Charles Sealsfield and German American Literature
Charles Sealsfield and German American Literature
A New Country, A New Literature. With an increase in German immigration during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, especially to the Midwest territories, a stream of German American travel literature began. Some accounts celebrated the democratic ideals of the new country, but others found Americans to be “philistines … scoundrels all, who in their horrible vacuity cannot conceive that there can be any gods higher than those struck in mint.” Travel accounts eventually gave way to fiction. Friedrich Armand Strubberg, hunter, soldier, rancher, and physician, published sensational novels including Sklaverei in Amerika (1862). During the 1850s Friedrich Gerstacker became the most popular German American novelist. His best-known work is Nach Amerika! (1855), a realistic account of a group of German Americans traveling up the Mississippi. Otto Ruppius worked as a journalist in New York City and St. Louis. Heinrich Balduin Mollhausen, sometimes called the “German Cooper,” served as artist and topographer on expeditions charting trans-continental railway routes; he recorded his adventures in more than fifty novels and travel books.
Sealsfield. The first significant German American writer to devote himself to fiction was Charles Sealsfield. Sealsfield’s great theme was the movement of American civilization from the East to the West. Western literary scholars regard him as one of the earliest of Western writers. Sealsfield was born Karl Anton Postl in 1793 in Popitz, a small village in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had taken his vows as a monk and was serving in a Bohemian monastery when, in 1823, he immigrated to America, escaping an increasingly repressive political atmosphere. His 1828 travel book, Americans as They Are, describes his travels through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Sealsfield’s first novel, Tokeah; or the White Rose (1829), is set against the backdrop of the War of 1812 and traces the adventures of a young white girl raised by Tokeah, chief of the Oconee Indians. Reviewers compared the novel to James Fenimore Cooper’s most successful work, and indeed, both Tokeah and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) deal with Indians’ fight for survival against the tide of American civilization. Some twentieth-century readers have seen Sealsfield as a sympathetic observer and early champion of Indian rights; others have read this sensitivity as a sentimental lament for the “Vanishing American,” a stock character in novels that often celebrated American expansion.
The Cabin Book . Sealsfield’s most famous novel is The Cabin Book, among the first “Texas” novels in American literature. Written in 1841 but first published in America in 1844, the novel consists of five different stories told at a dinner party. The stories revolve around the fictional history of Edward N. Morse, Texan settler and independence fighter. Sealsfield’s storytellers see the fight for Texan independence as fulfilling the spirit of the American Revolution. The East, in their view, has become corrupt, but “in the prairie … a different light starts shining inside you than in your big cities; after all, your cities are constructed by humans, are polluted by human breath; the prairie, however, is made by God.” Sealsfield’s vision of Western regeneration extended globally; other stories in the novel concern Irish and Latin American struggles for independence. Sealsfield’s
other major work was Life in the New World (first American edition, 1844), a cycle of five novels narrated by George Howard and a variety of Western storytellers. The cycle follows Howard as he moves from New York City into the frontier, surveying all strata of Western and Southwestern society. Howard finds that life in the West is perhaps more simple and primitive than in the East, but at the same time, more egalitarian and honest. On the frontier, Howard claims, “the points of social position touch each other; and, by continual contact, smooth each other’s harsh and rough corners.” Such egalitarianism did not extend to African American slaves, however. Two of the five volumes of Life in the New World deal with the issue of slavery, and while Sealsfield acknowledges that the frontier could not have been won without the help of slaves, slavery is portrayed as a positive good; he depicts bondsmen as ignorant and in need of care by their paternal masters.
“America’s Most Famous Author.” Sealsfield’s work is unfamiliar to most contemporary students of American and Western literature, but in the nineteenth century he was quite popular. Like Cooper, he celebrated a frontier that was, in the 1840s (the height of Sealsfield’s popularity), already receding. His voice contributed to the heated debate surrounding Texan independence, sometimes tapping into anti-Catholic and anti-Mexican feelings that were prevalent at the time. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spent entire evenings reading “our favorite Sealsfield” and reread the Louisiana portions of Life in the New World while working on Evangeline. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe acknowledged (and resented) Sealsfield’s popular success, and later writers such as William Gilmore Simms, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mayne Reid were influenced by Sealsfield’s work. It was with some justification that Sealsfield, till the end of his life, claimed to be “America’s Most Famous Author.”