Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Something about Sweden

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     The mail has been filled with fine distinctions lately. This exchange doesn't require any explanatory set-up. 

Mr. Steinberg;
     Me Again, that Medill kid who sat behind you saying newspapers exist to preserve democracy.
     “I have no particular interest in seabirds, the Baltic Sea or Sweden,” you wrote recently.
     Well, you just knew that would come back to haunt you. I view it as your cleansed version of Trump’s “shithole countries.”
     What a slight on my ancestors!, who created a large part of the “built environment” you now park yourself in before spreading your carbon footprint on the Metra run to suburbia. Back in the days, WTTW says, Swedes built Chicago.  
     Then, your recent column on poetry and politics further revealed your anti-Swedish bias.
     How could you totally ignore a fellow Chicagoan: one of the greatest, a three-time Pulitzer winner (how many on your shelf?) named Sandburg who espoused social justice long ago. He had a few words to say about Lincoln.
     This is more than a mental fog arriving on little cat feet. I bet you’d be first in line to rename Sandburg Village in today’s cancel culture, claiming Sandburg had a thing against barbers.
     There must be some anti-Scandinavian prejudice at work here; otherwise how can you explain denial of a guy whose politics certainly would resemble yours.
     I won’t go into Walgreen and some of the other Swedish ancestry notables who graced your fair city. You’re probably a CVS shopper anyway.
     I bet you think Andersonville was named for Anderson Cooper and that you never set foot in Ann Sather’s restaurant, or the Kungsholm for that matter!
     Next, like those in San Francisco, I suspect you’ll call for the renaming of Leif Ericson Academy on the West Side, claiming he was no more than a Viking plunderer.
     Makes me think that “You Were Never in Chicago.”
     Thank God, or Odin, that WTTW can set you straight.
     I suggest sampling the Ann Sather sticky bun recipe provided below and then engaging in some remedial history while watching You Tube videos of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran and Ollie, another great Chicago Swede.
     I won’t go into a discourse about Sweden itself: You can freshen up on the Nobel prize, Volvo, Dag Hammarskkold, Olof Palme and Astrid Lindberg and the mystery writers Stieg Larsson etc.
     If I were you, I’d start with Vilhelm Moberg, “The Emigrants,” who wrote about the Swedish diaspora to the US, a topical subject today.
     Hard to understand that a fellow who makes a career on knowing Chicago was so dismissive of its Swedish heritage.
     Hope to see you June 22 at Swedish Days in Geneva.
     Stay healthy and don’t get carjacked. 

     Carl Swede

     Not his real name. The last name, that is. His real first name of course is Carl. I might have pointed out that I not only have read Dag Hammarskkold's diary, but also owned a Volvo. But, manfully resisting getting into particulars, I replied:

     Dear Mr. Swede:

     I hope you're joking. But in case you're not, I would draw your attention to the word "particular." I said, I have no particular interest in Sweden, which you, again assuming you are, alas, in earnest, manage to conflate into some kind of slight. As if you expect, no demand that everyone be especially interested in all things Swedish. Why? It's a big world. Why not allow Sweden the average amount of interest given to other Scandinavian countries?
     I think my point is made. Just in case you are serious—email is a cold medium, and it can be hard to tell—would you mind if I ran your letter on my blog? They might also tend to not give the Elongated Country its full measure of attention, and I believe it would enlighten and educate my readers.
     Thanks for writing.

     This is the point where people usually vanish. But Carl replied, and while you might want to bail out here and go about your business, cutting and pasting takes a moment, so I'll run the correspondence out, with his reply.

     Well, yes, you can run it with the following understanding.
     This probably will be the closest for me getting a byline in the Sun-Times (yes, I know it’s not part of the paper).

     My Dad, rest his soul in Evergreen Cemetery (87th & Kedzie) would be pleased. He was a Sun-Times reporter covering Stevenson and Eisenhower campaigns in the ‘50s and was an early Nieman Fellow.
     1) I’m not on Google Docs or whatever the others writing emails to you use. I don’t want my email address used, just sign it Carl Swede, please. No city.
     2) Yes 93 percent of it was written with my tongue in cheek, or aquavit in throat, but there is a kernel of truth that’s as topical as today’s news about Charles Blow calling for a new black diaspora to the South by blacks to build a critical political mass.
     Mine goes to the loss in Chicago of a vibrant ethnic community (Swedes) now all but forgotten, thus the sensitivity.
     Swedes, when the Chicago story is told, deserve more than your description of the “average amount of interest given to other Scandinavian countries.”
     Gone are the groceries, clubs, bakeries etc. replaced by a museum in an awkward Andersonville location with ever-diminishing connections to Swedish culture. What’s Swedish about Swedish Covenant Hospital?
     Where did all those Swedes go? You can say that about many ethnic communities.
     Like Blow’s nostalgic call, what would it take to bring them back, or those who ran the now-lost Jewish deli, Italian gelato shop or German bakery?
     What have we lost by this loss in our urban fabric? By keeping these communities, does that mean we’re keeping others out?
     Yet we all crave getaways to Holland, Mich., or Frankenmuth, or Solvang, Ca, or Bishop Hill to capture those cultures. But when we arrive, we find ourselves in a romantic time warp with tinsel having no connection to today’s culture and politics in Sweden or whatever country.
     If we were presenting truthfully Sweden today, we’d need a strong Islamic presence and a b
ow to the Chinese owner of Volvo.
      3) Thanks for pulling your finest Chuck Berry on me. He had “No PARTICULAR Place To Go.”
     4) If you do use it, I hope to invoke Swedish Mrs. Olson, remember her?, and that we can meet at your location, central or suburbs, for a cup of coffee. This isn’t an onerous request because I’m 2200 miles away, and won’t be there for many months.
     Now that you know that my contribution was partly in jest using you as an opportunity to vent, I hope the offer to run it still stands.
     It would go well with a photo of an unshorn Sandburg or Tillstrom with Kukla Fran & Ollie.
    Carl Swede


  1. Beautiful. Carl is a regular contributor. I can tell by his well thought out writing. I remember I said I live by a private golf course that would never allow me in, and he correctly said it was the Bryn Mawr CC. Carl is quite brilliant. No Carl Spector.

  2. I'm particularly fond of IKEA, myself. Does that count?

  3. Carl, my cousin, you are off base. As an Irishman with green eyes, black hair and O positive blood, genealogists say I probably have Viking genes and Neil allows me to participate here, despite bearing traits of the Norse barbarians.

  4. Wonderful repartee! I hope I can join in. I have 2 claims to a particular interest in Sweden: first, the tenants who lived in the basement apartment of the house my mother and father bought on 78th & Coles in the late 40s were named Nordstrom. They spoke with the distinct Swedish accent that John Wayne once put on for a non Western movie, but told me that they had almost forgotten the Swedish language, having lived so long in Chicago. Second, my family name by some accounts comes from "Norse Hrothrekr (see Roderick)." And as a bonus, I love Swedish pancakes and Swedish meatballs, even though I don't get to eat them very often.


  5. My goodness.
    On the recommendation of my eldest son I'm reading Blackwater by Jeremy scahill. The first chapter delves into the history of Holland michigan a place which by all indications is to be avoided. Home to the DeVos family. Yeah that one and one Erik Prince the founder of Blackwater. Now that's so.wthing to be proud of for Mr.Swede.

    Anyway the swedes, irish , poles and italians haven't gone anywhere. Mostly their all just mixed together and long moved to the suburbs to get away from now people.

    I've all of the above ethnic heritage commonly refered to as american mutt.

    Never understood the pride of where you came from. Glad to be here.

  6. This kind of reminds me of "Something about Polk," an attempt by James Thurber (whom Neil likes, as do I) to get a fan base started for James K. Polk. Sweden probably has more going for it than Polk; Thurber had to make up a burn by him on Abraham Lincoln.

  7. I, too, love this exchange. I thought the emails were charming -- he made his points in a witty and forthright manner, while still interjecting tidbits to indicate his familiarity with our host.

    Obviously, this is personal to him, and a personal interest often drives more compelling commentary. But he hits the nail on the head when he himself notes, with regard to the fleeting nature of immigrant recognition in a melting pot like Chicago: "You can say that about many ethnic communities."

    For instance, in much the way that Andersonville maintains "ever-diminishing connections to Swedish culture," Lincoln Square ain't quite the German enclave it used to be, either. Fortunately, one may still sip some glogg at Simon's, which is more than can be said for quaffing a Weissbier at the Huettenbar, alas. You can get the crepes with ligonberry jam at Svea, but good luck savoring a thuringer with sauerkraut from the real Chicago Brauhaus... (not sure what the present operational status of these spots actually is, it should be noted.)

    But, c'mon Mr. Swede. "You’re probably a CVS shopper anyway." Them's fightin' words! : )

    1. In defense of CVS, the entire plot of "The Mezzanine," by Nicholson Baker is that a young man breaks a shoelaces and goes to the CVS to buy another one. It's a fabulously rich book, and has always inclined me toward CVS, despite its lack of Swedish provenance.

    2. And "The Inferno," another fabulously rich book, takes place in Hell, but it doesn't incline me toward shopping there! ; )

      I didn't even recall the Swedish heritage of Mr. Walgreen, just that he started the operation in Chicago.

  8. My first wife was a six-footer, of Norwegian descent. Her father was from Duluth and was six-six...or five-eighteen, as he liked to say. He painted his front door to look like a Norwegian flag, and he marched as Uncle Sam on stilts in his town's July Fourth parade, which made him about nine feet tall. Quite a sight.

    We used to eat creamed herring, which I still like. He even served me lutefisk once. It contains lye, and tastes like boiled Elmer's Glue, mixed with fish chunks, and the cook's spit. But I wanted to be polite, so I choked it down.

    Also heard a lot of Norwegian humor. Mmostly jokes that poked fun at the alleged wimpiness of the Swedes, who ruled Norway from 1814 to 1905. Lines like "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian." Pretty sure Garrison Keillor also used that line on his radio show...many times over.

  9. Ben Hecht, in his autobiographic "Child of The Century," related instances of Carl Sandberg being, while an adequate poet, an unreliable newspaper reporter.



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