind of Eucharist that binds together past and present generations” (p. 166).
The focus on the everyday allows Bertram to probe issues that have remained taboo in the more celebratory reminiscences of Icelandic heritage in North America. Particularly intriguing is Bertram’s examination of colonial trauma. Icelandic North American historiography, like Scandinavian American historiography in general, has often dismissed linkages between immigration and colonial history. Many claim that as immigrants were unaware of the colonial dispossession, they were innocent of its atrocities. Bertram’s innovative reading of Icelandic immigrant folktales and ghost stories, hjátrús, complicates this interpretation. While Native peoples are conspicuously absent in published community histories and official commemorations, they abound in ghost stories Icelandic immigrants told one another. In these stories, the Cree, Ojibwe, and Métis feature often as ghosts who haunt the Icelanders who have settled uninvited on Native ancestral lands. The popularity of these ghost stories confounds claims that Icelanders were ignorant about the colonial context of their settlement. Bertram is careful not to subsume the Icelandic-Native encounter under a uniform conflict narrative, but notes the colonial underpinnings of even the more mundane interactions between the communities. As she argues, the ghost stories highlight that Icelanders well understood “the direct, very uncomfortable relationship between immigration and colonialism” (p. 92).
Another recent study that aims to complicate our understanding of Scandinavian immigrants’ assimilation to North America is Professor Anita Olson Gustafson’s Swedish Chicago: The Shaping of an Immigrant Community, 1880–1920, a deftly executed social history of America’s largest urban Swedish community. Although it covers some similar thematic ground as Bertram’s book, Olson Gustafson’s work is a more conventional piece of immigration history. The author ties her analysis to a specific city, Chicago, between 1880 and 1920. During these decades, the Windy City became a trans-migration hub for Swedish immigrants heading west, attracting also thousands of permanent Swedish residents. They worked mostly as carpenters, factory laborers and domestic servants, but also as doctors, lawyers, journalists and in other middle-class professions. Chicago Swedes established a vibrant ethnic culture, founding thirty-six newspapers, erecting eighty-six churches and supporting dozens of voluntary associations, such as temperance societies, secret orders and nationalist clubs. Olson Gustafson navigates well the vast paper trail left by Swedish Chicago’s lively organizational life. Her sources are the common ingredients of immigration and ethnic history: censuses, church records, newspapers, and documents of ethnic organizations. Letters, journals and oral history interviews enliven the analysis, giving life to data points weaned from census records and parish books.
In directing her focus on Swedish Chicago, Olsen Gustafson strolls a well-trodden path, but puts forth an original argument. Swedish Chicago has attracted much scholarly attention, with Ulf Beijbom’s 1971 tome Swedes in Chicago being among the most influential. Olsen Gustafson acknowledges her indebtedness to Beijbom’s pioneering work, but challenges its interpretation about the chronology of Swedish identity in Chicago and the chronology’s implicit anti-urban bias. Beijbom argued that Swedes in Chicago lost their ethnic distinctiveness as they moved away from their tight-knit, village-like city neighborhoods to the suburbs, a process that began in the late nineteenth century and accelerated during the twentieth. Olsen Gustafson, however, argues that “urban settings can be rich in communal relationships” and that the Swedes’ dispersion to the suburbs did not entail the twilight of Swedish American culture. Swedish Americans attached their sense of belonging less to certain territories than to “similar values and cultural understandings” (p. 4), which kept the community alive even as its members stopped sharing the same apartment buildings and residential streets.
By tracing the changes in networks of Swedish ethnic organizations in Chicago from 1880 to 1920, Olson Gustafson demonstrates that suburbanization did not obliterate the institutions, but merely altered their physical and social geography. In Chapter 1, Olsen Gustafson recounts the historical background of Swedish migration to the US and settlement in Chicago. The second chapter explores how Swedish newcomers encountered the Illinois city and adapted themselves to its urban texture. It demonstrates through letters and journals that the mostly rural Swedish immigrants maintained strong transatlantic ties to Sweden and sought to make their new urban environment more homelike by establishing churches and other familiar associations. These associations were never mere replicas of their Swedish variants, but reflected the demands of urban America and forged thus “a middle ground between Sweden and America” (p. 50). Chapters 3 through 5 trace specific networks of Swedish institutions in Chicago. Chapter 3 looks at churches and congregations; Chapter 4 examines Swedish voluntary associations, such as the Good Templars, the Viking Order, and the Vasa Order; and Chapter 5 probes the early twentieth century emergence of Swedish nationalist organizations, which sought to unite – unsuccessfully – the diverse ethnic organizations in the advancement of common Swedish interests. Olsen Gustafson’s detailed analysis of the organizations’ membership books and other documents reveals that Swedish organizational life maintained its dynamism long after the Swedish Chicagoans’ move to the suburbs had begun after 1880.
Like Bertram, Olsen Gustafson is interested in ethnic identity’s relationship to race in North America. She situates the Swedish Chicago within the broader racial diversity in the segregated city. The period from 1880 to 1920 witnessed major changes in Chicago’s ethnic and racial demography. When Swedes started to migrate to the city in the mid-nineteenth century, they shared it mostly with other Northern and Western European immigrants and native-born white Americans; in 1880, Swedes were still Chicago’s third largest foreign-born group after the Germans and the Irish. The increased immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century changed the demographics, and the Polish and Italians came to outnumber the Swedes by 1920. During and after the First World War, Chicago’s African American population grew significantly. In this racially more diverse city, Swedish Americans identified themselves increasingly in racial terms. “Swedes were careful to promote their proud Nordic heritage”, Olsen Gustafson writes, “in order to distinguish themselves from groups many Americans perceived as less desirable” (p. 5–6). Yet, in her analysis of Swedish-American institutional networks, the theme of race remains rather muted. The connection between suburbanization and racial segregation, for example, would have perhaps warranted more attention.
Bertram’s and Olsen Gustafson’s books will interest students of Scandinavian immigration history, but their theoretical and methodological insights deserve a wider audience. The problems Bertram notes regarding the Icelandic North American scholarship – male and elite bias, teleological assumptions about assimilation, the tendency to study ethnic groups in isolation – are not unique to that field alone, but are common in immigration history at large. Bertram’s study, particularly, provides excellent tools to avoid some of these pitfalls and to shed light on the more marginalized parts of the immigrant experience. Both Bertram’s and Olsen Gustafson’s books help to understand the complexities of assimilation – even for the purportedly privileged Scandinavian migrants.