Review of Book on German-North American Ethnicity

Barbara Lorenzkowski, Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850-1914. Studies in Immigration and Culture 3. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-88755-716-3
In this finely crafted cultural history of ethnicity, historian Barbara Lorenzkowski explores the making of German-Canadian and German-American identities between 1850 and 1914. Using the local and regional press as well as other sources, she investigates how people in the transnational Great Lakes borderlands between Waterloo, Ontario and Buffalo, New York used German music and language as sites of ethnicity as an everyday practice. Unlike anthropologist Frederick Barth, Lorenzkowski does not set out to trace a pre-defined group’s establishment and maintenance of ethnic boundaries; rather, following Rogers Brubaker, she explores men’s and women’s actions as a transcultural praxis of “doing” or “enacting ethnicity” (6-7). Writings about language instruction and pedagogy (part one) as well as singers festivals (part two) help us understand a transcultural world of German sounds – both spoken and sung language. Taken together, the case studies trace the development of the culture and politics of language and music across six decades.
Reading through decades of the Berliner Journal, the main German-language paper in southern Ontario in the sixty years before the Great War, Lorenzkowski identifies the editors and journalists as “self-proclaimed guardians” of German language who, although bemoaning German-Canadians’ continual language “loss” and German-English mixing, unwittingly helped preserve some of this vernacular of the time (chapter 1). The journalists held the same convictions as some of the local businessmen, German teachers, and clergy. Lorenzkowski admits that her focus is on the middle-class and in particular on the (male) “ethnic gatekeepers” whose outlook was conservative and increasingly nationalistic. Sources other than those created by middle-class teachers and pedagogues, politicians, and journalists are rarely available. Yet, indirectly, these sources shed light on popular, working-class sounds of German ethnicity through the language guardians’ complaints about unrefined music and impure German language.
The ethnic guardians of German language were conservative in their aspirations but, especially when it came to language instruction (chapters 2 and 3), modern and progressive in their methods and rhetorical strategies. Motivated by the desire to retain German culture through German migrants’ ability to speak “pure” high German, they re-cast German as a modern language of culture and science that would benefit every Canadian and American, not only those of German heritage. They adopted progressive teaching methods that focused on the child and communicative language skills. In both countries, teachers and other language guardians bemoaned parents’ and children’s disinterest in the German language. They lamented the fact that while German was still spoken in private and public in Berlin and Buffalo, it had become a hybrid of German and English. One of the strengths of these chapters is that Lorenzkowski here paves a new path to studying ethnicity and language in terms of hybridity and cultural agency rather than language decline and loss.
Singing in nineteenth-century North America was not simply a form of entertainment. It was a multifaceted public performance of ethnicity, infused with the political aspirations of reformers and revolutionaries who had escaped into American exile after the failed German revolutions of 1848-49, and shaped by the expectations of diverse audiences. German men and women sang often and in many different contexts, be it at home, in church, or in public. Lorenzkowski focuses on the latter, and in its organized form of singing associations that formed all-male and mixed choirs. Music, more so than the spoken word, worked as a bridge rather than a border; singing could be enjoyed and practiced without knowing German. Thus, in Buffalo in 1860, thousands of North Americans – of German and many other backgrounds – gathered at a Singers’ Festival to hear dozens of formal and informal performances, culminating in a choir of 500 men singing German classics (chapter 4). Ten years later, singing, performing, and parading again were at centre stage as Berlin and Buffalo hosted peace jubilees to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian war and, at a time of increasing nationalism, Germany’s victory over France (chapter 5).
Male bourgeois German-American and German-Canadian gatekeepers fantasized that the new German unity would also lead to unity among German migrants. Here, Lorenzkowski carefully teases out the gendering and ethnicization of “German” “national” symbolism and rhetoric. While much more modest in the public display of their culture than their American “brethren,” German-Canadians in the Waterloo region boasted of their love to the Fatherland much more confidently than their cousins across the border, who felt compelled to clearly demonstrate their loyalty to American values and the American nation. The cross-border differences only increased as German-American society in Buffalo grew not only in size but also in class differences. From the 1880s to the outbreak of the First World War, singers’ festivals in Buffalo became an upper-middle and upper-class event that sought to discipline both people and culture, silencing audiences into the quiet and increasingly expensive appreciation of classical German music as high art (chapter 7). In Berlin, in contrast, the singers’ festivals continued to be the popular pastime of the lower middle and middle classes that enjoyed the lager beer and mirth at least as much as the popular folk tunes of their old home (chapter 6).
The abundance of male bourgeois sources, especially newspaper reports, allows for a rich depiction of male, urban, bourgeois ethnic culture – both imagined and lived – and throws spotlights on more marginalized groups’ experiences. It also demonstrates that we need to look for other sources if we want to better understand how women, workers, and rural folk “enacted ethnicity” in their everyday lives. Lorenzkowski must be applauded for writing a rich cultural history of German ethnicity in North America and developing a new and exciting path for future research.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg