|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||13. Nr.||Mai 2002|
G. Daviau (Riverside, Ca)
The unique circumstance of writers shifting from their native language to that of a host country has been a neglected topic, most probably because it involves but a miniscule number of authors. After all, what author is going to change language unless there is an absolutely compelling reason to do so. Thus, this situation occurs only as the result of special conditions, specifically through relocation to a new country either through voluntary emigration or through involuntary flight into exile to escape political or religious persecution. But the matter of emigration or exile alone is still not sufficient to cause or to explain the adoption of the language of the host country for their writings. With very few exceptions the vast majority of writers who were forced into exile and fled to America, Canada, England, Mexico, South America and China continued to write in their own language and had their works translated into English or other languages. They held on to their own native language, because they lived for the day when they would be able to return to their homeland and resume their literary careers there. They wanted to preserve not only their language, but also their identity, which is connected to the language. Some, like Stefan Zweig, tried to minimize the use of English in order not to harm their command of German. It can therefore be seen, that what is required in addition to physical presence in a new country is the writer's conscious decision to cut all ties to his native land and to adopt wholeheartedly the language, culture and Weltanschauung of the new country. For the new language brings with it a new way of thinking and a new identity.
Few writers have successfully accomplished this transition to mastery of a new language to the point of being able to successfully publish literary works in it, and those who have done so are primarily secondary authors of popular or trivial literature or of autobiographies. For that reason, scholars have for the most part ignored the writings of those few who have demonstrated such prowess. One major exception in English literature is Joseph Conrad, a rare case of a foreign author being canonized in another literature. Usually émigré or exiled authors publish only a few books in English, and consequently they are not taken into the literary canon of the host country. For its part, German-language literary scholarship bases its research on the German versions and pays scant attention to the fact that the original appeared in English. As a result, these works written in English tend to fall between the cracks of literary history of both countries, and the remarkable phenomenon of authors changing language and possibly identity has never received the attention that it merits.
However, this unique situation takes on new interest in an age of the European Union, which will permit free movement of people between member countries, and beyond that of globalization. The changes resulting from this move toward greater unification, first of Europe and then of the world, will unquestionably result in a greatly increased relocation of people in Europe and in the world, as it becomes possible for more people move about freely to seek greater opportunities. More writers may also join the movement, creating the possibility that this circumstance of writing in another language may become more frequent. Even if this should not be the case, this neglected topic presents itself a fascinating aspect of literary history, and the remarkable success of the historical examples that exist make the topic well worth investigating and knowing, as I hope to show in the following.
I intend to investigate this unique situation in terms of the 19-century Austrian writer Karl Anton Postl, who achieved considerable success with books written in English under the pseudonym of Charles Sealsfield. He serves as representative of other Austrians who wrote in English such as, to name a few, Vicki Baum, Joseph Fabry, Hans Flesch-Brunnigen, Anne Gmeyner, Gina Kaus, Max Knight, Robert Neumann, Salka Viertel, Joseph Wechsberg, Richard Weininger and finally the well-known Billy Wilder, who wrote academy-award winning films.(1) My approach will be to examine Sealsfield from four aspects that would fit all of the other authors as well: 1.The circumstances of his abandoning his native land to seek a life in the U.S.; 2. the motivation for his decision to write in English; 3.the nature of his topics and the popular success of his works, as documented by their critical reception.
Charles Sealsfield - born in Poppitz, Czechoslovakia in 1793, died in Solothurn Switzerland in 1864 - was the renegade monk Karl Anton Postl, who, chafing under the rigid authority of the Catholic Church and the repressiveness of Austria under Emperor Franz I and his minister Metternich, broke his vows to the Kreuzherren in Prague and fled to America in 1823 to find freedom and a new life of independence. His trip carried him to New Orleans rather than the more usual port of entry in New York, because he was aided in his flight by the Freemasons, who chose the location because they were had strong presence and representation there. In return for their financial assistance and support, he was required to disappear as Karl Postl, assume a new identity and above all promise never to reveal his true identity during his lifetime.(2)
Charles Sealsfield, the name he finally adopted,(3) kept this vow, which explains why he became characterized as "The Great Unknown."(4) In many ways this description remains appropriate, for he remained secretive and reclusive, and many areas of his life are still shrouded in darkness, despite the abundance of secondary literature written about him.(5) These commentaries are filled with contradictory interpretations. People who knew him in Switzerland all report that he had something mysterious about him, the reason he could not ever persuade any woman to marry him. Initially he changed his name several times, beginning with C. Sidons, and invented a number of fictional identities and stories about his past to throw off any police pursuit. However, when he began publishing his books he used Charles Sealsfield, the name that appeared on his American passport and the one he retained for the rest of his life and beyond - the legend on his gravestone in Solothurn reads Charles Sealsfield, Bürger der Vereinigten Staaten.
Sealsfield harbored no aspirations of ever returning to Austria and thus devoted himself to mastering English, while immersing himself in American life, politics and culture. He had been an excellent student at the University of Prague and learned fluent French and possibly a smattering of English, the secondary sources differ on this point. More importantly, as a student of Bernhard Bolzano, who was eventually dismissed because of his independent thinking and teaching, Sealsfield for the first time heard expressed ideas of freedom of thought and action which reinforced his own feelings and ideas. In America Sealsfield was immediately smitten by the spirit of democracy and particularly by the politics of Andrew Jackson, whose ardent supporter he became. Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828 first brought the American West to prominence over the old-line Eastern political machine, thus launching a new era in American politics. In the U.S., which politically and socially was the opposite of Austria in every respect, Sealsfield was not entering an unfamiliar country; rather he found himself finally in the land that corresponded to his basic nature, spirit and thinking, and he embraced it wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.
In the first five years Sealsfield traveled the U.S. from North to South, observing the variations of life in the different parts of the country that he visited. How he supported his travels is one of the dark areas. He makes vague mention of business dealings, but it seems most likely that he continued to be financially supported by the Freemasons. His life story, which we cannot further elaborate here, is an incredible tale equal to anything that he created in fiction. Among other things, he offered Metternich his services as a spy while he was visiting England in 1827, but his proposal was not accepted. From 1830 to 1848 he worked as a publicist for ex-king Joseph Bonaparte.
Sealsfield was not at all attracted to New York and the Eastern seaboard, which had its own form of wealthy aristocracy, but rather became fascinated by the American frontier, which corresponded to his ideas of total personal freedom. He explored the Mississippi Valley, Louisiana and also Texas even before it had become a State. Curiously, his interest never turned to the far West, most likely because it did not become a focus of attention until the 1840s, when California achieved statehood and the gold rush of 1848 began. By then Sealsfield had already moved back to Europe. Even though during his many years in Europe he wrote all of his works in German, he continued to use American themes almost exclusively and continued to praise the American utopia enthusiastically. In short, throughout his career he remained an American author - in German.
In the remarkably short period of four years after his arrival in the U.S., Sealsfield could publish his first book in English, entitled The United States of North America as they are in their political, religious and social relations (1827). The book shows not only his acquired facility in English, which he had lacked upon arrival, but also his excellent powers of observation, as demonstrated by his comprehensive portrayal and insightful views of the U.S., the result of his extensive travels and reading. Sealsfield had intended his book to enlighten the British about life, culture, politics and business in the U.S. It was important to him to find an English publisher, because he felt that he would not be accepted as an author in America until he found success and a seal of approval in England. So important was English publication that he traveled to London in 1826 to oversee the arrangements personally. From there he also contacted Cotta to arrange for a German version, because he felt that the book would also provide useful information about life and conditions in a democratic country to Germany and especially to repressive Austria.
How much a reader at the publishing house or possibly a friend may have contributed to polishing the language is a question impossible to answer. As far as is known, the only one to proofread the book was Sealsfield himself. His publisher, John Murray, had insisted that the author remain in London for that task, even though Sealsfield had wanted to return sooner to the U.S. Even so, the English is far from perfect, and Murray was certainly negligent in letting it appear with so many errors. Reviewers were quick to identify the author as someone with a German-language background.(6)
Sealsfield's command of English has been a subject of debate in the library of publications devoted to this enigmatic, controversial author.(7) Karl J. R. Arndt, who devoted many years of his life trying to document the life of the elusive Sealsfield and who has made the most detailed examination of Sealsfield's English,(8) states that the descriptions of Sealsfield sent out by the Austrian police in 1823 did not mention any knowledge of English.(9) Even if he knew some English when he arrived in America, the fluency and the cultivated literary style he achieved in four years is remarkable. Arndt also notes that no direct statements of English or American critics who knew Sealsfield personally have been found. He has, however, been able to present three pieces of evidence to support the idea that by 1827 Sealsfield was proficient in English. The first is that Sealsfield's book was published by the leading publishing firms in England and America.(10) Secondly, an editor printed a notice in the New Mirror, stating: "Sealsfield is a good writer and while in this country contributed some excellent articles to the New York Mirror."(11) Thirdly, there is a letter of Major M. M. Noah, who received many political honors and who founded several newspapers and journals, to General G. P. Morris, the editor of the New Mirror, in which Noah claims to have met in 1832 a tall , genteel-looking German, who spoke good English. Later in the letter he states that his visitor wrote in English exceedingly well but for a paper of intense interest he preferred German.(12) Unless new information surfaces - the scholarship is divided on whether Sealsfield burned his papers or whether they were hidden and have not yet been found - Noah's letter will be the most direct testimony we have. Personally I find the imperfections of the English rather charming and never an interference with the comprehension of the text. It seems to go with the frontier subject matter. In any event the language did not prevent the enthusiastic reception of these books in England and America as well as in Germany, where they were widely reviewed and hotly debated.(13) Certainly in reading these works, one encounters Germanisms, misspellings, wrong use of prepositions, dangling relative clauses and incorrect punctuation, among other mistakes. But none of these errors obscures the meaning or disturbs the flow of the narrative. If a knowledgeable reader had gone over these texts, these errors would certainly have been eliminated, reinforcing the idea that only Sealsfield proofread the book. Ultimately, like so many aspects of Sealsfield's life and career, this matter of his knowledge of English will remain impossible to decide unless some new evidence can be found.
Sealsfield had in fact written the book for the purpose of enlightening the British about life, culture, politics and business in the U.S. He felt that accounts by British travelers were biased, and he wanted to present a more objective and accurate description. The German version, also published by Cotta the same year, was likewise designed to spread this information about the free, independent life in a democratic country to Germany and especially to politically repressed Austria. Naturally the book was banned in his homeland, but it was circulated and read there nevertheless.
In 1828 Murray published Sealsfield's second work in English: Austria as it is or Sketches of Continental Courts. By an Eye Witness. This time, however, the book appeared anonymously, which gave reviewers a field day speculating about the author. Opinions ranged widely from the author being an Austrian nobleman, possibly educated in England, to an English aristocrat.(14) Sealsfield's illuminating dissection of the tyrannical, repressive conditions in the Austrian absolutist state was harshly critical but fair-minded reporting, revealing the lack of freedom of speech, the police spying on everyone, including visitors and all of the other ills of an early version of a fascist government. The reaction of reviewers depended upon their political orientation. On the whole, however, the book, which did not appear in a German version until 1919, was another great success in both England and America. Concerning the language, one favorable reviewer suggested a second edition to clear the text of grammatical errors and foreign idioms.(15) Another praises the book, declaring: "There is much information in a small compass, without verbosity; the style is pleasant; and the work altogether of an agreeable and superior character. It deserves to be popular."(16) The book, which still remains a seminal text for understanding the Austrian Vormärz, may have appealed more to British than to American readers, whose democratic political system and society had long since broken with court life and all of the other oppressions of a despotic state, of which Austria served as a model until the overthrow of the government of Metternich and Emperor Ferdinand in the revolution of 1848.
Also in 1828 Sealsfield published an addendum to his first book, entitled The Americans as they are. Described in a Tour through the Valley of the Mississippi. It is an indication of the success of the preceding book that this new work was advertised as by the author of Austria as it is. In this work, in addition to demonstrating once again his powers of observation, Sealsfield also revealed his natural bent for colorful description. This quality gained him a reputation in the U.S. as one of the earliest of the group of writers who came to be known as local colorists.(17) These were generally people who were not professional writers but who possessed the ability to capture the spirit and environment of pioneer life on the frontier and bring it alive for the reader. To anticipate and ward off criticism of the language, an advertisement for Sealsfield's new book carries the caveat, that the author "is far from claiming for his work any sort of literary merit. Truth and practical observation are his chief points. Whether his opinions and statements are correct, it remains for the reader to judge, and experience to confirm."(18)
In general, most reviews of Sealsfield's writings praise his
talent for description. The frontier, which was usually lawless
and dangerous, which lacked any amenities of civilization, and
which provided individual freedom but demanded total self-reliance,
was the world that fascinated Sealsfield, and it became the subject
of most of his works. It was a world that he knew well both at
first hand on the basis of his travels and through his readings
about it. In 1828 he returned to the Southwest again after spending
an interval in Kittaning on the Pennsylvania frontier. He attempted
to establish a plantation, a model of life that he admired from
his readings about the South, but despite his efforts for four
years, the project failed. The experience, however, provided him
with the intimate knowledge of the people and the life on the
frontier, which he was able to transform into highly readable
accounts that were enormously popular both in the U.S. and throughout
Europe. He was one of the earliest Western writers in America
and was acknowledged by American reviewers and in histories of
American literature as such. Robert E. Spiller, for example, points
out Sealsfield's importance in transforming the novel in America,
in that he does not follow the traditional method of using an
individual as the hero. Rather in his "ethnographic"
novels, the hero is the whole people: "The
characters are typical shapers of the new republic, frontiersmen
and pioneers. They are portraits, Sealsfield insisted, from life,
and they move against a background of magnificent scenery described
in realistic detail."(19)
The ambitious aims of The Americans as they are Sealsfield describes as follows:
[...] to exhibit to the eyes of the European world, the real state of American affairs, divested of all prejudice, and all party spirit; [...] to show the state of society in general, and the relative bearings of the different classes to each other, and thus afford a clear idea of what the United States really are; [...] to represent social intercourse and prevailing habits in such a manner as to enable the future emigrant to follow the prescribed track, and to settle with security and advantage to himself and to his new country; to afford him the means of judging for himself, by giving him a complete view of public and private life in general, as well as of each profession or business in particular [...].(20)
Sealsfield's grasp of American life in all of its important aspects after only five years in the country can only put to shame the average American, who can live here all of his or her life and never achieve such a comprehensive view. It is likely that that admission is implicit in the popularity of these works in the U.S., although they were intended for a foreign audience. There is an enormous difference between Sealsfield's informed commentaries, based on personal observations and extensive reading, and the distorted superficial travelogues of visitors who spent limited time in one location, a situation that still occurs today. Most critics hail Sealsfield as the forerunner of de Tocqueville.
Sealsfield became thoroughly Americanized, and his views were all mainstream American, coinciding with those of others who wrote about the Western frontier.(21) His own biases show through, in that he praised independence of thought and the courageous, adventurous pioneer spirit, while criticizing what he called the decadent Eastern aristocrats, symbolized by John Quincy Adams. He also attacked the authoritarian Catholic Church at every opportunity and praised Southern plantation life, which he had tried to emulate. His admiration of the plantation placed him in a dilemma, for it brought his belief in the democratic ideal of freedom of the individual into conflict with the practice of slavery. He never liked slavery but rationalized the practice with the argument that no whites could work in the hot humid conditions of the South. Thus the slaves were necessary, since they suffered no ill effects. The problem would eventually be resolved, he felt, by preparing the slaves for emancipation and compensating the owners for their loss. In the interim the government should pass a law, requiring that they be treated with humanity.21 To all intents and purposes Sealsfield, who had had to create a new identity as an American with his own particular linguistic usage and narrative style, had successfully transformed himself into an American writer and was completely accepted as such by publishers, reviewers and public alike.
The highpoint of his writings in English was the novel Tokea or The White Rose (1829), which proved simultaneously to be his most popular work and a critical success that propelled him to the forefront of American writers of that day as well as, ironically, the book that caused him to reassess his writing in English and his life in America and cause him to return to Europe and the German language. It is easy to see why the reviewers of the time waxed so enthusiastic over this work, for it is good read. It abounds in complicated plot twists that all come together at the end to form a harmonious whole, narrated in colorful, picturesque style that captures the rough and raw life on the frontier in upper Louisiana.
Tokeah is the proud chief of the Oconee Indians, who have been displaced by the advancing whites. He devotes his life to protecting his band against further encroachment, until at the end he and the surviving members of the tribe have to retreat again. His death at the end, while he is trying to rescue the bones of his parents from the plows of the encroaching white farmers, is a foreboding that there will soon be no place for the Indians and their tribal customs. Tokeah's son-in-law, Tecumseh, chief of the Commanches, may bring about an accommodation to the new reality and try to make peace with the whites, but Sealsfield is not optimistic. The novel makes clear that they have to stop fighting the whites and find an accommodation with them or they will not survive, for there is no stopping the westward expansion. While Sealsfield admires the Indians and their culture and sympathizes with the plight of their repeated displacement, at the same time he regards it as the inevitable "Manifest Destiny" of the whites to control the country from coast to coast. It is almost tantamount to the philosophy that those who can make the best use of the land shall possess it. Sealsfield makes this position clear in a conversation between Tokeah and General Stonewall Jackson:
Chief, said the general, not without vehemence, the Great Spirit has made the lands for the white men, and for the red men, that they may live on the fruits which grow on the earth, and dig the soil, and plough the ground; but not for hunting grounds, that some thousands of red men may find deer where millions of people might live peacefully.(22)
As a result the Indians had to make way for the inexorable march west, which exhibited the power of the American spirit and would enable the country to grow into the world power it was destined to become, while decadent Europe declined.
On the whole Sealsfield, possibly influenced by Chateaubriand, portrays the Indians in favorable terms as "noble savages." At the same time he held the view that the Indians can never amount to anything because they do not respect women:
A people, with whom woman is not justly respected, will always be found more or less barbarous; and the estimation of woman, her rank and station as a member of the commonwealth, are perhaps the surest standard by which to ascertain the claim of each nation to real civilization.(23)
The main woman in the novel is The White Rose, a white girl, who was taken as a baby by Tokeah during an attack on white people in which her mother was killed. He leaves her with a white family for seven years and then reclaims her to live with the tribe for another seven years. Everyone senses that this extraordinarily beautiful girl is a special person, and she leads a privileged life, protected by Tokeah and his daughter Canondah and spared the usual work and drudgery of Indian women.
Enter Sir Arthur Graham, a young, aristocratic Englishman, who has been captured with his family by the pirate Jean Lafitte but has escaped into the swamps. He is bitten by an alligator and found by Rose and Canondah. They hide him and restore him to health. He and Rose fall in love, but he must leave to try to rescue his family. Tokeah provides a runner to show him the way to his people, who are in New Orleans making ready to fight against the Americans for control of New Orleans.
On his way Arthur, who is dressed as an Indian, is captured by the Americans, who want to shoot him as a British spy. He cannot say why he is dressed as he is, because he has given his word of honor to Tokeah not to reveal the location of his tribe. While awaiting his trial, there is ample opportunity for lengthy discussions with the judge about the qualities of the American versus the English political and social systems. The judge and his wife happen to be the family with whom Tokeah had left Rose 14 years earlier. They still have the possessions that she had with her, and an amulet containing a picture of an aristocrat convinces Arthur that she is of noble birth.
Arthur is transferred to the home of a Senator, a Southern plantation owner, engendering more conversations about the superiority of the American democratic government over the British Monarchy and about the positive benefits of America as melting pot. The Senator must take Arthur to New Orleans to see the general, who is drawing up plans to defend the city against a superior British force in what became the famous Battle of 1812. Stonewall Jackson's victory over a superior British force launched him to political fame and eventually to the presidency. The busy general does not believe Arthur's story and orders him shot.
Just then Tokeah arrives, with the pirate Jean Lafitte as his prisoner. Lafitte had been trying to persuade Tokeah to join forces with him and to seal the bargain by giving him Canondah. When the Indian refuses, Lafitte attacks that night and Canondah is killed. Lafitte is captured and Tokeah has traveled for days by canoe down the Mississippi to turn him over to General Jackson personally to gain good will. Rose is accompanying him. Once the Indian releases Arthur from his word of honor and also testifies about his good behavior and character, Arthur is released and, in gentlemanly fashion, escorted across the river, so that he can join his own people on the other side.
Tokeah returns north to lead his tribe to new lands away from the whites and finds his honorable demise at the hands of an enemy tribe of Pawnees. Tucumseh, chief of the Commanches will now lead the tribe. Lafitte kills his guards and escapes, never to appear again, while Rose and Arthur are married and travel to England.At the end they are visiting his aunt in Jamaica, when a Spanish aristocrat, Don Juan, Chevalier D'Aranza, Count de Montgomez, who has lost his way, stops by to ask directions. He is invited to stay overnight. In their discussions he turns out to be Rose's father. Even Dick Gloom, the rough and ready frontiersman, who took a dislike to the gentleman Arthur and wanted to hang him, has married and become a decent, docile member of society. Happy end for all but the Indians.
This skeletal summary hardly does justice to the richness of
the novel in plot, detailed portrayal of Indian life, and the
skillful portraiture of the contrasting types of Indians, Americans
and English. The nature descriptions, at which Sealsfield excelled,
show his gift for providing local color. All in all, this novel
was an amazing literary debut of an extremely talented narrative
writer. Sealsfield had always been an avid reader and was in particular
a fan of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. In addition,
he had studied the works books of Chateaubriand, James Fenimore
Cooper and Timothy Flint, among others, and was not above borrowing.
For example, like Cooper, Sealsfield provides a lengthy, detailed
description of how Indians constructed a birch bark canoe, even
though there were no birch trees where the Oconees lived. At the
same time American writers borrowed freely from Sealsfield.(24)
The reception accorded this novel could hardly have been more enthusiastic than it was. It was praised by most reviewers and was called the novel of the year 1829 by some. Sealsfield himself was lauded as a new American writer, indeed, as the greatest American author, surpassing James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans with his novel of Indian life.(25) Since Karl J. R. Arndt, who devoted much of his life and career to Sealsfield, particularly to his life in America, and who edited the 32-volume set of his works, has discussed the reception and the language of this novel in detail, a few examples will suffice here.
The novel we have named (Tokeah) is purely American, and we venture to say that in the delineation of Indian character, habits, ceremonies, etc. it has rarely been surpassed and seldom equaled. The same skill is exhibited in depicting the singularly original manner and pursuits of the early settlers on the frontier - a race of men who are not less remarkable than the Aborigines for bodily strength, patience, and courage.(26)
One review begins by asking: "Is Mr. Cooper to have a Rival, or has a greater than Cooper arisen?"(27) Another concludes: "Tokeah is altogether a most delightful book, and a credit to our literature."(28) Sealsfield, who had been praised as equaling Cooper in his own language and country, justifiably could feel that he was achieving his dream to become an American author in English.
The dream ended abruptly in 1829, when a negative review appeared, denouncing the book: "The story is too tame to be made endurable in the hands of even the most accomplished writer; but when told in language so commonplace and rude, copiously interspersed with oaths, and other positive vulgarisms equally offensive, its author must expect no better fate for it."(29) It is nothing short of amazing, when one considers everything Sealsfield had experienced to reach this point in his life and the literary success he had enjoyed with his three books in English, that this one review could dash all of his aspirations and so rapidly and radically change the course of his life. Up to that point he had enjoyed many glowing reviews, and as a sign of envy, the hostility of Cooper, the bitterness of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne, who disliked seeing a foreigner intrude on their literary territory with such success, and the praise of Longfellow, whose Evangeline was influenced by Tokeah. The first three writers considered Sealsfield serious competition and expressed their anger at the praise given to him, because they felt it came at the expense of the real American authors.
The hostile review, obviously written by a smug, self-satisfied religious bigot, is typical of many reviews even today, airing the prejudices of the reviewer rather than objectively discussing the book. That the novel is too tame is a subjective matter for the individual reader to decide, and considering the sales, many decided otherwise. To condemn the novel for containing vulgarisms is simply not true. Since Sealsfield was trying to convey realistically the language of the frontier, he did use some uncouth language such as an uneducated frontiersman like Dick Gloom. But at worst he used the words damn or damned, which are not spelled out but are indicated by the first and last letters with dashes in between. On the whole the language is elevated, even in the speeches of the Indians. The reviewer completely overlooks the many errors in the language in his religious zeal against what he calls vulgarity. Arndt, who has made a detailed study of the language of the novel, states: "Sealsfield's English, or American, prose does not meet the norm of good, acceptable twentieth, or even nineteenth-century literary English."(30) He lists as reasons for this, among others, that Sealsfield lacked sufficient knowledge of English, that the typesetters could not always read his manuscripts and were not inclined to improve his spelling, and that neither Sealsfield nor anyone else read the proofs. That Sealsfield's English could be brought to a satisfactory level can be seen in The Americans as They Are, where the language is totally acceptable. Arndt concludes his discussion of the language with a 12-page list of all incorrect usages.(31) This painstaking compilation would be extremely useful, should anyone ever decide to reissue the novel.
In the light of all the glowing reviews and the genuine popularity of his novel with readers as judged by sales, it is unbelievable that this one patently unfair review could break Sealsfield's spirit and cause him to relinquish his aspiration to become an American and an American writer. He was much too tough and independent-minded for that. Other factors, not yet clarified, had to play a much greater role in that sudden and radical decision to forego writing any more works in English and to move back to Europe. Like so many areas of his life, this major turning point is shrouded in mystery; Sealsfield never provided any explanation for his sudden decision to stop writing in English and to move back to Europe. Possible contributing factors might have been the fact that he lost his plantation after he invested four years of work without being able to make it pay. There is also the possibility that his relationship to his American publisher had changed, causing uncertainty about future works. But there were many other publishers, and that review did not prevent him from publishing Tokeah in London under the revised title of The Indian Chief (1829). He also revised the novel and published it in Switzerland under the title Der Legitime und der Republikaner (1833) to focus it more on the political and social issues.
For the next several years Sealsfield worked for a few German-American newspapers as the London and Paris correspondent, until in 1832 he settled in Solothurn, Switzerland, with an identity as an American writer. It was there that he really began his career as an American author - in German. He continued to turn out popular books dealing with the American Western frontier, for which he never lost his fascination, and had the works translated into English in the normal fashion. As a result he is mentioned in American literary histories of the 19th century as one of the earliest significant Western and ethnic writers, but he has not achieved the place in canon of American literature that he would have merited, had he stayed in the U.S. and continued to write in English. His most important later book is Das Kajuttenbuch (1844), which is considered the first of the many Texas novels. Sealsfield continued to glorify the American West with its pioneer spirit as well as American democracy, progressiveness and institutions in an effort to convert Europe to new thinking. All of his books are about America or Mexico. He achieved incredible popularity in German-speaking countries as well as in the U.S. and England, and his books brought him fame and some fortune, only in a different way than he had expected when he started his literary career.
Because his identity and authorship were not definitively established, Sealsfield's works were published in large pirated editions without acknowledgement or royalties to him,(32) a form of back-handed tribute to the popularity of his writings. The works were also pirated in America and in France, and in a bizarre twist the French unauthorized versions were retranslated back into German. In England Blackwell published translations in fascicles until the book was completed and then as a bound work. In self-defense Sealsfield finally had to publish his collected works to establish his authorship.
In 1844 another curious twist occurred in Sealsfield's life, one which proved to bring his literary career to its zenith. Professor Theodor Mundt discussed him in his Geschichte der Literatur and in a series of lectures in Berlin, calling him "The Greatest American Author." The editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser published an article on 29 March 1844 under this title, summarizing Mundt's generous assessment of the greatness of Seatsfield, for so had Mundt understood and written Sealsfield's name.(33) This article started an international controversy and search for the author. Some critics thought the campaign to identify Sealsfield was nothing more than a newspaper hoax, an April fool's prank or that such an author did not exist. Some believed that Mundt himself was the unknown writer. No one could find any books of a Seatsfield in any library. A Professor Tellkampf, at Columbia University finally produced some of Sealsfield's books, which he informed the press were equal to the prose of Goethe.(34) Since no one had seen him or knew anything about him, the journalists labeled him "The Great Unknown." One reviewer wrote: "He must be a curious genius to bury himself in the center of Europe, and become master of a foreign language before he begins to write, and then excel the best living writers in that language."(35) The New Orleans Picayune
demanded the establishment of a commission to investigate whether there was a person named Seatsfield and whether he was a 'sure enough American when this has been settled, it would be proper to strike from the list of literary greats the names of Irving, Cooper, Channing and Prescott, and to put in their place Seatsfield as the greatest American author.(36)
All of the publicity made Sealsfield into a best-selling author not only in Germany, but also in England and America, thanks to the pirated editions, and he remained so until the end of his life.
Sealsfield remained an American author in every respect except the language, for his goal was to bring awareness of life in America to Europe. His novels are entertaining by design, but they are also a serious contribution to understanding American life, as Hartmut Steinecke has noted:
The most important recent insight is that Sealsfield [...] was led by his political views to new themes and social models, and in the course of depicting them, found his way to new modes of writing and communication. It was not least his political conception of the novel as a means of liberal enlightenment that enabled him to enrich German fiction by aspects that it had previously lacked.(37)
Sealsfield was by temperament American, and his thinking and subject matter were American. Even so, some German and Austrian scholars have made strong efforts to claim him for Biedermeier,(38) but where in that mild, obedient atmosphere does one find ideas of independence of thought, freedom of movement, emphasis on self-reliance and promotion of the ideals of democracy? Biedermeier represents the opposite of American ideals in every respect. When one considers that Sealsfield spent his early life in Austria in a monastery, segregating him from a normal lifestyle, and then lived in America and finally in Switzerland, the question becomes how and where he could pick up Biedermeier qualities, which appear contrary to his nature. There could be parallels, but they would hardly be consciously included. The dominant thrust of Sealsfield's life and work, his flight for freedom, his book Austria as it is, and his refusal to return to Austria show that any Biedermeier traits are strictly accidental and unintended.
Sealsfield lived American, thought American and wrote American - even in German. All of his books from the time he returned to Europe deal with America or Mexico. Let me conclude with the assessment of Ulrich S. Carrington, who captures the enthusiasm for America found in Sealsfield's writings:
They brim with the zest for life that could be found only in a new country. They are unabashedly pro-American, and proudly proclaim that the United States is the Eden of the world and the Southwest the heart of the garden. In other words, the tales of Charles Sealsfield capture the spirit, the atmosphere, the vitality, of the Louisiana-Texas borderland as do few other works, and capture it accurately. [...] Charles Sealsfield, citizen of the United States, is an American not to be forgotten, and his work is worth remembering.(39)
© Donald G. Daviau (Riverside, Ca)
table of contents: No.13
(1) For biographical and bibliographical information about these authors see Sylvia M. Patsch, Österreichische Schriftsteller im Exil (Wien: Christian Brandstätter Verlag, 1986) and Helmut F. Pfanner, Exile in New York (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983).
(2) Emil L. Jordan, America. Glorious and Chaotic Land. Charles Sealsfield Discovers the Young United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1969), p. 256.
(3) Emil L. Jordan speculates that when Postl lived in Pennsylvania he may have come into possession of the papers and passport of a man named Charles Sealsfield. Ibid., p. 259.
(4) So he became known in 1844 when American newspapers launched a search to discover his identity, as will be discussed later. Eduard Castle entitled his study Der Große Unbekannte. Das Leben von Charles Sealsfield (Wien: Werner, 1955).
(5) There is a small library of secondary material devoted to Sealsfield. Karl J. R. Arndt's 136-page bibliography lists 556 titles. Charles Sealsfield, Sämtliche Werke, Vol 27 (Hildesheim, New York: Olms Presse, 1990). See also Alexander Ritter, Sealsfield-Bibliographie 1976-1986, in: Schriftenreihe der Charles-Sealsfield Gesellschaft (Stuttgart: Verlag der Charles-Sealsfield Gesellschaft, 1986), pp. 50-65, and A. R., "Charles Sealsfield (1793-1864; actual Karl Postl): Bibliography 1945-1998," in: The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 1999), pp. 162-174.
(6) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Sealsfield's Early Reception in England and America," in: The Germanic Review, Vol. 18 (1943), pp. 176-195, here, p. 177
(7) For American reviews see ibid. and also Karl J. R. Arndt, Charles Sealsfield, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 2 (Hildesheim: Olms Presse, 1972), pp. X-XVI. Unfortunately to date neither Arndt nor anyone else has compiled a complete collection of the American and British reviews, a contribution that would be most useful.
(8) Gerhard Friesen, "Karl J. R. Arndt in Memoriam. Essays in memory of the editor of Charles Sealsfield's works," in: Joseph P. Strelka, ed., Zwischen Louisiana and Solothurn. Zum Werk des Österreich-Amerikaners Charles Sealsfield (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997), pp. 93-98.
(9) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Sealsfield's Command of the English Language," in: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 67 (May 1952), p. 310.
(10) Ibid., p. 310.
(11) Ibid., p. 311.
(12) Ibid., p. 312.
(13) Reinhard F. Spiess, Charles Sealsfields Werke im Spiegel der literarischen Kritik (Stuttgart: Verlag der Charles Sealsfield Gesellschaft, 1977).
(14) For a detailed discussion of the debate see Karl J. R. Arndt, "Sealsfield's Early Reception in England and America," pp. 180-183.
(15) Ibid., p. 183.
(16) Ibid., p. 186.
(17) Ulrich S. Carrington associates Sealsfield with such writers as August Baldwin Longstreet Georgia Scenes), Johnson J. Hooper (Adventures of Simon Suggs), Thomas Bangs Thorpe (The Hive of the Bee Hunter) and George W. Harris (Sut Lovingood). They were local colorists, like Sealsfield, "untrammeled by formal training in writing. Their concern was not for literary grace, but to preserve on their pages a reasonably accurate picture of the unique life on the remote frontier." "Foreword" in Ulrich S. Carrington, The Making of an American. An Adaptation of Memorable Tales by Charles Sealsfield" (Dallas: SMU Press, 1974), p. X.
(18) Advertisement preceding the Preface of Charles Sealsfield, The Americans as They Are. A Tour of the Valley of the Mississippi, in: Karl J. R. Arndt, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 2 (Hildesheim: Olms Presse, 1972).
(19) Robert E. Spiller, et al, eds. Literary History of the United States: History (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963), p. 680. Ulrich S. Carrington concurs: "The American Unknown ws first introduced by the 'editor' to his readers as 'the originator and sole inventor' of what he called the 'Higher Cultural Novel' or the 'National Novel.' He would not deal with heroes and heroines in the fashion of popular writers. For his heroes he had chosen 'The People,' 'The Nation,' 'Mankind and Liberty,' to be depicted faithfully. His outlook was typically American. In his approach to contemporary solcial problems he was years ahead of Charles Dickens, and many more years ahead of the Russian classics." Ulrich S. Carrington, The Making of an American, p. 14.
(20) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Preface," The Americans as They Are, p. VI.
(21) Ibid., p. 177.
(22) Charles Sealsfield, Tokeah or The Indian Chief in: Karl J. R. Arndt, ed. Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 5, Section III, p. 162.
(23) Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 92.
(24) Ibid., "Preface," p. XII.
(25) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Charles Sealsfield, "The Greatest American Author," in: Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol. 74 (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1965), p. 249-250.
(26) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Charles Sealsfield," in: Donald G. Daviau, ed. Major Figures of Nineteenth-Century Austrian Literature (Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 1998), p. 504.
(27) Ibid., p. 505.
(28) Ibid., p. 506.
(30) Karl J. R. Arndt, ed. Tokea or The Indian Chief, in: Sämtliche Werke, Vol. IV, "Language," p. XIX.
(31) Ibid., pp. XXII-XXXIII.
(32) Gerhard K. Friesen, "Sealsfield's British Pirates and Promoters," in: Franz B. Schüppen, ed. Neue Sealsfield-Studien. Amerika und Europa in der Biedermeierzeit (Stuttgart: M and P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1995), pp. 391-440.
(33) Karl J. R. Arndt, "Charles Sealsfield, "The Greatest American Author," p. 250.
(34) Ibid., p. 253.
(35) Ibid., p. 254.
(36) Emil L. Jordan, America Glorious and Chaotic Land, pp. 244-245.
(37) Hartmut Steinecke, "Charles Sealsfield and the Novel as a Means of Enlightenment," in: Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms, The Austrian Enlightenment and its Aftermath, Austrian Studies 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), p. 143.
(38) See Friedrich Sengle, Biedermeierzeit. Deutsche Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration und Revolution, Vol. III (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1980). Also Franz B. Schüppen, Neue Sealsfield-Studien. Amerika und Europa in der Biedermeierzeit.
(39) Ray Allen Billington, "Preface," in: Ulrich S. Carrington, The Making of an American, pp. XI and 20.
For quotation purposes: Donald G. Daviau: Writing in a Different Language. The Example of Charles Sealsfield. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 13/2002.