Saturday, March 31, 2012

Migration from Europe ... the untold story of the people left behind

Many of us are familiar with the challenges faced by 19th century European immigrants to Texas and other states. But what of the challenges faced by family members and friends left behind, across the Atlantic?  Their lives could be severely disrupted by migration of family members to America too.

Take, for example, the Kempe family of Sayda, Germany. In 1854, the family’s eldest son, Wilhelm, 26, and eldest daughter, Auguste, 20, decided to seek a new life in Texas. They left behind in Sayda their widowed father, August Kempe, 52, and a 10-year-old sister, Bertha, and eight-year-old brother, Alwin.

Letters written by the place-bound father, the younger sister, and the younger brother in Europe to Wilhelm in Texas over the next decades provide poignant insights into how their lives were changed – and the sacrifices they had to make – as a result of the emigration of Wilhelm and Auguste to America. The letters, translated from German to English, and explanatory narrative are the subject of my book Man of Two Worlds.

The federal blockade of southern ports probably prevented the exchange of letters during the Civil War, but many came in the following decades. Some reveal that Wilhelm’s father August remained heartbroken about losing Wilhelm even after the son had lived in Texas for 15 years, with a growing family of his own.

“I wish I could visit you once. Then my biggest wish would be fulfilled. If I could be younger, I would do it and would not care how much money I have to spend, because my longing for my children gets bigger and bigger. I regret so much that I ever let you go and to think that I would die without having seen you again makes my heart heavy,” August writes to Wilhelm in an undated letter probably written in 1869.

August is also becoming concerned about the future and the Kempe family legacy in Germany. He wonders which of his sons will take over the farm when he is no longer able to manage it. Alwin, who is in his mid 20s in 1871 and recently returned from military service, has no interest in it. Bertha is reaching her late 20s that year, when she writes to Wilhelm again, telling him of their father’s worries on this issue.

“Father wants [Alwin] to be here and take over the farm but he doesn’t want it. So often Father says, if only Wilhelm could come over here and take my property over, him I could trust. I wonder if you couldn’t sell your property and come back home. It would make us so very happy, but if you and your dear wife could not decide to come home, then dear brother could you not come for a visit so we could see each other and talk about so many things that should be straightened out,” Bertha tells her brother in Texas.

In January 1873, Alwin also writes to Wilhelm about the family difficulties back in the Homeland:  “I wish I was with you to help you, but Father does not want me to leave. …If I had the money myself I still might come to you and start something. My dear Wilhelm, I sure wish you could come and see us again. It sure would help. I just cannot talk with Father and get along like you, that is the reason I am leaving [the family home in Sayda] this week again.”

In another letter from Bertha, in 1875, she appears to suggest sarcastically to Wilhelm that she chafes a bit at having been left by her siblings to take care of their aging father. “It is a good feeling to be able to take care of your parents in their old age and I know if you were here you would do the same,” she writes.

In the same letter, Bertha notes that she plans to marry Dietel, a man from a nearby town, but only if he can get a transfer to her village. “Dietel’s father is getting a nurse from the city to take care of him, so he can put in for a transfer to Sayda. If they will acknowledge that, we can get married. After all, I cannot leave Father alone, so will have to settle down here in Sayda …” she writes.

Clearly, these family members left behind in Europe faced challenges of their own as a result of emigration from German lands. In fact, their sacrifices – exemplified here by the need for Bertha to take on family responsibilities left for her by older siblings who wanted to pursue a new life in America – played a crucial role in allowing at least hundreds of thousands of Europeans to make their way to Texas and other states. It was a crucial role, and one that is often unheralded and unappreciated.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Franklin and Adams ... pillow talk

American founding fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had a complex relationship, based in their very different personalities and approaches to life in general. Adam was known to be the more stern, frugal, and serious of the two, while Franklin was more lighthearted, interested in finding and experiencing the more enjoyable parts of life. Perhaps there is no better illustration of their differences than Adams’ report of the night they spent together, sharing a bed in a small room – the only one available – at a New Jersey inn.

The two patriots were traveling as part of an American delegation to meet with Britain’s Lord Howe on New York’s Staten Island in September 1776. Howe had requested a conference as part of a British attempt at reconciling with the Americans after they declared independence from British rule.

Adam’s account of the evening, written in his diary, reports that the room was only a bit larger than the bed itself, and with only one small window. Adams seems to have been recovering from an illness, and closed the window to shut out the chilly nighttime air. But Franklin protested.

In Adam’s words (with his original punctuation, spelling, and grammar): 

“Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated.

I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.

Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his letters … in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold.

The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together …”

Draw your own metaphors to this account, perhaps after reading more of it at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online digital collection. And let the rest of us know what you think in comments below.

Although Adams and Franklin had an agreeable relationship at this point in the birth of our country, their relationship was not particularly warm in following years. Adams would come to not like Franklin very much at all, primarily for what he viewed as Franklin’s too-frivolous approach to life and the American cause. But that’s another story.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

General Robert E. Lee ... the comedian

Photos of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Civil War general, suggest a serious, honorable, humble, duty-bound, even steely man. In fact, his unsmiling countenance in all known photos projects a rather humorless personality, too. But those who knew well him offer another side.

Lee’s “white teeth and winning smile were irresistible,” according to an officer who served with him, writes Roy E. Blount Jr. in his 2003 literary portrait Robert E. Lee: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies).  And as a young man, Blount writes, one of Lee’s friends said that he could make his friends “laugh very heartily” as he laughed “until tears ran down his face.” Another report comes from after the Civil War, when Lee, upon receiving in the mail a gift of an afghan and tea cozy (cloth for draping over a teapot to keep its contents warm), wrapped the afghan around his shoulders, placed the cozy on his head, and danced to a tune a his daughter was playing on the piano.

Even as a general during the war, Lee was a great jokester who was inclined to pull your leg if you weren’t careful. For example, Blount relays the story of the winter morning in 1862 when Lee’s staff noticed that the general had received a “demijohn,” which is a large-necked bottle, usually inside a wicker cage. Even though his staff members knew Lee to be a near-teetotaler, their imaginations – no doubt based in large part on their experience in which alcoholic drinks were usually contained in such vessels – brought great anticipation. After all, the general was known to share many of the delicacies he received. And sure enough, as lunchtime approached, Lee came out from his tent and said, as reported by Blount, “Perhaps you gentlemen would like a glass of something?” His staff, mouths watering with expectation and cups at the ready, gathered eagerly in the mess tent.

As the demijohn was tipped, out came not wine or a spirit, but Lee’s favorite drink -- buttermilk – to his staff’s great dismay. “His near-teetotaler’s amusement was greater than theirs,” Blount writes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Elvis Presley's odd request ... see for yourself

Just a few days before Christmas in 1971, a good-looking, 30-something man, known throughout the country for his music and showmanship, walked up to a White House guard and gave him a six-page note addressed to President Nixon. Scrawled by hand on American Airlines stationery, it said in part:

“Dear Mr. President … First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office.  … The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concern or motives other than helping the country out. So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. …”

Presley’s letter went on to request a meeting with Nixon “just to say hello,” and noted that he was staying at the Washington Hotel under the name Jon Burrows.  He also provided a list of telephone numbers through which he could be contacted.

Inside the White House, the message first went to presidential aide Dwight Chapin. In a memo to presidential chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Chapin concluded that “if the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of Government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with.” Haldeman scrawled “You must be kidding” on that part of the Chapin memo, but approved its recommendation for Presley to meet first with another presidential aide, Egil “Bud” Krough, before being brought in to meet with Nixon the next day.

And so it happened, as summarized by Krough in a memo. Presley, dressed flamboyantly, began by showing his collection of law enforcement badges to the president. In what must have been a fascinating exchange, he also told Nixon that the Beatles were spreading anti-American messages, that he wanted to help the country and repay it for all that it had given him, that he could effectively reach out to “young people” and “hippies” with an anti-drug message, and that he studied “Communist brainwashing and the drug culture” for a decade. Nixon generally nodded his head in agreement, and repeated – more than once – the need for Presley to maintain his credibility to ensure his effectiveness as a pro-American, anti-drug messenger.

As a gift, Presley presented Nixon with a commemorative pistol. The White House met Presley’s request for federal recognition by giving him a specially prepared badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (predecessor of today’s U.S.  Drug Enforcement Administration).

Krough wrote of the Nixon-Presley meeting in a 1994 book, now available as an inexpensive used volume, titled The Day Elvis Met Nixon. But perhaps even more captivating is a U. S. National Archives and Records Administration website – titled When Nixon met Elvis – that offers online views of the original Presley letter to Nixon, related memos (one including Haldeman’s handwritten “you’ve got to be kidding” comment) exchanged among White House staffers, photos taken at the meeting, and even downloads of these items (some formatted for use as personal computer background images, or computer wallpaper).  It’s good stuff that offers behind-the-scenes insights into this odd meeting!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lincoln's annoying habit ...

Abraham Lincoln is one of our most revered presidents, but he had a habit – or at least a preferred way – that greatly annoyed many of his friends and colleagues.  He liked to read things aloud, even in their company.

This trait was noted by William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner who later co-authored an 1888 Lincoln biography that focused on his partner’s personality. Herndon wrote of the 1844 to 1852 period during which their office – a single large room – was on an upper floor of a building in Springfield, Illinois.

“When he reached the office, about nine o’clock in the morning, the first thing he did was to pick up a newspaper, spread himself out on an old sofa, one leg on a chair, and read aloud, much to my discomfort. Singularly enough Lincoln never read another way but aloud. This habit used to annoy me almost beyond the point of endurance,” Herndon wrote.

“I once asked him why he did so. This was his explanation:  ‘When I read aloud two senses catch the idea:  first, I see what I read; and second, I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better.’”

Perhaps Lincoln’s view was shaped by this early and very limited education, which totaled less than a year. At 11, he attended for a few months some classes offered by a nearby teacher, as noted in David Herbert Donald’s highly acclaimed 1995 biography titled Lincoln.

“Ungraded, this was a ‘blab’ school, where students recited their lessons aloud, and the schoolmaster listened through the din for errors,” writes Donald.

It's not hard to imagine that this early training remained with Lincoln the rest of his life, no matter how inappropriate its practice became for an adult in the company of other people.