A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago before 1930


This significant work on immigrant life in America’s great cities examines the Norwegian urban experience as it expressed itself in Chicago. It serves to correct a strong rural bias in the historiography of the Norwegian-American population. A Norwegian colony took root in the front9ier setting of Chicago of the 1830s and grew with and adjusted to shifting demands and circumstances; it in time became the third largest “Norwegian city” in the world. The story is followed for period of one hundred years, a century of dramatic change. The themes and issues of its history are narrated and analyzed as they related to the Norwegian-American subculture and the process of adjustment– from one generation to the next– of a small immigrant group.

The study is based on a thorough reading of secondary literature and on extensive research in primary sources; much new evidence was uncovered and utilized to give a solid and varied interpretation of the inner functioning of the Norwegian immigrant community and its place in the unique and dynamic multi-ethnic environment of Chicago. Evidence is mustered to make significant conclusions on rate of assimilation, residential and occupational patterns, religious affiliation, and political behavior.

There was a visible anti-urban sentiment even among Norwegians in the city and marked identification with a Puritan reform tradition. Their ideals were located in an American middle-class ethos; immigrant success stories fortified this direction. But in the urban environment strong counterforces existed, and there emerged a working-class consciousness that rejected the American myth of success and gave voice to radical political thinking. Simultaneously, powerful nationalistic feelings promoted ethnic cohesiveness, as evidenced in the rich organizational and cultural life of the community, the latter including musical, dramatic, and pictorial art; in a strong Lutheran identity though marred by disharmony, challenged by secular interests and values, and threatened by inroads of other religious denominations; at public festivals and events. May 17th celebrations being the most expressive; in athletic competitions on snow and ice, representing a special ethnic forte; and in numerous chartable efforts, which also revealed the strong bonds of nationality. Ethnic assertiveness found new expressions and adopted the imagery of distant Vikings past. An ethic mythology evolved this basis, gaining surprising strength in the social world of Norwegians in Chicago, and Providing it with both a way of entry into American society and favorable ethnic self-perception.

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