Saturday, August 21, 2010


Do you remember how, on the Statue of Liberty, it says,
"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...?"
The trouble is, people did! 
                             ~ "Beyond The Fringe"

I am a fourth-generation American; my great-grandfather came from Denmark in 1889. The older I get, the more it seems as though I should put it this way: “I am only a fourth-generation American.” The 121 years of Jorgensen residency in this nation (my lifetime comprising almost exactly one-half of that time) seems like an inch on a yardstick as compared to the generations stretching back for hundreds or even thousands of years in the old country. (I’m going to do one of those National Geographic DNA swabs and find out just how far back.)

My point is not that I’m pining for the land of my ancestors -- just the opposite. I have felt and known myself to be completely American since the moment of my first rational consideration of the matter. Although I grew up with a sense of curiosity and, eventually, appreciation for my Danish and Norwegian heritage, I have never thought of myself as a Scandinavian-American, but simply as an American. (Although, I arrived in my current parish twenty-one years ago just in time to get a mention in the congregation’s history book. The mention? I am the congregation’s “first Danish pastor.”)

Like immigrant families today, my ancestors migrated immediately to established communities of their nationality and old-country language. The first generation (especially if they were over forty) never learned English; the next generation always did. For those who, like my father, were born here, Denmark may have been in their blood, but America was in their bones -- from the first. (My father, whose father was born in Denmark, never spoke or learned Danish.) So, to the charge, “Why don’t they speak English,” the answer is two-fold: 1) Your ancestors didn’t, either; and, 2) Give them a generation -- they will.

(I know that your ancestors spoke English if they came from England, but at least my Norwegian and Danish ancestors were legal. Those so-called Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 -- about 600 years after my Norwegian fore-cousin Bjarni Herjolfson, by the way -- definitely were not. Their very first act, by their own account -- when their clothes were still wet from their desperate landing -- was to steal a granary of Native corn. You’ve got to watch those borders!)

During our wonderful years in Alaska, I was amused to observe that an old Alaska pioneer was apparently someone who’d been there ten minutes longer than the next guy. Those politicians who play the immigrant/race-baiting game seem to forget just how recently they’ve arrived -- and that those who keep arriving are just as American as they are.

Of course this is an old story, emblematic of but not unique to the U.S. of A. It is because we wander and end up in new places that become our true home that DNA tests are eventually necessary to trace the wandering. Father Abraham traveled from -- of all places -- Iraq. Johann Christian Bach, son of the most German of German composers, became a Londoner -- a more famous composer in his day than his father -- and is buried in LondonOur Korean-born daughter teaches the children of all kinds of Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachussets; and my dad -- who’s father was born on an impoverished Danish farm -- was playing saxophone in a swing band on a Midwestern college campus when he was twenty. Now that’s America


Dim Lamp said...

Interesting post. I would also say: "Now that's Canada." We have similar histories in terms of immigration from "the old country." The Scandinavian immigrants here in Canada often landed in the USA first, sometimes married there, (as did my Norwegian grandfather) then came up to Canada.

Richard Jorgensen said...

Thanks, "Lamp." We're probably cousins!

Mike said...

This is completely off-topic but I came upon your site by accident and it triggered memories:
Do you remember singing with Caryl in Rapid City, SD in 1969. I bought a copy of your album and I still play it occasionally (now converted to MP3). What happened to the music career?

Richard Jorgensen said...

Yes, I remember, and Caryl and I are still singing together. Mike who?