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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

June 28, 2023: Germany and America: 19th Century Figures

[On June 26th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. That was just one of many interesting moments that brought the two nations together, so for the speech’s 60th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy it and other German-American histories!]

What four German Americans collectively tell us about the arc of the 19th century.

1)      John Jacob Astor (1763-1848): Born Johann Jakob Astor, a butcher’s son in the small German town of Walldorf, John Jacob Astor died 85 years later in New York City as America’s first multi-millionaire. Because that fortune he established became a legacy that extended to many subsequent generations (each of them featuring someone named John Jacob Astor as well, including one who died on the Titanic), it’s easy to see Astor’s arc as inevitable or at least a given. But much like the New York City to which Astor moved in the late 1780s (having first immigrating to Baltimore in 1783), Astor’s Revolutionary-era origins were quite humble and his development equally gradual. Moreover, he continued to link both his own status and his adopted city to his German heritage, serving for example in his final decades of life as president of the German Society of the City of New York.

2)      The Roeblings: Another German-born New Yorker, one also named Johann/John, would contribute even more to the city’s landscape (in every sense). Born Johann August Röbling in 1804 Prussia, John Augustus Roebling emigrated to the US with his brother Carl in 1831 and became one of the Early Republic’s leading engineers. He designed multiple bridges, canals, and other engineering projects over the next few decades, but it was the Brooklyn Bridge that would become both his final project (he died of tetanus after an 1869 construction accident) and his most enduring legacy. That was especially true because both his son Washington Roebling and his daughter-in-law Emily Warren Roebling, themselves both engineers as well, took over and completed the project after John’s death. Another and an even more collectively influential multi-generational German American family to be sure!

3)      Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945): The complex and talented turn of the 20th century American realist and naturalist novelist was a second-generation German American, as his father John Paul Dreiser had immigrated to the US from Prussia. Although Dreiser spent a good bit of his life in New York and set a number of works there, he remained throughout his career more closely associated with Chicago, the city where he got his start as a journalist; that shift from New York to Chicago itself captures some of where American society and imaginations alike went in the last decades of the 19th century. But I would also say Dreiser consistently captured two key questions facing second-generation immigrants in the late 19th century as well as every other American in every time period before and since: what does it mean to achieve success, and what does it cost to do so? Each of these individuals and families offers a different set of answers, and together they begin to trace the arc of not just German Americans, but the nation itself in its first century and a half of existence.

Next German-American history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? German-American contexts you’d highlight?

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