German romance in the U.S.

Engraving, E. Marlitt, 1887, from Die Gartenlaube, Wikimedia
E. Marlitt, from Die Gartenlaube, 1887.

When in April 1869, Louise May Alcott’s brainy American Jo March and the odd German Professor Bhaer bumped heads for the first time in print and “saw stars,” the American publisher J. B. Lippincott was enjoying the first proceeds of another sort of American-German romance. The year before, Annis Lee Wister’s translations of two novels by the popular German writer E. Marlitt had appeared as Gold Elsie and The Old Mam’selle’s Secret. These two works became the first in a series of German romances by multiple authors later marketed as “Popular Works after the German,” sold in pretty covers, boxed sets, and ultimately displayed in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1892.

As contemporaries testify, these long-enduring American bestsellers often came to be better known under Wister’s name than those of their original German authors. Circulation records of the Muncie Public Library (1891-1902) provide but one example of their success. In the aggregate, the library’s 28 Wister translations were checked out almost as often as the library’s 40 books by Alcott. Were Wister categorized as an author in her own right, she would have been the eighth-most-borrowed author, immediately following Alcott. Among female borrowers aged 15-29, she in fact ranked third, ahead of Alcott.

Inspired by Wister and Lippincott’s success, other publishers and translators followed suit. By the end of the century German romances, especially Marlitt’s, circulated from over 20 different publishers, with covers ranging from those signaling woman-centered romance to those promising classics of “world literature.” While these popular novels did not aspire to Emerson’s label for worthy books—“spermatic”—Americans nevertheless bought and read them well into the 20th century, their popularity waning around 1917, when the United States entered the First World War.

Alcott’s portrait of Germans in Little Women vacillates. At the start of the novel they are the impoverished immigrant Hummels who infect the compassionate Beth with scarlet fever; a little later they are romantic Heidelberg students serenading Amy in the moonlight; elsewhere they are represented by the stout, plain-spoken, and perennially cheerful Professor Bhaer. Nicknamed “Old Fritz,” “Lager Beer,” and “Ursa Major,” Bhaer requires some narrative footwork to become “actually young and handsome” and an acceptable match for Jo. If Alcott in the end represents Germans largely in terms of the sentimental and pedagogical embrace of the professor in Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Wister’s translations, especially of Marlitt, offered Americans somewhat different romance fare, though they too were sentimental and always provided a hope-filled happy ending.

The internationally bestselling Marlitt, who originally wrote in a German national context, created romantic heroes for whom, unlike Professor Bhaer, no apologies were necessary. Fifteen to 20 years older than the young heroines of these novels, her handsome protagonists harbor some of the secrets and electrifying conversational habits of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester. Yet by the end of the novels they settle into their professions and duties as doctors, artists, factory owners, and heads of country estates so that the heroines, with family conflicts and mysteries solved, can rejoice in the prospect of blissful marriage in which their views and values matter. With a touch of “Bluebeard gothic,” Marlitt managed, in 10 novels and three novellas, repeatedly to insist that despite the cruelty exercised in families, often exacerbated by religious bigotry, the new family founded in romantic union would compensate for past injustice. The owner of one such novel made abundantly clear what American readers sought in Marlitt’s German romances when she misquoted a verse by Robert Ingersoll, substituting the word “hope” for the original “home”: “Love is the builder of every hope.” Imbuing the domestic sphere, then middle-class women’s only sphere, with desire, agency, and the adventure of solving mysteries and righting wrong, Marlitt—mediated by Wister and others—supplied, in Janice Radway’s formulation, “myth in the guise of the truly possible.”

Just as Alcott construed her German professor to make him attractive to her heroine and her readers, Wister, so many American reviewers thought, made German romance palatable to Americans with her lively command of the English language. One reviewer even suggested that by “englishing” German fiction Wister had “rehabilitated” it. As another put it, “We do not feel the oppressive atmosphere of a different country than our own. . . . We forget that we do not see and converse with men and women of flesh and blood like ourselves, living beneath walls, and trees, and skies exactly like our own.” In fact, while indeed commanding a lively style, Wister from the start carefully selected German authors and German domestic romances whose contents and happy endings could bridge the Atlantic. In the end they altered the reading habits of those Americans hungry for such endings. In the decades between the end of the Civil War and America’s entry into World War I, Germany figured in the imagination of many American readers not as a stern, militarizing enemy, but as the land of happy love.

Lynne Tatlock

Lynne Tatlock is Tobias and Hortense Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University where she is home based in the Department of Germanic Language and Literatures and currently directs the program in Comparative Literature. Her book German Writing, American Reading: Women and the Import of Fiction, 1866-1917 tells the story of American reading of German domestic fiction between the Civil War and the First World War.

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