Lateiner am Possum Creek

 

I am in the process of translating and annotating a Texas German novel by W.A. Trenckmann called in German Die Lateiner am Possum Creek, which I have provisionally titled The Eggheads on Possum Creek.  The novel deals with the plight of the educated German farmers during the Civil War who had settled in and around Millheim in Austin County, Texas. Trenckmann serialized the novel in his newspaper, Das Bellville Wochenblatt [The Bellville Weekly] beginning January 1908 and continuing on the back pages throughout the year. Born at Millheim in 1859, Trenckmann was a boy during the Civil War, but the tensions occasioned by the conflict, experienced acutely in his own family as well as the wider German community, left an indelible impression upon him.

Possum Creek is the fictional name given to Millheim by the author. Millheim was never a town in the normal sense; it was rather a cluster of educated German immigrant families who set up small subsistence farmsteads in walking distance from one another. To be sure, the community included in time a store, a doctor’s office, a school, a community hall, and several small shops, but these venues were often adjuncts to the more or less self-sufficient farmsteads. There were about thirty families associated with the community in its heyday.Many of the characters in the novel can be linked to real-life individuals and will be identified in footnotes during the course of the narrative.

Millheim counts as one of the Lateiner communities in Texas, that is, towns and communities where educated German immigrants tended to concentrate. The word Lateiner came about because in the 19th century knowledge of Latin was considered to be a sine quo non for an educated person, and this was especially true in Germany. Unfortunately, the closest English equivalent for Lateiner, “Latinist,” lacks the rich associations of the German term. The reader will quickly notice the prevalence of Latin words and phrases sprinkled throughout the novel, which reflects the classical grounding of most of the principal characters in the book. Charles Nagel, who also grew up in Millheim and subsequently became Secretary of Commerce in the Taft Administration, recalled that he had never known such a concentration of university-trained men in a single community.

W.A. Trenckmann’s father, Andreas Friedrich, like hundreds of other educated Germans, immigrated to North America for political reasons either prior to or following the failed revolution of 1848. Herr Lüttenhoff, one of the principal characters in the novel, is obviously closely modeled after his father. Accordingly, his father grew up in modest circumstances in the province of Brandenburg, but was a gifted student who by dint of hard work and self-discipline acquired a university education. Later, he became a schoolmaster at a private school in Magdeburg where he rose to a position of modest affluence and prestige. Proscribed from teaching because of his political beliefs, the father decided to emigrate with his family to America in 1849 and to begin a new life near Cat Spring and later Millheim.

As an adolescent, W.A. Trenckmann attended the frontier school organized and supported by the residents of Millheim for whom education was always a high priority. The school’s teacher, Gustav Maetze, was a powerful and positive influence on him for life. The influence of a respected teacher, especially when this influence conflicts with that of the father, is one of the themes of the novel. Using his excellent primary education as grounding, Trenckmann enrolled in the first class at the newly established Texas A&M College and graduated as the school’s first valedictorian in 1879. Thereafter, he began a career as an educator, first at the German language Hermann Academy at Frelsburg in Colorado County and later at Shelby in Austin County. He married Mathilde Miller on April 20, 1886.

In 1891 Trenckmann began publication of Das Wochenblatt, a German-language weekly newspaper in Bellville. He edited and published it continuously for over forty-two years, until its sale in 1933, but he continued to write for it until his death in 1935.The paper soon gained a reputation as one of the three most important voices of the German element in Texas, the others being the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung edited by Ferdinand Lindheimer and the San Antonio freie Presse für Texas published by August Siemering.

Throughout his long and distinguished career Trenckmann acted as a mediator, interpreter, and calm voice of understanding between the dominant Anglo culture and the substantial but minority German community; a two-way diplomat, as it were. His balance gained him the respect in both communities, which led to his election as a representative from Austin County in the Thirtieth Legislature in 1907. Thereafter, Trenckmann moved with his wife and four children from Bellville to Austin where he soon became a respected presence in the large German community in the capitol city and a civic leader in wider society as well. He served as a member and chairman of the board of directors of Texas A&M and was asked to become its president but did not accept. He also served as chairman of the board of directors of the Blind Institute (now the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired). Trenckmann also relocated his newspaper to Austin during this period.

Trenckmann, however, did not shy away from controversy. He was sensitive to one of the most thorny challenges for all democracies, namely how to reconcile the will of majority with the rights of the minority. In line with this, Trenckmann opposed Sunday laws and prohibition, both of which he considered to be examples of majority overreach and unnecessary infringements on personal freedoms. In several editorials he penned for the Austin Statesman, he also argued eloquently and persuasively for the principal of academic freedom, the importance of public education, and the right of new immigrants to retain their customs and language. He also took a firm stand against the Ku Klux Klan, anti-communist hysteria, and Know-Nothingism of all stripes.

Millheim, in contrast to the Hill Country Lateiner communities, arose and existed for many years as an island of refined German culture, language, and tradition in a sea that was largely Anglo-American, and, moreover, one that was dominated by the large slave and plantation holders who had settled up and down the Brazos River a few miles to the east. The German farmers here set up and farmed their modest farmsteads on a model reminiscent of the German system where paid farm laborers (Knechte), who usually lived with the families, augmented the labor of the farmer and his family.

They had left Germany, as Charles Nagel noted, not because they disliked Germany and its traditions, but rather because they could no longer live under the all-encompassing Obrigkeit [authority] that oppressed and stifled them at every turn, and which they considered a betrayal of true German values. They wanted to preserve the German language and German customs in their community even as they strove to be good American citizens. They saw no inconsistency in this, for the ideals they had supported in Germany were they same ideals that inspired the founding fathers and had found expression in the words of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The little community enjoyed an amazing amount of forbearance and independence in the decade prior to the outbreak of war. The Germans were left alone, for the most part, to go and do as they wished. Nor were they hassled for speaking German, as happened at a later date. On the contrary, they were feted for their industriousness and the fact that they paid their bills on time. Moreover, many of them brought with them valuable skills acquired through the centuries old German apprentice system (Zunftwesen). German carpenters, cabinetmakers, tailors, shoemakers, saddle and harness makers, etc., came to be highly prized in the quasi-frontier setting of the period.

But this situation of mutual tolerance was bound to come to an end. The simple fact that most of the Germans farmed on the free labor model was cause enough for suspicion in the early stages of the conflict. The vote for secession exacerbated mutual distrust because it showed the great majority of German settlers at Cat Spring and Millheim remained loyal to the Union in a way that was quantifiable and unmistakable. Ninety-nine votes were cast against secession and only eight for at the Millheim-Cat Spring box.  The situation worsened markedly, however, after the imposition and enforcement of conscript laws in the spring of 1862. Prior to this, the South had relied on volunteers are called up militias, which were at root also voluntary. Thus, those who were opposed to the war could simply side step the conflict. With the imposition of the conscription laws, however, this became increasingly more difficult.

In consequence of these developments, the Germans of South Central Texas decided to meet and discuss how best to react. They met secretly on at least two occasions—once at Shelby and then again at Biegel’s store in Fayette County. When the military authorities got wind of these clandestine gatherings, they misinterpreted the news as a growing rebellion in the heart of the state, panicked, and declared martial law. In truth, the Germans resolved in their gatherings to keep as low a profile as possible and try to stay neutral as best as they could. Henceforth, however, the Home Guard devoted its manpower to hunting down draft evaders, intimidating the German families, and preventing gatherings within the German settlements. It was a tense situation that could easily have escalated into open conflict and/or a low-grade guerilla war similar to what happened with the Hill Country settlements. This did not happen in South-Central Texas and this is largely attributable to the leaders in the German community, like W.A. Trenckmann’s father, who counseled restraint, prudence, and understanding, even though personally fervently anti-slavery and pro-Union in sentiment. Herr Lüttenhoff in the novel embodies this approach.

A large literature has arisen concerning the attitude of the German settlers toward slavery and secession in Texas during the Civil War, especially in regard to the more spectacular incidents, such as the Battle of the Nueces, which took place between a group of sixty-four (largely) disaffected Germans seeking to make their way to Mexico and a larger contingent of Confederate forces, who overtook and ambushed them in a remote stretch of the Nueces in August 1862.  For the purposes of this introduction, let it be noted that scholars still disagree as to the true nature of German dissent, which remains elusive. What has been largely overlooked in much of the secondary literature, however, is that the Texas Germans themselves actually had a lot to say on the subject. Their voices offer a true window into the nuances and complexities of the situation. Unfortunately, much of this literature has remained inaccessible.  It is the purpose of this translation to present a work of literature to a wider audience that is gripping and entertaining in its own right even as it contributes to our appreciation for the hard choices faced by the educated German farmers in Texas at the time.

The Novel

Exactly how to classify Die Lateiner am Possum Creek is somewhat problematic. Clearly, at the time it was written, 1908, it would have been considered a historical romance since it is a love story set in the waning months of the Civil War. I would argue, however, that it is more than that; it is a historic historical romance, as it were, since it was written by someone who experienced first-hand the events he describes and who then chose to present his reflections through the device of the historical romance. Moreover, the novel clearly uses the love story as a means to portray history rather than using history as a means to enhance a love story. In other words, the emphasis is history not romance; an important distinction.  Nevertheless, the story of the budding romance between Kuno and Hedwig is touching, engages the reader at a basic level, and carries the narrative along.

Although written in German, it is at root a Texas story; an important contribution to a large and impressive body of Texas German literature that has remained largely inaccessible to non-German readers, but has significance wider than the German story. Texas, the Seventh Star of the Confederacy, contrasted with the core Southern States in important ways and its citizens experienced the war differently on the home front. The novel offers as clear a window as any other literary work known to me into this distinct Texas experience of daily life during the last eight months of the conflict, which all Texans experienced to one degree or another.

Slavery had spread very unevenly through Texas. It was extensive on the lower reaches of the Trinity, Brazos, and Colorado Rivers; the lower southeastern quadrant of the state. Here, very large plantations dominated and the majority of the settlers originated from the Lower South where slavery had a long history and ingrained presence. Emigrants from the Upper South, on the other hand, settled large swaths of North Texas. They originated from an area where slavery was less prevalent. Some of these families had slaves but many did not. Finally, the so-called Hill Country area was, with few exceptions, essentially slave-free. This is where German emigrants had settled in large numbers beginning in 1845 and had established a string of homogenous communities that continued to exist in relative isolation until the Civil War and thereafter.

Thus, although the large plantations dominated the politics of the state and set the one culturally, economically, and socially for large swaths, at least three areas—North Texas, South-Central, and Central Texas (Hill Country)– had sizeable populations that were less than eager to fight a war to preserve slavery. This led to tensions during the war that resulted in violence on more than one occasion. The Great Hanging at Gainesville, the largest mass lynching in the history of North America, took place in North Texas in 1862, whereas the  Battle of the Nueces emerged as emblematic for Hill Country German resistance. Although no high profile events comparable to either the Gainesville hangings or the Nueces encounter took place in South-Central Texas, tensions ran high enough for martial law to be imposed with attendant suspension of civil liberties. The threat of a tribal eruption of violence always lay close at hand and this tension is captured in Trenckmann’s novel.

Texas also differed from other states of the Confederacy in that it largely avoided the devastation of war. No large battles, no foraging armies on the move, no Sherman’s scorched-earth march to the sea befell the citizens of the state to compound their sacrifices and war-time deprivations. There were hardships enough, to be sure, but they paled in comparison to what the citizens of (say) Georgia experienced. Also, proximity to Mexico produced a situation where many actually profited handsomely during the war from the cotton trade. The German community of New Braunfels was especially well positioned in this regard, and not a few actually grew rich from the trade. In general, the novel conveys a good sense of life on the home front in Civil War Texas: deprivation and hardship abound, but life goes on more or less tolerably.

The novel, however, can be read and interpreted in two distinct ways, and therein lies the richness of the work. Most will praise the novel for the clear window it offers to the very complex situation of divided loyalties experienced by the German settlers of Millheim and, by extension, to the wider German community in Texas during the war. But the novel can also be read in a completely different way; namely, it casts light on the complexity of late 19th German society as well and the many diverse causes for emigration. The novel presents a whole host of easily recognizable German stereotypes–the absent-minded and eccentric German professor, the self-made teacher, the titled aristocrat, the skilled tailor, the money grubbing opportunist, the clueless student of theology, the soldier of fortune, the titled Prussian officer, the dedicated school teacher, the simple farm laborer, etc., set against the unique stresses posed by the American Civil War. Their varied reflexes offer a narrative that also illuminates the complex class structure of post-revolutionary and pre-Second Empire Germany, a period that is usually referred to as Biedemeyer.

That this was a conscious purpose of the novel gains support from the many extensive digressions in the novel explaining in great detail the European side of the story that led most of the principal characters to emigrate. Thus the tale becomes consciously a two-continent commentary illuminating the history of both Texas and Germany of the period.

From a strictly literary point of view, the novel has an unusual and complex structure. It is quite sophisticated on several levels with frequent allusions to contemporary French, German, and English literary works of the 19th century as well as allusions to classical Latin and Greek works. It also assumes a close familiarity on the part of the reader with the historical events of 19th century Germany, especially the failed revolution of 1848. The language is elevated, the structure complex, and the flow interrupted by many digressions. Trenckmann has a great affinity for the so-called Bandwurmsatz [tapeworm sentence]; that is, remarkably long sentences strung together with relative clauses in a way that is only possible to do in German. This creates challenges for the translator. It is neither possible, nor desirable to recreate such sentence structure in English. The translator has to find a different rhythm and texture that sounds right in English but yet does not depart too radically from the German.

Although narrated from a third-person point of view, Trenckmann occasionally and jarringly shifts the narration to directly address his readers or to insert humorous interchanges between himself and his daughter, who impatiently awaits the next scene or chapter from the story as her father works on his typewriter in his study.

The tone of the novel also shifts: several chapters have a a light and breezy tone, such as the depiction of the home guard in training camp where the absurd and humorous are stressed.  Other chapters offer a much more ominous tone, such as when Hedwig gets lost in the forest and is stalked by a jaguar. The mood of the novel shifts as rapidly as the Texas weather, which Trenckmann describes with a love/hate familiarity that can only come from years of first hand exposure. The novel also offers marvelous descriptions of the natural world characteristic of the lower Brazos River watershed. The author betrays both a painter’s eye and a schooled naturalist’s wonder for detail. As with the natural world, so too does the complex social mixture of the period–, slave/master relationships, slaveholder/non-slaveholder, German/Anglo. educated/ uneducated, etc.– received minute and nuanced treatment. The author’s detailed depiction of the Phillips slave plantation both in respect to its physical layout and the people who inhabit it  (modeled closely on the historic Ellersby Planation) is clearly of great historic value.

To conclude, Lateiner on Possum Creek is an important Texas novel.  Accessibility to a wider audience is long overdue. The novel is love story, Civil War story, and an attempt through the medium of the novel to make palpable not only the complex response of the German farmers of Millheim to slavery, secession, and the Civil War but also to portray a much wider picture of Texas home front life during the Civil War.

I hope to finish the manuscript in 2017.

James C. Kearney