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

 

 

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And now, Detroit is officially bankrupt…

Detroit is now, officially, bankrupt, and it’s time, again, in telling the history of this once great city of Detroit — home to the automobile as well as to The Supremes — to remind of the book, “Ruins of Detroit,” by two young French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.Ruin in Detroit

Their photos tell the tragic story better than any words of how Detroit’s decline has created a city of poverty and neglect and decay — an urban tragedy.

And then, it’s time, again, to ask the question – how could America let this happen?

Detroit United Artists Theater

Yes, I believe it’s now time to talk about a turning point

Home again in Washington, DC after two weeks in the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, primarily to participate in the publication on September 20 of my book “Amerika – drömmarnas land” (America – country of dreams) in Stockholm.

Nice book release party at the Dance Museum in Stockholm with many old friends, a book discussion at the ABF educational association with journalist colleague Stig Fredrikson, a lengthy interview on the Knowledge Channel about the book. The American election campaign is the center of attention in the Swedish newspapers and on radio and television. The coverage is amazingly extensive.

On the way back home, a short visit with good friends in Reykjavik and a lunch seminar at the Icelandic Foreign Ministry about my book and the U.S. elections. Lively and fun!

The return home came just in time for today’s big event, the first of three televised debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But before that, I will also head to the ballpark to cheer on my Washington Nationals on the last day of the regular season for winning the National League Eastern Division and for taking the local baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933!

Tonight then, in Denver, Colorado? I remember the first TV debate ever, in the autumn of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time. JFK won the debate and he won the election, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Ever since then, the importance of these debates has been discussed. The conclusion? Not unanimous. Sometimes, as in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, Reagan came out on top and then won the election. Sometimes, as in 2004, John Kerry won dthe debate but George W. Bush the election. And last time, in 2008, the debate winner, Barack Obama, also won the election.

The Washington Post summarizes the situation ahead of tonight’s debate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that something had happened after the two party conventions but that I did not want to call it a turning point in the campaign. Since then, the situation for Mitt Romney through a series of mistakes, especially his talk about America’s “47 percent,” has steadily weakened. And now the conclusion is inescapable: we have reached a turning point. Obama has strengthened his position on a wide front and time is running out for Romney.

To reverse this trend, Romney tonight needs not just to have a major breakthrough, but he also needs a major mistake, a major gaffe, by Obama. That is unlikely to happen.

Oh, how I wish I had gone to The Last Book Sale

I was thinking of going, but, somehow, it didn’t work out, and now, reading Larry McMurtry’s own account in the New York Review of Books of The Last Book Sale at his store Booked Up Inc. in his home town Archer City, Texas, out there northwest of Dallas/Fort Worth and south of Wichita Falls, I realize how much I would have loved to have gone.

300,000 out of McMurtry’s 400,000 books were on sale on that hot recent August weekend. The 200 bidders came from the all over the country, from Oregon, Wisconsin, Tampa, San Francisco, Natchez, Austin, and Magnolia, Arkansas. Most of the books sold, except the fiction, McMurtry, eminent author but also eminent book dealer, writes.

Readers of this blog know how much I like the old book stores, and that I have found many wonderful such stores all around America. But I have never been to Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, and this was the time to go. Or maybe there is a next time?

The importance of a real bookstore close by…

The other evening, I was reminded of how important it is to have a real bookstore close by, as I visited “Politics & Prose” in Washington, DC to listen to Richard Ford, one of my favorite American authors, talk about and read from his new book “Canada.” What a treat!

Ford, author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy and of short stories like “Rock Springs,” was on book tour around America, to some of the best bookstores the country has to offer: “Barnes & Noble” at Union Square in New York, “Books Inc.” in Palo Alto, California , “Powell’s” in Portland, Oregon, “Elliott Bay Book Company” in Seattle, Washington; “Square Books,” in Oxford, Mississippi, “Parnassus Books” in Nashville, Tennessee, “Tattered Cover Book Store” in Denver, Colorado, etc.

All of them are like little oases out there in America, and I always try to make time to visit them in my travels. To enter the mighty Powell’s in Portland or to stroll around on the many floors of Union Square’s “Barnes & Noble” or grab a cup of hot chocolate at “Politics & Prose,” and then listen to Richard Ford is just a great adventure.

Here in Washington, in this time of crisis for our bookstores, we are fortunate still to have “Politics & Prose,” and every time I visit San Francisco I am glad that the “City Lights Books” from the 50’s in the city’s North Beach is still open, or that small used bookstores like “Bookends” in the little Florence, Massachusetts, or “City Books” in Pittsburgh, have survived. Too many have already perished, like our “Borders” in downtown Silver Spring, MD, or the “Hungry Mind” in St. Paul, Minnesota, or Cody’s, the legendary bookstore in Berkeley, California, and like so many more, which Amazon can never replace.

The Swede “who never died…”

A new book about one of the most famous Swedes in America, union organizer Joe Hill, or Joel Hägglund as he was called when he arrived in 1902, is soon out, according to today’s  New York Times .

The book is titled “The Man Who Never Died”and the author, William M. Adler, has found exciting new evidence, which seems to increase the likelihood that Hill was unjustly convicted and executed by a firing squad in Utah in 1915.

In Joe Hill’s memory, let’s play his song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” in a version by Joan Baez from a recent concert in Stockholm.

New York Review of Books on the “moralist” Stieg Larsson

Americans, like millions in the rest of the world I should add, continue to be fascinated by Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy.

I have blogged about it before, how Stieg Larsson and his books always come up in conversations with Americans when they hear that I come from Sweden. And that’s ok, of course. It always leads to a good debate about Sweden and our literature.

The latest comments on Larsson and his trilogy can be read in the New York Review of Books under the headline, “Stieg Larsson, moralist”. The article by Tim Parks, author and professor in Milan, Italy, runs of almost three pages in the new issue of the magazine. It does not seem to contain much new, at least not for Swedish readers, or for the many Larsson fans here in America, except perhaps his conclusion?

“It is the ingenuousness and sincerity of Larsson’s engagement with good and evil that give the trilogy its power to attract so many millions of people.”