Thursday, March 12, 2009

Goethe and America

I've been so busy lately that I haven't had an opportunity to continue my Dornburg postings. Maybe tomorrow.
Tonight Ellis Shookman, of the German department at Dartmouth, will be speaking at the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, of which I am chair. His topic: "Attitudes toward America in Christoph Martin Wieland's  Journal Der Teutsche Merkur in the Years 1775 to 1807." These were the years in which we were forming into a nation, and the Germans seem to have been very interested in what was going on here.  I tried to get Ellis to speak at the Seminar in October, in the month before the U.S. presidential election, but his teaching schedule didn't allow him to get to New York before now.

In Goethe's early drama Stella, Lucie says that her father died on a business trip to America. In truth, he abandoned his wife and daughter, but America was apparently deemed far enough to prevent people from inquiring more closely. In Poetry and Truth, Goethe wrote that America was "the El Dorado of those who found themselves discommoded by their immediate situation" (das Eldorado derjenigen, die in ihrer augenblicklichen Lage sich bedrängt fanden). (I couldn't help myself using that word "discommoded"; actually, bedrängt means "pressured.")

Goethe of course followed contemporary political events, as I indicated in an earlier post about his interest in the Greek wars of independence. America's war of independence presented an alternative to the events of the French Revolution, and in Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship Lothario plans social and political reforms that will lead to a nonviolent transition from feudalism. The Journeyman Years features an emigration to America to found a utopian colony. (The above map shows areas of highest 18th-century German emigration.) My recent essay in Arion on William Wetmore Story has much to say about Goethe and relations between the "Old" and "New" world.

Many Americans visited Goethe in Weimar, but one of the most important mediators of Goethe's influence in the U.S. was the phenomenal Margaret Fuller. She translated Eckermann's conversations and wrote many essays on Goethe (and also of German Romantic literature) for The Dial.

The image of Goethe on a park bench in not from the U.S., though it reminds me of many such contemporary urban sculptures. It is by Klaus Glutting and can be found in Ilmenau.

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