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  • Vikings across the Atlantic: Emigration and the Building of a Greater Norway, 1860–1945 by Daron W. Olson
  • Sherrill Harbison
Daron W. Olson. Vikings across the Atlantic: Emigration and the Building of a Greater Norway, 1860–1945. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. xxi + 296.

Daron Olson's study of Norwegian American (and Norwegian) views of Norway's American diaspora recounts evolving views of the community's social place in the New World. Olson begins with the first shipload of immigrants who arrived here on Restaurationen in 1825—midway into Norway's National Romantic period—and brings it through World War II, when President Roosevelt urged Americans to "look to Norway" for "the democratic will to win" against Nazi tyranny (p. 202). Olson's report of Norwegian American writings, speeches, and institutions reveals that the immigrants' view of themselves was marked throughout by pride—even arrogance—about their ethnic, moral, political, and religious fitness to belong in a young nation dedicated to democracy, equality, freedom, justice, and hard work—values, they emphasized, they had shared since the Viking Era. Indeed, they felt justified to claim the continent as a kind of "greater Norway"—an extension of their ancient homeland, due to the arrival of Leif Erikson on North American shores at the end of the first millennium.

Olson's overall premise is that "the vision of a greater Norway created a transnational and extraterritorial space that expanded the boundaries of the Norwegian nation" (p. viii). Citing a great many sources, he argues that cultural nationalism—employed in Norway to shape the nation's identity in the century before its political independence in 1905—was not [End Page 287] tied exclusively to statehood, but also involved "the moral regeneration of the historic community" and "the recreation of a distinctive national civilization" in the new land (p. xv). This, together with retention of national holidays and rituals, allowed emigrants to share nationalistic feelings both in and beyond Norway's political borders. He outlines the stages of this enterprise through several successive myths: origin myths, hegemonic myths, and legacy myths.

In chapter 1, "Creating Home," Olson outlines the socioeconomic conditions in Norway that led to its extremely high emigration rate in the nineteenth century. Growing population, poverty, changing technology, the shift from subsistence to commercial farming, reform movements such as Haugean pietism, Marcus Thrane's labor agitation, and the American westward expansion all had roles in stimulating the large-scale exodus. National romanticism, which celebrated the Viking past and peasant culture as the locus of "true," uncorrupted Norwegian identity, was imported at the same time.

Chapter 2, "Belonging to the Nation," focuses on origin myths, specifically the Viking New World settlement, which encouraged Norwegians to claim near-native status in the new land. Rasmus B. Andersen was a key figure constructing this ideology, which claimed other credentials such as Norwegians' role as pioneers and sailors, their "racial" values such as democracy and a firm Protestant ethic, and after 1860, their service with distinction in the Civil War. It did not hurt that several American Romantic poets, including Longfellow, Thoreau, and Emerson, were willing converts to Norse origin myths: enthusiasts staked out the Boston area as a Viking settlement called "Norumbega," Norse "artifacts" were identified, and, following Carlyle's example in England, many New Englanders searched for connections to Norsemen in their own pedigrees.

In the second half of the century, visiting Norwegian artists and celebrities including Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Knut Hamsun gave America mixed reviews, but Norwegian-born intellectuals like Hans A. Foss and Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen settled here, and their romantic novels about Vikings and peasants in the home country contributed to Norwegian American self-image making. At the same time, Norway itself was developing into an industrial society, and successive immigrant generations found themselves involved in prairie rivalries between "the bygdelags, with their romantic rural orientation, and the urban Norwegian-American elites, with their image of Norway and Norwegian-Americans as modern and progressive" (p. 94). This mirrored the same kind of rivalry and debates about "Norwegianness" in a home country that was rapidly modernizing.

"Modern Vikings," the title of the third chapter, opens with the...


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