The Importance of being Swedish
Part II: The Dawn of Swedish America - Following the American Civil War, Swedes began to immigrate to the United States in substantial numbers. Thanks to the Homestead Act—a government program that promised land ownership to pioneers who chose to settle undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi—some of the most pronounced Swedish communities could initially be found in the Midwest. Within a generation, immigrant communities could be found as far west as California and as far south as Florida. Nominally Swedish immigration had all the hallmarks of an ethnic group, but unlike many other groups the Swedes faced little resistance and often integrated faster than others.
Swedish Immigration and Integration
Though it is somewhat unsupported, historian F.C. Scott draws the conclusion that American and Scandinavian societies are directly related through the shared respect for legal systems and historical cultural mores. Scott points out Americans as the “heirs of the British tradition,” which in turn, he claims, is the product of Norsemen via the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and Dane-law. Though such claims might be far fetched, it is true that both the American and the Swedish societies valued the attainment of justice and law-bound order.
This assumption is supported by Scott’s observation that “shortly after the formulation of the United States Constitution the Swedes developed their written constitution.” This might also indicate a deep-rooted mutual respect for the role of written laws that in other societies were irrelevant due to the composition of the power hierarchy of a rich upper class.
There were underlying reasons that made integration into America easier for immigrants from Sweden. The two countries had never fought and thus had few prejudices; both English and Swedish shared strong Germanic linguistic origins, which made learning English a lot easier. That said, there were also logistical causes that helped the Swedes avoid anti-immigrant reprisals.
Swedish-American researcher, Ulf Beijblom, points out that in the United States Swedes were among the first to settle the Northern Illinois and the St. Croix River Valley of Minnesota. Unlike groups such as the Irish and Italians who migrated to long-established metropolises like New York and Boston, the Swedes were among the first groups to inhabit some of the urban centers of the midwestern region. Thus by avoiding competition for jobs, Swedes were not brought into conflict with xenophobic, anti-immigrant groups.
Beijbom puts forth the theory that incidents of Nativist reprisal were avoided because of the Swedish pioneer mentality. This cultural phenomenon, he claims, echoed the quintessential American values of Manifest Destiny and self-reliance.
Fellow historian, F.D. Scott, affirms that “for all the materialism and the pragmatism that characterize the Scandinavian and the American, another element comes nearer to being the centre [of their cultural identity] for each: individualism.” This would prove to be not only important to understanding Swedish migration in the United States, but also vital in understanding the widespread popularity of American social movements in Sweden.
Arnold Barton, another prominent historian, reminds us that the Swedish religious movements of the 1800s—many of which arose from the American Great Awakenings—often regarded traditional values as important, which harmonized well with a general American tendency to downplay immigrant ethnic identity and [other] impediments to integration.
On the other hand, writer George Stephenson claims that this ethnic mentality was in fact in the same vain as the most inherent “American” values. He claims “[Sweden’s] sons in the American republic are just as zealous defenders of the principles of the Protestant Reformation as the descendants of the pilgrim fathers.” Certain immigrant groups with competing religious traditions (such as Catholicism and Judaism) viewed the Protestant Anglo-America as something foreign. Conversely, Swedish Americans recognized and related to much of wider American society. Some even contend that immigration for the Swedes was a sort of homecoming. For many reasons, the Swedes looked to the dream of America as an appropriate and logical destination away from the Sweden and the Old World.
Barton affirms that the Swedish-American culture is “something totally different from a transplant from the 'the old country.'” This assertion seems to be in line with what some would classify as a folksier Swedish identity. In academic settings of the time, the “French influence [on Swedish culture] especially under Gustav III” is often mentioned. Researcher Hans Lindblad argues that unlike the elite’s fascination and reverence for the French culture, the average Swede came more often into contact with Swedish-American literature and correspondence through Amerikabreven and literature of the time. Lindblad also points out that German culture completely dominated Sweden as “inspiration for the elite” with the Swedish universities, national administration and “kultureliten” as examples. He juxtaposes the individual establishment of Swedish communities of the time to the “the Swedish governmental authorities and universities which had their traditional roots in Germany.”
In understanding the cultural influences on the Swedish identity during the old country’s industrialization and development, it is important to recognize the strong sense of class mentality or struggle that manifested itself in Swedes. While the aristocracy had traditional ties to French civilization, the cultural and ethical (Protestant) connection with the Germanic civilization and the Burger (Bourgeois) society’s work ethic inspired the middle classes. For the classes of Swedes that composed the masses of emigration, it was the personal, if grass-roots, correspondence with America that laid the basis for a unique brand of populism. Examples of the class divide can be noted in the general ignorance of non-urban Swedes towards the establishment’s high culture and urban ethos of Stockholm, the capital, compared with the seemingly universal connection to Chicago, Minneapolis and Swedish-America. This is corroborated by Lindblad, who argues that in 1910 most Swedes in America saw Gothenburg and Stockholm as foreign cities; however, in Chicago the average Swede could name “a sibling, a cousin, an uncle or a friend." Beijbom is quick to point out that in 1910, 61 percent of Swedes in the U.S. lived in urban centers, making them one of America’s most urbanized immigrant groups and probably more urbanized than the Swedish population.
Swedish, American or Swedish-American
According to the Swanson Swedish Research Center in Rock Island, Illinois, 1.2 million immigrants found their way to the United States from Sweden between 1850 and 1930.
The 1990 federal census shows what has become of these Swedish-Americans and their followers. The top ten states for Swedish-Americans are:
New York 165,333
Lars Florin provides a chart of the states and their Swedish populations. It is clear that the midwestern region is the cradle of the Swedish-American immigration from the late 19th century and early 20th century, with some 2 million Americans claiming a Swedish-American ethnic identity. This pioneer identity has come to typify the American perspective of Swedes and their homogeneity.
What these numbers do not provide, however, is a better understanding of interest in relations with the Swedish homeland. In 1990, the United States Bureau of the Census released information on ancestry. What they discovered was that the vast majority (98 percent) of those that classify themselves as Swedish, were actually born in the United States; thus, we could assume, they are Swedish-American. This would also suggest that for there to be a successful endeavor to better harness a modern Swedish identity, there must be a recognition and better understanding of the Swedish-American culture.
The distinct composition of Swedish-Americans as something unique from “Swedish” can best be observed as it conflicts with the characteristics of modern Swedish society and will be explored separately. Encouragingly, there exists a rich and colorful literature of the cultural experiences of the early Swedes in the United States. One of the most significant contributions to this genre was the series of letters of correspondence between immigrant communities and their families and friends in Sweden. Amerikabreven are often credited with being an accurate insight into Swedish American identity.
The literary chefs' hors d’oeuvres of Vilhelm Moberg’s trilogy, "The Emigrants, The Immigrants and The Pioneers," is widely accepted as a quintessential work in the Swedish literary repertoire, and was even adapted by Björn and Benny of ABBA as a popular Musical in Kristina Från Duvemåla. However “Swedish” one may see Moberg’s tale, it must be argued that since it deals with the struggles of Swedes living in America it should therefore be considered Swedish-American.
What this report will later attempt to grapple with is the tendency to trivialize the Swedish identity by downplaying the impact and composition of certain aspects of Swedish immigration to the United States. The characterization of two distinct groups of Swedish immigrants can be established in their composition, attitude and activity. The former group—those that came between 1850 and 1930— may be classified as regionally-rooted and “folksy," based on their collective background from rural areas, their rejection of elitist cultural values and their eager integration into the American Midwest. By contrast, the modern wave of Swedish immigration to the United States—following World War II—has seen an influx of privileged Swedes. This new group is by and large highly educated, professional and well-established.
This shift in demographical composition can best be explained by the fact that American immigration law has become much more stringent, and the role of the immigrant and opportunities available to individuals have changed. Today, “a relative or employer of the alien must sponsor the alien by filing the appropriate petition with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS).” This newer group of immigrants, numbering some 60,000, has shown a strong dedication to establishing organizations (with funding both from Swedish individuals and the Swedish business community) with a goal of maintaining a strong connection to Sweden, and cultivating and preserving specific aspects of Swedish culture, such as the language. Next month will meet, compare and explore this group.
by Carl Lööf
Part III: Religious and Social Institutions of Swedish America promote stability and security...