Saturday, July 24, 2021


For Our Ancestral Heritage

Orm Øverland, The Western Home: A Literary History of Norwegian America ([Northfield]: The Norwegian American Historical Association, 1996), pp. 203, 205 (note omitted):
The front lines between the proponents of language retention and of Anglicization had hardened during and after the First World War. Wist, who in 1904 had spoken of the transitional character of the immigrant culture, now seemed a preservationist compared to those who questioned the patriotism of any American who used a foreign language. The new church formed in 1917 had identified itself as "Norwegian" but wartime nativist pressure led to a resolution (533 voting yes, 61, no) at the first biennial convention in 1918 to drop this adjective. The resolution had to be confirmed by a second biennial meeting, and the opposition mobilized, forming a society, For Fædrearven (For our ancestral heritage), with the purpose of keeping the church "Norwegian." The prime mover and secretary was [Ole] Rølvaag. In a newspaper in Canton, South Dakota, Visergutten, he wrote a series of articles and edited a debate on Norwegian-American culture (3 Feb. 1921-15 June 1924, eventually publishing his contributions in 1922 in Omkring fædrearven (On our ancestral heritage). As nativist sentiment subsided with the end of the war and a disruptive debate on a non-theological issue was foreseen, leaders of the church themselves recommended that the convention reverse its position in 1920 (Chrislock 1977, 220-221). The spokesmen for "our heritage" had won the battle against what had seemed significant odds. Indeed the ground swell of sympathy for the preservationist stance not only demonstrated a reaction to the experience of near persecution of minority cultures but seemed to augur a revitalization of Vesterheimen. The Norwegian Society had never gained popular support in the early years of the century; For Fædrearven could boast annual meetings with several thousand participants (Rolvaag 1922,17).

In the first of the three essays in his 1922 volume, "Naive reflections on our heritage," Rølvaag develops a theory of ethnicity and describes the traits and characteristics that Norwegian Americans may contribute to their new country. While this essay presents the most complete statement of the preservationist views shared by Ager, Buslett, Johnson, and Strømme, the other two essays are more polemical in tone and add little to the theory or the rhetoric of the first. Nostalgia for the Old World has no place in Rølvaag's reflections; he speaks as a Norwegian American, not as a Norwegian. In keeping with the terminology of his day, Rølvaag speaks of "race" where we would speak of ethnicity and he may at times seem to suggest that national traits are not merely cultural but are transferred genetically. Nevertheless, his message to his readers is less concerned with what they are than with what they must do. His appeals to ethnic pride must be understood in a context where the ideologues of Americanism were suggesting that the traits of immigrants were not only undesirable but inferior. In his conclusion to the first essay he speaks to the heart of the matter, the "sancta sanctorum: our emotional relationship to the land we have become citizens of and where our children will live and build after us." He asks how someone with a "Norwegian soul" may become a good American citizen, and replies: "let us hold high our heritage; then our emotional relationship to America will be all right. For this land needs human beings, not merely creatures" (107-108. Italics are Rølvaag's.).

His implied antagonists are the spokesmen for the melting-pot ideology, who appear to be near relatives of Ibsen's Button Molder. In the last act of Peer Gynt the Button Molder explains that since Peer had failed to realize himself in life, he would go neither to hell nor to heaven but would be melted down by orders of a "thrifty" Master who "throws out nothing as irreparable / That still can be used for raw material." Peer protests that even "the old-time judgment" would be better than "simply to disappear / Like a mote in a stranger's blood, to forswear / being Gynt for a ladle-existence, to melt—/ It makes my innermost soul revolt." But he meets little understanding from the Button Molder, who points out that "Yourself is just what you've never been—/ So what difference to you to get melted down?" Literate Norwegian Americans were preconditioned to react negatively to Israel Zangwill's vision of America in The Melting-Pot (1909), and Rølvaag merges Ibsen's metaphor of the "melting ladle" with Zangwill's "melting pot": "We cannot be reconciled to the doctrine that it would benefit our country if all its inhabitants become identical, molded in the same ladle, with all dissimilarities ground away. We believe this would impoverish us as a people" (1922,22).

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