In the first paragraph of Kafka’s Amerika, the youth Karl Rossmann, sailing into New York Harbor, catches sight of the Statue of Liberty, “as if in a sudden glow of sunlight. Her arm with the sword rose as if newly aloft and around her figure blew the free winds.” Kafka’s actual words are: “. . . wie in einem plötzlich gewordenen Sonnenlicht. Ihr Arm mit dem Schwert ragte wie neuerdings empor, und um ihre Gestalt wehten die feien Lüfte.”
My translation is literal, not literary, because the writer in me sees his choice of words as deliberate—not just the enigmatic sword, but the stately figure, the unexpected sunlight, and the “free winds.” To dig into the meaning of this sentence, I would consider the context, perhaps the sources that informed Kafka had about an America he had never seen and the significance of the word “sword” in his other writings. But I am an historian, not a literary critic, and so the first thing that comes to mind is that Kafka’s paragraph was first published in 1913, when the Statue of Liberty was still very new—in fact only 27 years old. It was part of modern America.
The Statue had its origins in a war-torn land. Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was a native of Colmar in Alsace and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Alsace today is a peaceful land of vineyards and villages. Looking toward Strasbourg from the mountains of the Vosges spreads a panorama of farmland and meadows where horses run in the summertime.
But you can still see the traces of war in the plowed fields where concrete bunkers, all but buried, make dome-shaped mounds between the furrows.
If you drive to the mountainside where the Battle of the Linge was fought in 1915 and German and French soldiers faced each other across trenches sometimes only a few feet apart, you might do a double-take as you pass the Statue of Liberty in Colmar. Bartholdi’s birthplace has honored him with a replica monument of its own. It stands in the middle of a roundabout, making it hard to photograph from the car, but still dramatic when silhouetted against the sky.
Bartholdi himself was unable to return to Colmar after the war of 1870, so he decided to visit the United States for the first time. As his ship entered New York Harbor, he conceived of the idea of a monument to Liberty that would symbolize the friendship of France and the United States and commemorate the first centennial of American Independence. His description of the harbor, when the monument was only an idea in his mind, has a sense of sunlit excitement not that different from Kafka’s:
“The picture that is presented to the view when one arrives at New York is marvelous; when after some days of voyaging, in the pearly radiance of a beautiful morning is revealed the magnificent spectacle of those immense cities, of those rivers extending as far as the eye can reach, festooned with masts and flags. . . It is thrilling.”
I have my own piece of the Statue of Liberty standing on a bookshelf. It is a heavy somewhat corroded piece of wrought iron about a foot long that was given to my father in 1989 when the Statue was reopened after its infrastructure was replaced for its centennial. I like to think that this graceful but rusty piece of iron was forged in the factories of Gustav Eiffel and first held up the copper plates of Bartholdi’s dream in 1886, when Bartholdi was 52 and Kafka a little boy of three.
The Kafka translation is mine.
Franz Kafka, Amerika, trans. Mark Harman (New York: Schocken Books, 2008).
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, The Statue of Liberty enlightening the world (New York: North America Review, 1890).