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Catalog Archive / Fall 2023

As Legend Has It
History, Heritage, and the Construction of Swedish American Identity

“Arguing convincingly that historical legends are fundamental components of a selective, often self-congratulatory, ‘useable past,’ Attebery reminds us that these stories buttress inarguably contemporary heritage claims. An original contribution to a neglected, important topic.”
—James P. Leary, University of Wisconsin–Madison

A study of identity construction through historical legend

Spanning more than 100 years of Swedish American local history in the Midwest and the West, Jennifer Eastman Attebery’s thorough examination of nearly 300 historical legends explores how Swedish Americans employ these narratives in creating, debating, and maintaining group identity. She demonstrates that historical legends can help us better understand how immigrant groups in general, and Swedish Americans in particular, construct and perpetuate a sense of ethnicity as broader notions of nationality, race, and heritage shift over time.

The legends Swedish Americans tell about their past are both similar to and distinct from those of others who migrated westward; they participated in settler colonialism while maintaining a sense of their specific, Swedish ethnicity. Unlike racial minority groups, Swedish Americans could claim membership in a majority white community without abandoning their cultural heritage. Their legends and local histories reflect that positioning. Attebery reveals how Swedish American legends are embedded within local history writing, how ostension and rhetoric operate in historical legends, and how vernacular local history writing works in tandem with historical legends to create a common message about a communal past. This impeccably researched study points to ways in which legends about the past possess qualities unique to their subgenre yet can also operate similarly to contemporary legends in their social impact.


Jennifer Eastman Attebery. Jennifer Eastman Attebery, professor emerita of English at Idaho State University, is the author of Pole Raising and Speech Making: Modalities of Swedish-American Summer Celebration and Up in the Rocky Mountains: Writing the Swedish Immigrant Experience.




“A sophisticated and sharp-eyed take on the vexed and complicated presentation of heritage, story, and community in Swedish American local history writing. Illuminating the ongoing political importance of historical legends, Attebery deftly analyzes their patterns and omissions in a way that is profoundly needed in an America too often marked by the erasure of the experiences of its BIPOC citizens.”
—Jeanne Banks Thomas, Utah State University

“Sophisticated. . . . It provides a rich methodology for working with local vernacular histories, it reveals the role of the folkloric in such histories, and it shows how a deep, critical engagement with these works can create insights that resonate to our present day.”
Journal of Folklore Research Reviews

“A great example of how personal, family, and community history can reveal how broader discourses and ideas underpin the making of local heritage. . . . Attebery’s impressive work should definitely be on the reading list of all folklorists and historians interested in how cultural heritage is constructed.”
Journal of Nordic Migration Research



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Table of Contents

Preface: Historical Legend Is Living Legend

Introduction: The Cultural Work of Heritage
Chapter 1: What Is Historical Legend?
Chapter 2: Swedish American Local History Writing
Chapter 3: Reading Texts within Texts
Chapter 4: The Content of Swedish American Historical Legends
Chapter 5: Rhetoric: Community Claims about the Shared Past
Chapter 6: Ostension: Acting on the Shared Past
Chapter 7: Critique: Historical Legend and Local History as Useable Pasts
Coda: Heritage as Emergent Culture

Works Cited


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November 2023
236 pp. 6 x 9

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Cloth $79.95 S
ISBN 9780299344702
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