Migrant Knowledge

Between Fiction and Non-Fiction: ‘America’-related Literature in the Public Libraries of Southern Baden

What Did They Know?

A Miniseries on Prospective Baden Migrants and Their Knowledge of America in the 1870s and 1880s

With contributions by Martin Bemmann, Marie Nella Hoffmann, Hannah Laubrock, and Luca Leitz-Schwoerer

By 1890 a “reading revolution” was underway in Germany, leading most members of society to engage in reading. Besides daily information on political, economic, and cultural events and developments, fictional literature of all kinds—including magazines, pamphlet series, and books—helped to meet a huge demand for reading material.1 If one acknowledges that notions of and knowledge about such vague and diffuse phenomena like “America” or the “United States” have always been based on a hybridization of innumerable pieces of information from various sources that are often impossible to pinpoint, one has to take account of such adventure, crime, romance, and other kinds of fictional literature in order to understand what prospective German migrants knew about their possible overseas destination before they packed their bags. This is all the more true if one agrees, as some scholars have shown, that authors of such pieces often tried to set their fictional stories within generally realistic geographical, cultural, and political contexts. Very popular authors like Friedrich Gerstäcker and Balduin Möllhausen based their stories on their own experiences as travelers and immigrants in North America; accordingly, their novels provided realistic impressions and knowledge. And even Karl May, who visited the US only once—only after he had become a celebrity in Germany thanks to his stories set there—was a source of information on the country for his quickly growing mass of admirers. Due to his remarkable ability to combine knowledge from scholarly literature and current journals and newspapers and translate it into gripping adventure stories, May had a significant and sustainable impact on what the Germans knew—or thought they knew—about “America.”2

The impact of such authors was only able to develop because these stories were made widely available to average Germans. Until the late nineteenth century, a major supplier of literature of all kinds, often in cheap prints, were traveling booksellers, the so-called Kolporteure.3 Increasingly, however, reading clubs, reading associations, reading halls, and public libraries supplied literature alongside the Kolporteure, gradually also replacing them. And whereas it is sometimes very difficult to reconstruct what readers could get from the booksellers, it is comparatively easy to analyze the collections of libraries.

The origins of these institutions in Germany can be traced back to the Enlightenment period in the eighteenth century, when the first reading clubs were established in an effort to foster general education. By the mid-nineteenth century, these often elitist associations existed in many regions and even in rather small towns. Increasingly, though, smaller, often commercial, libraries existed alongside them that suited the reading habits of less-educated members of the lower social classes.4 A well-known user of such a library was the above-mentioned best-selling author Karl May. In his youth in the 1850s, May later claimed, he had regularly visited such a library in his Saxon hometown, becoming spoiled by the “poison” of adventure and crime fiction it had held.5 From the 1870s onwards, a new kind of library came to be founded in ever more towns and even villages. Philanthropic organizations and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, municipal authorities opened institutions that aimed at providing all parts of society with journals and books.6

These developments also occurred in the Grand Duchy of Baden in southwestern Germany. Bourgeois reading clubs had been founded in several places from the late eighteenth century onwards, including (in the southern part of the country) Emmendingen (1805), Freiburg (1807), Offenburg (1812), and Donaueschingen (1818). By the mid-nineteenth century, such societies existed in almost seventy towns of Baden.7 By the end of the century, “almost all villages and towns” of the grand duchy had libraries accessible to the greater public, often set up and operated by schools, churches, societies, or municipal authorities.8 The Municipal Library set up in Lahr, a small town located about sixty kilometers north of Freiburg, was a remarkable example.

Villa of Christian Wilhelm Jamm, the seat of Lahr's Municipal Library from 1877-1937, c. 1900 (photo and copyright: Stadt Lahr).

This library was established in 1877 after a wealthy citizen, Christian Wilhelm Jamm, donated his private library and 50,000 marks to the cause. Compared to an already existing public library in the town, this new one offered an unprecedented quantity of periodicals and books on wide-ranging topics.9 However, despite its remarkable origins, the Lahr library had a rather typical collection for German public libraries at the time.10 According to its published catalogue, it held more than two thousand books in the late 1890s, most of which were fictional literature.11 Although there was a significant number of non-fiction books on history, economics, politics, science, and technology (some of them in English and French),12 one can assume that these were read much less than the fictional travel, adventure, crime, and romance books.13 In addition, the library possessed multiple issues and had subscriptions to almost forty journals. This mirrors the tremendous expansion of illustrated, informative, and educational journals and magazines that Germany witnessed in the second half of the nineteenth century.14

Title page of the Lahr Library Catalogue, vol. 2: Journals (Lahr, 1898).

A central part of the Lahr library’s large collection of fiction consisted of books by authors highly relevant to shaping Germans’ notions of and knowledge about “America” in the nineteenth century. Primary among these were the books by James Fenimore Cooper and Friedrich Gerstäcker. In German public libraries, they counted among the twenty most read authors from the late 1840s to the 1880s. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Gerstäcker’s novel-like adventure stories based on his own travel experiences in the United States were the most popular of all.15 Accordingly, readers in Lahr could choose among fifteen titles by Cooper and forty-three by Gerstäcker. Numerous novels and travel stories by the similarly popular German-language authors Balduin Möllhausen, Otto Ruppius, Charles Sealsfield, and Karl May were also available in Lahr, either in the form of books or as serials published in magazines held by the library (e.g., the periodicals Vom Fels zum Meer, Westermann’s Deutsche Monatshefte, and Deutscher Hausschatz). These authors focused in their fictional and semi-fictional writings on the United States and the often tragic fates of German emigrants there.16 In addition, readers in Lahr could borrow books by several American authors in German translation, including Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, was available in English only.

Since the book and journal collection of the Lahr library was typical for German public libraries at that time, one can assume that other institutions of that kind in the region supplied their readers with similar materials. The catalogues of two of Freiburg’s non-academic libraries widely confirm this assumption.17 This, in turn, suggests that fictional literature was a major source of information for shaping the knowledge many Germans had about “America.” Analyzing these library collections can help us to reconstruct both this source and the knowledge it conveyed.

MBemmann - Portrait

Martin Bemmann is a historian and a lecturer (Privatdozent) at the University of Freiburg. Interested in the history of knowledge as well as in economic and environmental history from a global perspective, he currently explores multilateral research collaboration within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in the 1970s and 1980s, an international organization of socialist states.

  1. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 3. (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1995), 1193, 1232–43; Heinz J. Galle, Volksbücher und Heftromane, vol. 3, 3rd ed. (Lüneburg: Dieter von Reeken, 2020); Rudolf Schenda, Die Lesestoffe der Kleinen Leute: Studien zur populären Literatur im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1976). ↩︎
  2. Undine Janeck, Zwischen Gartenlaube und Karl May: Deutsche Amerikarezeption in den Jahren 1871–1913 (Aachen: Shaker, 2003); Juliane Mikoletzky, Die deutsche Amerika-Auswanderung des 19. Jahrhunderts in der zeitgenössischen fiktionalen Literatur (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1988); Helmut Schmiedt, Die Winnetou-Triologie: Über Karl Mays berühmtesten Roman (Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 2018); Sabine Beneke and Johannes Zeilinger, eds., Karl May: Imaginäre Reisen (Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2007). ↩︎
  3. Schenda, Die Lesestoffe, 11–29; Galle, Volksbücher, 134–77. ↩︎
  4. Alberto Martino, Die deutsche Leihbibliothek: Geschichte einer literarischen Institution (1756–1914) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1990), 154–56, 174–288. ↩︎
  5. Karl May, “Mein Leben und Streben,” in Mein Leben und Streben und andere Selbstdarstellungen von Karl May, ed. Hainer Plaul, Ulrich Klappstein, Joachim Biermann, and Johannes Zeilinger, 9–265 (Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 2012), 70–71. ↩︎
  6. Martino, Die deutsche Leihbibliothek, 289–547; Wolfgang Thauer, Die Bücherhallenbewegung (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1970); Peter Vodosek, Auf dem Weg zur öffentlichen Literaturversorgung: Quellen und Texte zur Geschichte der Volksbibliotheken in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1985). ↩︎
  7. Torsten Liesegang, Lesegesellschaften in Baden 1780–1850: Ein Beitrag zum Strukturwandel der literarischen Öffentlichkeit (Berlin: Rhombos, 2000), 69–120. ↩︎
  8. Bärbel Schubel, ed., Bibliothekskultur entwickeln: 50 Jahre Staatliche Fachstelle für das öffentliche Bibliothekswesen Freiburg (Freiburg: Universitätsbibliothek, 1995), 402. ↩︎
  9. Petra Frohnmüller-Kaufmann, “Die Stadtbücherei 1877–2002,” in 125 Jahre Stadtbücherei Lahr 1877–2002, 7–48 (Lahr: Kaufmann, 2002), 7–13. ↩︎
  10. See Martino, Die deutsche Leihbibliothek, 404–547. ↩︎
  11. Bücherverzeichnis der Lahrer Stadt-Bibliothek, vol. 1 (Lahr: Pfisterer & Leser, 1899). ↩︎
  12. E.g., Benson John Lossing, Illustrierte Geschichte der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika (Stuttgart: Auerbach, 1876–78); William Robertson, History of America, unspecified edition; Theodor Griesinger, Freiheit und Sclaverei unter dem Sternenbanner (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1862); Karl Alfred von Zittel, Das Wunderland am Yellowstone (Berlin: Habel, 1885). ↩︎
  13. Martino, Die deutsche Leihbibliothek, 323–24. ↩︎
  14. On this, see the blog entry by Luca Leitz-Schwoerer in this series. ↩︎
  15. Martino, Die deutsche Leihbibliothek, 404; on Cooper’s and Gerstäcker’s relevance for the German perception of “America,” see Karlheinz Rossbacher, Lederstrumpf in Deutschland: Zur Rezeption James Fennimore Coopers beim Leser der Restaurationszeit (Munich: Fink, 1972); Janeck, Zwischen Gartenlaube und Karl May, 87–98. ↩︎
  16. On the most popular Möllhausen texts, in particular, see Janeck, Zwischen Gartenlaube und Karl May; Andreas Graf, Der Tod der Wölfe: Das abenteurliche und das bürgerliche Leben des Romanschriftstellers und Amerikareisenden Balduin Möllhausen (1825–1905) (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), 99–116. ↩︎
  17. Bücherverzeichnis der Volksbibliothek Freiburg i. B. (Freiburg: Fr. Wagner’sche Buchdruckerei, 1894); Bücherverzeichnis der Kathol. Volksbibliothek zu Freiburg i. Breisgau (Freiburg: J. Dilger, 1895). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Martin Bemmann, "Between Fiction and Non-Fiction: ‘America’-related Literature in the Public Libraries of Southern Baden," Migrant Knowledge, January 9, 2023, https://migrantknowledge.org/2023/01/09/america-related-literature-in-public-libraries/.