Kill-deer in the Hands of a German Forty-Eighter: A Cooper Reference in Georg Weerth’s Humoristische Skizzen aus dem deutschen Handelsleben

Frank Bergmann (Utica College)

From James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter No. 54, Vol. XIX, No. 2 (Fall 2008).

Placed online with the kind permission of the author.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Cooper’s reception in Germany has been well documented, and his reputation in Germany has not suffered despite America and Germany fighting on opposite sides in two world wars (Lang 138). Indeed, the author of the present note remembers clearly and fondly reading selections from “Lederstrumpf” while a schoolboy growing up in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s, just as he remembers that the three favorite Mardi Gras trick-or-treat disguises for boys at that time were chimney sweep, cowboy, and Indian chief. The keys to Cooper’s German reputation, according to Morton Nirenberg, have been

those features of American life which German readers found so consistently attractive in Cooper’s works: the wilderness, the noble and ignoble savage, and the hard and hearty life on the frontier. Although such themes had been popular in Germany long before Cooper, it was he, much more so than any other American author of his time, who imprinted them with a stamp of indelible authenticity. (74)

Georg Weerth

Georg Weerth (1822-1856) was born in Detmold, principality of Lippe, as it were between The Spy and The Pioneers. The son of a Protestant churchman of some importance, he was trained as a businessman in the emerging industrial center of the Ruhr region, worked for several years as a bookkeeper in Cologne, met Friedrich Engels in London and Karl Marx in Brussels and in 1848-1849 edited the literary section of their communist paper Neue Rheinische Zeitung. After the failure of the 1848-1849 revolution, he spent most of his remaining years abroad and eventually died in Havana, Cuba (von Wilpert; also, “Über Georg Weerth”).

Between 1845 and 1848, Weerth published Humoristische Skizzen aus dem deutschen Handelsleben (“humorous sketches of German commercial life”). In one particular sequence, the merchant Preiss lectures his bookkeeper Lenz on the hurt the revolutionary times have been inflicting on the economy in general and on Mr. Preiss’s pocketbook in particular. In fact, things are so bad that Lenz will be losing his job — though the arrival of the newspaper just then keeps the boss from actually pronouncing the fateful words. The next day, Lenz appears in the office as an armed citizen in a fantastical garb:

An seiner Seite trug er einen Säbel, den sechs Mann nicht aus der Scheide zu ziehen vermocht hätten. Auf seiner Schulter lag ein Gewehr, ein Kuhbein, lang, wie es Lederstrumpf getragen, der Coopersche Nordamerikaner. Auf seinem Haupte schwankte eine Mütze mit der schwarz-rot-goldenen Kokarde, groß wie ein Wagenrad. ... Der Herr Lenz glich einem Soldaten aus der Armee Sir John Falstaffs, einem Warze, einem Schimmelig. Rechtes Kanonen-Futter war der Kerl vom Schädel bis zur Sohle. (Weerth 104)

[“At his side he wore a saber which six men wouldn’t have been able to pull out of its scabbard. On his shoulder there lay a gun, a cow’s leg, long, just as Leatherstocking, Cooper’s North American, had carried it. On his head there teetered a hat with the black, red, and gold cockade, large as a cartwheel. ... Mr. Lenz resembled a soldier of Sir John Falstaff’s army, a Wart, a Mouldy. From top to bottom the fellow was proper cannon fodder.”]

For brevity’s sake, other details of Lenz’s outfit have been omitted. The reference to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 fixes Lenz as a military pretender, but the cream of the jest is precisely his success despite all the paraphernalia, for his ridiculous appearance thoroughly cows his boss, and not only is Lenz not fired but given a hefty raise instead.

In American terms, one might call Weerth’s description of Lenz as belonging to the genre of the tall tale, beginning with the saber which would befit Paul Bunyan to wield. In Cooper’s novels, Leatherstocking’s gun Kill-deer enjoys a reputation located somewhere between the tall tale and the medieval and classical epic. The bourgeois revolution of 1848-1849 is of course heroic business, and a communist participant such as Weerth would not be expected to make fun of it. Black/red/gold are the colors of today’s German flag but had emerged during the restoration of Europe’s monarchical powers after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo as the colors of the German revolutionary movement. Preiss is a pun on “price” (Preis) and on “Prussian” (Preiss being southern German dialect for standard German Preuße). It was the future Prussian king and German emperor Wilhelm I whose armed forces struck the critical blow against the Forty-eighters, and it was the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV who declined to accept the national assembly’s offer to be emperor. Lenz means “Spring,” with a secondary meaning of “an easy job.” As to Natty Bumppo’s gun, “cow’s leg” renders its rusticity but seems somehow disrespectful; in German, however, Kuhfuß (“cow’s foot”) is a military term for “gun” (Duden 747), and one may therefore accept Weerth’s term as a singularly acculturating choice.

The German national assembly drafted a constitution modeled on the French and American ones, with their emphasis on the rights of the individual. Leatherstocking is for Weerth the attractive embodiment of the spirit of individuality. It is neither the oversized saber nor the oversized hat which intimidates Mr. Preiss but the gun: he keeps fearfully glancing at it while he and Lenz review the situation, a review which ends in Lenz’s triumph. Weerth seems to suggest that the mercantile establishment is so hollow that a mere show of force can prevail over it; that the chief instrument of that show is one of Cooper’s great props, in both its theatrical and symbolic senses, speaks to the importance Cooper’s German contemporaries accorded him.

Works Cited

  • Duden. Deutsches Universalwörterbuch. Mannheim; Wien; Zürich: 1983.
  • Lang, Hans-Joachim. “Die Neue Welt der amerikanischen Klassik: Erzähler.” Nordamerikanische Literatur im deutschen Sprachraum seit 1945. Ed. Horst Frenz und Hans-Joachim Lang. München: Winkler, 1973. 137-62.
  • Nirenberg, Morton. The Reception of American Literature in German Periodicals, 1820-1850. Heidelberg: Winter, 1970.
  • Von Wilpert, Gero, ed. Lexikon der Weltliteratur. Band 1. 2ⁿᵈ ed. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1975.
  • Weerth, Georg. From Humoristische Skizzen aus dem deutschen Handelsleben. In Klassische deutsche Erzähler. Band 2. Ed. Karl Heinz Berger et al. Berlin: Neues Leben, 1954. 83-120.
  • “Über Georg Weerth.” Georg-Weerth-Gesellschaft Köln. 1-4. [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]