Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Nation's History in a Family's Memory

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Nation's History in a Family's Memory

Article excerpt

LIVES AND LETTERS OF AN IMMIGRANT FAMILY Edited by Kenneth Kronenberg University of Nebraska Press 210 pp., $45

The story of the succeeding waves of immigrants who left their homes in the old country to seek a new life in America is so well- known that we often lose sight of how remarkable it really is. We sometimes forget that immigrant experience is not a story, but many different stories, each in some ways typical, in others, unique.

One family who left a treasure-trove of writings about their experiences were the van Dreveldts, who emigrated from Germany in the 1840s. Passed down for generations, these letters not only offer a colorful picture of life in 19th-century America, but also provide self-portraits of the individuals who wrote them. The van Dreveldt brothers, Anton and Theodor, were the illegitimate sons of a Roman Catholic priest and his housekeeper, who claimed the children were adopted. Theodor, the younger son, born in 1811, was the first to try to make a new life in America. One of his university friends who'd settled in Missouri, a popular destination for Germans of that generation, encouraged Theodor to follow his example, declaring, "I never felt such pride in myself as now that I am a free farmer on my own land." But it was necessary, he warned, to be sure that "you really are a republican and a democrat and will be able to leave at home any ... aristocratic notions ... whether birth, wealth, or education." Finding Missouri too hot and fever-ridden, Theodor ventured north to the Wisconsin territory, which was still mainly inhabited by Indians. Living in a log cabin, as he reported home, was no picnic: "You know how building is done here: one lays logs on top of each other and fills in the chinks with mud and dirt. It was too late in the winter for me to do this because everything was frozen solid. …

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