The Little-Known History of Friedrich Gerstäcker
Part of the fun of writing for a research university is that I get to read publications I otherwise never would have discovered.
Recently I read portions of the spring 2014 issue of Arkansas Historical Quarterly, which is a unique issue with essays about the German adventurer, Friedrich Gerstäcker. This traveler is mostly known for his adventure novels set in the American frontier, including the Arkansas backcountry. He never considered himself an immigrant, but rather an emigrant, as he had yet to find a place to settle. Eventually he accepted his restlessness as wanderlust and considered himself an adventurer.
Representing Gerstäcker’s diverse life while living in Arkansas from 1838 to 1842, the Arkansas Historical Quarterly includes essays from researchers in various disciplines and institutions—not just history, as one may assume. Many of the essays were written by University of Arkansas professors.
Kimberly Smith, university professor, and Michael Lehmann, associate professor, wrote about Gerstäcker’s somewhat understated accounts of Arkansas’ natural history.
“Gerstäcker provided the first detailed descriptions of old-growth bottomland forests in eastern Arkansas, a mosaic of very large trees, forest openings and nearly impenetrable thickets,” wrote Smith and Lehmann.
Robert Cochran, professor of English, published his essay that contrasts Gerstäcker’s accounts of Arkansan pioneer life from other early explorers. Previous explorers were Scottish and Englishmen who were considered “gentlemen scientists.” They thought the frontiersmen and their families behaved “like savages.” They disliked the lack of education, industry and religion they found in the south. On the other hand, Gerstäcker enjoyed the local hospitality and independence from the more “civilized” cities.
The issue features two more authors from the University of Arkansas. Kathleen Condray, associate professor, from the department of world languages, literature and culture, wrote the essay “The Kerl in the Wild West: Friedrich Gerstäcker’s Die Regulatoren in Arkansas and Friedrich Schiller’s Die Rauber.” Michael Pierce, associate professor, from the department of history, wrote “Charles O. Haller: Friedrich Gerstäcker’s Secessionist Friend.”
What I love about this issue of Arkansas Historical Quarterly is how each essay focuses on another aspect of a multidimensional person–not many people today write across various genres, live off the land or settle for a few months at a time in different parts of the country. If you read a biography about a modern individual, more than likely that person is known for being an athlete, a politician or even a physicist.
Gerstäcker, and many travelers of his generation, were not known for one career. An essay cannot discuss Gerstäcker as a novelist without discussing his political reporting. We cannot talk about him as a naturalist without noting his anthropological observations. By utilizing the diverse topics and perspectives from different professors, the Quarterly arguably comes close to revealing who Gerstäcker was, not what a textbook might briefly mention he did.