Monday, November 16, 2009

German Language, Catholic Faith: An Ohio Bookshelf, Circa 1910

This never made it to print either. Spent quite a bit of time on this, but it eventually fell by the wayside...

German Language, Catholic Faith: An Ohio Bookshelf, Circa 1910

Alan Borer

When a memory is lost, through injury, disease or death, we lose the insights that memory provides. And it is hard, frustrating work to try to recover a person’s mental geography, or their way of looking at and thinking about the world. We can talk to a person while they live, we can remember them after they die, but after a few generations, no living person can share living memories with us.

In trying to gauge the mindset of such vanished individuals, we search for increasingly obscure clues. But it depends on whose trail we follow. If we want to learn about George Washington, we have a wealth of clues in his own hand to follow: diaries, letters, logbooks, political and military papers, plus a host of biographies. A few not-so-famous people left writings behind, and we can learn from old diaries, love letters, and school essays.

But when we are faced with a person who left nothing behind but a name on a tombstone, then it gets tricky. Beyond the famous and wealthy, few people leave a trail of their own words. Yet a careful observer has another clue: the books they owned.

If someone had an interest in reading, we can learn much from the books on their bookshelves. As anyone can probably tell you, just because someone owned a book doesn’t mean they read it, or read all of it, or always meant to read it. But the books a person owned, especially in the era before instant communication, give us a clue about what a person knew, or intended to know someday.

This trail is not without pitfalls. Famous, learned men like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson left impressive libraries behind. After all, they had the money, the leisure, and the education to fill a room with the books they used. But what of the poorer and largely anonymous readers who had no time, nor money, nor leisure to fill a room with books? These humbler people could fill a shelf or two, and in a few cases they left those books, or lists of books, as a mental roadmap.

This essay will examine and at least partially analyze a collection of twenty-nine books that originally belonged to a German-American family living near New Riegel, Seneca County, Ohio. The books, in storage in a cardboard box, were obtained years ago at auction. I make no claim to their being a “complete” library; very likely there were volumes discarded or lost, and later generations may have added titles. But the homogeneity of this collection suggests enough of a set to make it worthy of further investigation. The books do not reveal anything stunning about the lives of an ethnic family in the later part of the nineteenth century. They do reinforce some conclusions about their view of the world. They impart the importance of the Catholic faith and the German language which were brought from the old country, the necessity of adjusting to their new surroundings, and the need to have some escape, albeit literary escape, from a daily life which involved more drudgery than their descendants can imagine.

It is possible that this day and age will leave no such evidence to study. Since so much or what we learn comes via the Internet or the media, which leave no footprints, we have no time or need to collect our books or buy everything we need. But the collection of books listed and discussed here are the memory footprints of anonymous nineteenth century readers. Perhaps by looking at their books we can get a clue to the way they saw and experienced the world.


First, the books themselves. There are twenty-nine volumes, mostly octavo in size. All the books are in the German language, and all are in the Gothic typeface standard in Germany until 1933. The bindings are mostly cloth, although some are paperbacks and one is bound in a combination of leather and wood. Some of the bindings have been repaired by their owners.

Information can be gleaned from the publisher’s colophons of some of the books, although they may bring more questions than answers. The books are about evenly split between American and German publishers. Fourteen were published in the United States and fifteen were published in Europe. Many of the titles published in the United States were put out by firms that were headquartered in Europe. This was a common practice among Catholic publishers in the German language.

A notable example of such dual publishing is that of the Benziger Brothers, who published six of the books. Joseph Benziger established the company in 1792 in Einsiedeln, a city in the German speaking part of Switzerland. The Benziger “Brothers” referred to in the colophons of this collection were Karl and Niklaus, sons of the founder. To tap the large market created by German emigration to America, the Benzigers opened branches in New York (1853), Cincinnati (1860), Chicago (1887) and St. Louis. Friedrich Pustet was another publisher who expanded from his original base in Regensburg to New York and Cincinnati. He published two of this collection’s titles.

Interestingly, there does not seem to be any correlation between the place and the date of publication. One might have expected that the earlier titles would have been European imprints and the later ones American. As it happens, of the twenty titles which have publication dates, one of the oldest was published in Cincinnati in 1863 and one of the latest was published in Stuttgart in 1897. Unfortunately there is little clue as to how these books were obtained. Some of the oldest, dating to the 1840s, may have been brought along by the family when they emigrated. The dates and places seem to bear out the fact that German-language booksellers in the United States stocked both American and foreign publications.

Several of the books are volumes from a series. The Nimm und Lies (Take and Read) series published by Eberle and Rickenbach in Einsiedeln was one, and the Familien-Bibliothek (Family Library) of the Benzigers was another. These books may have been purchased in dual-language bookshops, or obtained from friends. Three of the books may have been purchased from libraries that were selling surplus: “St. Bernard’s Library” is noted on their bookplates.

The titles themselves can be categorized as follows: the most numerous type of book is “belle-lettres,” comprising seventeen titles or about 59% of the collection. The second largest category is religious and devotional books, including eight titles, or about 27% of the collection. Instructional materials (dictionaries, school books, etc.) account for three titles, about 10% of the total. That leaves one book in a category of its own. A combination almanac, cartoon book, and collection of short stories, it is titled Die Welt: Eine illustrierte Vierteljahrschrift [The World: An illustrated quarterly]. Dated January 1908, is the only periodical and, incidentally, has the latest date of any of the titles.


Yet just categorizing in this way does not tell the whole story. Probably the most noteworthy thing about this collection is their religious orientation. While eight of the books are devotional, two of the instructional and six of the belle-lettres titles have overtly religious orientations, accounting for over 55% of the titles. Many of the other novels and novellas are, if not actually religious, highly moralistic in tone, warning of the dangers of impure thoughts and acts.

Some of the titles are especially helpful in understanding the ways in which an immigrant lived and thought. Not surprisingly a fat Englisch-Deutsches und Deutsch-Englishes Taschen-Worterbuch [English-German and German-English Pocket Dictionary] (Philadelphia, 1884) is prominent and appears to have been much used. A Katholischer Katechismus [Catholic Catechism] (New York, n.d.) includes the text of the well-remembered Baltimore Cathechism in German and English on facing pages. There are, however, no “how to do it” books of the kind so common in our own time.

The novels are generally romantic potboilers which were popular in the late nineteenth century. None of the authors or titles is remembered today. Nur im Glauben ist Heil [Only in Faith is Salvation] (Augsburg, 1859) by Franz Maria Brug is typical of a novel with religious overtones, as is Die Widergesunde Tochter [The Daughter Restored to Health] (Regensburg, 1864) by Wilhelm Herchenbach. Christoph von Schmid’s Das Blumenkorbchen [The Little Flower Basket] (Einsiedeln, n.d.) went through a number of editions in English, while Shawn Na Soggarth der Priesterfanger [Shawn Na Soggarth the Priest Catcher] by Matthew Archdeacon (Augsburg, 1845) is a German translation of a book originally written in English. A few titles are purely secular; Wiener Zeitbilder [Pictures of Vienese Times] (Stuttgart, 1897) is an example.

The religious books are varied and numerous. The book that shows most signs of being used is Englischer Ehrenpreis [English Prize] (Mainz, n.d.) is a well-thumbed collection of Eucharistic prayers and devotions. The Handbuch fur die Vereine der Kinder Maria [Handbook for the Sodality of the Children of Mary] (Regensburg, 1887) is a book of Marian prayers, poems, stories for the use of a religious association. Heinrich Perrenue’s Trostbuch fur Kranke [Book of Consolation for the Sick] (Freiburg, 1869) contains prayers and scripture readings for the sick and dying. Leonard Goffine’s Christkatholisches Unterrichts- und Erbauungs-Buch [Catholic Instruction and Edification Book] (Regensburg and New York, 1889) is a guide to the Church calendar with an elaborately decorated title page.

A few books are of regional appeal. Der heilige Benedikt und seine Orden [Saint Benedict and his Order] (New York and Cincinnati, 1874) is a life of St. Benedict written at St. Meinrad, Indiana, to this day the location of a Benedictine monastery. Elternplicht [Duty to Parents] (Columbus, 1902) was authored by a Cleveland priest and published in Columbus, Ohio. And J. M. Gartner’s Die Wallfahrts- Kirche zu Maria Stein Mercer Co., Ohio [Pilgrimage Church of Maria Stein, Mercer County, Ohio] (Carthagena, Ohio, 1898) is an interesting Ohio imprint. Carthagena, with its seminary and nearby Maria Stein convent and pilgrims surrounded by fields, is a place where the old world was almost literally transported to the new.

After examining the titles, it is possible to make some generalizations about our immigrants and their reading. There is a commitment to the German language, at least in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with dictionaries and instruction books to help understand the English-speaking world. The Catholic Church, with its galaxy of saints, rituals, and teachings was a dominant, perhaps the dominant factor in the intellectual life of this immigrant family. Finally, these were people who read mostly for pleasure and religious edification, rather than for self-education, which is probably not far from true of many readers today.

This group of twenty-nine books may or may not be a ‘complete’ collection. There is no Bible, for example, which might have been kept in the family or somehow lost. Other books may have been destroyed or given away, and the family may have had other sources of reading material. Yet the collection provides, however obliquely, a view into the mental world of a person or persons, who thought and read in German, worshiped the Catholic version of God, and whose memory is not entirely lost after all.

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