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An Outsider 's View of the Association
    by Rudolph J. Vecoli (Volume 27: Page 272)

The Norwegians, who are here celebrating a notable occasion, and the Italians, with whose ethnic heritage I have been identified, have been at odds for many years over the question of who first discovered America. These feelings become particularly heated at this time of year when irate Norwegian Americans write letters to the editor protesting Columbus Day. Perhaps you have noticed on the capitol grounds in St. Paul the statues of Columbus and Ericson; they have their backs to each other. It is a testimony to the largeness of mind and spirit of your officers that they invited a son of Italy to speak at this observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

The question of who discovered America has been a very serious matter over which much ink, if not blood, has been spilt. All ethnic groups, it seems, have felt it necessary to lodge a claim that they were here first. The Irish, for example, assert that St. Brandon reached the New World centuries before Leif Ericson. Of course, Italians and Norwegians can agree on the mythical nature of that claim. What is interesting about all this, may I suggest, is the apparent need of the various immigrant groups to trace their roots in American history to the age of discovery and colonization. The reason for this tendency seems to me to be quite clear. During the late nineteenth century, a distinction was drawn between “real Americans” (those whose ancestors had come before 1776 and who vaunted their ancestry as Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution or as Mayflower Descendants and the “latecomers” (those whose families immigrated after the colonial period).

Richmond Mayo-Smith, in 1890 for example, distinguished between the “colonist” and the “immigrant.” The first, he wrote, “came to this country when it was an unclaimed wilderness, and by their toil and sacrifices established a great commonwealth. To them belongs the glory of having established the state and given to the new country its institutions, laws, customs, and language. They are, in a sense, the founders and proprietors of the new state, and they have a right to guard its institutions.” Those who came later were immigrants “who simply migrate into a country where state laws and customs are already fixed. They occupy a subordinate position. They are not there through any merit of their own, but by consent and upon invitation of the original colonists.” {1}

Given such an invidious distinction between colonist and immigrant, one can understand the obsession of the immigrant groups with finding pre-1776 antecedents so they could prove they had as much right to be here as anyone else. The first ethnic historical societies thus were stimulated by an inferiority complex. The Scotch-Irish Society of America, founded in 1889, had for its purpose correcting the alleged neglect of the role of its group in the colonial and revolutionary years. The Scotch-Irish also wanted to make it perfectly clear that they were not “merely Irish.” Not surprisingly, an American Irish Historical Society was established a few years later, dedicated to making better known the “Irish Chapter” in American history. The bulk of its publications were devoted to proving that it was the Irish who had beat the britches off the British in the American Revolution. Similarly, the American Jewish Historical Society was formed in 1892 to demonstrate the participation of Jews in the American colonies and in the struggle for independence. {2}

The Norwegian-American Historical Association was certainly not the first of the ethnic historical societies, but it was different. From its very beginning, it dedicated itself to documenting and publishing the authentic history of the Norwegians in America. Eschewing historical apologetics, it did not concentrate on finding Norwegians in the first colonial settlements or in Washington’s army. Rather, the Association sought to tell the actual stories of the immigrants and their children, of their triumphs and failures, of their joys and sorrows. Why were Norwegian Americans able to approach their historical experience with such maturity long before most other ethnic groups were able to do so? Was it because their more concentrated and isolated settlement in the Upper Midwest gave them a more secure identity as Norwegian Americans?

Certainly Norwegian America produced an outstanding group of scholars who raised immigration history to a new literary and scholarly level. One need only mention the names of Ole E. Rølvaag, Theodore C. Blegen, Marcus Lee Hansen, Knut Gjerset, Kenneth O. Bjork, Einar Haugen, Carlton C. Qualey, Lloyd Hustvedt, and Peter A. Munch, among others. But still one wonders what it was about Norwegian-American culture that made possible such a flowering of scholarship. And one must not forget the indispensable role of the thousands of lay persons who - as officers, members, contributors, and readers - have provided the lifeblood of this Association.

On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, we enthusiastically hail the achievements of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Thanks to it, the history of Norwegians in America has been more thoroughly documented and studied, I would venture to say, than that of any other ethnic group. Five decades of dedicated, intelligent work have created an extensive library and a rich archives concerning the Norwegian-American experience. Fifty-six volumes, more than 13,500 pages, of monographs, documents, and biographies have been published. To suggest the enduring value of these publications, one need only mention Theodore C. Blegen’s two-volume Norwegian Migration to America; Kenneth O. Bjork’s Saga in Steel and Concrete and West of the Great Divide, and the Association’s most recent book, Odd S. Lovoll’s A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America. Much of the credit for the high quality of these published works must go to its distinguished editors, Theodore C. Blegen and his worthy successor, Kenneth O. Bjork.

To say that the Association has maintained the highest standards of scholarship in its program of research and publication is not to suggest that its work has been bloodless, without passion. Indeed, the very existence of the Association is witness to a passionate commitment to the idea that the Norwegian-American experience has a unique value which makes it worth preserving and studying. It is not the least of the organization’s accomplishments that it has been able to wed this commitment with scholarly excellence. All of us are indebted to the pioneering role of the NAHA which has provided that the history of an immigrant group written by its sons and daughters need not be chauvinistic or filiopietistic. The Association has also demonstrated that the study of a particular ethnic group can illuminate the general contours of American history, which is to say that Norwegian-American history, properly understood, is American history. If I may speak this evening on behalf of all of us who do not happen to be fortunate enough to be Norsk, I should like to express our appreciation of the work of the Association, which for a half-century has been enriching our common historical understanding.

The special contribution of the Association may perhaps be better understood if we view it against the general backdrop of American scholarship. Until recent years, historians, like other Americans, have generally been captives of the “melting pot” myth. Believing that quick, inevitable, and total assimilation was the foreordained fate of all immigrants, they tended to neglect the role of the various ethnic groups in our national history. In so doing, they denied the essentially pluralistic character of American society. For this reason, in these times of resurgent ethnicity, we have found ourselves deficient in our understanding of the continuing cultural diversity which is the hallmark of this nation of nations. {3}

By its very existence, the Norwegian-American Historical Association challenged the assimilationist dogma and, by its continuing vitality, disproved it. The Norwegian Americans, more than any other European ethnic group - except perhaps the Jews - resisted the dictum that all groups had to surrender their ancestral language, customs, and heritage and assume a nondescript American character. It is significant that two of the earliest and most eloquent prophets of cultural pluralism were Norwegian Americans: Waldemar Ager and Ole E. Rølvaag. At a time when it was very unpopular to do so, Ager and Rølvaag vigorously rejected the melting-pot concept and argued for the perpetuation of the Norwegian language and culture in America.

During the antiforeign hysteria of World War I, for example, Ager took exception to the pressures for “100% Americanization.” He criticized his fellow countrymen who embraced rapid assimilation; they had, he asserted, “cast off their old dress without being able to don the new one. Culturally speaking, they are naked.” He added: “If we are to contribute anything, it must be on the basis of our Norwegian heritage. We do not say that it is greater, for that it is not; nor do we say that it is better. But we must say that it is ours, and we must make our cultural contribution on the basis of it.” {4}

As early as 1907, Rølvaag had defined his stand on the issue of assimilation as follows: “Are we to preserve our language and the culture of our fathers or are we to sever our contact with the past? To me there is but one answer: we must try to preserve the Norse language and the culture we have received. If a man is to realize in full measure the potentialities of his own being, he must first of all learn to know the people of his own kin and his own people’s history and literature. This knowledge constitutes our cultural roots. Without it we become drifting vagrants, scrubs, or tramps, culturally speaking.” {5}

In the 1920s, a decade of growing conformity, Ager and Rølvaag were increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of preserving the Norwegian-American identity in a mass society. Rølvaag expressed this pessimism in his novel Their Fathers’ God: “If this process of leveling down, of making everybody alike by blotting out all racial traits is allowed to continue, America is doomed to become the most impoverished land spiritually on the face of the earth; out of our highly praised melting pot will come a dull, smug complacency, barren of all creative thought and effort. Soon we will have reached the perfect democracy of barrenness.” {6}

If the spirits of Ager and Rølvaag are with us tonight, I am sure they are rejoicing. Their worst fears have not come to pass. The thriving condition of the NAHA, the embodiment of their ideals, testifies to the continuing vitality of the Norwegian-American community. In fact, there appears to be a quickening of life in Norse America: witness the growing enrollments in Norwegian language classes, witness the popularity of courses in the Norwegian-American experience, witness the widespread observances of the Norwegian-American Sesquicentennial. And in all of this, the Norwegian-American Historical Association has played a central role. Through its cultivation of the history of Norwegian culture in America, it has sustained a tradition which has resisted the encroachments of a homogenizing mass culture.

In these Bicentennial years, we are rediscovering our true character as a nation composed of many different ethnic, racial, and religious groups. We are also asserting that this pluralism can be a positive, creative force in our society. No one need feel inferior any longer because his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower or fight at Bunker Hill. In our diversity, we all have an equal claim to a common Americanness. Our history is no longer defined as the history of the Revolutionary forefathers and their descendants; we all own a part of American history. We have come to realize that, in order to understand “our past,” we need to understand the multiple histories of all the groups that have come to make up this country. Through its fifty years of existence, the NAHA has contributed substantially to bringing about this new definition of America.

This Association has served and continues to serve as an inspiration and a model for other American ethnic groups. For a half-century, the Norwegian-American community has supported its efforts to preserve and publish a historical record. As we seek federal funds and foundation grants in support of ethnic studies, we should never forget that the primary responsibility for the preservation of an ethnic heritage rests with the ethnic group itself. Unless it believes in and is willing to work for the preservation of that heritage, no amount of money will keep it alive. Perhaps that is the most important lesson we can learn from the history of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

As we congratulate the NAHA on its fifty years of accomplishment, we do so in the spirit of an invocation, not a eulogy. This, we trust, is but another beginning, not an end. Despite the impressive amount of work done, there is still a vast expanse of Norwegian-American experience that remains to be studied - and the story is still unfolding. Let the second half-century of the Association match, if not surpass, the achievement of these first fifty years. Then indeed there will be cause for celebrating the Association’s one hundredth anniversary!

Notes

<1> Richmond Mayo-Smith, “Emigration and I mmigration,” 35-36 (New York, 1890).

<2> John J. Appel has written an excellent and regrettably unpublished study of these historical societies. This doctoral dissertation of 1960, “Immigrant Historical Societies in the United States, 1880-1950,” is in the University of Pennsylvania Library.

<3> This argument is elaborated in my article, “Ethnicity: A Neglected Dimension of American History,” in Herbert J. Bass, ed., The State of American History, 70-88 (Chicago, 1970).

<4> Waldemar Ager, “Smeltedigelen,” in Kvartalskrift, 33-42 (April, 1916). I am indebted to Dr. Odd S. Lovoll of St. Olaf College for introducing me to the writings of Waldemar Ager and for making available to me a collection of his essays in translation.

<5> Ole E. Rølvaag, “Seventeenth of May Address,” in the Rølvaag Papers, quoted in Jorgenson and Solurn, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, 114-115 (New York and London, 1939). The Rølvaag Papers are in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<6> Ole E. Rølvaag, Their Fathers’ God, 210 (New York, 1931).

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