Thursday, November 7, 2013

Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book (1842)

1844 edition
Was the first western novel written in German? Many Americans know of Karl May (1842–1912), but even before him there’s the remarkable story of Charles Sealsfield, the pen name of an Austrian, Carl Anton Postl (1793–1864). After breaking his monastic vows, he traveled to America in 1822, and though he eventually settled in Switzerland in 1832, his career as a novelist began in the English language.

His first novel, Tokea, or The White Rose (1828) is set in Louisiana, its title character an Indian chief who rescues an orphaned white girl. It is a big-hearted historical novel with cameo appearances by Stonewall Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte. The novel was well received by American readers and was later published in London and translated to German as Der Legitime und der Republikaner in 1833.

Sealsfield seems to have fallen in love with the American frontier and continued writing in German a series of novels set in Texas, beginning with Das Kajuttenbuch, oder Nationale Charakteristiken, published in 1842. It was first translated by C. F. Mersch and published in New York as The Cabin Book, or Sketches of Life in Texas in 1844. That edition incorrectly identified the author as “Seatsfield.” Another translation was published in London as The Cabin Book, or National Characteristics in 1852, followed by an American edition in 1871.

Morse rescued
Plot. A group of mostly single Mississippi plantation owners gather in a modest house built by a former sea captain. An oddly built structure, it resembles a ship’s cabin, from which the novel gets its name. The men spend a long night in gentlemanly banter, drinking, and telling stories. A newcomer among them, Edward Morse, is a Marylander who has been on the Texas frontier. He tells of getting lost on the endless flat prairies along the Gulf coast and being rescued by a wild man described as a bear hunter.

The man, Bob Rock, is acting strangely and seems to be having a psychotic episode. He takes Morse with him to the local alcalde who has a large cotton plantation. There he confesses that he has killed a man and tells a story of shooting a traveler for his money belt and burying the body under a massive tree. He is overwhelmed with guilt and wants to pay for his crime.

The alcalde calls a jury of other plantation owners who hear his case, and over the alcalde’s objections, they determine he should be hanged. The alcalde argues that Texas needs men of Bob’s fierce nature to fight for independence from Mexico. But the other men do not share his opinion.

The trial of Bob Rock
With the alcalde’s assistance, Bob survives his hanging, and on the battlefields of 1835 he mysteriously appears to fight alongside the Texan volunteers. At the Battle of San Jacinto the following year, Bob is mortally wounded and dies. Though a man with a dishonorable past, he has demonstrated the kind of fearless patriotism Sealsfield claims as a “national characteristic.”

More stories. The storytelling goes on into the night as an Irishman regales them with an account of the Curse of Kishogue, about a man being hanged for the theft of a horse. Disappointed that a fiddler is not there to entertain him on the way to the gallows, he declines a last drink from a sympathetic bar maid.

The Battle of Jacinto
Going to his death cold sober, he is too disgruntled to address the assembled crowd with any last words. Alas, with his rush to finish his execution, he is hanged before the arrival of a pardon. Thus began the tradition of a parting glass of punch before ending an evening of revelry. Not to observe it is to invite the Curse of Kishogue.

Another story follows as one of the men tells of witnessing the siege of a Spanish garrison during the war of independence in Peru in 1825. And as light dawns on a new day, we discover that the the young Edward Morse has joined them for the night because he has been following a girl he’s in love with.

The last chapters of the novel tell of his meeting her in Paris and following her to New Orleans, jumping aboard a river steamer in pursuit of her and finally losing her in a crowd. Learning that he is far beneath her station, he is heartbroken but not discouraged. He manages to find her again and discovers that she is quite enamored with him. All ends happily.

Charles Sealsfield, 1864
Wrapping up. Sealsfield embraces in this novel the democratic spirit that is said to have enlivened his political writing. He had fled Europe originally because his published critiques of governments there had got him into trouble. The Cabin Book celebrates free-thinking and self-reliance and condemns the oppressions of both government and religion.

Where he may show some ambivalence is in the institution of slavery on the plantations. The novel, in this regard, is a window into the antebellum South, where household tasks are performed by “negroes,” and a plantation owner’s worth is measured in the number of slaves he owns. Sealsfield is careful not to portray this subject other than matter-of-factly, if not politely. When slaves do appear in the narrative, they are thoughtful, caring, and industrious.

The 1844 translation of The Cabin Book is currently available online at The Portal to Texas History and google books. The 1852 translation (illustrated) can be found at google books, Internet Archive and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.

Further reading:

Image credits:
Author's portrait, Wikimedia Commons
Illustrations from the 1852 edition

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction


  1. Never heard of the White Rose but it sounds quite down my alley. I'm going to have to see if I can get hold of it

    1. I had heard onlyof Karl May and was surprised to learn from a reader of the blog that the Old West triggered a tide of "westerns" written in other languages. Sealsfield seems to have thought of himself as "American" even after he returned to Europe.

  2. I just found out that Charles Sealsfield's treatment of telling a story (or several stories) within a story is very old and is known as a "frame story" if one can call it that. I think the author has handled the concept very well, weaving it around the main story of Edward Morse. It's fascinating that non-American writers like Charles Sealsfield and Oliver Strange wrote about the Frontier with passion and expertise.

    1. Definitely a frame story, like the Canterbury Tales to pick a really long-ago example.

  3. More wonderful historic books to read. Thanks! Doris

  4. I continue to appreciate your scholarly pursuit of early stories set in the West. Traditionally, The Virginian has been considered the prototypical first western because it involves an armed man making things right on the frontier and contains the story elements that were commonplace later. But these earlier stories seem to have many of the same elements and form a literature about persons in unsettled places, and how that affects their conduct. You have been steadily enriching my understanding of the field.

  5. Any writer who can bring in Jean Lafitte AND Stonewall Jackson is just begging to be read....

  6. The way the Germans have always wholeheartedly embraced cowboys and the Old West is touching.

  7. Fascinating bit of history. Thanks for the illuminating read.

  8. I have the 1844 NY copy and thanks to your wonderful outline I am going to dig it out and start reading it.