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Book Review: Amerikan kultalaan. Amerikansuomalaisten siirtolaisten sosiaalihistoriaa

Auvo Kostiainen

Sakari Sariola. Amerikan kultalaan. Amerikansuomalaisten siirtolaisten sosiaalihistoriaa. Helsinki, 1982 (Tammi). Pp. 325, with illustrations.

After several years of research on Finnish immigrants done by many scholars in Europe and America, time seems to be ripe for presenting new "general histories" of Finnish immigration.

In 1976 one attempt was made by Reino Kero (Suuren lännen suomalaiset), and in recent years many kinds of collections of essays and monographs have tried to give a better understanding of the Finns in North America.

Sakari Sariola has taken the difficult and demanding task of writing the general "social history" of the Finns in the United States. Schooled as a sociologist, born and educated in Finland but now stationed in the United States, he has a somewhat different background when compared with many other scholars working on the history of the Finns in America. Originally Sariola was interested in the problems caused by alcohol, but later his topic of interest has become the whole of Finnish-American society.

As a sociologist his discussion of the history is a bit different than what we are accustomed to. As a result, his is a very interesting work. However, the limits and problems of his discussion give a biased picture of the Finns in America.

The author looks at the history of the Finnish-Americans from the viewpoint of class struggle (see p. 9). He aims at explaining that history by using mainly secondary sources and also to some extent materials produced by the Finnish-American community (newspapers, literature, etc.). He uses no real archival sources, however.

Sariola attempts to give a general picture of the Finnish community in America: he describes the background of immigrants, their location in the United States, the social structure of the immigrant society and its development. At first the stress is in the grouping of the Finns and the relations between the groups, but gradually emphasis is moved to the labor movement - its birth, growth and decline. Finally, attention is also paid to the departure of the Finns from the United States to the Soviet Union in the 1930's, and in the problems of the second generation. The structure of the book does not, however, appear to be very good. This problem is evident in the many repetitions.

Social history means for Sariola the history of the class struggle. This, in turn, appears to be more or less the same as the inter-Finn quarrels or "bad American society", or both. He does not really find good sides to American society from the viewpoint of Finnish-American history (F. D. Roosevelt, perhaps was an exception), but the history of the Finns in America is presented as the fight against repression. On the other hand, it seems that history is the cooperation of the Finnish-American church and business with American capital - with some exceptions.

The picture is indeed black and white. The argument presented by the author that the Finns were only at the bottom of the society, they did only the jobs which no others would do, is not too well justified. Of course, newcomers were at the bottom of the job ladder, but many were also able to rise to better positions. Many also had some success in their lives - although "big riches" (Äkkirikkaita) did not come to many. Most people have been satisfied with their lives in the New Country. It is also erroneous to say that moving from industries to the farms was a step downward. (p. 187 e.g.)

It seems that Sariola's "social history" overemphasizes the bad side of immigrant life. Thus his picture, in general, is somewhat misleading. This is also reflected in the fact that after the emphasis on temperance in the beginning, the labor movement fills a very great part of the book. As the author himself states, about one fourth of the Finns were in various phases of the labor movement, another one fourth in the churches, and one half of the population stayed outside the Finnish organizations. Shouldn't the history of this one half certainly be a part of social history?

The attitude of the book is certainly polemic, but a polemic without adequate argumentation. He often relies on fiction and uses it as a reliable source. The finishing of the text is not too careful. For example, there are some errors: the IWW is called the International Workers of the World throughout the book, when it should be Industrial Workers. There were not 10,000 Finnish socialists in the state of Minnesota alone. In the whole country, there were a few more than that. Also, two different years for the closing of Toveri appear, 1930 and 1931. The latter is the right one. These are only a few of the mistakes in the volume.

Originally Sariola was interested in the history of the temperance movement. The part of the book that deals with it is perhaps the best one. On the other hand the labor movement has been discussed in many other works more carefully (e.g. Hummasti, Karni), and Sariola's information about the Finnish labor movement in America does not really tell us anything new.

Finally, Sariola discusses in many places the ideological developments within the Finnish-American labor movement. When analyzing these developments he, however, arrives at the end of the book in quite a strange result: the Finnish socialists in America had it wrong, they did not consider the thought of Marx enough!

The illustrations used in the volume are relevant photographs, and the book is very well written.

Published in Finnish Americana, 6(1983-1984), p. 56-57.

© Auvo Kostiainen

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