“Johann Rittig and Caspar Stürenburg: the Exile’s vs. the Immigrant’s Variation on the New York German Local Color Serial”

Peter Conolly-Smith
Asst. Prof., CUNY-Queens College, Dept. of History

Johann Rittig and Caspar Stürenburg, two relatively obscure German-American writers better known in their own, late ninteenth-century times, have a great deal in common: both were Germans in New York, and both worked for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung in a number of capacities, not least in their roles as contributors to that newspaper’s German-American Local Color Serial, a genre of ethnic writing that Rittig, the older of the two, helped pioneer, and that was continued by Stürenburg after his colleague’s death in 1884. Both men’s local color vignettes were collected and published (each separately) by noted German-New York publisher Ernst Steiger, who offered Rittig’s “Pen and Ink Drawings of American City Life” (Federzeichnungen aus dem amerikanischen Stadtleben, 1884) and Stürenburg’s “Little Germany” (Klein-Deutschland: Bilder aus dem New Yorker Alltagsleben, 1885) as a two-volume set.

For all their parallels, however, Rittig’s and Stürenburg’s lives and writings are also characterized by an equal and perhaps more significant number of differences. In a nutshell, we may summarize them as the differences between the life and writings of an exile (Rittig) and that of an immigrant (Stürenburg). To wit: Rittig did not come voluntarily to the United States. A Forty-Eighter (i.e., a refugee from the failed German revolutions of 1848), he was condemned to death in Germany and fled to the U.S. in 1852. A left-leaning liberal who numbered Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre Joseph Proudhon among his European acquaintances and who – like many of his refugee generation – fought on the side of the Union in the American Civil War, he was a man who felt a great deal of bitterness towards America, a country in which he had experienced considerable hardship and that he considered corrupt, conflicted, and hopelessly capitalistic. Stürenburg, on the other hand, came voluntarily as a correspondent to a German newspaper in 1868. A former soldier who had served proudly in the Prussian army, Stürenburg was a vocal supporter of the German Empire and its Chancellor Otto von Bismarck after German unification in 1871 (an historical event and personage abhorred by Rittig) and, in matters of class politics in America, stood categorically opposed to unions, radicals, and socialists; precisely those whom Rittig supported.

Not surprisingly, these different outlooks on life found expression in the two men’s writings, which – despite their shared setting in German New York, and their shared generic conventions (both authors preferred loosely connected vignettes) – were in many particulars deeply different from one another. Thus Rittig’s writing is permeated by darkness and pessimism; his characters are despondent widowers, bitter spinsters, and useless ne’er-do-wells; his is a world of missed connections, foiled plans, and tragic denouements. Stürenburg’s, on the other hand, is a world of can-do winners, immigrant believers and achievers of the American Dream; a promising cosmos of hope, perserverance, and happy endings. Stylistically, Rittig’s limiting choice of the third-person perspective is supplanted, in Stürenburg, by an omniscient worldview, while linguistically, Rittig’s use of smatterings of English to denote the shortcomings of his failed characters makes room, in Stürenburg, for a more generous use of English in the text that symbolizes the openness of his characters (and his own) towards the process of Americanization, and that finds its counterpart in the more assimilationist thrust of his stories and the characters who people them.

In short, the parallels and differences between Rittig and Stürenburg – one of whom died bitter and penniless; the other, a successful and content writer – exemplify some of the differences between an exile and an immigrant, their mindsets, beliefs, and overall outlooks on life, as well as the style and content of their writings.

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One Response to ““Johann Rittig and Caspar Stürenburg: the Exile’s vs. the Immigrant’s Variation on the New York German Local Color Serial””

  1. The Panel for the 2009 Convention: Immigrant or Exile? « U.S. Literatures in Many Languages Says:

    […] (Click here for abstract) […]

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