Libraries in the late 19th century were seen by their founders as instruments of social and cultural uplift, meant to raise the working class out their ignorance and teach them how to be middle class. But men like Oscar Ameringer, who immigrated to the United States from Germany when he was 15 and later became a socialist organizer, humorist, and editor, took away different lessons. In this selection from his 1940 autobiography, Ameringer described his discovery of American history books, translated into German, at the local public library.
The most important and fruitful discovery I made in the winter of 1887–88 was the public library of Cincinnati, Ohio. I stumbled on the place by sheer accident. One day while I was studying the want-ad page displayed in the window of the Cincinnati Enquirer I noticed a number of people entering the building next door. Finding nothing exciting among the want ads, partly because I had made no real effort to read English fluently, and partly because the little I could make out seemed to offer nothing but hard work at low pay, I followed the crowd.
The place looked good. It was warm and comfortable. In one of the large rooms of the ground floor people were reading newspapers and other periodicals, some of them in German, and all this was free. So I made myself at home. However, I had never been much of a newspaper reader. Besides, people were always going in and out of that room, creating drafts and confusion. What I was really looking for was a quiet, comfortable loafing place in which a fellow could enjoy a little snooze now and then. And I discovered that the Cincinnati Public Library harbored the very place I hankered for. It was the history room up on the third floor, and there I settled down.
The few others who patronized it occasionally were bespectacled young men who tended strictly to their own business, never spoke, and usually walked on tiptoe. There was the regular librarian, an elderly maiden lady who was always too busy crocheting to disturb the tranquility of the room. My particular method of reading history was to extract a large volume from the bookshelves, lay it on the table, spread my elbow-cradled face between hands and if there were illustrations, look at the illustrations. If there were no illustrations, I would snooze over the English text.
Why should anyone want to read history? I knew all the history I wanted to know. History was bunk. On a certain day in the year 318 B.C. some great warrior marched up the hill and down again. On a certain day in the year 318 A.D. a certain king had done something unpleasant to the army of another certain king, and so for centuries innumerable. So why actually read history?
One day when I passed too close to the elderly maiden lady, she looked up from her crocheting and asked me innocently,“Young man, are you fond of history?”
Indeed I was. I would rather read history than eat. History had been my passion since I was knee high. And all this because I scented danger to my pet loafing place.
“Well, then,” continued the crocheting maiden lady, “if you are so fond of history, would you mind if I selected a course of reading for you? I have noticed your reading is rather indiscriminate. You rarely select the same book a second time.”
I was caught. From now on, it was either read history or keep out.
The first book she handed me was a life of Tom Jefferson. It was written by a Î48 revolutionist who, like so many of my compatriots and his contemporaries, had escaped to America, fought with Schurz, Siegel and Hecker through the Civil War, become a member of Congress, returned to Germany after unification, and later had been a member of the German Reichstag. The name of the author was Kapp. Reading just the other day Oswald Garrison Villard’s Fighting Years, I learned that this Kapp was the father of the Kapp who led the miscarried Kapp putsch against the social-democratic regime of harness-maker President Ebert. Another example of how far some sons of revolutionists, also daughters, will stray from the path of their revolutionary ancestors!
I should add that this life of Tom Jefferson was printed in German, thereby closing my last avenue of escape from reading it. I didn’t snooze over that book. On the contrary, it kept me so wide awake that when “lights out” sounded that night I was still reading, and next morning was first on deck in the history room. This Tom Jefferson was a man after my own heart! His whole crowd belonged to my league. These fellows had no more respect for high priests, princes, kings, and hand-me-down authority than I had. They were rebels from the word go. They had chased the soldiers God had anointed. Told the whole bloody outfit where to get off, or know the reason why. Had dissolved the unholy partnership between church and state. Declared that one man was as good as the next one and maybe a darned sight better. Had reveled in force and violence, going as far as I had in throwing bricks at scabs, or loyalists as they called them, when not riding the Tory strikebreakers tarred and feathered out of town on a fencerail.
The life of Jefferson swallowed in two bolts, the good teacher handed me the Life of George Washington by Washington Irving—still in German. That book was not quite as exciting as Tom’s life, but interesting enough to keep me wide awake between eight A.M. when the library opened, and nine P.M., when it closed.
Others followed. A life of Benjamin Franklin, still one of my heroes. Stories of Ethan Allen, Nathan Hale, Mad Anthony Wayne, Lighthorse Harry Lee, and dozens more. Before the bluebirds came again I was so thoroughly imbued with the glorious traditions of America’s revolutionary period that I haven’t got over it yet; so thoroughly imbued that I was an old-fashioned Jeffersonian-Jacksonian American long before I acquired my naturalization papers. I knew all about Washington, Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Concord, Lexington, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Yorktown. I could recite the name of every President from Washington to Cleveland, including the forgotten ones. And most glorious of all, I could read English!
What a marvelous teacher that spinster lady was!“You are young enough to learn to read English,” she told me one day. “Unfortunately, there are no schools for your kind and you haven’t got the money for private lessons, but if I give you an English book I think you can almost read, will you try?”
I would. The book was The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith. There were many words in it I could not make out; sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs were too obscure for me. But when I got to the end I knew fairly well what the story was about. I had even—and oh, what joy—caught a fine joke in the book. It was the one when the vicar told how he rid himself of unwelcome friends and relatives by simply lending them a sheep, a little money, or a pair of boots, whereupon they usually remained absent for a long while.
After The Vicar of Wakefield I was handed a book of poems by Robert Burns. How could that wonderful teacher know that I loved poetry and that Scots are more closely related spiritually to Germans than the English?
The next book that captured me completely was a collection of American humor compiled by Mark Twain. There were selections from Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, Bill Nye, Hans Breitmann and Mark Twain’s own immortal “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” How fresh, keen and all-around“don’t give a damn for nobody” was that American humor! And always how much more spontaneous and bubbling than the beer-soaked, smoke-laden, mother-in-law belabored humor of Germany!
And so, without homework, prescribed lessons, punishment, rewards or examinations, this best of all teachers led me from book to book, until, almost unaware, I had acquired the language, history, and some of the literature of my new homeland—my own, now, for life.
Source: Oscar Ameringer, If You Don’t Weaken: the Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer (1940; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 67–70.