The search for Nordic America is a difficult one. The hyphenated- Scandinavians, that is the Norwegian-Americans, the Swedish-Americans, the Danish- Americans and the Finnish-Americans, had little reason to change their characteristic self- effacing profiles in the new world. The Nordic countries were far advanced in their application of reformist embryo democratic institutions even in the ninetieth century. The rights of workers were always given a higher priority in the Nordic area than in America. During the initial contact between the two different mindsets, the Scandinavian and the American, abrasion was inevitable. And Eric Dregni uses the research of Michael Karni to show that while Scandinavian immigrants generally veered left, the Finns were the most radical group. Because Finnish immigrants arrived in Minnesota relatively late compared to other immigrants, not much decent land was available, so many worked as lumberjacks and often became socialist, if they weren’t already when they arrived.
All of the modern Nordic ex-Vikings, and Finno-Ugric cousins, if we can call them that, worked hard and tried to have a low presence. Most Nordic immigrants followed the precepts of the Bible and tried to keep their light under a bushel. Even among the most celebrated Swede, Charles Lindbergh (whose flying feat was hailed in America as the greatest story since the Resurrection) was, like his father, a prominent fervent isolationist and campaigned to keep America out of world affairs. Dregni’s book has a photo (one of many brilliantly chosen illustrations) of “Lucky Lindy” who flew for 33 hours in a single engine aircraft non -stop from New York to Paris. Like Most Scandinavians, Lindbergh was happy to follow his own advice and be truly modest. But this became an impossible objective: fate took a hand and Lindy suffered the public tragic suffering of having his son kidnapped and killed.
The Vikings in America presented a wild appearance, which sometimes belied their behavior, but equally often did not. The sign No Indians or Finns at the entrance to bars made sense. They were more often than not politically incorrect. Most Scandinavians, initially at least, favored German victory in both world wars. Swinging between abstinence and alcoholism, the Vikings in the Attic threatened the majority of conservative white Americans as if they had been Indians on the warpath with tomahawks. On the other hand, Scandinavians were exploited as beasts of burden by such capitalists as the railroad baron who was clear in his mind “give me Swedes, snuff and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad through Hell.”
Vikings in the Attic, for all its humor and laughter generating incongruities, is a serious book, raising important issues of national identity. Certainly there is a lot of fun to had reading this book, which is speckled with characters like the Scandinavian on his last legs who mimicked Oscar Wilde saying “I don’t want to be found dead in Utah”. We can all now speculate on what cod steeped in Drano tastes like. The serious scholar will benefit by learning just who the Nordic Paginini was, and what archeological sites were salted with Viking relics, and may be reader will be tempted to try Dregni’s earlier innovative work, In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream (2008), also published by Minnesota University press.
Sarah Hale, in a sensitive Nordic Notes review, described this useful humorous introductory guide to the rigors and realties of Norway as it appeared to Dregni when he retraced his Norwegian great grandfather’s steps back to the Lusterfjord area. If you like the style, try the earlier books Minnesota Marvels: (2001) and Midwest Marvels (2006)
As a writing technique Dregni uses light hearted verse to break up his narrative in a most engaging way. My favorite snatch of doggerel comes from the lutefisk lament, read with (almost) the meter of The Night before Christmas.
From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,
That fairly set my senses reeling.
The smell of lutefisk creeped down the hall
And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.
The others reacted as though they were smitten,
While the aroma laid low my small helpless kitten.
While the poetry is light hearted the illustrations in the book are not. A Picture is worth a 1,000 words. In Vikings in the Attic this is especially true. True, Dregni’s book contains stereotypical pictures of Huge Vikings and Huge Darlarna Horses. There is a very small depiction of stylish Viking boat, only as big as a postage stamp, at the top of the Acknowledgements. The Viking ship has the unmistakable single sail, a brave pennant, and an oar at the stern, a beast head carved at the prow, and it looks scary now. To look at this is to recall that not only trade and exploration but also rape and pillage were evoked by the silhouette of the vessel. Dregni shows us what sea transport looked like a millennium later, under the same management, the Larsson brothers designing a poster advertising their Trans Atlantic steamer, one funnel mirroring the one sail of the Viking ship. The Larsson Brothers and their company identified themselves as proudly as any Viking setting out for the new world. They implied that they could cross the Atlantic Ocean and make an easy journey for the immigrants, a claim which was not strictly speaking true. The Swedish poster made the Larsson ship look like the Queen Mary, luxurious and stable, but did not really explain that unless you had a suite you might vomit all the way and suffer an unforgettable experience which would ensure you did not wish to make the return voyage. No tur och retur tack!
Do you wonder if the tales of the Vikings are as imaginary as the tales of Harry Potter? Dregni puts paid to that. He has a picture of the replica of the Gokstad Viking Ship which crossed the Atlantic in 1893 for the World Columbian Exhibition. To prove it was not a fluke Robert Asp of Minnesota made another version of the same ship to sail to Norway in 1980, eighty seven years later. The seaworthiness if not the suite accommodation proved more than adequate as the modern Viking ship arrived safely with a 14 foot crack in the hull. Maybe you want to know how they knew where they were going before the middle ages. Page 64 helps, it has the Vinland map. This is a mate of the map held by one of many Bishops of Uppsala, which showed with such accuracy the line along which the Vikings had to sail in order the find land which they described in the Sagas they wrote, sailing and rowing on adventures on deliberately charted routes to their versions of schedules, and with arrival at their destination in America before Columbus verified by modern archeologists.
My favorite pictures are in the last two thirds of the book. The picture of Lucky Lindy a decade before Herman Goring gave him the German Medal of Honor and Roosevelt denounced him, making him resign his commission in the American Army Air Corps. On a lighter note, there is the picture of the three “Hall Finns”, dressed to kill. The three Finns in the sauna illustrated on p165 are special favorites for me. There are thousands of representations of these postcards on sale in Helsinki and everywhere else in Finland now. I identify with these Finns, having fallen blinded out of smoke sauna one February in Turku, slipped on ice, fell nude in the snow and rose onto my feet only to find everyone else who was foreign charging out the sauna and imitating my performance, thinking no doubt protocol demanded it. Is absolutely impossible to explain a sauna and what it means to any person who has not experience the purifying effect of being belted with wet birch leaves, steamed almost to death while snuffling the smell of almost burning pine. The first things the Finns do when the go to live anywhere in the world, from Mt Isa in the Australian desert to the landscapes they are used in North America, is to build a sauna. And Dregni suggested the second priority. If two Finns were seen walking together on a Saturday night, it was said that they were their way either to take a sauna bath or to form a new cooperative. The book has many charming pictures of girls lined up for photo opportunities, my favorite being the eight girls in the Red Star Chorus, wearing flour sack dresses but looking as smart as if they were dressed by Marimekko or Vuokko.
Of course, many Scandinavians moved easily back and forward across the Atlantic, inter married with Americans, and almost lived happily ever after. Both Dregni and his fellow author, Griffiths, point to Carl Milles among the many examples of these happy expatriates. Griffiths’ book Stockholm lauds the way in which the Scandinavian influence was greater than you think, even if it too, often vanished in a blink. Stockholm, published by OUP New York and Signal Oxford around the same time as Dregni’s work, adds Oxbridge perspective to the Minnesota angle. The expatriate Vikings often worked in American in high profile and crucially important areas: a Swedish inventor, John Ericsson, constructed an iron plate warship, the Union, defeating the Confederate forces on the Merrimac during a rare American civil war battle on water. Described as a cheese dish on a bread board, its crew of 57 included six Swedes. Like the Vasa, it sank but not before it had demonstrated the prowess of the Swedish defense industry. All Americans when they can afford it and if the have the inclination listen to ABBA and shop at IKEA, drive Volvos and Saabs, and use Ericsson or Nokia mobile phones. Some of the more perceptive of them wonder why the Nobel Prize was given to President Obama in Norway not Sweden. Some wonder why a peace prize was given to a commander in chief at all. They are ones who have not read Griffiths’ equivalent of In Cod we Trust. Griffiths’ earlier work Scandinavia was published by Hurst in the UK, Palgrave McMillan in the US, Mirae Book in Korea, Wakefield Press in Australia and if things to plan will shortly be published in Polish.
The first of many editions was launched at Stockman in Helsinki by Ulf- Eric Slotte, sometime head of the Finnish Foreign Ministry, and Doris Stockman. This best seller looks so closely at Scandinavian society that no Scandinavian Publisher will touch it. The Finns think the stuff on Denmark, Norway and Sweden is prescient, but what is said about Finland is fiction; the Norwegians think he got it right about Denmark, Sweden and Finland but knows nothing about Norway; the Danes think the material on Sweden, Finland and Norway is magnificent, but the material on Denmark is rot; and you can guess what the Swedes think.
Griffiths illustrates his theme, which is very similar to Dregni’s, by looking at the Vikings well and truly outside the Attic. Many of them worked in a constant blur of publicity, hounded by both paparazzi and American politicians. Edwin C. Johnson, a very popular statesman, spoke for Middle America when he described Ingrid Bergman as ‘one of the most powerful women on earth today’, adding ‘I regret to say, a powerful influence for evil’. Bergman’s love affair with Roberto Rossellini and the uproar which followed in America did not stop her from achieving the status as one of the greatest actresses of all time anywhere. Bergman refused to change her name for the movie industry. To try to fit in with America, Bergman’s equally famous predecessor Greta Garbo caved in to commercial pressure, and dropped her Swedish-sounding maiden name to take up the surname Garbo. She might has well have chosen Hopalong Cassidy. Being Australian Griffiths sniggers at Garbo’s choice of name, as Garbo in Aussie argot is the world used to describe Greta’s father’s occupation – garbage collector. The third member of the trio of Swedish actors who had such an influence on world cinema was Anita Ekberg, who personified la dolce vita and worked as much in Europe as in the US. She proved to have a prodigious intellect as well as sublime beauty, attracting no less an ill- informed American than Bob Hope to quip that her parents ought to have got the Nobel prize for architecture.
Tony Griffiths is a Scottish- Australian version of the Italo-American Dregni. Both authors are hyphenated scholars. Griffiths’ great grandfather left the Viking settled Western Isles of the UK during the 19th century. In the Viking era the Hebrides, Suoreyjar, were of equal importance to Norway itself much to the displeasure of the King of Norway. The Norwegian Vikings( muttering not many Hebrideans are to be trusted) who nevertheless settled and raised their families in the Western Isles were key influences on the development of a gene pool which still flourishes there as it similarly occurs in Lusterfjord today, with many a conspicuously different attitude to life you might describe as Scandinavian.
Griffiths elaborates how Viking stock transformed American society in a conspicuous
if unacknowledged contribution to social change and not just on the silver screen.
While 20th Viking spawn grew up playing with Lego, their parents carted around
the Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Axel Wenner- Gren, the dodgy Swedish founder
of the global world- beating Electrolux firm married an American, and was a
close friend of the Duke of Windsor. The recalcitrant King , like Wenner- Gren,
married an American lady, and this bond between drew them closer together during
world war two but that’s another story.
The Vikings in and out of the Attic were masters of invention or the superior technical application of other people’s inventions. Sometimes they were successful; sometimes they were famous for all the wrong reasons. Ivar Kreugar at one point held virtally the world monopoly on the production of safety matches. He shot himself when he went bankrupt, a footnote of history recalled only during the recent Great Financial Crisis as the individual who lost more money than any other capitalist ever in the history of capitalism. Kreugar made the Lehman brothers look prudent. On the other hand, Gustav Dalen won the Nobel Prize on one day and invented the Aga stove on another. There is hardly anybody who does not know of the Aga stove, even if they do not know they are Swedish. Griffiths quotes a few lines from Punch, part of a hymn of praise to the Aga stove. Dalen was sick of watching his cook laboring hard in his kitchen. A couple of verses refer to the way in which Carlos, an English Banker, and Clarissa, who we would now call an English celebrity and write up in Hello, were drawn closer together by their Aga, exported and manufactured on almost the same scale as the Swedish match industry.
Reforming the Butterfly
Clarissa was chic, Clarissa was charming,
Clarissa could prattle, Clarissa could plot,
Clarissa the Cat could be, oh! so disarming,
But could she cook luncheon Clarissa could NOT
Dyspeptic and bankrupt poor Carlos grew gaga,
Till one day” Eureka” he cried,
Clarissa, mon chou, I will buy you an Aga
The Cooker which generates culinary pride.
Clarissa now caters and cooks to perfection.
Clarissa found joy in a Wifely Career,
While Carlos again has his bankers’ Affection
For fuel for his Aga costs four pounds a year.
In the twenty- first century the first female head of MI5 sat around her Aga in North London to discuss the war on terror with the head of the FBI; change Stella for Clarissa and the poem still makes sense.
In a curious twist there is a more than casual Italian strand woven in the loom of the interest Dregni and Griffiths share in the Nordic region. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. The history of the Earls of Orkney, Orkneyinga Saga, show that the Vikings did not confine themselves to the Western Isles and Norway, but regularly sailed from Constantinople up into the Adriatic, crossing into Italy in Puglia, thence to Europe and home.
Maybe the Vikings did not take back recipes to Norway as they marked their territory by dragging a boat over it, but for a later generation Dregni has investigated Italian cuisine. Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy’s Culinary Capital. This book was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2009, the same year OUP New York brought out Stockholm. Griffiths is an Italophile who has worked at the European University institute in Florence. His work on Stockholm was done at the Shuman Centre in the convent where Fra Angelico took his vows at San Domenico di Fiesole. There Griffiths contemplated the consequences of the EU Membership on Sweden, Finland and Denmark and the phony non membership of the Nowegians. Dregni is Dean of Lago del Bosco, the Italian Concordia Language Village in northern Minnesota.
They have both written fine books, but they could be better. Dregni could have finished off by noting that Marcus Samuelsson was the co-owner of the Aquavit restaurant in New York, the most fashionable restaurant in the city. Samuelsson is an expatriate Swede with a past not unlike that of both Dregni and Griffiths, an outsider whose skills of observation and whose sensitivity are as brilliant as his cooking. Mind you, while there is a huge amount of useless information in both books which verge on Trivial Pursuit questions. Perhaps instead Axel Von Munthe and Harold Nicholson should have been included? Griffiths has missed an opportunity to comment on the significance of Harold Nicholson’s night flight to Stockholm, crouched heroically in the bomb bay of an RAF mosquito bomber during world war two, a visit which might have kept some Swedish hearts sweeter a little longer. Why is their no mention of the doctor friend of the Queen mother of Sweden, and their life in a Villa on Capri which triggered a world best seller for a decade. Surely the quack and the queen deserved a mention?
But to return to America. Ludovico Visconti’s problems filming Death in Venice, a novel by Thomas Mann, illustrate perfectly what the Vikings in the Attic were up against. The real reason that the Vikings preferred to live in the Attic was that they knew that the Americans feared them and would take little prodding to annihilate them. It was an alternative to the cellar. Why did Americans hang in effigy a national hero like Lindy ? The answer is given by an American in Dregni’s book who confessed that he viewed Swedes as “the most disgusting, dirty, lousy reprobates that I ever saw. I want to kick them every time I look at them. I licked one last week and kicked him bad.” Dregni for extras recounts that the US House of representatives Immigration Committee took evidence from New York and Massachusetts doctors to decide if mentally defective Swedish immigrants should be allowed to marry and dilute American stock. And adds that when the U.S. did enter world war one, as Europeans call it, the Knights of Liberty tarred and feathered a Finn who decided to renounce his citizenship.
Lindy was not only hanged for endangering and threatening American security by his foreign policy declamations .The majority of Americans were disturbed to an irrational xenophobic extent by what Visconti termed “the search after purity and beauty”. This could be found in Jell-O at one level, where it was relatively harmless, but Americans were not prepared to be wiped out by the species of European cultural imperialism which the latter day Vikings represented . One man’s meat was another man’s poison.
I don’t know whether Dregni would consider Venice a candidate for Italian culinary capital; its known for film festivals rather than food festivals. Visconti’s Death in Venice had two minor stars – if one can be a minor star - a young Swede and a seasoned Italian. The undoubted major star was Dirk Bogarde.
American investors tried to get Bogarde chucked of the films and substituting
an American star. Visconti refused, saying Bogarde was exactly like a pheasant
hanging by its neck in the larder, ready and perfect for the pot. Bogarde was
spared but even more important (as Bogarde reported in Snakes and Ladders)
the Americans ‘insisted, or tried to insist, that Tadzio, the boy, should
be played by a girl. This they declared, would be far more acceptable to American
audiences; if the story was exactly as Thomas Mann had written it, it could
only mean one thing in that shining new country: “a dirty old man chasing
a kid’s ass. Visconti heard them out in stunned silence. “But if
I change Tadzio to a little girl, and we call him Tadzia, you seriously believe
that American audiences would be prepared to accept that?
“We certainly do.”
You do not think that in America they mind child molestation?
… there was a nervous pause and then the spokesman bravely shook his head and said that they didn’t see it like that.
Mister Visconti, we do not envisage that kind of problem. We are not as degenerate here as you are in Europe” he said comfortably.’
Bogarde explained that ‘generally their culture is so very different from ours … the nuance, diplomatically, intellectually and above all conversationally, so despairingly extinct, the dislike and fear of degenerate Europe so deeply imbedded’ that the Americans thought that they might easily be destroyed if their cinema audiences could not have beauty to be represented by a 13 year old girl not a 13 year boy.
Dirk Bogarde remembered that when filming was about to begin Visconti still did not have he minor male character. He had searched everywhere for an actor to play Tadzio, even in America. Bogarde recalled that Visconti ‘found him right away. On the first day of his search, in Stockholm. A slim, pale, blond boy of thirteen, Bjorn Andresen, who had been brought to auditions by his ambitious grandmother and who was, in spite of a strong predilection for Black Bubble Gum and the Beatles, the ideal choice . Bjorn was not immediately impressed by the idea himself, but once it was promised that he would receive at least enough money from the modest salary that was offered him to be able to purchase an electric guitar and a motor bike he accepted, and the perfect Tadzio was ours.’ Bjorn Andresen was not a lumberjack, but he was just as disconcerting as the Swedes who infuriated Americans at the turn of the century. They wanted to kick him.
By the unforgettable climax of the film the woman of the pearls, Silvana Mangano, who worked for Visconti pro bono, was out of sight. She had strutted her stuff. Dirk Bogarde, splendidly made up to resemble Gustav Mahler, died to the eerie background of Mahler’s music. In 1971 this was too much for Middle America. Tadzio, who personified the root of the problems, was perfect for Europe, but was doomed to life in Attic across the Atlantic.