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Friedrich Gerstäcker and Cincinnati

Charles Adams and I are very pleased to publish this month a guest post by Dr. Tolzmann, an expert on German-American relations especially with regard to the history of Ohio. Dr. Tolzmann was inspired by our new translation of Friedrich Gerstäcker's The Arkansas Regulators, out this month from Berghahn Books. To get in touch with Dr. Tolzmann, consult his homepage at www.donheinrichtolzmann.net.

 

Gerstäcker and Cincinnati

 

Guest Post by Don Heinrich Tolzmann (Cleves, Ohio)

 

Anyone interested in Friedrich Gerstäcker will welcome the new edition of his novel The Arkansas Regulators, translated and edited by Charles Adams and Christoph Irmscher. Gerstäcker embarked from Bremerhaven, arriving in New York shortly before his twenty-first birthday on 10 May 1837, and then: "Over the next four years, he spent about thirty months in Arkansas, including two extended periods in 1839-40 and 1842." (1) And, in 1843, he returned to Germany.

 

Cincinnati References

 

While reading The Arkansas Regulators, I recalled that several of Cincinnati's German-American historians had mentioned Gerstäcker's visits to the Queen City of the West.

 

The first author to mention Gerstäcker was Emil Klauprecht, a Dreissiger who came to America after the 1832 Hambacher Fest. In his history of the German element in the Ohio Valley, published in 1864, he writes that Gerstäcker was interviewed for a position as a German teacher in the newly established German-English public schools in Cincinnati. Although he does not mention the date, this must have been by mid-1840, as the schools opened that fall. According to Klauprecht: "The schools filled so rapidly that it soon became necessary to hire more teachers. Among those candidates for a teaching position and who had passed an examination before a committee was a young man from Hamburg, whose intelligent appearance along with his garish clothes aroused attention. He wore a blue coarse striped jacket, fastened with a belt, into which were stuck a hunting knife and a tomahawk, wide trousers from the same material, and a weather-beaten, rolled-up straw hat." (2)

 

Klauprecht goes on to comment on Gerstäcker's arrival in Cincinnati and subsequent activities: "With a musket on his shoulder, he had hunted and hiked the entire distance from New York. During the years 1837-41, one after the other, he was a pharmacist's helper, a silver smith, a fire stoker on a steamer, a keeper of horses, a speculator in Arkansas cane, and he was known as one of the first to help in case of a fire. His favorite haunt was among the prairie dogs, raccoons, porcupines and owls of a small private zoo, with whose aromas, its owner, a German optician by the name of Gerhard, had filled his workshop as well as the house of the lawyer Fox on 5th Street, where the zoo was located. That candidate for a teacher's position in the local German free schools later became the famous travel writer and novelist, Friedrich Gerstäcker." (3)

 

The next Cincinnati reference to Gerstäcker comes from an article about him by H.A. Rattermann, editor of the German-American historical journal Der Deutsche Pionier. Published in 1874, his article recounts a social get-together with Gerstäcker that took place in Cincinnati on 21 August 1867, where Rattermann got to know the author. Meeting with several others who must have known him, Gerstäcker remarked on how beautiful the Queen City of the West had become, and that had he not family in Germany, he might possibly succumb to the temptation of moving to Cincinnati. (4) Read More 

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A Visit to Friedrich Gerstäcker's Study

The writer Friedrich Gerstäcker died on May 31, 1872, Braunschweig, Germany. Later that year, Die Gartenlaube, a popular periodical which had published Gerstäcker’s works, too, published an unusual obituary, remembering the famous travel writer by way of the stuff he had owned and displayed on the walls of his study. It also provided an evocative engraving featuring Gerstäcker amidst all his trophies. We offer that text here for the first time in English translation. The final plea for keeping Gerstäcker’s legacy intact is a poignant one especially today. In 2016, the city of Braunschweig refused to help maintain the Gerstäcker Museum, a shrine to the writer’s legacy, compiled by a scholar and enthusiast, Thomas Ostwald. It is now permanently closed. Here is Gerstäcker's "obituary," devoted, as he was, to his stuff:

At Home When Abroad
(from Die Gartenlaube, Heft 35, 1872)

Regarding our dear Gestäcker, it could be said that, despite his true German heart, “he was at home when abroad,” and, as his study irrefutably proves, and “abroad when at home.” Wherever his eye traveled, each of the walls in his study greeted him with a memory of the exotic folk he had visited, and of the adventures and dangers he had braved in his long peripatetic life. Many a beast that had threatened him with certain death was now a patient skeleton on his wall, watching his daily preoccupations, and many an outlandish implement on the wall could have caused him moments of terror if his skin had not been so hardened to such things. For example, right there on the left was the oar with whose help he had traversed American waters, and most fearlessly among those the Mississippi; and there we see the saddle reminding us of reckless rides across pampas and prairies; and over there are the lassos for catching horses and the hammocks for unenviable nights spent among all the flying and creeping creatures of the jungle. How deeply must he have felt at times, he who had survived so much unscathed; the long shelf of his writings tells us how conscientiously he nurtured and exploited all those memories. Even the chair and the foot of the laboring writer rested on what he had bagged during one of his hunts, and lest we forget for even one moment that it is Gerstäcker who is sitting before us at his desk, his traveling suitcase lies all packed next to him on the floor. To the viewer it seems that we shouldn’t have to wait long before Gerstäcker stops to add his trademark “if I rest, I rust” to the letter he is writing, closes his suitcase, and waves his hat for a new farewell!—But in fact the final farewell has already been said, and Gerstäcker’s “last journey” is done.—Wouldn’t it be sad if those decorations, as wild as they are valuable, assembled by such a unique hand from such far-flung locations, were to be sold and dispersed in all directions? Shouldn’t there be a friend somewhere of such inestimable treasures of cultural and historical value who would take them in their entirety? Such an acquisition would not only bring all those things but also, most importantly, honor to your home.

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It’s Not the Size But the Angle: Friedrich Gerstäcker and Karl May

Our new translation of Friedrich Gerstäcker’s frontier novel The Arkansas Regulators, out in January from Berghahn Books, sheds new light also on what is perhaps the most curious publishing phenomenon in the history of western literature, the novels of the prolific German writer Karl May (1842-1912). Gerstäcker was a major inspiration and influence behind May’s works. But unlike Gerstäcker, May had not been to the United States when he wrote his western fantasies, which involved such iconic characters as the intrepid frontier hero “Old Shatterhand” (his alter ego) or Winnetou, the noble Apache chief, which are still familiar to most German children.

Karl May was born in Elsental, Saxony, on 15 February 1842, as the fifth of fourteen children of a dirt-poor weaver and his overwhelmed wife. Nine of his brothers and sisters died in infancy. He trained to be a teacher but was arrested for petty theft—or as he liked to call it, “an honest mistake”—and promptly lost his job. May spent time in prison also for more serious offenses, such as impersonating a doctor and a policeman, theft, robbery… the list continues. One of his tricks involved dropping in on unsuspecting families, telling them that he was a secret agent who had come to inspect the cash they kept in the house cash they kept in the house, and then declaring some or all of the money counterfeit—which is why it had to be confiscated. While on the lam, May even spent some time living in an actual cave, near Hohenstein-Ernstthal, a place now sacred to millions of fans. Read More 

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Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann Photographs Friedrich Gerstäcker

Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann (1815-1901), Porträt des Schriftstellers Friedrich Gerstäcker, 1850s, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, Inv. Nr. F/2672/2003

Sometime in the 1850s, Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann, by all accounts the world’s first important professional photographer and definitely the first female one, had an unusual visitor in her Leipzig studio. Likely, Wehnert-Beckmann had heard of the man who now stood before her, slightly unkempt, his hair windswept, and clearly ill at ease. She might have even read his two bestselling novels about the American West, Die Regulatoren in Arkansas (1846) and Die Flußpiraten des Mississippi (1847). If so, she would have liked the almost photographic precision with which he had documented life on the American frontier.

Regardless, when Friedrich Gerstäcker showed up on her doorstep, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The finished daguerreotype, now in the collections of the Stadtmuseum Leipzig, reveals why she was such a sought-after portraitist. By asking Gerstäcker turn to the left, looking at some undefined object off the camera, she not only made his thinning curly hair appear fuller than it seems in most other images, she also lessened the effect of his haunting, almost crazed stare, hard to bear for the viewer who has to meet it upfront. The pose lends respectability and weight to Gerstäcker’s appearance. It helped matters that he was dressed relatively neatly, wearing a kind of hunting coat and a tie, tucked elegantly into a light-colored vest.

As portraits go, this was a fairly standard image. What is not so standard are the two people involved, the eccentric sitter as well as his similarly unconventional photographer. Born in Cottbus, Germany, in 1815, Bertha Beckmann learned her trade in Prague. In 1845, she married the Leipzig photographer Eduard Wehnert, who died only two years later, leaving Wehnert-Beckmann to run her husband’s studio by herself. For reasons that remain unclear, she emigrated to New York in 1849, opening studios at 62 White Street and later at 385 Broadway. In 1851—again, nobody knows why—she closed her shop and returned to her previous haunts at Burgstrasse 8 in Leipzig, where she continued to work until she was in her later sixties. A staggering number of images (over 4,000) can be attributed to her, among them the first known erotic photograph, a double portrait of two partially clad young women, one reclining on a chaise longue, the other cowering in front her—separate yet, the viewer is supposed to believe, united in their dreams.  Read More 

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Audubon's Haiti

I had a fantastic time last weekend at the magnificent Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, as the invited speaker for the celebration of John James Audubon's 233rd birthday. It never felt more relevant to remind people that Audubon was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue), and that Haiti shaped his art and his thinking in ways that still remain to be discovered. Looking through Audubon's books art the museum, I found a marginal note in his copy of ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte's works, where Audubon refers to himself proudly as "J.A. born in Santo Domingue." And he underlines it, too. A very moving moment.  Read More 

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Kurt Delbanco Paints Max Eastman

by Christoph Irmscher

(from Face to Face,
published by the National Portrait Gallery, November 7, 2017)

In 1968, one year before his death, during a period in his life already overshadowed by intense anxiety and mounting health problems, the writer and poet Max Eastman sat for the painter Kurt Delbanco. Eastman’s eighth-floor apartment, where his wife Yvette continued to live until she died in 2011, with its high ceilings and large windows, was perfect for the occasion. There would have been ample light, and the New York traffic would have been never more than a distant rumble, sirens, blaring car horns, the shouts of passersby muffled into pleasant indistinctness, faint reminders of a world that had become increasingly irrelevant to Eastman.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two men: the sociable, quirky, round-faced and cheerful Kurt, a “practical optimist,” in his own words, who charmed all who met him, and the occasionally self-righteous, often brooding, and permanently disappointed ex-socialist Max. Through Kurt’s son Nicholas, a novelist Max had taken under his wings, the two men had become friends. When you take someone’s portrait, too much familiarity can be an obstacle, a photographer friend of mine once told me when I had asked him for exactly that favor. Portraits are complicated transactions, to be sure, first between the artist and the sitter, but also between the viewer and the portrait itself. Mental or actual, a portrait is an intellectual process. Proust’s narrator, in Swann’s Way, observes: “We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him . . . they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope.” In the end, Proust suggests, it is our own ideas of a person that we recognize when we see his or her face portrayed, a face from which we leach particular and unique distinction.  Read More 

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"Wipe Thy Self": Audubon's Mysterious Ledger

(republished from the Blog of the Lilly Library)
In spring 2016, the Lilly Library acquired a handsome ledger bound in sturdy marble-covered boards. Dubbed the “Audubon Ledger” by bookseller Donald Heald, volume had been in the possession of Audubon’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Audubon McCormick until it was sold at Sotheby’s on January 26, 1983. The earliest entry in the book dates from December 10, 1842; the latest was made on February 14, 1844.

The Audubon Ledger is a treasure trove for the scholar: it is chock-full with lists documenting Audubon’s income and expenditures as he was finishing work on the Royal Octavo edition of Birds of America (1840-1844) and beginning to launch his new venture, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Eight pages of draft letters, all in the handwriting of Audubon’s son Victor Gifford, add to the documentary value of the collection. But the Ledger has something else to offer too, something more unexpected. Among the 70-plus pages of lists we find an example of a different kind of bookkeeping, a mysterious page-long aside, in Audubon’s own handwriting, consisting of nothing but a stream of words, slathered on the page in no apparent order and, it seems, with near-complete disregard to meaning. Complete sentences are the exception rather than the rule.  Read More 

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Cramer's The Narrow Edge

Here is my new review of Deborah Cramer's splendid book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, & an Epic Journey, just out from Yale University Press. Cramer combines an intensely personal account of following the journey of this small bird with a wide-ranging reflection on how the loss of one species will affect the survival of our species, too. Read More 

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Darwin and Wallace

Here is my recent review of James Costa's Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species in the Weekly Standard.

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Reconsidering Longfellow

February 27, 2014, was Longfellow's 207th birthday--a good occasion to remember one of the world's most popular poets (and still one of the most musical in the English language). There are other reasons to celebrate him today: Longfellow supported women writers, was a committed pacifist as well as an unabashed cosmopolite--he spoke nine languages fluently and was able to read a dozen more. As he saw it, American literature, to be credible at all, had to become international, an antidote to what he regarded as the literary parochialism of his literary contemporaries. Not coincidentally, he was also the first major American writer to publish a collection of anti-slavery poems. Slavery made, he said, "every drop of blood" in him "quiver." He supported the Underground Railroad financially and castigated his fellow citizens for arresting fugitive slaves: "Dirty work for a country that is so loud about freedom as us." Fairleigh Dickinson Press marked Longfellow's birthday with the first collection of essays entirely devoted to the Cambridge poet in several decades, Reconsidering Longfellow, edited by Christoph Irmscher and Robert Arbour: ten original essays that cover the entire range of Longfellow's work, from the early poetry to the long poems of the middle period to his Chaucerian collection published after the Civil War, Tales of a Wayside Inn. Separate chapters deal with Longfellow's interest in the visual arts and the use of his poetry in the modern classroom. For more information, click on the link to your left. Read More 

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