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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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