Karl Oskar - not your typical immigrant
Off to America! Sometimes characters we read about or see in the movies make such an impact that they blur reality. Even today there’s a common notion that Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina were atypical Swedish immigrants looking for a piece of land. In truth most immigrants came from cities and did not live off farming, but rather off trade and industry.
Whenever there are discussions about the mass immigration from Sweden to the U.S., in media, at seminars, in debates, and even in conversations among Swedes and Swedish-Americans, there it is, Vilhelm Moberg’s spirit, resting heavily on top of historiography. The picture of immigration as mainly an affair for farmers lives on, in spite of all other groups that dominated the immigration flow: servants, entrepreneurs, and workers.
Karl Oskar and Kristina were not your typical immigrants. Yet we like to draw parallels to them with today’s asylum seekers and paperless people in transit. The argument goes like this: We welcomed Karl Oskar and Kristina, shouldn’t we also welcome these people? This however, is a poor analog. The settlers who came from Sweden to America were not paperless, they were recruited and furnished with the proper documents. And why make the comparison with two peasant immigrants instead of the urbanized workers, who were more common on the ships crossing the Atlantic?
Swedish historians and economists have since the 1960’s tried to alter the deceptive Moberg-image. With no success. Perhaps the latest effort, historian Jimmy Engren’s doctoral thesis “Railroading and Labor Migration: Class and Ethnicity in Expanding Capitalism in Northern Minnesota – The 1880’s to the Mid 1920’s” (Växjö University Press) will bring about some change.
Engren’s point of departure is somewhat different: He doesn’t begin with the immigrant from Sweden as a farmer or a farmhand with grand dreams of owning his own piece of land. No, Engren’s focus is on immigrant workers; he documents how the Swedes, who helped build the railroad in the U.S., slowly were Americanized.
According to Engren’s study of Duluth & Iron Range Railroad in the city of Two Harbors, MN, and the Swedish group (of Two Harbor’s 5,000 inhabitants, 29% were born in Sweden), the workplace became a most important meeting place for European immigrants, the Swedes not the least, and a strong motor in the Americanization process.
Engren has analyzed official censuses and the way Duluth & Iron Range Railroad Americanized its workers, something that happened with the help of the local YMCA. The railroad workers managed to create a workplace with Swedish overtones. There was even a Verdandi lodge.
In 1870’s Minnesota, a great many Swedes went from one job to another. A decade later it was quite common to have short mobile jobs at the railroad, in farming and forest work. By 1910, however, there was a marked change. Some Swedish locomotive drivers belonged to the railroad aristocracy, but most workers were to be found on the iron ore docks.
According to Engren, it was the norm among German immigrants to state “farmer” as their title even though they were not. It was what they wanted to be, but in the new country they had to take other jobs, just like immigrants and refugees today.
In 1920 the Swedish group had diversified even more. The first generation immigrants enjoyed very little social mobility. Their children on the other hand, went to American schools, and had an easier time finding office work.
I myself have often wondered about the lack of record of the Swedish-American worker on this side of the Atlantic. There must be a reason Vilhelm Moberg’s grandiose epos has been allowed to overshadow all attempts to more urban analyses. A psychological study remains to be made. In the meantime we have to make do with the hypothesis that the Swedes did what the Germans had done, calling themselves “farmers” although they were not.
A few years ago, when I traveled the New York state and southern Michigan, I spent a lot of time with Swedish descendants, and I noticed clearly how people suffered from lack of self-confidence and a poor self-esteem. They were children and children’s children to the Swedish immigrants who had had such hope for success and prosperity in the new land.
When the immigrants became unemployed instead of workers, or workers instead of businessmen, their proud letters back to Sweden ceased. The same went for their children and grandchildren whose attempt at the pursuit of happiness came to nothing. Instead they kept making furniture in Jamestown or put together car parts in Detroit.
Could this be the explanation to the picture of the Swedish immigrant as a farmer? Once in America, there was no reason for the immigrants and their children and grandchildren to correct the image. Why boast about being a worker, when only other workers are impressed? And why boast about coming from Sweden, when everyone else comes from places other than the USA, too?
To understand the Swedish-American culture and lifestyle, one must remember the early background of this country and its patchwork of minorities. The Swedish mass immigration began in 1869, but there were Swedes “over there” long before that. The Swedish colony New Sweden was founded near the Delaware River already in the 17th century. It was statesman Axel Oxenstierna who made sure New Sweden became a reality, so that Sweden – a great power in those days – could export Swedish products to America.
These colonizers were to a certain extent settlers, but it is still not correct to describe them as Karl Oskar and Kristina’s predecessors. It’s more relevant to view them as businessmen of that time. People in the colony traded in tobacco, locally grown, and beaver skin, otter and bear which they had gotten in exchange, barters from the Indians. These products they sold to Sweden. In these days it was hazardous to sail to the U.S. and the Swedes who did so suffered greatly during the crossings. Ships often sank, leaving passengers stranded, dying of thirst and poisoning. The ones who managed to settle in the New World helped build churches and participated in trade and farming. Most people who came to New Sweden didn’t do so voluntarily, but were forced there by the Swedish government as punishment for being deserters or having committed some other kind of crime.
It was mainly industry workers and businessmen who immigrated, a fact noted in historian Fred Nilsson’s doctoral thesis about emigration during the late 19th century: “The popular view of the Swedish immigrants as a fairly homogeneous group of farmers is surprising.” He explained the dominating idea with the difference between city and country. In more rural areas, letters and such have preserved the memory of relatives gone to America. When a person left a small village, it was a big thing, captured by the camera. The many anonymous working immigrants in the city left few if any traces, and their “place[s] in society were soon taken by someone else.”
This sounds improbable. Even if the citizens in a bigger city lived a more anonymous life than those of a village, they were hardly interchangeable. A more probable explanation is that many immigrants felt there was no reason to draw attention to the fact that he or she was slaving away in a factory, a job less glamorous than the one he or she had had in Sweden.
Fred Nilsson’s next explanation is more likely. The Swedes who ended up in America’s cities lost their identities and most certainly became Americanized faster than those who ended up on the farms. Among farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota there were a great many associations, societies, and clubs that kept people’s “Swedishness” intact. Jimmy Engren mentions this in his thesis as well.
There are other explanations besides Vilhelm Moberg’s epos. One is the emigration report done by the government in 1907, which points out that the emigration from Stockholm happened in stages, meaning people who left the Swedish countryside first settled in Stockholm, and then left for America. Nilsson shows this argument as being faulty; half the emigrating Stockholmers were born in the countryside, true, mostly in Småland or Östergötland, but most of them either came from other densely populated places, or had lived so long in Stockholm they had become completely urbanized.
While Nilsson keeps his focus on the background of the individual, Engren’s thesis concentrates on what happens in the new land. He shows us how the Americanization takes place through the help of organizations and businesses. The YMCA, for instance, was very important in Two Harbors. It was a haven for railroad workers, as it nourished them spiritually, culturally, and socially. This reminds me of my uncle who emigrated in 1927 and remained an industry worker in America, where he worked with furniture. This identity of his is something he never mentioned in his letters home. Every morning he went to work in a suit and tie, changing into a pair of dungarees once there. Whenever a strike prevented him from working, he reluctantly kept the suit on.
The church was more important than his job, even more so than the YMCA. Whenever he was asked by factory owners and his children to accept the offer to become a supervisor, the answer was the same: “The only time I will rise in rank is when I go home to see Jesus.”
Karl Oskar of Jan Troell's movie "The Emigrants" based on Wilhelm Moberg's epic novels. Max von Sydow (Karl Oskar) and Liv Ullman (Kristina) on their way to the promised land.
The emigrant monument, "Karl-Oskar and Kristina", sculpture by Axel Olsson in Karlshamn. Karl-Oskar and Kristina are the main characters in the series of four novels, The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg. Photo: David Nagy