At the height of the Cold War the United States government made a concerted effort to attract European intellectuals to the "American Way of Life." In 1958 the US State Department invited the great writer Wolfgang Koeppen to travel across the US - at the expense of US taxpayers. The result was a fascinating travelogue, originally intended for German radio, but later published as Amerikafahrt.
Although this was Koeppen's first trip to America, it was really a homecoming, since he had traveled to America so often in his mind. Koeppen read all the American writers, but his image of America was perhaps shaped most by a writer who never set foot on US shores - Franz Kafka with his early novel Amerika. Koeppen had encountered American GIs in US-occupied Munich. And his postwar masterpiece - Tauben im Gras ("Pigeons in the Grass") - was Koeppen's reckoning with America. Or, rather, with the America of his imagination.
Koeppen arrived in New York Harbor on an ocean liner, and, setting foot on American soil, is overcome with a sense of homecoming, but also a strong feellng of freedom:
Ich stand in New York. Ich hatte dies oft geträumt, und es war nun wie ein Traum; und wie im Traum gab es kiene Fremde. Ich war auch hier zu Hause, und Amerika lag vor mir wie ein fester Besitz. Ich spürte Freiheit. Ich empfand Freiheit. Die Freiheit war der Wind.
In New York, Koeppen is in his element. He feels a special affinity to the city and its people. Later he often told friends that he wished he could spend an entire year living in New York and writing. Alas, that never happened, but Koeppen did manage to return to the city he loved several times, including one last visit in 1987 shortly before he died. I consider myself a New Yorker, but it is wonderful to see the city through the eyes of a modernist genius. Koeppen explored every corner of Manhattan, and even ventured to the other boroughs. Koeppen's writing made me nostalgic for a place that has largely vanished. Today Times Square is a sanitized Disney Land East for tourists, but in Amerikafahrt 42nd St. lives in all its past seedy glory - the peep shows, the greasy spoons, the human spectacle are all here. (Im Tageslicht glich der Broadway hier der Hamburger Reeperbahn, bevor am Abend die Lichter des Vergnügens angehen und die Mädchen sich geschminkt haben).
Koeppen leaves the Manhattan of John Dos Passos and travels south to the Washington DC of Walt Whitman and LIncoln, then by train to the Deep South of William Faulkner. In New Orleans he searches without success for the jazz of his youth - but it has disappeared. He then travels west through the desert to Los Angeles, where he peaks behind Hollywood's facade. Then on to San Francisco, back east through Upton SInclair's cattle yards and slaughter houses in Chicago, then a brief visit in staid and European Boston, and finally back to New York - where he flies back to Germany.
Koeppen was fascinated by race relations in the US - one of the central themes of Tauben im Gras. In 1958, the civil rights movement hadn't really gathered steam, but Koeppen could sense that change was in the air. Everywhere he went he sought out black people - in black churches, black cemeteries, black diners, black waiting rooms in southern train stations. He felt completely at home in Harlem, In Chicago he met with the CEO of Ebony Magazine. He wrote about his feelings has his train enters the Deep South:
Wir waren in die dunklen Staaten der Rassentrennung gekommen. Wartesäle, Speiseräume für diese oder jene Haut, Pervertierungen der menschlichen Würde...
Whenever possible, Koeppen would sit in the "Colored" sections, knowing he could get away with it as a "dumb tourist".
The other aspect of America that Koeppen captures so brilliantly in Amerikafahrt it the sense of loneliness that pervades so much of American society. We catch glimpses of Edward Hopper's America from the train, as it passes through small towns, or on Broadway in mid-town Manhattan, or even with the Beats that Koeppen finds in San Francisco. Here is Koeppen at a strip club in Washington DC - a stone's throw from the Capitol building:
Man konnte glauben, mit dem Wesen, das sich da mit starrem Lächeln anbot, allein zu sein, allein mit dem Mädchen, das man für seine Träume kaufte. Wieder war hier stark die Einsamkeit zu spüren, die besondere amerikanishe Einsamkeit, vor der sich Amerikaner fürchten und die sie hassen.
(One could pretend to be alone with the creature, who offered herself with the fixed smile, to be alone with the girl that one could buy for his fantasies. Eveb here there was a strong sense of loneliness, that certain American loneliness that Americans both fear and hate. )
I have some good news for English readers: in August 2012 Berghan books will be releasing an English translation of Wolfgang Koeppen's Amerikafahrt (Journey Through America, translated by Michael Kimmage). I urge you to pick up a copy, along with Pigeons on the Grass.