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Finns in America

Patricia Latimer

It took nearly 300 years for America to discover the Finns!

Yet the 20th century version of these stalwart and historic people was hewn from the imperishable cornerstone of American civilization which was laid in the rugged, untamed wilderness in 1638. But for the providential recognition of the commanding genius of Jean Sibelius, the track triumphs of Paavo Nurmi and world-famed wardebt payments, the Finns might still be undiscovered, might still be a capital subject for a guessing game!

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Jean Sibelius

If you like mystery certainly the case of the Finns, who just didn't exist in the minds of Americans for three centuries, is an impressive one to tackle. You could mention the Irish, German, Italian, Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Russians, Serbians, Armenians with assuring certainty that everyone knew of whom you were talking, but catching the unsuspecting Americans off guard by introducing yourself as a Finn was always an ordeal, a cue for blank stares and amazing revelations. Some believed a Finn was slang for a five dollar bill while others went still further and linked us with the best intentions to the anatomy of fishes.

The last straw was plucked when you met the citizen who didn't know there was a country called Finland on the map.

Think of it - just a little over a decade ago the ubiquitous Finns were the "unknown quantity" in the melting pot of America. It seems incredible when we consider the wonderful legacy those unsung heroes of 1638 left for this young civilization in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - a legacy of courage, endurance and progressive achievements. It is all very true, however.

Even today John Q. Public associates the Finns with reparations payments, the music of Sibelius, and Paavo Nurmi, not with early American history and three centuries of the nation's progress.

Many high school graduates have yet to learn that one of the signatures on that immortal document, The Declaration of Independence, belonged to a Finnish gentleman; that the Finnish race is one of the oldest in the world; that the cyclical runes of the heroic epic "Kalevala" antedate Homer, Hesiod and the psalms of Biblical David. Yes, their glorious antiquity is yet to be discovered!

Today this small body of Finnish-American citizens loom large on the horison, for as they once penetrated the virgin forests and conquered the wilderness they now have penetrated every field of endeavor and are becoming masters in the professions they chose to follow. If there is work to be done the Finn can be counted on to do it.

Their versatility is as remarkable as their endurance in the face of hardships. All told, the Finnish population in the United States doesn't exceed 350,000 men, women and children. What they lack in numbers they make up in diversified achievement.

You'll find them in the bowels of the earth working the mines, with a hoe or on a tractor, on steel girders of tomorrow's skyscrapers, at the editorial desks of important publications, in professorial chairs in our universities, writing radio scripts and playing in symphony orchestras. Name any profession and someone will name a Finn in it. Pick any of the humble crafts and you still can't get away from this ubiquitous specimen of humanity who was here, there and everywhere for three centuries before America discovered his presence.

Finland can take her place among the nations of the world as the mother of good citizenship. Not only are the sons and daughters of little Finland exemplar citizens abroad but they lead the way as good Americans. The lazy Finn and the lawbreaking Finn are hard to find. Industriousness, honesty and respect for law and order is Finland's heritage from ages past and she has passed it on to her children.

Blood will tell - that's why the American born Finns all turn out as from the same mold endowed with inherent honesty and pioneer courage. Some of them have grown up in a completely American environment far removed from the old world influence that was felt by their parents, but there is no essential difference in the makeup. The Finnish character triumphs over the environment which attends the formative years.

Older Finns complain because the younger generation, i.e. the native born, is discontinuing the use of the Finnish language. This is indeed regrettable, and the young people are wise to resolve to master the musical Finn of Wäinämöinen from whose loins sprang this race of wonder-workers, rather than to ignore it in favor of Latin, French and Spanish.

Nowadays it is hard to put your finger on a Finn in the surging tide of humanity captioned "Americans". But if you meet a man or woman who tells you that salt strömmings (silakka) and potatoes (perunat) make the "best dish in the world", that buttermilk is better than the nectar of the gods, and sings the praises for "sauna" and "koivuvastat" - yes, don't look now, but that person is a Finn. That goes whether he or she happens to be a lawyer, teacher, actor, congressman or journalist.

It is interesting to note that intellectual and artistic pursuits are preferred by the younger set. That they are taking to the difficult professions while the uncertainties of the times lash youthful ambition shows that the pioneer spirit of 1638 is very much alive in the younger generation.

The beauty of the Finnish women is traditional, as is the physical prowess of the men. The American theatre, which prides in glorifying the most beautiful women in the world, has many charmers of Finnish extraction on its payrolls.

Among the famous theatre personalities who have an admixture of Finnish in their makeup are Alfred Lunt and Marion Nixon.

Whether the Finns are carpenters or violin virtuosos, movie stars or valedictorians they won't boast of what they have done or what can be done. Fanfare and publicity annoy them. Many of them wilt under praise.

Perhaps, indeed, the Finns are too modest for their own good. Certainly their record of achievements in the old world, as well as the new, should have been discovered before the Twentieth Century!

Published in the Finnish American magazine 1(1939), p. 9-10.

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