Saturday, 18 September 2010

How Swede They Were

It’s New Sweden time, all of you affiliated ethnics out there in Diversity Land. Their part of our pluribus is being hailed in all the Swedish hot pockets across America, but no more resolutely than in Minneapolis and Newark, Delaware.
Newark? Yes, stereotype breath, Newark is the academic seat of the University of Delaware, and in Christina, Delaware, 350 years ago, 88 hardy Svenskas (a redundancy?) established the first permanent Swedish settlement in North America. Christiana didn’t last long, and Wilmington (the capital of the State of DuPont) absorbed what Swedish energies and enterprises endured.
But those hardy Vikings found the polar perils in Minnesota more to their likings, and now 7,000 of the 4.2 million Americans with Swedish genes keep living an ethnic society known as the American Swedish Institute, at 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis 55407 (612-871-4907). That means a half-hour hike from downtown Greyhound in non-winter seasons.
HQ is a funky 33-room mansion (1904) done up in what they charitably describe as “turn of the century stately Romanesque chateau architecture.” No matter, Swan J. Turnblad had every reason to flaunt his status and wealth. Born in Tubbemala, Smaland, in 1860, he arrived in America at age eight.
At 27, he became manager of the weekly Svenska Amerikanska Posten. Ten years later, he was its sole owner, having turned an insolvent rag of 1,500 circulation into a 55,000-subscriber phenomenon. In 1929, he gave his sweet folly to the American Institute of Swedish Arts, Literature and Science (now more Americanishly knows as the ASI, with a lively monthly newsletter called the ASI Posten).
In it I learned about the current exhibition, “The Go Betweens: The Lives of Immigrant Children,” a traveling show organized by the University Art Museum, that concentrates on Swedish and Italian children. A canny bit of revisionist history, it explores the cruel but often epiphanous crossfire first generation children were caught in—hugged at home, but tugged into the mainstream.
They were thus better adjusted to the new values but ipso facto maladjusted at home. It reminded me of how our current parents are as ignorant of the rock culture in which their children live—with the tensions somewhat redolent of that Ur-shock of immigrant acculturation.
I also learned in Posten about the Great North American History Theater, a history rep group based in St. Paul which wanders the state raising its citizens’ historical consciousness—such as its ASI production of You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A., a dramatization of Swedish and Italian immigrant experiences in Minnesota.
If you are a loyal American Swede, this is the time (March 3-6) of the New Sweden conference at the University of Delaware. You can get all the particulars about the Winterthur / U.D. / Swedish Council of America symposium by contacting the Swedish Consulate General in New York (212-751-5900), asking for New Sweden 88. If you’re a non-academic type, maybe you’ll want to mark your calendar now for the visit to Philly on April 13th of Their Royal Swedish Majesties King Carl XVI and Queen Silvia.
Don’t let me dissuade you from flying to the Twins to savor the Turnblad mansion, the ASI HQ. It’s full of Svenskiana at every level of taste. Its polar baroque interior is reminiscent of what one nauseated architecture critic characterized as Early William Randolph Hearst, a snide allusion to that disgusting piece of robber baron pillage pile called San Simeon.
But the coffered ceilings and too-fancy settees and such only make you cherish the folk arts in which it abounds. And I could but cheer when I came across two glass gems of Sigurd Persson, my favorite Swede of all, my Helsingborg hero, who designs mass-produced goods to that the royalties therefrom can finance his sculpture.
Don’t laugh: Two of the greatest works of art are the wash basins in the cloak room and the second floor john. They’re Art Nouveau necessaries of elegant white porcelain that would almost move a slob like me to become a compulsive washer of hands.
And on a more decorative note, cast an envious eye on the fancy masonry tile fireplaces that garnish each of the main living rooms. Their Svenska name is “kakelugn,” and are they plainly fancy. I saw my first such in Peter the Great’s Winter Palace, where they were needed to keep the Royal Buns warm.
But what the hell, frostbite is transnational. Indeed, you can even buy these space heaters in South Minneapolis, according to an ASI Posten ad. Turnblad imported his from the Old Permafrost, as a kind of memento moraine.
There are two gift shops. The one on the main floor has some great Christmas candles and candelabras as well as those marvelously braided fibre decorations the Swedes do so well. In the basement, I went in search of lovely note paper with color images of each of the regional flowers of Sweden. Great souvenir: a dozen for $8.
There was also a handsome black T-shirt with the curious logo OFFENDER on it in Gothicized script. No one knew what it meant. Swedish-English dictionaries were scrutinized to no avail. The next morning I called Janice M. McElfish, ASI’s PR lady, to unknot my mind.
Ha. It’s a rock group led by one 23-year-old Lon Rooney, who doubles as an ASI custodian. Into their second year, and with one EP out and a new demo making the rounds of record publishers, Offender’s title memorializes the fact that the group is drink-free and drug-free and plays clean, offended as it is by the mainstream muck. That’s the kind of wholesome surprise awaiting you at ASI.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

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