To see ourselves as others see us

The most important dumb Swede in American history was Chief Justice Earl Warren. In film, Sonja Henie was dumb, Greta Garbo was less dumb, and Ingrid Bergman was not dumb.

In general, Swedes are either madmen or dumb. Madness trumps dumbness — if a Swede is a madman, his dumbness is moot. Gaear Grimsrud was probably both, but who knows?

Knowledge of other nations and peoples is so limited that wherever I have traveled in America the majority of Yankees have as a matter of course called all Scandinavians Swedes. If you live among them for a time, you discover readily, that as soon as you are called a Swede, it is in a pejorative sense, as if you really ought to beg their pardon for being a Swede. … 

 Knut Hamsun, The Cultural Life of Modern America

They reckoned they were mighty slick,
Them two tinhorns from Idaho;
That poor dumb Swede could swing a pick,
but that was all he’d ever know.

Robert Service, Dumb Swede 

“What? You won’t drink with me, you little dude! I’ll make you  then! I’ll make you!” The Swede had grasped the gambler frenziedly at the throat, and was dragging him from his chair. The other men sprang up. The barkeeper dashed around the corner of his bar. There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme  astonishment.

Stephen Crane, The Blue Hotel

“Yes, indeedy,” added Kink. “We ain’t in no charity business a-disgorgin’ free an’ generous to Swedes an’ white men.”

“Ay tank ve haf another drink,” hiccoughed Ans Handerson, craftily changing the subject against a more propitious time.

Jack London, Too Much Gold

The mouth of that mine goes right into the face of a cliff, and they used to put us in a bucket and run us over on a trolley and shoot us into the shaft. The bucket traveled across a box canyon about three hundred feet deep and about a third full of water. Two Swedes had fell out of the bucket once, and hit the water, feet down. If you’ll believe it, they went to work the next day. You can’t kill a Swede.

Willa Cather, My Antonia, Nebraska, 1918/1994, p. 104.

“I didn’t understand your home was North Dakota,” said Mr. Thompson. “I thought you said Georgia.”

“I’ve got a married sister in North Dakota,” said Hatch “married to a Swede, but a white man if I ever saw one.”

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

“I’ll tell you,” Max said. “We’re going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?”

Ernest Hemingway, The Killers

He nodded. He felt as if everyone in the place knew him and were watching him, perhaps laughing behind his back, and thinking that all he could get for a dance was a dumb Swede pig.

James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan

“The Swedes are overrunning the whole country. I bet there are more Swedes in the town of East Jolloppi than there are in the rest of the country….Stanley doesn’t know the Swedes like we do… There’s no way of stopping a Swede from doing what he sets his head to doing.”

Erskine Caldwell, “A Country Full of Swedes”

Marry a Jew or a Chinaman or a Swede, it’s all fine if you’re prompted by any motive, including money, save that of guilt.

William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness

Before Swedes were white

In sordid poverty , below the bluff two hundred feet away,  lived the ‘micks’ — they had merely inherited the name , for they were now largely of Scandinavian descent.

Scott Fitzgerald, Basil and Josephine Stories, Scribners. 1973, p. 119.

Included in the Black community and among my new friends were a relatively large number of mulattoes, the progeny of mixed marriages between Scandinavian women and Black men. At that time it was the fashion among wealthy families to import Scandinavian maids.  Many of these families had Black male servants. The result was a rash of intermarriages between the Scandinavian maids and the Black male house servants. The interracial couples formed a society called Manasseh, which held well-known yearly balls.

Harry Haywood (ed. G. M Hall) , Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik,  Minnesota, 1978, p. 33-4. (citing St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis:

 It was in the Swedish section, where the wealthy came to look for household help,  that the Young  family settled.

Luc Delannoy, Pres: The Story of Lester Young, 1993, p. 10

Floyd B. Olson was born on the north side of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of a Norwegian father and a Swedish mother. The North Side neighborhood where Olson grew up was the home of a sizable Orthodox Jewish community, and Olson’s friendships with some of the local Jewish families led him to serve as a shabbos goy, assisting Jews on the Sabbath by performing actions they were not permitted to do. Olson picked up Yiddish from his childhood associations with his Jewish neighbors and years later spoke the language fluently while campaigning in Jewish communities, in addition to having several Jews serve him in advisory roles while in elected office.

So maybe while F. Scott Fitzgerald (who described the Irish side of his family “shanty Irish” even though Grandpa McQuillen was rich enough to send him to Princeton, America’s top rich-boy school) was fighting off the Swedish-Jewish-black “micks” and dreaming of Daisy Buchanan in East Egg (i.e., Genevra King in Chicago), down below in Swedetown someone from one of the inferior races were looking up at Summit Avenue and dreaming of some rich Irish Daisy up there. (Olson was considerably older than Fitzgerald, and Lester young was considerably younger, so it wasn’t them. Haywood was about the right age but seems to have had other fish to fry).

Invidious comparison all the way down.

Dumb Swedes in real life

Vladimir Illych Lenin:

“You know, I could travel with the passport of a dumb Swede “.

Sonja Henie:

[Zanuck] found, for example, Sonja Henie on the ice-rink at the time when she was the world champion amateur skater. He signed her up without even giving her a screen test and subsequently discovered, as he put it later, that “she was the original   dumb Swede”.

Greta (Gustafsson) Garbo:


Cortez believed that Torrent was HIS film and he resented Greta from the beginning. He felt himself a great star who must work with this ‘dumb’ Swede. On the set or off, he gave Garbo not the slightest notice. He decided that Garbo was a nonentity and treated her as such.


“She wants to buy whatever state that has no people in it and turn it into a wheat farm and raise wheat and children,” John Gilbert later complained in an interview before he drank himself to death. “She keeps saying ‘You’re in love with Garbo the actress’. And I say ‘You’re damn right. I don’t want to marry some dumb Swede and raise wheat and kids miles from civilization.”

Ingrid Bergman denies she’s  a dumb Swede:

Cukor began by giving Bergman a context for every set-up, but she told him “I’m not a dumb Swede. I know where we are”.

Justice Earl Warren:

Thomas Dewey calls Earl Warren “That big dumb Swede”.

“To Judge Learned Hand, [Justice Warren] was just a big dumb Swede”.

Nixon:  “Warren’s a dumb Swede.

Earl Warren: Dumb Swede.

Like the Swedes themselves, Swedish moose (which  they call “elk”) are usually alcoholics


Richard D. Beards, “Stereotyping in Modern American Fiction: Some Solitary Swedish Madmen.” Moderna Sprak, 63 (1969): 329-37.

Unavailable on the net, to my knowledge. It’s a damn shame.

Roger McKnight, “Those Swedish Madmen Again: The Image of the Swede in Swedish-American Literature”, Scandinavian Studies, 56 #2, 1984, pp. 114-139.

Response to Beards.  Because Swedes, like most 19th-century Americans, were Northern European white Protestants,  “the Swede might stand out to the American as a quaint, strong, baffling, or alienated cousin”. (This is like the uncanny valley phenomenon, when robotic simulations of human beings are good enough to be unnerving, but not good enough to feel “right”). Discusses Swedish characterizations of Swedish character and compares them to the American stereotypes, and discusses Swedish-American authors’ responses to the stereotype. It turns out that Swedes do not think of themselves as dumb or as solitary madmen. (Unfortunately, many key citations in this paper are in Swedish.)

Stanley Wertheim, “Unravelling the Humanist: Stephen Crane and Ethnic Minorities”, American Literary Realism, 30.3 (1998), 65-75.

About Crane’s negative attitude toward foreigners generally. Swedes are mentioned briefly in footnote #1, which cites Beards. Maggie in Crane’s “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets” is surnamed “Johnson”, a name which could be either English or Scandinavian, but it seems most likely that this drunken,  incredibly and unbelievably dysfunctional immigrant family was thought of as Scandinavian.

“Axel and his dog”  was a popular Minnesota children’s show featuring Axel Torgeson, a dumb but lovable Swede, in the sense of “Norwegian”.

Garbo Talks: Scandinavians in Hollywood, the talkie revolution,  and the Crisis of the Foreign Voice

Nordic Exposures: Scandinavian Identities in Classic Hollywood Cinema

Holy Yumpin’ Yiminy: Scandinavian Immigrant Stereotypes in the Early Twentieth Century American Musical

NOTE: Outside American literature, the phrase “Swedish madman” usually means the Swedish king Karl XII, but sometimes the dramatist August Strindberg or the scientist and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. At least one Swedish madman is referred to in Henning Mankell’s Daniel, written in Swedish, and the Swede originally accused of murdering Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was often referred to as a solitary madman.