Walker on Follen, 'Between Natives and Foreigners: Selected Writings of Karl/Charles Follen'

Charles Follen
John Walker

Charles Follen. Between Natives and Foreigners: Selected Writings of Karl/Charles Follen. Edited by Frank Mehring. New York: P. Lang, 2007. xlii + 479 pp. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8204-9732-7.

Reviewed by John Walker (Fullerton College) Published on H-TGS (April, 2010) Commissioned by Thomas Adam

Karl/Carl Follen, Revolutionary or Reformer?

Franz Mehring has edited a collection of documents and poems written by Karl/Carl Follen (1796-1840), professor of German literature at Harvard University, cultural intermediary between Germany and the United States, prominent Unitarian minister, a leading abolitionist as well as an early advocate of women’s rights. In addition to the documents pertaining to his subject, Mehring has written a useful twenty-page introduction to Follen’s life and works and presented helpful notes and commentaries on the life and works of his subject. This volume is, in fact, an outgrowth of his 2004 biography of Follen, published in Germany in 2004.[1]

Follen is known primarily as the first professor of German literature in the United States (appointed to Harvard in 1830)  However, his lifelong struggle for national unity and freedom, both in Germany and the United States, has received much attention on both sides of the Atlantic.As a student at the University of Giessen he became involved in radical politics, joined a Burschenschaft, and was known to advocate violence and even assassination. He interrupted his studies briefly in order to take part in the Wars of Liberation, which further contributed to his enthusiasm for the cause of freedom. Upon his return to Giessen he helped organize a group of revolutionary students, whom he called the “Unconditionals” (die Unbedingten). Among his most dedicated followers was the student Karl Ludwig Sand, who would become the assassin of playwright August von Kotzebue, reviled by German nationalists and liberals. Follen was suspected of being an instigator of that crime. After being subjected to months of intermittent interrogation the authorities were unable to find credible evidence linking him to Sand’s deed. Still feeling he was under suspicion Follen fled to France and Switzerland in 1820 and emigrated to the United States in 1824.

In addition to his teaching of German language and literature Follen was constantly engaged in a flurry of activities and controversies in his adopted homeland (he became an American citizen in 1830). To some degree he was an “Unconditional” for the remainder of his life, offending many with his zeal and stridency. Within a short time he discovered that the salient imperfection of his adopted country was slavery, an insight that led to his participation in antislavery organizations, through which he befriended William Lloyd Garrison. These activities played an important role in his dismissal from the Harvard faculty. His ordination as a Unitarian minister gave him an additional channel to promulgate his antislavery views, as well as a means to support himself and his family. However, as a minister he often offended more conservative members of his congregations with his passionate condemnation of slavery.

Mehring justifies the publication of this volume of writings by pointing out that the biography and documents published shortly after Follen’s death by his wife, Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, are incomplete, though voluminous, and are difficult to locate.[2] In his research in Germany and the United States Mehring found numerous articles, letters, and poems that he has used to fill in some of the gaps in these volumes. In addition, Mehring identifies various texts that Mrs. Follen had revised or deleted prior to publication, most likely in order to conceal her husband’s radicalism, particularly in his earlier years. Mehring’s five-volume collection includes forty texts, published in German, French, and English, reflecting the place of their origins: Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Mehring believes that his volume includes all of Follen’s publications from Germany, except for his doctoral dissertation, which is considered to be irretrievably lost. Mehring organizes these documents into six categories: literature, language, abolitionism, religion, history, and philosophy.

Follen has continued to generate controversy over the many decades since his death. A frequently asked question relates to his attitude toward violence as he increasingly identified himself with his adopted country. Did he continue to advocate violence, or did his views evolve? Did he become a reformer rather than a revolutionary? Did he strive to hide his tumultuous past from friends and associates in Boston and even from his own family? Historians and commentators have differed over these issues. For example, Edmund Spevack, in a recent biography (1997), takes a more negative view, arguing that Follen, even at the end of his life, never completely abandoned his advocacy of political violence and that he had hidden much of his past from his wife and his son.[3] On the other hand, Mehring’s view is more positive, as he is inclined to view Follen as an "Emersonian reformer advocating self-reliance, the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of women" (p. xxvii). Mehring hopes that the answers to these and many other questions relating to Follen’s life and works will be facilitated by the publication of these documents.

Mehring’s collection of these documents casts much light on the above questions, even though final answers may be beyond reach. He performs an important service by publishing a more complete collection of Follen’s poems from his radical student days, entitled Das grosse Lied. Mehring has been able to counter Follen’s wife’s censorship and to increase the limited circulation of his poems beyond his circle of conspiratorial comrades of his student days. Follen’s style is obviously reflective of his passion for the dramas of Friedrich Schiller, particularly for his drama Die Räuber. In these poems Follen extols fatherland, freedom, friendship, courage, honor, and personal sacrifice, as he calls for a bloody struggle against tyranny. Also revealing are two documents that show the young Follen’s anti-Semitism; in his zeal for freedom and nationality he advocated the exclusion of Jews from a Burschenschaft he was promoting. In his personal and imaginative draft of a constitution for a new German Reich, he specified that membership was to be reserved to Christians and Germans. The documents demonstrate that Follen’s militancy and revolutionary ardor did not diminish during the four years he spent in Switzerland.

The documents that he wrote in his new fatherland took on unexpectedly moderate tones, at least from the point of view of this reviewer. To be sure, Follen continued to extol Schiller’s love of freedom and his opposition to tyranny. His condemnation of slavery was grounded in philosophical reflection and was often nuanced. In his promotion of the abolitionist cause he was cognizant of constitutional issues. For example, in an article in a prominent journal he declared that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the new territories and in the District of Columbia, but not in the individual states. The fiery revolutionary from Giessen was now advocating states’ rights. More important, the ally of the strident abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison was expressing his opposition to the use of violence in freeing the slaves. Follen advocated nonviolent means to free the slaves. While he recommended political action, he was willing to limit it to the areas in which Congress had jurisdiction. Otherwise, the abolitionists should confine their activities to moral action, meaning that Northern abolitionists, especially those who had friends and relatives in the South, should present their views in a non-combative manner, which would include the sending of letters, pamphlets and other literature to their contacts. Follen argued that public opinion in the South had once been opposed to slavery. Apparently he hoped that history would repeat itself in that region.

Included among the articles in this volume is one that may tempt the reader to believe that Follen’s commitment to nonviolence was wavering. In an essay written in 1839 toward the end of his life Follen confronted the question as to whether the killing of a human being was justifiable in war. After an analysis of the Old and New Testaments he came to the conclusion that neither justified nonresistance to violence, however appealing the idea. In rejecting the distinction between offensive and defensive wars, Follen argued that the salient issue was which side was the oppressed and which the oppressor. He maintained that we should not reject “all military heroism” which can be paired with moral heroism. One of his arguments was that violence might be permissible against those who violated the rights of others. In commenting on this essay Mehring asks whether Follen was calling into question his earlier opposition to the use of violence on behalf of the abolitionist cause. However, Follen hardly appears to be the firebrand of his university days. He moderates his reflections on violence by advocating arbitration among hostile nations, a process that should occur within the framework of an international body or tribunal.

We are indebted to Mehring for his significant contribution to the understanding of a complex human being who fostered mutual understanding and transatlantic contacts between his adopted homeland and Germany. This reviewer can make only minor criticisms. On occasion his writing style is awkward and sometimes even distracting. Moreover, one could also wish that some of the editor’s notes were as complete as others. These are minor shortcomings in the editor’s contribution to scholarship on the life and work of Karl/Carl Follen.


[1]. Frank Mehring, Karl/Charles Follen, deutsch-amerikanischer Freiheits Kämpfer (Giessen: Ferber’sche Unviersitätsbuchhandlung, 2004).

[2]. Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, ed., The Works of Charles Follen, with a Memoir of His Life, 5 vols. (Boston: Hilliard and Gray, 1841).

[3]. Edmund Spevack, Charles Follen’s Search for Nationality and Freedom: Germany and America, 1996-1840 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 3, 6, 249, 256.

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Citation: John Walker. Review of Follen, Charles, Between Natives and Foreigners: Selected Writings of Karl/Charles Follen. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. April, 2010. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=26361

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