Reading, reading about a different America

Massachusetts with its seven million inhabitants is slowly opening up after two months of serious lockdown and 87,052 coronavirus cases and 5,862 deaths, 37 of them here in the Berkshires in the western part of the state, where I live, which has seen an unchanged number of deaths for thirteen days.

That’s encouraging. Still, the reopening will last over four phases over several months. We are treading carefully, seeking to avoid a second virus wave. Eventually, our little town, where almost everything has been closed except the supermarkets and the liquor stores, the hospital and the gas stations, will come alive again. I look forward to seeing people, who are not afraid of each other, to having a drink at a bar surrounded by noisy customers, or ordering a favorite Neapolitan pizza, to going to the movies or a museum.

Spring has been unusually cold but, finally, this week has warmed up and summer is approaching. But it will be a summer like no one else, at least for a very long time, for it will be a summer without all that the Berkshires ordinarily has to offer: the Boston symphony at Tanglewood, serious dance at Jacob’s Pillow, museums like MassMoca, theater like Shakespeare & Company – all closed and with cancelled summer programs.

It’s been quiet here for the past months and it looks like it will continue to be quiet for quite some time. Actually, I have not minded the quiet, cooking and eating well, taking a walk, obsessively following the day’s corona news, and then reading and reading…The bookstores and the libraries have also been closed, but I have called Matt at his “The Bookstore” in neighboring Lenox and ordered books, to pick them up curbside a couple of days later.

And so, I have and have made a big, new discovery — Pekka Hämäläinen — about as Finnish a name as there is. Born, raised, and educated in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, he somewhere along the way became interested in early North American history, particularly Native American history, taught at universities in Texas and California before becoming Rhodes Professor of American History at University of Oxford and conducting research on nomadic empires in world history.

His two books, Comanche Empire from 2008 and Lakota AmericaA New History of Indigenous Power from 2019 — both published by Yale University Press — have been true revelations and given me a new and different perspective on America and American history.

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Comanche Empire, which won the 2009 Bancroft Prize in American history, has been called “revisionist” history, revisionist, maybe, because it looks at American history from the point of view of its original people, the American Indians. It’s about an empire, Hämäläinen writes, which did not exist according to conventional history, but, in fact, ruled the southern plains in the American Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico) in the 18th and 19th centuries, defeating all the other tribes, including the Apaches, and restraining and overshadowing the Spanish, French, Mexicans, and Anglo/Euro-Americans. The Comanches formed an “interregional power with imperial presence” reaching “unparalleled heights of political and economic influence, material wealth, and internal stability” until their final defeat in the Texas Panhandle in 1875.

That defeat occurred just a year before the American Indians’ last big victory, up north at Little Bighorn in Montana, when the Lakota/Sioux-led forces killed General Custer and all his two hundred men. That victory, “Custer’s Last Stand,” led, in 1890, to the Wounded Knee Massacre and the final end of Lakota power in the West. The story of the Lakotas, as Hämäläinen tells it, from their beginning around the Great Lakes to rulers of the northern plains led by famous chiefs such as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, is perhaps more widely known than the story of the Comanches, but it is just as riveting and just as impressive as a scholarly endeavor.

Both are, simply, beautiful books, and my biggest reading discovery during these days of coronavirus. Thank you, Pekka!

 

“An excellent book,” writes Danish professor about my Minnesota book — nice!

“All in all, Bergman has written an excellent book that any layman or scholar with an interest in Minnesota’s Nordic past will enjoy reading,” concludes Danish professor Jørn Brøndal in his review of my book about Minnesota’s Scandinavian political legacy.

The review was published in the latest issue of the Norwegian-American Historical Association’s journal Norwegian-American Studies (https://www.naha.stolaf.edu).

Klas Bergman, Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017). 6×9 inches, 20 b&w photos, index. viii + 310 pp. ISBN 9781681340302. $19.95

By Jørn Brøndal

In this interesting book, Klas Bergman explores how Nordic immigrants and their American-born progeny helped shape Minnesota’s political culture all the way from the 1850s to the present. During those years thousands of Nordics participated in Minnesota politics, several of them reaching high positions of power, including twenty-one governorships from 1893 to 1999.

The book offers short, incisive biographies of an impressive array of Minnesota’s Nordic politicians. As one might expect, ample room is made for exploring such towering figures as U.S. senator Knute Nelson (dates in office 1895–1923), Governors John B. Lind (1899–1901), Floyd B. Olson (1931–1936), and Wendell R. Anderson (1971–1976), as well as vice presidents and later Democratic presidential nominees Hubert H. Humphrey (1965–1969) and Walter F. Mondale (1977–1981). More controversial leaders are also examined. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety under Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist (1915–1921) put civil liberties under massive pressure during World War I. Also, Burnquist’s fight in the 1918 Republican primary against Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. turned ugly. Governors Hjalmar Petersen (1936–1937) and Harold Stassen (1939–1943) each employed red-baiting and anti-Semitism in their election bids.

Two dimensions of Bergman’s study stand out. First, he demonstrates the historical importance of an amazing array of left-leaning grassroots activists, including such Swedish-American radicals as Walfrid Engdahl, Walter Malte Frank, and Carl Skoglund, each of whom left Sweden in the wake of the General Strike of 1909, only to resume their labor activism in Minnesota. Whereas Engdahl and Frank ended up joining the Farmer-Labor Party, Skoglund was a central leader of the landmark Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934, later emerging as a Trotskyist and serving time in jail. Minnesota’s Nordic radicals, however, also included many Finns of the Iron Range whose reception in Minnesota was negative, to the point of one draft resister being lynched during World War I. The Finns, it turns out, were more politicized and radicalized than any other group, and when the American version of the Communist Party was founded in the early 1920s, more than forty percent of its members were Finns. During Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror, many Minnesota Finns made the disastrous decision of migrating to Soviet Karelia.

The second dimension of Bergman’s book that stands out is his comprehensive coverage of the various political currents coursing through Minnesota from the territorial days to the present. Here, the Scandinavians, especially the Norwegians and Swedes, played a central role. They did so first as staunch Republicans but from the end of the nineteenth century also as Populists and then as activists within the Progressive movement and its radical offshoot, the Nonpartisan League, in the early twentieth century. During the 1930s many of them joined the Farmer-Labor Party, “the most successful third party in American history” (150), and from 1944 the liberal Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), while also contributing to keeping the postwar GOP moderate and reform-minded. Generally prudent, pragmatic, and progressive—and oftentimes informed by a secularized version of Lutheranism—the Scandinavians of Minnesota helped build a result- and reform-oriented political culture.

From the turn of the millennium, to be sure, the traditionally progressive state GOP took a conservative turn. In that sense, Bergman suggests, even as the DFL “stayed true to its Scandinavian roots . . . the Republican Party became ever less Scandinavian” (194). Nevertheless, as Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota suggests, notwithstanding the recent waning of Scandinavian-American political leadership, “we are on the road that the Scandinavians have put us on” (252).

Based on an impressive amount of historical literature and primary sources, including oral history interviews and the author’s own talks with Minnesota leaders and grassroots, Bergman’s account is transnational in scope, focusing not only on Minnesota but also on Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic history. The book is skewed somewhat toward the Swedes, for instance, in its rather surprising coverage of the contemporary Somali presence both in Minneapolis’s Sixth Ward—an old Scandinavian stronghold—and in Sweden. Minor quibbles involve the book’s unclear distinction between the meaning of “liberal” and “progressive” and the use of “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” interchangeably. Of course, any analysis of Scandinavian influences on Minnesota’s political culture will have to include impressionistic elements, as Bergman’s book indeed does. To be pedantic, Danish-American George A. Nelson was not elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1899 but only years later (190). As a journalist rather than a historian, Bergman loyally quotes many historians while rarely challenging their accounts.

All in all, Bergman has written an excellent book that any layman or scholar with an interest in Minnesota’s Nordic past will enjoy reading.

Jørn Brøndal is professor of American studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He specializes in U.S. ethnic, racial, and political history.

–end.

Minnesota’s Scandinavian political legacy lives on!

Vesterheim, the magazine of the Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, recently published my article about how Scandinavian immigrants and their ancestors have shaped Minnesota politics.

The article is based on my  book, Scandinavians in the State House — How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2017.

It’s nice to see the continued interest in this unique Scandinavian aspect of American history and politics.

Enjoy, I hope!

VesterheimMinnesota072019

 

Academic journal reviews my Minnesota book

My book on Minnesota’s Scandinavian political legacy (Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics) has been reviewed in “The Journal of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study.”

A “tour de force,” writes Daron W. Olson, professor at Indiana University East. Bergman, he continues, “has written a comprehensive and balanced account of Scandinavian politics in Minnesota” and “he makes a strong case that Scandinavian cultural values have shaped the political culture of the state.”

The review can be found in the Scandinavian studies’ journal Volume 90, No. 4, Winter 2018, published by the University of Illinois Press, http://scandinavianstudy.org/our-journal. My book was published in 2017 by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

 

 

 

 

 

The Somali breakthrough in Minnesota politics

The Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, the center of the Somali diaspora in the United States, has been nibbling for years at entering the state’s politics. Heavily concentrated in central Minneapolis, in the old Scandinavian neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, their first political success came in 2010 on the city’s school board, followed, in 2013, when a Somali immigrant was elected to the city council, and then, in 2016, when a Somali woman handily beat a long-time incumbent to get elected to the State Legislature.

These new Americans political success had come slowly and over a number of years, but last night’s primary election results in Minnesota were the definitive breakthrough of the Somali immigrant population in the state’s politics.

Not only did Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee woman, who came to American when she was eight years old, win the Democratic primary for a seat  in the US House of Representatives, but her seat in the State Legislature will be filled by a fellow countryman, Mohamud Noor.   They both handily won their Democratic primaries, Omar capturing 48 per cent of the vote and beating the experienced former Speaker of the State House, and Noor winning with 40 percent of the vote. Both of them will represent heavily Democratic districts, and there is little doubt that they will be elected in November.

The Somali election victories are truly historic and they underscore the fact that the Somalis are in Minnesota politics to stay. These first victorious Somali politicians are all first generation immigrants, born in the old country and arriving in America at various ages. As they settled in central Minneapolis, the neighborhood that used to be heavily Scandinavian and called “Snoose Boulevard” the area became known as “Little Mogadishu.” And just like the Scandinavian immigrants before them, these new Somali immigrants sought political clout using their ethnic concentration in the center of the city.

(For more on this, please see my book, Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. Minnesota Historical Society Press)

But what is new, as Ibrahim Hirsi recently wrote on the Minnesota news site, MinnPost, and what he called a “milestone,” is that there now is a second generation Somali-Americans, born in America — “Somalis without the accent” — entering Minnesota politics. 28-year-old Omar Fateh, born in Washington, DC, is one of them, and he is like all the other Somali-American political candidates, well-educated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,

But last night, Fateh only came in third in the State House District 62A, south of downtown Minneapolis. He was narrowly beaten by two other Somali-Americans competing in the Democratic primary, which was won by Hodan Hassan, a clinical worker, immigrant and a single mom. In a tight race, she captured 28 percent of the vote, beating also another Somali immigrant, Osman Ahmed, long active in Minnesota politics.

As the American-born political generation is starting to knock on the door, the first foreign-born Somali generation clearly still have political clout. But the fact that a new generation seems to stand ready to take over is a most encouraging sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swedish-American Historical Quarterly on my book “Scandinavians in the State House”

Here is a review of my book about the Scandinavian political legacy in Minnesota. It is written by Kevin Proescholdt, editor of the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and published in January 2018, Vol. 69, No. 1.  

Bergman, Klas. Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017. 310 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, endnotes. ISBN: 978-1- 68134-030-2.

Minnesota is often referred to as the most Scandinavian of all the United States. Tens of thousands of immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland did indeed settle in Minnesota, and over time these immigrants exerted an enormous influence on the state, including its politics. Since 1892, for example, Minnesota has had twenty governors of Nordic descent. Between 1915 and 1976, every Minnesota governor was of Swedish or Norwegian descent except for one Finland- Swede and one Dane. And the numbers of these governors are dwarfed by the thousands of Nordics who have served in local and county positions and state legislative offices, across the state and through the decades. Two such Nordics from Minnesota have even served as vice president of the United States.

Klas Bergman’s Scandinavians in the State House tells the story of the Scandinavian influences in Minnesota politics, and how those influences have shaped, and continue to shape, Minnesota politics today. Far more than just a compilation of Scandinavians who were elected to offices in the state, and far more than an uncritical filiopietistic, cheer–for-our- own-ethnic-group portrayal, this book delves into the widely varying backgrounds of Scandinavians in Minnesota, and how that diversity of experiences helped create the rich and enduring influence on the politics of the state.

The book is arranged somewhat, but not strictly, chronologically. This deviation from a purely chronological arrangement allows the author to delve more deeply into topics that may not neatly fit a straight chronological pattern, topics such as “Radicals in Exile” or “Finns on the Range.”

The books begins in detail looking at the “four pioneers” in the state capitol, the first Scandinavians to be elected governor of Minnesota: Norwegian immigrant and Civil War veteran Knute Nelson in 1892, a Republican; Swedish-born John Lind in 1898, a Democrat; John A. Johnson, also a Democrat and son of Swedish immigrants, elected in 1904; and Adolph Olson Eberhart, also born in Sweden, and elected as a Republican in 1908. Though traditionally affiliated with the Republican Party, “the Scandinavian vote was far from monolithic,” even in these early years of gubernatorial success.

The cleavages among the Scandinavian voters were widened even further during the tumultuous years between the turn of the twentieth century and the end of World War I. The Nonpartisan League gained strength among Scandinavians during this time—especially in rural areas—and Swedish immigrant Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (the father of the famous aviator) became a nationally recognized member of Congress from Minnesota and opponent of World War I. Lindbergh challenged Governor J. A. A. Burnquist (the son of Swedish immigrants) in the Republican primary for governor in 1918 amid the toxic politics of war-time repression and strident xenophobia, and eventually lost to Burnquist, splitting the Swedish vote mostly along urban-rural lines.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Radicals in Exile,” a chapter reprinted in the April 2017 issue of this journal. This chapter provides a nice counter-balance to the image of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota as pioneer farmers like Karl-Oskar from Vilhelm Moberg’s emigrant novels. The chapter follows the lives of three Swedes—Walfrid Engdahl, Carl Skoglund, and Walter Malte Frank—who had all been blacklisted in Sweden for participation in the General Strike of 1909 or for other labor activities, and were essentially forced to emigrate. Though none of the three was ever elected as governor, all three became active in Minnesota politics via such avenues as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), the Farmer-Labor Party (later the Demo- cratic-Farmer-Labor Party), the Socialist Party, or the Communist Party.

After World War II, the author writes of the emergence of the two modern political parties in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, led by Nordic-American Hubert H. Humphrey; and a progressive Republican Party, a moderate and internationalist party shaped by the former “Boy Governor” Harold Stassen of German/ Czech/Norwegian descent. The author attributes much of the progressive nature of the state and its politics to the Scandinavian influences brought by the masses of Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the state and became involved with the state’s politics and public life.

Klas Bergman ends the book in a most interesting way. In the penultimate chapter, entitled “From Snoose Boulevard to Little Mogadishu,” he describes how Somali immigrants of today have taken a page from the playbook of the old Scandinavian immigrants in the south Minneapolis Sixth Ward. Once a stronghold of Scandinavian Americans, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the broader Sixth Ward today have become a stronghold for Somali immigrants. Like their Scandinavian predecessors, the Somali immigrants have exerted their political power, and with growing success. In 2013, for example, Somali immigrant Abdi Warsame won an impressive victory over the incumbent city council member to represent the Sixth Ward on the City Council. In 2016 Ilhan Omar, a thirty-three-year-old Somali-American woman who had fled Somalia as a child, defeated a long-time DFL member of the state legislature, becoming the first Somali American elected to any state legislative office in the country. The Somali-American immigrants of today are following the same path to political office in the same neighborhoods that were blazed by the Scandinavian immigrants of a century or more ago.

There is much to recommend in Scandinavians in the State House. It is well researched (including citations of many articles from this Quarterly), well written and well documented, and the author conducted more than ninety interviews to supplement his meticulous research. It is a must-read for understanding the influence of Scandinavian Americans on the political life of Minnesota.

KEVIN PROESCHOLDT

EDITOR, SWEDISH-AMERICAN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

http://www.swedishamericanhist.org

 

 

Minnesota professor on my book “Scandinavians in the State House”

Here is a review of my book on the political legacy of the Scandinavians in Minnesota. It is written by Paul C. Stone, long-time professor of history at the University of Minnesota, and was published in the spring issue of “Minnesota History.” 

Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics
Klas Bergman
(St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017, 312 p., Paper, $19.95.)

Roughly halfway into Klas Bergman’s comprehensive study of Nordic influence in the public life of Minnesota, the reader comes across a telling yet not surprising passage:

In a 1975 interview with Norwegian national radio, [Walter] Mondale was asked if his Norwegian ancestry influenced his political views: his answer was yes. He said he believed in education, good economic policies that create jobs, good health care, and protecting the environment, and some of this stems from those Norwegian roots. And in Minnesota, “while it is not necessary to be of Scandinavian background, I think Minnesotans feel very comfortable with leaders of Scandinavian background.”

Mondale’s answer is both a paragon of Scandinavian understatement and a telescopic view into a key component  of Minnesotan identity. To put it simply, one cannot contemplate, let alone discuss, the political history of the state without repeated reference to public figures of Scandinavian background. Many Americans, Europeans, and others view Minnesota as a Scandinavian outpost in the center of North America. This impression became full blown by the mid-1970s with Time magazine’s iconic August 1973 cover story on Minnesota, “the state that works,” featuring its handsome, young governor, Wendell Anderson, grinning and holding a fish (that may or may not have come out of a freezer).

Author Bergman, a native of Sweden who was educated in the United States and has spent much of his life in this country, has done an exceptionally good job of providing specifics to substantiate a general impression. Bergman boldly ventures into previously uncharted conceptual territory, methodically chronicling the tendencies, dispositions, and circumstances that led immigrants and their descendants from the Nordic nations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland into positions of public prominence and political authority in Minnesota.

Scandinavian immigration owed much to the favorable early portraits of the state painted by Swedish writer and traveler Fredrika Bremer and Swedish immigrant Hans Mattson, who served as a Union soldier and later headed the state bureau of immigration. Bremer, who was friend to Emerson and Thoreau, directly suggested after an 1850 visit that Minnesota would be an ideal new Scandinavia: Swedes would find familiar forests; Norwegians, waters; and Danes, lush pastures. Mattson was more practical in his booster approach: the growing state could benefit from the qualities Nordics would bring, including piety, thrift, and industriousness. Bergman notes that the newly formed Republican Party resonated with these immigrants. The party was against the expansion of slavery and for the individual quest for a better economic and cultural life. Bergman also notes, however, that many Scandinavians came to North America thoroughly radicalized and immediately fell into associations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party.

Among the meatier portions of the book are the descriptions of populism and Progressive tendencies at the turn of the twentieth century. Governors such as John Lind (1899–1901) attracted admiration for their seemingly natural ability to translate European social ideals into an American vocabulary of democratic possibilities. Bergman also provides a long- overdue reintroduction of John Albert Johnson, who was elected governor in 1904 as a Progressive Democrat. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Johnson was frequently spoken of as an ideal presidential candidate; he died early, however, succumbing to cancer in 1909 at the age of 48.

Another notable point that Bergman makes in detail: Scandinavians were not and are not of one nationality nor of one mind. The history of the Nordic countries from the Middle Ages until the high period of immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century is one of conflict and even warfare. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes tended to be closer to one another in Minnesota than they were in the old countries. The reason largely had to do with a desire for Americanization.

Bergman concludes his encyclopedic study with a description of more recent immigrants to the North Star State. Hmong, Somalis, and Hispanics are examined in terms of neighborhoods, languages, and civic institutions. All such points of reference have clear predicates in Bergman’s earlier examination of the experiences of Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. If Scandinavians in the State House demonstrates one important point it is that common impres- sions become more impressive when seriously explored.

—Paul C. Stone