Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Goethe and America

"Flourishing Tomahawk," by N.C. Wyeth (1925)
 Between his youth and his older years America became of more interest to Goethe. Ernst Beutler, as I mentioned in the preceding post, traces this transformation in the early article "Von der Ilm zum Susquehanna: Goethe und Amerika in ihren Wechselbeziehungen." The most manifest indication of this interest is the Wilhelm Meister series, not in the Theatrical Mission, in which America is not mentioned at all, but initially in the Apprenticeship ("Amerika [wird] als Widerspiel von Europa eingeflochten"), then more fully in the Journeyman Years. Goethe wrote the first two at the end of the 18th century, the last in the 19th. By then, the U.S. had become an independent nation, and the world itself (the European world, in any case) had entered a new era, that of "Welthändel." Many Germans left their homeland and emigrated to the other side of the Atlantic. Beutler is also of the opinion that Goethe lost his trust in the "Old World." He despaired of Europe's capacity to adapt to the machine-and-masses future. He began to see that the future belonged to the "New World," in particular the U.S.

What struck me most was Goethe's positive view of America. Already in the late 18th century, America was viewed unfavorably by most of his contemporaries. I posted earlier about Ellis Shookman's article "Attitudes to North America in Wieland's Teutscher Merkur." Germans had many aspirations for the new republic, but as soon as it came into being the carping began, with the usual suspects decrying Americans' commercialism and lack of culture. Goethe seems to have been more influenced by the account of Prince Bernhard, the second son of Carl August, who traveled for a year in the U.S., from July 1825 to June 1826. It goes without saying that most of the people Prince Bernhard encountered were of high rank, including the second President Adams. The prince's portrayal of America charmed Goethe so much that he began reading Fenimore Cooper's novels, six of them in English, at the age of 76!

If the young Goethe had looked to the classical past, to Italy, the older Goethe looked toward the future. He recognized in America a world power in nuce. This is clear from his comments on the Panama Canal, which he was sure the U.S. would build. (This was indeed the case, though not until later in the century and certainly not as Goethe envisaged.) Speaking with Eckermann in 1827, he said that the U.S. should not let the opportunity pass it by: "It can be foreseen that this youthful nation, with its determined tendency toward the West, will in thirty to forty years have taken possession of and populated the great regions on the other side of the mountain ranges." He further predicted that large trading cities would be built on the Pacific coast, extending trade to China and the East Indies. How accurate he was!

Prince Bernhard's travel account also included his visit to a Moravian settlement on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where the prince was overjoyed at hearing German spoken all day long. Thus, Goethe sent his band of emigrants to seek their fortune in America. While so many have come here to make their fortune, to pursue dreams that could not be realized in their homeland, others sought to build utopia here.

Picture credit: Bluegrass Special

1 comment:

Rainer Kawa said...

Der Amerika-Bezug in den 'Lehrjahren' muß vielleicht doch als ironischer Text gelesen werden. Lothario ('womanizer') war offenbar niemals in Amerika, sondern hat einige 'Landleute' verkauft, als Soldaten in französischen Diensten, an der Seite der Kolonisten, nach dem Vorbild des Herzogs von Zweibrücken, dem späteren 'König Max' von Bayern.
Rainer Kawa