Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Rhine as a New York State of Mind

My recent zeal for seeing New York has been partly motivated my wish to see evidence of Dutch influence in America. In particular, I want to see remnants of architecture. While researching the subject of the Dutch in America I was delighted (and surprised) to learn that the Hudson River was once called the American Rhine.

Lake George, Thomas Chambers

How did this comparison come into being? Perhaps there is a simple answer out there, but I have yet to find it. My gut instinct says that Dutch settlers themselves encouraged others to cultivate the same relationship between the Hudson and the nation as the United Provinces had with the Rhine.

In the early modern perspective of the Netherlands, the Rhine was a local portal for commerce in its global commercial empire. It was an area from which they could invest in proto-industry and purchase agricultural goods (especially German wines) and timber. In the down-river perspective, the Rhine was a vast, empty plain waiting to be developed. Painters like Van Goyen imagined the flat space as much as the flowing water–indeed, he could displace the river from his picture. I would guess that the Dutch settlers would have made the same connections between the Hudson River, the frontier, and the outlet to world trade. They situated New Netherland/New York in a global perspective. The modern Rhine was imagined from an interior perspective–more up-river. The landscape was dominated by a complex of elements: the river, the cities, the cathedrals.

View of the Rijnland, Jan Van Goyen

In the early nineteenth century the Rhine River became a favorite subject of Romanticism. It also became a favorite subject of travel writing, especially for British writers. New York writers, like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, focused on the Rhine as well. Inspired by his travels up both rivers and by the Grimm brothers, Irving transferred legends of the Rhine to the Hudson. Cooper also traveled up the Rhine. His novel The Pioneers reflects on different peoples who inhabit the region:
Major Hartmann was a descendant of a man who, in company with a number of his countrymen, had emigrated with their families from the banks of the Rhine to those of the Mohawk. This migration had occurred as far back as the reign of Queen Anne; and their descendants were now living, in great peace and plenty, on the fertile borders of that beautiful stream.

The Germans, or "High Dutchers," as they were called, to distinguish them from the original or Low Dutch colonists, were a very peculiar people. They possessed all the gravity of the latter, without any of their phlegm; and like them, the "High Dutchers" were industrious, honest, and economical. Fritz, or Frederick Hartmann, was an epitome of all the vices and virtues, foibles and excellences, of his race. He was passionate though silent, obstinate, and a good deal suspicious of strangers; of immovable courage, in flexible honesty, and undeviating in his friendships.

Writing about the Hudson and about the Rhine, did they take their Rhine-informed image of the Hudson and impose it on the Rhine? Was there cross-pollination between the two river?


Cooper’s trip down the Rhine was dominated by extreme elements. Cooper, traveling in the 1840s, started from Paris, visited Brussels and Liege, entered Germany at Aachen, traveled across to Cologne, went up river by carriage until he reached Baden, at which point his path took him away from the river, through Wutermberg, until he found it again in Switzerland. Until he started to travel down the river, Cooper was unimpressed with what he saw. Aachen was “narrow” and “a crowded and not particularly neat place.” He found the old home of Charlemagne overpopulated for city so displaced from the world stage. The plain between Aachen and Cologne was “flat and monotonous.” And he was unimpressed by Cologne. He showed reverence for the Dom, describing it as a magnificent work of continual creation rather than an incomplete work. (One of the themes of his trip was how Cathedrals framed civic life, and he laments that America has no such structures. More generally, he desires that American religious life developed a sense of magnificence and grandeur comparable with European Catholic rituals.) The city itself if filthy:
I do not know that there is a necessary connexion between foul smells and Cologne water, but this place is the dirtiest and most offensive we have yet seen, or rather smelt, in Europe. It would really seem that the people wish to drive their visiters into the purchase of their great antidote.

Cooper’s characterizations changed as soon as they entered the river valley. A stay at Bad Godesberg turned into a supernatural experience. Cooper and his party stayed at Nonnenwerth, a convent that had been turned into inn on an island in the middle of the river. The landscape around them was framed by the Siebengebirge mountain range with its castle ruins, the Drachenfels. According to legend, a returning crusaders returned home to find his betrothed in the convent. He built the castle to watch over the convent.

There was a thunderstorm that night. The lightning was the only thing that broke the darkness, illuminating the mountains and ruins periodically. The thunder roared through the valley. Cooper wandered through the old convent, unguided and lost.
I discovered a door, at one extremity of the passage. Bent on adventure, I pushed and it opened. As there were only moments when anything could be seen, I proceeded in utter darkness, using great caution not to fall through a trap. Had it been my happy fortune to be a foundling, who had got his reading and writing “by nature”, I should have expected to return from the adventure a [duke]. Perhaps, by some inexplicable miracle of romance, I might have come forth the lawful issue of Roland and the nun.

Finding his way to the convent chapel:
The dim light came from the high arched windows, and the bat’s wings were small broken panes rattling in the gale. But I was not alone. By the transient light I saw several grim figures, some kneeling, others with outstretched arms, bloody and seared, and one appeared to be in the confessional. At the sight of these infernal spectres, for they came and went with a successive flashed of the lightning, by a droll chain of ideas, I caught myself singing–“Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!–what a cheer, what a cheer?” in a voice loud as the wind. ... At this moment, when I was about to address [these diabolic looking forms] in prose, the door, by which I had entered the gallery, opened slowly, and the withered face of an old woman appeared in a flash. ... I gave a deep and loud groan ... . The door slammed, the face vanished, and I was alone again with the demons.

Rolandsbogen, Diezler

For the rest of the trip Cooper found the Rhenish landscape more agreeable. He fell in love with the wine, the castles, the small cities. He took shots at the Prussians for militarizing the Rhine. However, his viewpoint, influence by Romanticism, was more “Gothic” rather than “historical” or “natural.” Cooper seems to have missed the transformations taking place in the Rhine–the rise of industry in particular. And he made no distinctions between the bourgeois cities and the court cities.

By contrast, Heinrich Heine’s poet journey to Germany (Deutschland–published around the same time) was more historical and natural. The Romantic poet focused on centuries of conflict, the failure of the German enterprise in the late middle ages (Heine placed the blame for the lack of German unity on the Protestant Reformation). And it is a space of contemporary political conflict–between Prussians and liberals. Aachen is still a crowded city, but the Prussian soldiers disturb him. The Dom was a failure of German unity, and ought to remain unfinished. And Cologne spoke of a long history of religious strife (as opposed to the unity that Cooper perceived). (I’ll have more on Heine in a few days).


At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of American historians, including Nissenbaum, feel that the Dutch influence in New York was fabricated as part of the Nickerbocker mythology of the state. That being said, it is still interesting why Dutch ancestry and imagery were preferential to others.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

I wish I could say you let me off the hook with your comment, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how complex the problem could be.

I would ask how far the Knickerbocker School excavated as they "invented tradition" (to borrow Hobsbawm's words)? Often obsessions with the past led to real academic work to recover customs and architectures and to preserve what was left. The impulse to romanticize histories from which people were disconnected was powerful in Cooper's time. I am still left wondering how myth led them to compare two rivers.

Perhaps I should contact that mad historian of American culture.

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last I talked to him he was holed up on a mountain in Vermont and inviting me to stay with him and his partner, Dona!


At 6:44 PM, Blogger ^ said...


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