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by Lars Ljungmark
translated by Kermit B. Westerberg
“America fever” gripped Sweden in the middle of the nineteenth century, seethed to a peak in 1910, when one-fifth of the world’s Swedes lived in America, cooled during World War I, and chilled to dead ash with the advent of the Great Depression in 1930.
Swedish Exodus, the first English translation and revision of Lars Ljungmark’s Den Stora Utvandringen, recounts more than a century of Swedish emigration, concentrating on such questions as who came to America, how the character of the emigrants changed with each new wave of emigration, what these people did when they reached their adopted country, and how they gradually became Americanized.
Ljungmark’s essential challenge was to capture in a factual account the broad sweep of emigration history. But often he narrows his focus to look closely at those who took part in this mass migration. Through historical records and personal letters, Ljungmark brings many of these people back to life. One young woman, for example, loved her parents, but loved America more: “I never expect to speak to you in this life. . . . Your loving daughter unto death.” Like most immigrants, she never expected to return. Another immigrant wrote back seeking a wife: “I wonder how you have it and if you are living. . . . Are you married or unmarried? If you are unmarried, you can have a good home with me.”
Ljungmark also focuses closely on some of the leaders: Peter Cassel, a liberal temperance supporter and free-church leader whose community in America prospered; Hans Mattson, a colonel in the Civil War and founder of a colony in Minnesota; Erik Jansson, a book burner, self-proclaimed messiah, and founder of the Bishop Hill Colony; Gustaf Unonius, a student idealist and founder of a Wisconsin colony that faltered.
The story of Swedish immigrants in the United States is the story in miniature of the greatest mass migration in human history, that of thirty-five million Europeans who left their homes to come to America. It is a human story of interest not only to Swedes but to everyone.
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