“I, the author of that much-read Travel Report, now step before the public as a penitent sinner and confess aloud my gross error, that I had not dared to presume so much misunderstanding among my neighbors as I have experienced and continue to experience from the impact of that publication.”***
So wrote Gottfried Duden, in his 1837 Self-Confession about his Report on a Journey to the Western Sates of North America, but I’m not really certain who he was talking to, those who had come already, and there were thousands, or those that were still home at Germany. After all, we’ve all been there haven’t we? You try to do something nice, help your fellow man, share something you think will help, and someone just has to go out there and try to ruin it! They aren’t happy so you’re not going to be either.
Instead of looking at Duden’s Self-Confession from the viewpoint of ‘See I’m right – he’s confessing his errors’ as his naysayers would like to do, I like to think it only reinforces the reason he wrote his Report in the first place. For example, “How often I have thought of the poor people of Germany. What abundance and success would the industry of a few hands bring to whole families, whose condition in their own country an American-born farmer cannot imagine to be possible. There is still room for millions of fine farms along the Missouri River, not to mention the other rivers.”
What could they possibly not understand? A lot. Because even though the speed of the message has greatly increased, and today we can reach around the world with our words, it all depends on the recipient receiving exactly what the sender intended. Is that truly possible? What a great communicator that would be. After all, Duden was expecting his Travel Report to be well received by not only one person, but hundreds (1500 to be exact). So then why should he have felt this way? Because he didn’t have a way of knowing what really became of his Travel Report. If only he would have returned to the U.S. and not listened to those naysayers, would he have been surprised.
In my opinion, he failed to think through the first question a writer should ask of their self, as a teacher once said “Who is your audience?” know who are you writing for. Duden wrote for the middle class and wealthy, he himself said, but his message was also taken up by the poor. He didn’t know his audience. And today’s reader, skips over that part of the message, about what “success the industry of a few hands could bring to whole families“. But today’s emigrants to the United States do know this. And what does “whose condition in their own country an American-born farmer cannot imagine to be possible” tell us? That we cannot possibly understand what the conditions those emigrants from a foreign country have lived in. Until we have walked in another’s shoes, perhaps we shouldn’t profess to know.
And when we look back, at those thousands of German emigrants that did emigrate because of Duden’s book, and authors like him, we should keep in mind, where they were coming from. They came from all over Europe, not only from Germany, but also from Switzerland, from Poland, from Italy and France. One small book! So when you send out your next tweet, or post on Facebook, about how great your life is, keep in mind who might be reading it. Most of us have it pretty good compared to some places even now.
Today’s immigrants would no more take a “Warning against further frivolous Emigration” than they did in 1837! And when we look at what that life here is today, compared to what those first followers of Duden encountered, we now know what the “success the industry of a few hands could bring to whole families” because hindsight is always great. But that’s another blog.
***Gottfried Duden Duden’s Confession on Account of his American Travel Report of 1837, (Translated by Steven Rowan, © 2010 The Society for German-American Studies, ISSN 0741-2827).