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  • Ethnicity and Nationalism before Multiculturalism
  • John Bodnar (bio)
Ethnicity on Parade: Inventing the Norwegian American Through Celebration. By April R. Schultz. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. 156 pages. $25.00.

Lost in the multicultural debates of our times, it is easy to forget that ethnic and national identities struggled to find common ground in our history. Contemporary multiculturalism has been so vigorous in its denunciation of national and western cultural values and practices, that association with a minority group appears at times to preclude all other forms of identity. Consequently several writers have attempted to fashion new ways of thinking that would foster more cosmopolitan or “postethnic” outlooks or revive traditional faith in America as a nation protective of individual rights for all regardless of ethnic origins or race. 1 If one accepts the arguments of theorists like Paul Brass and Rogers Brubaker that ethnic identities are always invented, that elites can play a pivotal role in the invention process, and that the rationale for creating minority identities is frequently grounded in the search for political space within a nation, however, the contemporary tendency to see ethnic and national identities as polar opposites is qualified. 2 April Schultz’s Ethnicity on Parade is a highly imaginative and incisive exploration of these key issues and the [End Page 716] problem of how national and ethnic cultures often attempt to define rather than oppose each other.

Schultz illuminates large issues with a microscopic focus on a centennial celebration in Minneapolis in 1925 that commemorated the arrival of Norwegian immigrants to the upper midwest. Venerating the “Restaurationen,” a ship that carried Norwegians to America in 1825, as an important American symbol instead of the Mayflower, the event was a massive affair that drew some 100,000 people to the Minnesota State Fair Grounds to hear speeches, to watch a carefully staged historical pageant, and to visit old friends and relatives. Schultz casts her work in the political culture of the 1920s and places the entire celebration within the pervasive discourse over assimilation and Americanization that marked the decade. At a time when Americans vented hatred toward others of different religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds, the centennial, in the view of this scholar, was a political and cultural act of both resistance and accommodation.

Schultz is impatient with ethnic scholars who have viewed the Norwegian American centennial as simply an attempt to preserve some static residue of culture from the past or as a last gasp of Norwegian American pride before the final onslaught of Americanization. For Schultz, these perspectives misinterpret the nature both of the event and of ethnic identity. Schultz is determined to explain how the celebration was actually a manifestation of a debate between various groups inside and outside the ethnic community. In doing so she succeeds in driving home the point that what it meant to be an American was not only invented in the past as well as the present but that it was contingent upon the framework of political power in which cultural communications took place. She affirms, in other words, that scholars must study both culture and politics, the imagined and the real, if they are to understand either one.

The manner in which the centennial sought to resolve cultural and political contradictions is probed relentlessly in the book. Paramount were the angry charges that were constantly exchanged between the “dominant assimilationist narrative” and the voices of “hyphenated-Americans,” as they were known at the time. But Schultz also recognizes, in the vein of contemporary scholarship, that ethnic communities were factious entities. She understands perfectly that the public presentation of Norwegian ethnicity had to accommodate or silence various divisions among Norwegians, especially the tensions between rural and urban residents and between farmers, workers, and the upwardly-mobile middle-class in cities [End Page 717] like Minneapolis and St. Paul. On this count Schultz contributes to our understanding of how members of ethnic communities struggled among themselves for the right to proclaim who they were. Thus, the position of an ethnic in relation to national culture was resolved not through some irresistible process of Americanization but partially through an exchange of subjectivities between political actors and...

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