Collection: Raster Family Letters

Author: Hermann Raster

Recipient: Askan Raster

Description: Letter from Hermann Raster to his brother, Askan Raster, May 14, 1852.

Hermann Raster to Askan Raster, May 14, 1852

English Text

Magdeburg, Sept. 6, 1852
Dear Sister,
Last Monday I received a letter from Hermann, via Dessau. I am sending you a translation.

New York, May 14, 1852

Dear Brother,

It must have seemed pretty much of a riddle to all of you that I should leave you without any news of me during the course of an entire year. But I assure you it was through no fault of mine. During the year I wrote at least a dozen letters to my wife, all of them of great length. and asked her specifically to inform my family of interesting events contained in the letters. I know that the first three or four, in which I described the first impressions America made on me, would have interested you especially. I am completely unable to recall the mood in which I wrote them now. The things I noticed most and about which I probably made the most pungent remarks, have now become such everyday occurrences, that it would be impossible for me to recall my first reactions. I ought to be angry with my wife for failing to follow my very positive wishes in this matter. At any rate I decided she ought to rectify the mistake and send you, at the very least, my first four letters, in which I mentioned little about our own affairs. You cannot expect me to describe those first adventures of an entire year at this late date. Right now you will have to be satisfied with a short sketch of the year's experiences.

You probably are aware that I landed here on the 13th of July, after a trip of only thirty-seven days. I asked my wife to put a short announcement of my arrival into the "Staatsanzeiger", but I do not know whether she followed my instructions. I won't mention anything about the voyage, that is going back a little too far and you can get the details from my wife.

Here in New York I acted the same as all "green-horns". I went sight-seeing and spent my money faster than necessary. One must not waste too much self-pity on this last circumstance, everybody has about the same experience. There is even a sort of proverb for it here - that the last European pfennig must go to the devil before one can begin to ear an American cent. One simply has to pay for knowledge, here as everywhere else, perhaps here more than other places, because one has more to learn. Meanwhile, I would like to share with everybody who plans to come over here to settle, my experience: to bring as little money as possible, because he will lose it anyway, no matter how much it is, I myself have seen countless examples of this. The most fortunate are those who arrive without a penny, but with a knowledge of the English language. They have to take the best job offered immediately and have already acclimated themselves, while the man who arrives with money is still groping around and doesn't know right from left. The harder the original school, that much better and practical the learning for one's whole life. I only wish some of our German brave "stay-at-homes" had gone through this school as I have, they might have many a blister on their hands, but at the same time it might have opened a window or two in their heads.

When one gradually comes to the end of one's "European attitude", when the money bag shrinks more and more and there does not seem to be any prospect of a suitable type of employment, then one is usually overcome by the so-called "green-fever", a kind of moral hang-over which, like sea-sickness, is a very amusing sight for the uninfected spectator. One feels such bitter disappointment, one would like to return home, if only the means were at hand.

One begins to rail against America, possibly prophecies the early decline of the Republic, howls about the coldness and heartlessness of the Yankee (because he hasn't handed one a fortune on a silver platter). In short we act awkward, childish and foolish. Almost everybody has to go through this type of soul-sickness, only it hits some harder than others. The latter was the case with me, because I had been prepared for it by Degner, who had warned me about it. But I wasn't spared by any means.

Luckily, I was smart enough not to let my melancholy state of mind be noticed in my letters to Germany, except that I may have formed some rather hasty conclusions about conditions here, due to my depressed mental state. On top of this, so to say, atmospheric sickness, I was dreadfully homesick, as you may well imagine. You are, thank goodness, old enough to understand what it means to be parted from a young wife, to whom one had been married only fourteen days before leave-taking.

I had made a plan before coming over here, which did not materialize, like all my other previous plans. In this case it was not my own fault, but that of the damnable Prussian Postal department. I corresponded with the Berliner Nationalzeitung and in the course of five weeks wrote a half dozen letter, each at least two sheets long, of closely written script. I had hoped to be retained at a steady salary as correspondent and also intended to do articles for German publishers. This plan could even now be carried out, if it weren't for the Prussian postal authorities.

They confiscated the entire correspondence and thereby caused me a loss of at least 20 Prussian thalers, because, whether I secured regular employment or not, these first articles were going to be paid for, that had all been arranged.

Meanwhile I had heard from Sander for the first time and found that he was in Philadelphia. As I wanted to go there anyway to make the acquaintance of our relatives, I left New York after approximately a five weeks' sojourn there. Philadelphia is the most regularly built and, perhaps, the most beautiful city in the world, but so terrifically boring that I cannot conceive how a normal person, who isn't a Quaker, can stand it.
About my uncle and cousin I wrote in my further letter to my wife, with the definite intention that you and my sisters be informed. You had better let Bertha send you the letter, or at least a copy of it, I hope she has kept the letters.

I also failed to find work here and as the consumptive condition of my pocketbook was becoming desperate, I decided not to wait for its demise, but take the last few dollars still remaining and travel a little way into the interior of the country.

"Interior" is, however, a damned far-reaching description. The country is so large that one could wear out a dozen pairs of shoes, before one had covered a quarter of it. I, myself, got no farther than the middle of Pennsylvania, where I found a job as a hired man, through an acquaintanceship made in New York. In the beginning I worked only for room and board, later I received in addition $6.00 a month. I arrived August 30th and started work September 1st. I would be a liar if I pretended that the work was what I was most suited for. But my employer was a sensible man, well-educated like most American farmers (only the German ones are an inglorious exception, they are a sad lot) and he did not expect too much. Then too he was an "infidel" and could speak freely with me about the Bible, etc., so that I was for him too much a kindred spirit to have him get angry with me for my awkwardness in farming.

So I got used to it faster than I thought possible, my worry had been greater than necessary. It wasn't long before I hoed, ploughed, threshed and mowed like the others, although I still had to learn to work as fast as Americans do. I, also soon had a nice circle of acquaintances and friends.

In the village I, an educated German, was a hitherto unheard-of phenomenon and quickly acquired good friends among those whom we call in German "the gentry". I became particularly fond of the family of a lawyer, Garrisson, who initiated me into the most secret ramifications of American politics (they are very complicated and entirely dependent on personalities). He himself was a member of the state legislature of Pennsylvania, which (state) as you can see from a geography book, is about half as big as the kingdom of Prussia. Garrisson, who was also a free-thinker, or as it is called here, an "infidel", had followed the course of German philosophy since Hegel, with great interest, although he had to draw his conclusions from incomplete, fragmentary translations.

He seized the present opportunity to learn more about it through me and I was glad to do it. He was an easily taught student and I think I benefitted even more than he, because it gave me an opportunity to perfect my English. We spent whole Sunday afternoons sittting on a tree stump in the shade of the bushes which shielded us from the hot rays of the autumn sun, or lying in the long grass, and talked philosophy.

I want to point out here that my pure English accent has caused wondering and favorable comment, as it is often compared to the awkward, coarse pronunciation of the average German, even the educated one, when he maltreats the English language. Remember how much of a point I always made about correct accent. Well, I can repeat from experience that, in this respect, one cannot
be pedantic enough. All the fine differences of pronunciation, which I repeated to you so often in my room in Dessau, are used here with great strictness and Mr. Corbe, for example, with all his education, would be taken for a barbarian here, because his pronunciation of English is not much different from the clumsy, exasperating "dutchman" accent. If you, therefore, intend to continue studying English and, as I surmise, with the definite intention of being able to make use of the knowledge one of these days, be particularly careful of your pronunciation and do not allow yourself the slightest leeway in this respect. In order to speak clearly one has to make distinct use of one's tongue, teeth and other organs of speech.

If you want to know the particulars of my life in Tioga (that is the name of the village), let Bertha tell you, as I wrote her a lengthy letter about them. It was dated, if I am not mistaken, the 26th of September and even contained a few pen and ink sketches, which, candidly, would not do for publication in the Leipziger Illustrierte.

About the end of November, after exactly one quarter year, I left my employer, Johnson, mostly because he insisted that I ought to see a little more of the country and, in truth, the little which I had seen so far seemed pretty unimportant. Therefore, I embarked trustfully on the train with $17 in my pocket (the first American money I had earned) and travelled to Buffalo on Lake Erie, where I landed the next day with a conspicuously thinner purse. The reason I chose this particular place to commence a trip west was not to miss an opportunity of seeing Niagara and the Falls. When I arrived in Buffalo and after I had immediately made a trip to the aforementioned inspiring wonder of nature, I soon found that my cash reserve would not stand any kind of a trip west. So I decided to stay here and find a job. It wasn't easy but I finally succeeded. The editor of the local daily German paper, the "Buffalo Democrat", who was buried in work, accepted my offer to work for him, after he had discovered the modesty of my requirements. Consequently, I started work and, in a few days found myself editor, foreman of the print shop, etc., a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. Setting type I learned easily and so fast that I believe I could now, if necessary, hold a job as printer. I had the pleasure of seeing that, under my direction, the paper gained in reputation, even beyond the local limits and, what is most important, the number of subscribers increased.

I soon felt at home in the city, found many nice acquaintances, took part in club activities and also joined an amateur theatrical company (took the part of Secretary Wurm in a public performance of Schiller's "Kabale und Liebe" and was well received).
In short, to all outward appearances, I was leading a very comfortable life, in which the chief ingredient was lacking - my wife.
Her absence kept me in a melancholy state much of the time and this feeling became stronger every day, so that a life, which I really cannot complain about, seems very bitter to me. But then those are troubles connected with the state of matrimony, they sometimes make me think longingly of the happy times of bachelorhood, where one has no further worries beyond those of the present.
In January I sent you a copy of a weekly also put out by my paper, but I notice from your letter that it did not arrive. It will probably be impossible to get any German American papers to their destination in Germany, they are all undoubtedly forbidden.

Beginning of February I came here as assistant editor of the (New York) Abendzeitung, a large daily, which is two years old and is recognized at the moment as the leading paper in the Union (among the German language papers, of course, of which there are about 220; one is even being started in California). Since then I have been living here, without having had any further adventures.
I get $30 a month, approximately 45 (Prussian thaler), an amount on which one can live comfortably even here in New York. At any rate I doubt whether, with the existing postal conditions in Germany, I could have achieved a similar position there. I would have reestablished relations with the Berliner Nationalzeitung long ago, if I could find an address, through which I could send them articles. Everything directly addressed to the paper is confiscated (I have found that out). Please write to the editors from Magdeburg in my name and ask them to give you such an address. Also please mention that it was not my fault they did not receive the correspondence contracted for, so I sent three articles in July, two in August of last year, and only stopped because lack of acknowledgment had convinced me the articles had not been received. As soon as you hear write me, or perhaps the National Zeitung can write me directly, as I believe the danger of mail in this direction being intercepted, is not as great.

Mention in your letter that I have been for some time editor of a large German paper (Abendzeitung), therefore am at the source of the news, and that the respect in which the paper is held in the United States will be assurance of the quality of the articles.

Regards to sisters and brother-in-law, Hallbrockens,etc.
Your faithful brother

After writing you (brother Askan to sister Sophie)
I wrote to Berlin on the 8th until now (Sept. 6.). I have received no answer. If I get one in time I will write Herrmann, so that the letter will go with a ship leaving Bremen on the 18th.
If Bertha doesn't write then you could enclose a letter with mine, but you must write on thin paper so that the letter doesn't weigh too much.

Regards to all, I remain,
Your loving brother,
A. Raster