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Vilhelm Moberg and Swedish Emigration to the US Posted by on Mar 25, 2009 in Culture, Geography

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon the Immigration Explorer on The New York Times website and I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been playing with it like a little kid since.

A few things surprised me, though. One – that the Norwegian and Swedish data have been divided into two groups. Why is it surprising? In other sources, I’ve always seen these countries lumped together under the common label of “Scandinavian” immigration. And since Norway and Sweden used to have this love-hate relationship going on for many centuries, it makes me wonder just how accurate such a “by country” division really is.

Another thing that surprised me was how relatively small-scale the “Scandinavian” immigration was. True, it was immense when compared to the population levels back in those days in Sweden (and in Norway, too). But when you see those immigrants alongside other nations – Italians, Germans, or Poles, for example, then you come to realize how just tiny the Swedish numbers were in comparison.

And here’s another thing that surprised me. We’ve always been taught that those immigrants settled primarily in Minnesota and in the rural Midwest. But when you look at the Immigration Explorer, you can see pockets of Swedes (and Norwegians, too) all over, including California. And surprise, surprise, it looks like Chicago had the largest concentration of Swedish immigrants for several decades.

Still, Minnesota is the place that everyone thinks of when talking about Swedish immigration to the US in the 19th century. That’s the place that Vilhelm Moberg wrote about in his epic series. That’s the place where these days you can meet the quintessential blond, blue-eyed folk, who will cheerfully announce: “Yeah, I’m Swedish!” And then give you a blank stare when you attempt to speak Swedish to them. (That particular American quirk always drove me up the wall. No, you are not Swedish. You are of Swedish origin. There’s a difference.)

But let’s talk about Vilhlem Moberg (1898 – 1973) for a minute. Have you read his books? Or, if not, have you at least seen the movies? And don’t feel bad if you didn’t like the films. Even though the first one was nominated for four Academy Awards, I hated it. I watched it on TV as a kid, and then later on I rented it on video (video! ha! who remembers those days?) when I was all grown up and better prepared to understand the story.

Personally, it was the first book in The Emigrants series, titled simply “Utvandrarna” that broke my heart. The other books in the series are: “Invandrarna”, “Nybyggarna” and “Sista brevet till Sverige”. In a poll conducted by Sveriges television in 1998, the entire series was voted as the most important Swedish books of all time.

I’ve eventually read all four books, but “Utvandrarna” and “Sista brevet till Sverige” are my favorite among them. The whole series should be considered “essential reading”, be it in English, or in Swedish, for any Swedophile. It has a gripping story, historical bits, cultural themes, and enough Scandinavian melancholy to fill buckets. But most of all, it’s also simply great, classic literature.

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