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A wat e Lëtzebuerger ass, dee wäert seng Sprooch och schwätzen ...1 Early Luxembourg Emigration Literature in the United States of America.


[About the article]
 

Nicholas Gonner

 
A discussion about Luxembourg American writers must inevitably start with one name: Nicholas Gonner (1835-1892). In his life, Gonner was many things: born in a suburb of Luxembourg City in 1835, he served as infantryman in the Imperial German Army in the beautiful old town of Echternach. After a few years, he took a post as civil servant in Remich, a small locality in the southeast of Luxembourg, where he became a self-taught civil engineer, designing a new bridge over the Moselle to facilitate travel between Luxembourg and Germany. The bridge never got built, but Gonner had already found a new passion, collecting old folk tales in his spare time, like his heroes, the Brothers Grimm.
 
But only after he emigrated to the United States of America at the age of thirty, did he find his true vocation: he restyled himself as a literary man. As the main driving force behind the German language newspaper Luxemburger Gazette, Nicholas Gonner, journalist, poet and publisher all in one, became the spokesperson for a whole generation of Luxembourg American emigrants in the Midwest. A dedicated Catholic and fiercely proud of both his old and new homeland, he made it his life's work to unite the ten thousands of people who emigrated from Luxembourg to the United States in the 19th century into a real community with mutual values and traditions. If a common Luxembourg American culture and heritage developed around the Great Lakes, this was largely due to Gonner's untiring efforts.2
 

 

Prairie Flowers

 
Prairie Flowers
In his publishing house in Dubuque, Iowa, Gonner issued many influential articles and books on Luxembourg history, society and mores. He authored a study on Luxembourg emigration to America, The Luxembourgers in the New World, which to this day is an invaluable tool for historians and genealogists,3 and printed a number of poetry books. The most important of these is Prairie Flowers, a collection of 62 poems in Luxembourgish, half of which were composed by Gonner himself, more than a third by his compatriot Nicolas-Edouard Becker (1842-1920) and a few by Jean-Baptiste Nau (1859-1891). Gonner had met Nau in a bar in Detroit and describes him as a "young boy from home [...] who, having only been in America for a few weeks, is already homesick."4 This longing for home shines through every line of the poems Nau contributed to Prairie Flowers.
 
But homesickness is only one of many subjects in this poetry collection. First published in 1883, Prairie Flowers covers a wide range of topics: there are songs on homesickness and friends back home in Luxembourg, uplifting religious poems, amusing tales about everyday life in the Midwest, exciting stories of Indian lore and American history, and last but not least tales and ballads inspired by Luxembourg history and folklore.
 
Gonner states in his preface to the book: "They say that America is the land of the almighty dollar; in Europe they believe that the people out here don't think of anything other than dollars and cents. With these Prairie Flowers, a collection of Luxembourg German poems, we aim to show that this is not always so." This very first sentence sets the objective for the book: Prairie Flowers is meant to make Luxembourg Americans proud, both of their European roots and their achievements in the New World. Gonner wants to keep time-honoured traditions alive and give the Luxembourg American community a sense of their cultural heritage.
 

 

Maria Consolatrix Afflictorum

 
Original text
Gonner was a devout Catholic. His newspaper, the Luxemburger Gazette, looked and read a lot like the Luxemburger Wort, the main Catholic newspaper of Luxembourg. When thinking of religious life in Luxembourg, one festivity immediately comes to mind: the Octave. Gonner's first poem in Prairie Flowers deals with precisely this topic. It's called Maria Consolatrix Afflictorum, Latin for Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted.
 
In the early 17th century, Europe was devastated by the ravages of the Thirty Years' War. Poor, abused and hungry, the population was an easy target for diseases. After a particular violent outbreak of the plague, a Jesuit teacher, Father Brocquart, initiated a pilgrimage carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Luxembourg. Ever since, on the third Sunday after Easter, there has been a procession in honour of Our Lady of Consolation. Soon communities from all over the region joined in the pilgrimage and nowadays the Octave is a two-week event with daily processions, church services in the Cathedral of Luxembourg and a very popular and bustling fair, the Mäertchen (small market).5
 
Gonner aptly captures the atmosphere of the festivities in his poem. At the end of each stanza, Mary's Latin title is mentioned, which gives the text an almost prayer-like rhythm. In verses 3 and 4, Gonner evokes the historical circumstances that led to Mary's worship in Luxembourg:
 
Disease once raged throughout the land / Grim Death took peasant and took prince, / The people came to understand / That God was punishing their sins. / Then prayed the rich men and the poor, / They asked for mercy, help and cure / From Consolatrix Afflictorum. When wars were waged with German states / And France invaded our grounds, / The people were in desperate straits, / But fought like lions the welsh hounds. / For victory prayed upon their knees / The prince just like the peasant: Please, / Help, Consolatrix Afflictorum.
 
After a minute description of the Octave in Luxembourg, we read in the last verse:
 
To Carey in Ohio go / In sunny May on the Octave / The pilgrims in processions slow, / They show unwavering trust and faith. / No Heathen, Jew can in the prairie / Keep them from honouring Saint Mary / As Consolatrix Afflictorum.
 
Here Gonner informs his readers that the Octave is also celebrated in the United States. What looks at first glance like a straightforward religious poem, thus turns out to be a piece of well-crafted patriotic publicity. The writer reminds his compatriots of an old tradition. He explains the reasons for the celebration and then proceeds to promote an opportunity to engage once more in this tradition, right here in America.
 
The enterprising young parish priest of Carey, Ohio, a Luxembourg emigrant by the name of Joseph P. Gloden, had worked hard to build a new church house for his community. During the construction, he vowed to dedicate the building to Our Lady of Consolation. When one of his parishioners travelled back to Luxembourg, Father Gloden commissioned him to bring back a replica of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral in Luxembourg City. On 24 May 1875, this new statue was formally established as the patroness of the new church during a procession. Local legend has it that, on this day, a wonder was witnessed in Carey: The weather had been really bad for a while, heavy rain and strong winds were harassing the region. And yet, when the time came for the pilgrims to bring the statue from Berwick to the new church in Carey, not a single drop of rain fell on the pilgrims. Our Lady of Consolation had looked out for her parishioners!6
 

 

Beckesch Klos

 
Church in Dacada
Carey was not the only American town to celebrate the Octave. St Nicholas Church in Dacada, Wisconsin, owned a wooden statue of Mary, Consoler of the Afflicted, since 1849. In 1854, the family of Beckesch Klos, as Nicolas Eduard Becker, the second poet whose works feature prominently in Prairie Flowers, was commonly known, settled on a farm nearby. The family was originally from Wormeldange on the Moselle. Beckesch Klos' father had been a vintner, but a series of bad years and growing German competition had ruined his livelihood. He emigrated with his family to the Midwest and became a farmer. After the death of his parents, Becker took over the farm. He played a very active role in the Luxembourgish and German communities of his region. He was a teacher in the local school in Dacada and, on Sundays and holidays, he played the organ in St Nicholas Church. He was also politically active and, in 1898, was elected as his county's representative in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
 
Like Gonner, Becker wanted to preserve the Catholic values and traditions of his native country, while also being proud of their new home, which offered them so many opportunities for personal development. And yet their experience of America was not the same: Gonner resided in Dubuque, a relatively large town that offered similar comforts to what he was used to. Becker had come to the United States as a young boy, at the age of eleven. His family had settled in a rural area, and at first they had to deal with great hardship: We didn't have bedsteads, no table, no chair, / The land we had bought was still woodland, I swear.
 

 

Remembrance

 
This line is from Becker's most famous poem, Remembrance. In it, he describes the difficult and often dangerous life of the first settlers on the Great Lakes. It is emigration literature at its most inspiring. Instead of yearning for his lost home, Becker composes an ode to friendship and hard work, he tells how the settlers took up the challenge and, all together, they made a new and better life for themselves.
 
Family house of Beckesch Klos
We worked hard all day, we were clearing and burning, / With smoke in the eye and the hands badly blist'ring, / We rarely complained, yes, all eager we were, / The hope in our hearts was a powerful spur. / And when we at last had a house and a stable, / Potatoes and bread and some meat on the table, / A school and a churchhouse stood now on our site, / All pain was forgotten, the future looked bright.
 
Looking back, Becker, remembers the pioneer days with fondness. He even adds, tongue in cheek, that when a cart became stuck in the mud, at least they could take a good swig from their flask. The Luxembourg emigrants lived the American dream, not by chasing after ever more riches, but by building up a home and a community in the new land.
 
Becker was not only a poet, but also a gifted musician who put several of his works to music. Remembrance was meant to be sung with friends on a quiet evening at home, or when the Luxembourgers gathered to celebrate a holiday and make merry. It was certainly often sung during the Chicago Schobermesse, the largest annual fair of Luxembourgers. Becker was a member of the Luxembourg Brotherhood of America, who organised the fair since 1903. In 1948, during the celebrations marking the centennial of the State of Wisconsin, Becker's son Jacob performed and recorded the song in Luxembourgish. Jacob Becker's unpretentious and earthy voice brings the words to life and even nowadays, the recording has lost nothing of its charm and vitality.
 
Many of Becker's poems celebrate life in rural America. He has a keen sense of the strengths and weaknesses of his compatriots and he delivers praise and admonition alike with a twinkle in his eye. Of his many funny tales, I particularly like Driving the Oxen, which tells of a young Luxembourger, Pierre, just off the boat in America, who seeks employment on a farm but doesn't speak any English. He's supposed to plough the field but the oxen refuse to budge and in frustration, he starts yelling at them in German and French. The farmer laughs and tells him that he needs to talk English to the animals, as in America all oxen / Like Yankees want to be. The end of the poem informs us that the farmer is actually Beckesch Klos himself and that Pierre has found a more suitable employment, as a barkeeper.
 

 

Schmitze M'rei and the siege of New Ulm

 
Thus, time and again, we find references to actual people in Prairie Flowers. For instance one of Nicholas Gonner's longer ballads, A Brave Woman, recounts the valour of a Luxembourg American woman during the siege of New Ulm, Minnesota. In the poem, she is variously called Schmitze M'rei or Marei, both of which are Luxembourgish versions of the English name Mary.
 
Commemorative plaque on the Erd building
Mary Schmitz was born on July 3, 1835, in Dommeldange, a suburb of Luxembourg City. In 1856, she emigrated to the USA with her brothers Peter and Jacob Nicholas. In 1859, she married Irish immigrant Matthew Ryan. They both lived on a farm near Springfield, Minnesota, where she died on July 13, 1896. In his poem, however, Gonner seems to confuse Mary Schmitz with her sister-in-law Katherina George, also born in Dommeldange, in 1829, whose husband, John Schmitz, was shot by Indians. Terry Sveine, a relative of both Mary and Katherina, who is actively engaged in the Luxembourg American community and has researched the family history, makes a convincing case that it is indeed Mary Schmitz to whom the events in the ballad relate.7
 
In the introduction to the poem, Gonner explains that the ballad is based on a true story. The Sioux had been promised gold by the US government, but the agents that were supposed to deliver the gold kept it for themselves and paid them in paper money. Feeling betrayed, the Indians started fighting. In August 1862, they attack the town of New Ulm in Minnesota. The men try to throw back the attackers, while the women gather in the cellar of the Erd Building to await the outcome. Fearful of being raped and tortured in case of an unlucky outcome, the women rely on a gunpowder keg to blow up both themselves and the Indians. Schmitze M'rei quickly establishes herself as the leader of the women:
 
And Schmitze M'rei from Dommeldange / Sits calmly down upon the block, / She'll put to use the powdery stash, / Protection 'gainst the red-skinned dog. / Her husband, he had fallen prey / To Indians cruel, so they would pay.
 
Over the next few pages, Gonner expertly builds up the tension. The reader feels irresistibly drawn into the story, as the poet uses a lot of direct speech, relating how the women run to the trapdoor to check whether the Indians have taken the town yet. Again and again, they fear that all is lost, and again and again, M'rei cautions them to keep their wits.
 
"Well, quick, Marei, the Indian's nigh," / Screams loudly someone in the street, / "Good gracious!" grumbles Schmitze M'rei, / "Here from my keg I have to see it, / There's plenty time to light the store / When they appear inside the door."
 
In the end, the cavalry arrives and saves the town. Like Remembrance, A Brave Woman is meant to instil a sense of community in the reader, a feeling of us-against the-world, in the most positive sense. It wants to educate, inspire and instruct the reader, to instil a sense of pride and responsibility, but it also wants to show the readers back in Luxembourg that the former emigrants have gained not only financial success, but also a high cultural level.
 
Prairie Flowers is a panorama of Luxembourg American life and culture in the late 19th century, a literary monument to the cultural achievements of this community and as such an important Luxembourg work of literature. The original Luxembourgish version of Prairie Flowers, Prairieblummen, was re-published in 2008, the English translation followed in 2013.8
 

 

Jean-Baptiste Merkels

 
Prairie Flowers was the first and, it seems, only major Luxembourg American literary achievement. It was written just after the great wave of Luxembourg emigration, when the first generation of emigrants had settled down in the New World but could still remember their home back in Europe. With the second and third generation, knowledge of the Luxembourgish language and customs was slowly lost. The outbreak of World War I only accelerated this tendency. Nevertheless, there was one more important Luxembourg American author who deserves to be mentioned here: Jean-Baptiste Merkels (1860-1948).
 
Jean-Baptiste Merkels
Born in Hollerich, nowadays a suburb of Luxembourg, he emigrated to the United States in 1889. He made friends with Beckesch Klos and Joseph Winandy, a founding member of the Brotherhood of America's drama club. Working as a post office clerk in Chicago, Illinois, he wrote a number of poems in Luxembourgish, German and English that were published in German-speaking newspapers, like the Luxemburger News in Dubuque, the Francisco Abendpost and the Luxemburger Post in Chicago.
 
Merkels' most important poetry collection is Blummen aus Amerika [Flowers from America]. Not only is the title a reference to Gonner's Prairie Flowers, but the topics are also very similar. The poems, written between 1895 and 1921, are highly patriotic, with the imminent threat of the Grand Duchy losing its independence in mind. The twenty poems "try to mobilise the Luxembourg Americans for the Luxembourg cause and to inform the American population about the political situation in Europe."9 In 1922, possibly as a reward for his efforts, he became Vice-Consul of Luxembourg in Chicago, a post for whose creation Nicholas Gonner had long lobbied in vain.
 
With Jean-Baptiste Merkels ends the era of emigration literature in the Luxembourgish language. There are some isolated poets writing in Luxembourgish later on, most notably Ditty Bong (1917-2007), who emigrated in 1952 to Québec and wrote mostly in French.10 The most famous Luxembourg Canadian, however, was Liliane Welch (1937-2010) whose works in English are read both in Luxembourg and Canada. All Luxembourgers who emigrated later to the United States wrote mainly in English. The most well-known are Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), who coined the term "science fiction" and Pierre Joris (1946), literary researcher, poet and translator based in Albany, New York, whose work is currently shown in an exhibition in Mersch, Luxembourg.11
 
As Nicholas Gonner so aptly said in his poem, Our Language, referenced in the title to this article: And when we dwell in foreign states / As strangers in strange lands, / We easily recognize our mates / Our tongue they understand. Many Luxembourg Americans do not readily understand the language of their forebears anymore, but their words, translated into English, may still strike a chord with them.
 

 
Bibliographie:
 
1"A real Luxembourger will also speak his language". In: Nicolas Gonner: Ons Sprooch [Our Language]. In: Prairieblummen, see note 8 here below, p 134.
2For a detailed biography of Gonner, Becker and Nau, see Nicolas Gonner (Ed.): Prairie Flowers. Mersch: Centre national de littérature, 2013, pp 157-160.
3Jean Ensch, Jean-Claude Muller, Robert E. Owen (Eds.): Luxembourgers in the New World. Original translated by Gerald L. Liebenau and Jean-Claude Muller. A reedition based on the work of Nicholas Gonner. Esch-sur-Alzette: Editions Schortgen, 1987, 2 vols.
4Nicholas Gonner: Luxemburger in Michigan, Detroit. In: Luxemburger Gazette 1 March 1891. p 8.
5For an overview in English on the history of the Octave, see : Institut grand-ducal, section linguistique, d'ethnologie et d'onomastique: Cult of Our Lady of Luxembourg in the United States. www.institutgrandducal.lu/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=44&Itemid=91 (19 June 2014)
6See: The shrine of Our Lady of Consolation. Information booklet. Carey (OH): Apostolate of Our Lady, [no date] and https://www.olcshrine.com/original-shrine.html (22 June 2014)
7See: Luxembourg Heritage Society of Southern Minnesota: Newsletter 2/2. Spring 2009.
8Prairieblummen. Virgestallt a kommentéiert vum Sandra Schmit. Mersch: Centre national de littérature, 2008, and Prairie Flowers. English translation and commentary by Sandra Schmit. Mersch: Centre national de littérature, 2013.
9The citation and all biographical details are translated from: Claude D. Conter: Jean-Baptiste Merkels. In: www.autorenlexikon.lu (26 June 2014).
10Ditty Bong: Collection de poèmes. Chateauguay, Ass. canadienne des Luxembourgeois, 1997. For biographical details on all following authors, see: www.autorenlexikon.lu.
11Mersch, Corina: Prendre le large. Mersch: Centre national de littérature, 2014. Exhibition 14 May - 24 October 2014.
 

 

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