A nation's history in a family's memory

LIVES AND LETTERS OF AN IMMIGRANT FAMILY Edited by Kenneth Kronenberg University of Nebraska Press 210 pp., $45

The story of the succeeding waves of immigrants who left their homes in the old country to seek a new life in America is so well-known that we often lose sight of how remarkable it really is. We sometimes forget that immigrant experience is not a story, but many different stories, each in some ways typical, in others, unique.

One family who left a treasure-trove of writings about their experiences were the van Dreveldts, who emigrated from Germany in the 1840s. Passed down for generations, these letters not only offer a colorful picture of life in 19th-century America, but also provide self-portraits of the individuals who wrote them.

The van Dreveldt brothers, Anton and Theodor, were the illegitimate sons of a Roman Catholic priest and his housekeeper, who claimed the children were adopted. Theodor, the younger son, born in 1811, was the first to try to make a new life in America.

One of his university friends who'd settled in Missouri, a popular destination for Germans of that generation, encouraged Theodor to follow his example, declaring, "I never felt such pride in myself as now that I am a free farmer on my own land." But it was necessary, he warned, to be sure that "you really are a republican and a democrat and will be able to leave at home any ... aristocratic notions ... whether birth, wealth, or education."

Finding Missouri too hot and fever-ridden, Theodor ventured north to the Wisconsin territory, which was still mainly inhabited by Indians. Living in a log cabin, as he reported home, was no picnic: "You know how building is done here: one lays logs on top of each other and fills in the chinks with mud and dirt. It was too late in the winter for me to do this because everything was frozen solid.... The wind blows through from all sides, and the worst thing is that I didn't build myself a fireplace but am relying on a small stove. Sometimes, the only way to stay warm is to lie in bed. Once, I couldn't even get warm there, and it was only by placing a puppy at my feet that I was able to avoid the pain."

To finance his New World venture, Theodor had sold his share of the family estate to his older brother, Anton, who was supposed to send him the funds he needed. But Anton does not seem to have kept his side of the bargain. Theodor was unable to make a go of it. He returned to Germany, but continued to maintain that nothing in Europe could compare with the freedom he'd known in America.

No sooner did Theodor return than Anton departed for Missouri. A heavy drinker, morose, and not very trustworthy, he did not share his brother's liberal sentiments. Despite some setbacks, however, Anton, who had better training in agriculture, managed to make a life for himself in the New World.

Rather than simply offer a selection of letters, the translator, Kenneth Kronenberg, uses them as the centerpiece of a pithy account of this particular family's history and the history of the times. Discussing everything from 19th-century German student organizations to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, Kronenberg supplies us with the background necessary to understanding this family's story - and the stories of many more like them. As Kronenberg reminds us, "Emigration tore people from their families and homes.... No wonder that emigrants did whatever they could to stay in touch with loved ones."

The van Dreveldts were no exception. Their richly descriptive, strongly expressive letters are in some ways even more worth reading a century and a half later.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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