German Culture in America, 1600-1900: Philosophical and Literary Influences

By Henry A. Pochmann; Arthur R. Schultz | Go to book overview
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Early Interest in German Culture


Points of View

The accepted view of colonial Americans as a singularly provincial people, isolated from the great cosmopolitan traditions of the world, is gradually being revised as investigation progresses into the cultural heritage of America. Among European influences felt in colonial times, those emanating from Germany have been consistently underestimated. The tradition persists that Americans were content to remain ignorant of Germany until the early nineteenth century when, so the legend goes, a group of young Harvard men, suddenly fired by Madame-de-Staël's account of the great German universities, journeyed thither and brought back with them the weapons wherewith to effect a Teutonic conquest of American learning, literature, and thought. The story is too pat to be credible, and recent investigations 1 lead to the inescapable conclusion that there was, almost from the date of the first settlement in New England, a lively and rather steadily mounting interest in Germany. 2

The conventional account of early German-American relationships 3 takes cognizance of the work of Francis Daniel Pastorius as the founder of Germantown about 1683 and mentions the stream of German books that issued from the Saur and Ephrata presses, but it finds little else to record save the correspondence that Cotton Mather is known to have carried on with August Hermann Francke4 of Halle until a century later--so the story runs--when Madame de Staël's . De l'Allemagne ( London, 1813; Paris, 1814; New York, 1814) opened bright young men's eyes to the dazzling splendors of German libraries and to the unparalleled advantages of a German university education; whereupon Ticknor, Bancroft, Everett, and a few others set out at once to learn the language, only to meet the formidable obstacle of finding no German books available in all Boston. 5 Andrew Preston Peabody, recalling Dr. Carl Follen's introduction, in 1825, of German as a regular subject of instruction at Harvard, relates how he joined the first class of eight volunteers and how they encountered similar difficulties until Dr. Follen prepared a "German Reader for Beginners' . . . furnished to the class in single sheets as . . . needed and printed in Roman type, there being no German type within easy reach." 6

Lowell, reminiscing in 1890 over a span of almost half a century, helped to give currency to this tradition by asserting, "Mr. George Bancroft told me that he learned German of Professor Sydney Willard, who, himself self-taught, had no notion of its pronunciation." 7 And Moses Stuart, who himself taught philosophy and theology of a sufficiently Germanic cast as early as 1810 to put the heresy hunters on his trail, recalled in 1841 how "for years together" he was "almost alone in the study of German," adding that "the late J. S. Buckminster, of Brattle Street Church, was the only man among the Literati of this region, who at that time had any other knowledge of German than what belonged


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