The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 16. Robert Reitzel

The distinction of having been the master of German prose in America belongs to the brilliant Robert Reitzel (1849–1898). He is of the type of the lyrical poets and essayists who arose in Germany during the eighties, like the brothers Hart, Arno Holz, and Karl Henckell, the last of whom Reitzel often mentions as his personal friend. Like these modern “Sturmer und Dränger,” Reitzel defies arbitrary power, loves truth even to a pose; he is the herald of a new socialistic age, a spokesman for the submerged class, the proletariat. Yet the most fascinating subject of his clear and sparkling prose is his own egocentric personality, a characteristic of the poet Heine, whose influence upon Reitzel is obvious. Reitzel’s self-portraiture is seen to best advantage in his Abenteuer eines Grünen, the story of his life, including his initial hardships in America, when the grinding wheel of fortune made a tramp of him. But even as an outcast he keenly felt the poetry of existence:

  • Ich lobe mir das Leben,
  • Juhei! als Vagabund,
  • Mich drücken keine Sorgen;
  • Frei bin ich alle Stund;
  • Die Erde ist mein Lager,
  • Der Himmel ist mein Dach,
  • Und mit den Vög’lein werd’ich
  • Des morgens wieder wach.
  • Rescued from despair by a German minister in Baltimore, he completed a course of study for the ministry already begun abroad, and he soon accepted a charge. But fortune again turned against him, when the congregation recognized in him a freethinker. Once more a wanderer, he lectured for some years and in many places, until he finally found liberal friends in Detroit who supplied the means in 1884 for his favourite wish, a weekly literary paper. This he named Der arme Teufel, and into it he poured his soul for the remaining fourteen years of his life. A kindred spirit, the poet Martin Drescher, collected some of his writings in Mein Buch (1900); a larger collection was published in a limited edition soon after by the Reitzel Club of Detroit, under the title Des armen Teufel gesammelte Schriften. Reitzel’s poems are hardly less noteworthy for their form than his prose. They betray an influence of Heine and Nietzsche, though not sufficient to obscure a style of his own.