In 1938 the American newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson stormed into the Oval Office and demanded that her friend Franklin immediately sign an affidavit permitting one of her German friends to enter the United States. An amused and irritated FDR must have wondered who the chap was whom he was helping, but he signed. And thus began a fruitful collaboration between the great playwright Carl Zuckmayer and his adopted home the United States, culminating with Zuckmayer becoming a US citizen in 1946 and returning to Germany as the American cultural attache.
Like many of his fellow exile writers and artists, Zuckmayer found himself in Hollywood writing screenplays for a living (see my reviews of Pazifik Exil and Salka Viertel's Kindness of Strangers). But, as he wrote in his autobiography Als wär’s ein Stück von mir, he found life in California sterile and unsatisfying. So with the help of his friend Dorothy Thompson he and his wife acquired a small farm in Vermont, where they eked out a living raising goats.
The hard life in Vermont paid dividends, however, since Zuckmayer developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of America and ordinary Americans than his exiled compatriots in Hollywood. in 1943 he wrote a charming short novel - Vermonter Roman - which was discovered in his unpublished Nachlass and finally published in 1996, nearly 20 years after his death. Vermonter Roman could only have been written by someone who - with a nod to Robert Frost - was "versed in country things" for Zuckmayer captures the harsh beauty of the landscape and the complexities of the people in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. He wrote to his friend Franz Horch about his inspiration for the novel:
"Amerika - Vermont - unser blutiges Leben - und das ungeheuer Erlebnis dieser Landschaft, und die süsse Gewalt unsrer Träume. Ich weiss, dass es sehr gewagt ist, nach drei Jahren eine amerikanische Geschichte zu schreiben. Aber ich weiss, dass es richtig ist, weil ich nicht anders kann."
(America - Vermont - our bloody life - and the amazing experience of this landscape, and the sweet violence of our dreams. I know it is presumptuous to write an American story after just three years. But in know it's the right thing to do because I cannot do otherwise.)
Vermonter Roman begins with the a description of the bucolic Vermont backwoods in winter and the community of people who look after each other as good neighbors. Soon, however, it is apparent that there are threats to the rural idyll; threats from within - in the menacing figure of Norman Trombley - and threats from outside the community in the camp of itinerant woodcutters. There is a dark side to the tranquility and closeness of the community. Even the main character, a blond all-American teenage "girl next door" - Sylvia McManama - has secrets and sorrow in her past. Like small-town teenagers everywhere, Sylvia is torn between love of Heimat and wanting to leave the woods behind to travel the world. The two poles of her desire appear in the form of two men. The young lumberjack Thomas Steingräber is a refugee from Nazi Germany who is on the run from his past and tormented by inner demons. Thomas sees Sylvia as someone who can save him from his restless wandering, while for Sylvia Thomas represents the lure of the beyond. Thomas, the permanent outsider, wishes he could create a Heimat for himself in the small Vermont village:
Sogar die grellen Lampen der Hauptstrasse, indie sie jetzt einbogen, - sogar der elektrische Osterhase, der an der Front eines Geschäftshauses in bunten Lichtern auf- und abflammte, um für >Olsson's Eggnoodles< Reklame zu machen, - alles war gut, richtig und liebenswert. Hier müsste man geboren sein, dachte Thomas. Es ist eine Heimat. Hier sollte man bleiben - für immer.
(Even the harsh streetlamps on Main Street, where they now turn onto, - even the electric Easter Bunny, which flashed on and off in bright colors to advertise Olsson's Egg Noodles on a storefront - everything was good, correct and endearing. One ought to be born here, thought Thomas. One is at home here. One ought to stay here - forever.)
Thomas' rival for Sylvia's affections is the much older Oliver Paine, who, like Hölderlin's hermit, lives cut off from all civilization, deep in the Vermont backwoods. Oliver is at home with the animals and the trees; he is self-sufficient, or so he thinks until he meets Sylvie, who is fascinated by this man's quiet strength and calm demeanor.
in his Vermonter Roman, Zuckmayer is not as much interested in writing about the ordinary Vermonters he encountered on his farm as depicting universal themes and tropes with Vermont as a natural backdrop. Zuckmayer incorporates elements of fairy tales and folk legends, including the legend of Melusine and that of Armer Heinrich.
"Nun bin ich ja weit davon entfernt, >typische< Amerikaner schildern zu wollen oder average people und so, sondern Menschen halt, und ich glaube an die Universalität des Menschlichen und an die Bedeutung des Individuums. Meine Menschen könnten überall leben - ihr background und ihre Farbe ist Vermont."
(It is not my goal to want to write about "typical" Americans or average people and such, but rather human beings, and I believe in the universality of the human experience and on the significance of the individual. My characters could live anywhere - Vermont is their background and color.")
Vermonter Roman is a true gem, a pleasure to read and a wonderful gift by Zuckmayer to the state and to the people who gave him refuge during the dark years.