German Scholarship

views updated


During the latter half of the eighteenth century, readers in New England and the other seaboard colonies enjoyed German popular literature and political-historical treatises, which were available in the original as well as in translation. Often such literature was pietistic, mystical, and moralistic or religious. The fascination with the rationalistic philosophies of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) ran parallel to an interest in the biographies of such figures as Frederick the Great (1712–1786), ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, who had challenged the English intellectual base. Friedrich Klopstock's Der Messias (1773) was repeatedly published in American magazines. Christoph Wieland's Oberon (1780) and the tales of Baron Munchausen earned a place in juvenile and humorous literature. Exemplary Sturm und Drang works such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), by Johann von Goethe (1749–1832), were translated frequently and read widely, though the movement itself was misunderstood. Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was undoubtedly the most popular German writer this side of the Atlantic, beginning with his Robbers (1781), available in British translations, and continuing to his Kabale und Liebe (1784) and Don Carlos (1787) in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1800 translation. Schiller's dramas about political freedom evoked the sympathy of American readers and theatergoers. August Kotzebue's Menschen und Reue (1789) garnered broad audiences, as did Miss Sara Sampson (1755) and Emilia Galotti (1772), by Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781). From the Romantic period, the poignant works of E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) were an object of fascination. These writers exerted a moderate German literary influence on American writing.

Between 1797 and 1815, the English blockade on the high seas and the war-torn exchanges between the youthful United States and Germany resulted in a waning of this influence, but it reawakened during the post-Napoleonic period beginning in 1820. Later, the revolutions of 1848 triggered the migration of thousands of German intellectuals to America, who prepared the way for the reception of German literature and art on the American scene. Despite a certain puritanical bias on the part of American readers, respect for German poetry and letters in general grew with the political rise of Prussia and further increased in 1870 when unification of the Reich was achieved thanks to Prussia's military prowess.


Several factors facilitated the flow of ideas and writing between Germany and the United States. One was the presence of young American students at German universities. Shortly after 1800, during the Napoleonic wars, universities such as those founded by the intellectual giants Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin gained the world's admiration for their excellence. Harvard men such as George Ticknor (1791–1871), Edward E. Everett (1794–1865), Joseph Cogswell (1786–1871), George Bancroft (1800–1891), and others arrived in Germany to study. In the words of the president of Harvard, John Thornton Kirkland (1778–1840), who engineered scholarships for them, each was to become "an accomplished philologian and Biblical critic, able to expound and defend the Revelation of God" (Pochmann, p. 73). As is the custom in German universities even today, soon after their arrival, these students scattered to other schools. Bancroft left Göttingen for Berlin in 1820, commenting that learning in Germany was done too earnestly, that the scholar was too diligent, that Germany made too much of science and too little of the scientist, and that the whole process was too coldly calculating and impersonal (Pochmann, p. 74). In Berlin Bancroft pursued philological studies under August Böchk, Hermann Hirt, and G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), and heard lectures by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Savigny, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt discussed John Milton, Goethe, Schiller, August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Friedrich von Schlegel, and German literature in general. Twice Bancroft visited Goethe in Weimar.

Throughout their subsequent careers in America, the strong leaven of German culture made these young Americans champions of German scholarship and ideas. They became at once pathfinders in American cultural endeavors and effective agents for the infusion of German ideas. Bancroft's historical writings were inspired by Hegel's philosophy of history, which set the pattern for American historiography, earning him the title "Father of American History."

Prominent German intellectuals received appointments to prestigious universities in the United States. Karl (known in the United States as Charles) Follen (1795–1840) was appointed to Harvard and Georg Blättermann (1788–1850) to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Scholars have dwelled on Blättermann's influence on Edgar Allan Poe, who studied under him at Virginia (Pochmann, p. 710). In Richmond, the Virginia legislature mandated German university traditions recommended by Alexander von Humboldt in his lengthy correspondence with Thomas Jefferson; in Massachusetts and in the nation as a whole, the efforts of Horace Mann (1796–1859), the father of American education, on behalf of a public, nonsectarian school system set the tone for American state-funded education.

Mann believed that the Prussian public school system was the solution to the growing social problems of America: it would create a more homogenous population of compliant workers who shared similar opinions and values. It would tame the wild West and settle a restive population. He began proselytizing for compulsory public education, particularly among leaders of industry, suggesting that if they could bring their political influence to bear they could work toward a solution to society's problems while at the same time getting better workers for their factories.


Perhaps the most important influence exerted by German intellectualism on the American literary scene flowed through New England transcendentalism. Ideals generated by German Romanticism (1797–1832) percolated easily into the writing and thought processes of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), even though they were filtered through English writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Kant's theories were transmitted especially through Carlyle. Orestes Brownson (1803–1876) delved into the transcendentalism of the time in an article published in the Christian Examiner in 1834. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) sought to implement tenets of that philosophy in schools of his native rural Connecticut, whereas Elizabeth Peabody (1804–1894) and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) tried to put similar notions into practice in elementary education. Later, with the help of Theodore Parker and others, the transcendentalist movement expanded into an abolitionist force, drawing on ideals imbibed from the philosophies of German predecessors.

Karl Follen and another immigrant, Carl Beck (1798–1866), were influential in propagating the German craze, as it was called by those who opposed Germanism in American culture (Pochmann, p. 127). Follen was dismissed from a lectureship at the University of Jena in central Germany for his participation in the Burschenschaftenbewegung, a march by German university students in 1817, on the third centennial of the Lutheran revolt, to the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. The movement spawned by these students later fostered the revolutions of 1848. Follen was threatened by reactionaries and finally left for America. In 1825 he began lecturing at Harvard on topics ranging from jurisprudence to the theories of education of Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi, coupled with gymnastics training, or Turnkunst, as promoted by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn. Follen married the daughter of a prominent family, Eliza Lee Cabot, which provided him access to the social elite of Boston and advanced his professional career. He was eventually granted a full professorship at Harvard.

Carl Beck, two years younger than Follen, had studied in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Tübingen before coming to America, where he soon became director of the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts. Like Follen, Beck promoted Jahn's Turnkunst and in 1830 opened schools in Philipstown on the Hudson, opposite West Point. Later he became professor of Latin at Harvard.


Two additional distinguished immigrants with paramount influence on American thought and literature were Friedrich List and Francis Lieber. List (1789–1846) made his mark in economic theory with his Outlines of American Political Economy (1827), which gained fame for defining the "American System," a high-tariff program to make the United States thrive in the face of stiff English competition in world trade. Lieber (1800–1872) became especially well known for his thirteen-volume Encyclopaedia Americana, which appeared between 1829 and 1833. Not since Thomas Paine had an author achieved such literary respect in America. In his subsequent Manual of Political Ethics (1838–1839), Lieber propounded Kant's political philosophy. Emerson credited Lieber with breaking down the American view that German scholarship produced little more than uninspired dictionaries. Lieber, said Emerson, was "at once man thinking and man acting" (Pochmann, p. 127).


As the nineteenth century progressed, German literary works in translation began to appear in American libraries. Adelbert von Chamisso's (1781–1838) character Peter Schlemihl and Friedrich de la MotteFouqué's Undine in turn inspired folkloric and water spirit figures in American literature. Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) made his way to America through the appreciative efforts of the British writers Matthew Arnold and George Eliot. As entertainment and conversational material, however, the German novel never matched the expectations of the critics, though many light and entertaining books were serialized in American newspapers. In the American South, George Calvert (1803–1889) exerted considerable effort introducing German literature to American readers. After graduating from Harvard, Calvert had lived in Göttingen from January 1824 until September 1825 and had visited with A. W. von Schlegel, the historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr, and other German writers. He had also visited Goethe in Weimar. Calvert's translation of Schiller's Don Carlos appeared in 1834. He also published treatises and correspondence between Goethe, Jean Paul, and A. W. von Schlegel. Other German authors were introduced to the American literary scene in the ante-bellum period by the transcendentalist Unitarian ministers Samuel Osgood, George Ripley, Cyrus A. Bartol, Frederic Henry Hedge, Nathaniel L. Frothingham, and others. The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, Western Messenger, The Dial, Harbinger, North American Review, New Englander, Century, Harper's, and other journals published their reviews and critical commentary.

Bayard Taylor's powerful translation of Faust in 1870 was a major achievement and was soon followed by others: John Weiss's translation of Westöstlicher Divan (1877) and Charles Eliot Norton's editions of correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle (1877). Goethe societies and Goethe schools—for example, those founded by the St. Louis Hegelians—sprang up in cities where German immigration had swelled the population. Monuments, street names, and parks paid homage to Goethe in various cities where his works had been read or performed on stage and where he was honored as a poet. During the Civil War, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing came into his own among American writers with his drama of tolerance, Nathan der Weise (1779), partly because of the American race question then being fought over. A translation of Lessing's Laokoon (1766) appeared to positive reviews in 1867, following on the heels of E. P. Evans's translation of Adolph Stahr's two-volume Lessing: His Life and His Works. Works by Jean Paul (Richter), depicted as the "healthiest" of the German romantics, were translated in the 1860s by Charles T. Brooks.


Prominent German writers in the early nineteenth century created sharp images of America. Portrayals by Schiller in his Kabale und Liebe, in which he describes the fate of the Hessian soldiers, and by Goethe, who depicts willing emigrants in his Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–1796), contrast sharply with those in Ferdinand Kürnberger's Amerikamüde. While Schiller and Goethe romanticize the political "freedom" the emigrant to America would enjoy, Kürnberger dwells on the new arrival's loss of economic status, emotional support, and cultural identity. The title of his novel refers to someone who is sick and tired of the American experience.

Friedrich Gerstäcker's Nach America (1855) and the novels of Charles Sealsfield (the pseudonym of Karl Postl, 1793–1864) were more widely read. Postl published many novels between 1828 and about 1850, several of which, including Das Cajütenbuch (1841), had a strong impact on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), according to that writer. Otto Ruppius (1819–1864), a refugee who came to America in 1848, worked as a journalist in New York and Saint Louis, producing novellas such as Der Pedlar (c. 1857) in his spare time. Friedrich Armand Strubberg (1806–1889), a hunter and soldier who used the pen name "Armand," turned out thrillers such as Sklaverei in Amerika (1862) and Der Sprung vom Niagarafälle (1864) that were popular for a time. Heinrich Baldwin Möllhausen (1825–1905) sometimes merited the title of the "German James Fenimore Cooper": he was more an adventure seeker than a refugee. His novels were readily translated into English. Robert Reitzel (1849–1898) was a publicist of note who propagandized in radical German fashion for Sozialdemokratie, Arbeiterbewegung, Turnerei, and Freimännerei before hunkering down with his Detroit literary weekly, Der arme Teufel.

Writers in the German dialect of Pennsylvania can be credited with a minor influence. Phebe Earle Gibbons (1821–1893), for example, wrote between 1845 and 1882 and published a novel in 1869. Authors of a separatist or pietistic orientation had considerable influence on American literature and on music and art. Large collections of hymns and other religious works were produced by Germans from Pennsylvania to South Carolina and Georgia, appearing notably in the diaries of Moravian missionaries. In addition, there is considerable travel literature that indirectly influenced the American literary mind-set.

Did German literary writers make a significant contribution to American literature? Genuinely German American novelists such as Theodore Dreiser (Jennie Gerhardt, 1911), Willa Cather (O Pioneers! 1913), or Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920), while sympathetic to the German immigrant, can hardly be said to have been influenced by German writers. These classic American novelists wrote rather about the German immigrant but never attributed their style or production to the masters of German literature. Thus the effects of German learning (especially literary theory and the "higher criticism" of the Bible) on literary production in the United States is tangential. Even in the case of transcendentalism, it is difficult to say how German literary theory may have affected American literature. That is even more true for Sturm und Drang, classicism, Romanticism, and Jung Deutschland.

See alsoThe Bible; Literary Criticism; Philosophy; Religion; Transcendentalism


Secondary Works

Bauschinger, Sigrid. The Trumpet of Reform: GermanLiterature in Nineteenth-Century New England. Translated by Thomas S. Hansen. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

Bickman, Martin. "An Overview of American Transcendentalism."

Brooks, Van Wyck, and Otto L. Bettmann. Our LiteraryHeritage: A Pictorial History of the Writer in America. New York: Dutton, 1956.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. 1907–1921. Vols. 5, 8, and 14. New York: Bartleby, 2000.

Flanagan, J. T. "The German in American Fiction." In In the Trek of the Immigrants, Essays Presented to Carl Wittke, edited by O. Fritiof Ander, pp. 95–113. Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana College Library, 1964.

Galinsky, Hans. "Germany's Literary Impact on America's Contemporary South (1950–1980)." In A Conversation in the Life of Leland R. Phelps: America and Germany—Literature, Art, and Music, edited by Frank L. Borchardt and Marion C. Salinger. Durham, N.C.: Duke University, Center for International Studies, 1987.

Galinsky, Hans. "Three Literary Perspectives on the German in America: Immigrant, Homeland, and American Views." In Eagle in the New World: German Immigration to Texas and America, edited by Theodore Gish and Richard Spuler, pp. 102–131. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986.

Galinsky, Hans. "Zwei Jahrhunderte amerikanisch-deutsche Literaturbeziehungen (1776–1976)." Nassauische Annalen 89 (1978): 49–77.

Hartmann, Thom. "The 'Real School' Is Not Free."

Herminghouse, Patricia A., ed. Gustav Phillip Körner, DasDeutsche Element in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, 1818–1848. Facsimile reprint. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Merrill, Peter G. German-American Urban Culture: Writers and Theaters in Early Milwaukee. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2000.

Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America:Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600–1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

Schaff, Philip. America, A Sketch of Its Political, Social, andReligious Character. 1854. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Spiller, Robert E., et al., eds. Literary History of the UnitedStates. 1946. 2 vols. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Vogel, Stanley M. German Literary Influences on theAmerican Transcendentalists. New Haven, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970.

Wendell, Barrett. A Literary History of America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900.

LaVern J. Rippley