Academic journal article German Quarterly

Ideology, Mimesis, Fantasy: Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstacker, Karl May, and Other German Novelists of America

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Ideology, Mimesis, Fantasy: Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstacker, Karl May, and Other German Novelists of America

Article excerpt

Sammons, Jeffrey L. Ideology, Mimesis, Fantasy: Charles Seals field, Friedrich Gerstdker, Karl May, and Other German Novelists ofAmerica. U of North Carolina Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures, 121. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999. xii+342 pp. $45.00 hardcover.

The main purpose of Sammons's new book, which consists of three parts, is to take a new look at some 19th-century German novelists of America. In a brief introduction, the author indicates that he was stimulated for this work by the Bicentennial of 1976, the German Tercentennial of 1983, and by a graduate course on this subject he taught at Yale. He also refers to his ongoing four-part project in this area: (1) Six Essays on the Young German Novel (1972), (2) Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of an Alternative Community (1987), (3) the present book, and (4) a generic study of the social and political novel still in the planning stage. Clearly, he is again living up to the pluralist ideas about "the duple or multiple view of the work of art" in his Literary Sociology and Practical Criticism: An Inquiry (1977: 173), a brilliantly polemical contribution to the theory of literature (see my review in Monatshefte 73:3 [1981]: 335-38).

In part one, "Ideology: Charles Sealsfield," the author takes on some "riddles" in the extraordinary life and work of this Austrian refugee from the Metternich regime. Sealsfield (Karl Postl) chose a new identity as a proud American citizen. As a political journalist and novelist he became an ardent advocate of President Andrew Jackson and his new Democratic Party. This is the ideological background of his numerous colorful novels about the pioneers and plantation owners of the South and Southwest, whose boldness and indomitable sense of freedom he implicitly contrasted with the depressing political conditions in Europe. In a separate chapter, the author subjects Sealfield's ingrained racism and other prejudices to critical scrutiny ("Slavery, Race, and Nation," 37-58), as he does quite consistently with all the other writers discussed in this book (e.g., 151-76, 215-17, 238-40 et passim). Using a late, unfinished work, Die Deutsch-amerikanischen Wahlverwandtsch.aften (1840), the author attempts to demonstrate why Sealsfield abruptly ended his literary career around that time and concentrated on journalistic activities. After the end of A. Jackson's presidency in 1837 and of the progressive aspirations in the Democratic Party, Sealsfield found himself between a rock and a hard place politically. Frightened by the new radicalism in New York, he lost his ideological fervor and with it his desire to write novels (19-21, 87-89). The author deplores the fact that, because of this withdrawal, Sealsfield was accorded only a modest place in the German literary pantheon, and he would like to see his image raised up again: "[... ]I consider him a gifted, almost great writer. The reverse of his literary insouciance is fearless experimental instinct uninhibited by normative or generic scruples" (89). We remember that raising up images already was the main purpose of the first two volumes of his project.

In part two, "Mimesis: Friedrich Gerstacker," the author presents an enthusiastic portrait of this bold adventurer, world traveler, and successful travel writer, who spent many years in America. This writer has been credited for writing the first German Westerns, and one American scholar even believes that this writer actually invented this amiable genre (116). The author emphasizes that the massive emigration to America was an important part of German public discourse in the 19th century, and that Gerstacker saw it as his opportunity and his responsibility to inform and warn the public in many of his works about the prospects and pitfalls of such a move (111-24). In order to demonstrate Gerstacker's realistic narrative style, the author interprets one of the Western stories, which depicts a frightening, "multicultural" bear hunt ([136-501-the author likes the stories best of all). …

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