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
(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