In August and September of 1888 Friedrich Engels took a boozer of a trip throughout New England and Canada. His companions on the journey were his good friend, comrade and fellow carouser, the chemist Carl Schorlemmer (known in the Marx circle as ‘Jollymeier’), Marx’s daughter Eleanor (‘Tussy’)and her beau, that cur Edward Aveling (‘General Boulanger’). Traveling largely for pleasure they visited all of the famous tourist spots; Niagara Falls, the Catskills and the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain as well as the cities of Boston (‘their Athens’) and New York (where everyone looked like a ‘discharged croupier from Monte Carlo’).
Engels also stayed with Adolph Sorge, the leading US Marxist of his day, in Hoboken and visited his nephew, by way of his Irish wife Lizzy, Willie Burns who was an active socialist and railway worker. The letters back to Laura (Marx) Lafargue and his brother Hermann are pure pleasure to read…which is just what I did until 2 am last night.
Most of Engels reportage goes something like this; to his brother ‘we have eaten, drunk and smoked incessantly and I have just at this moment – 11 o’clock in the morning – been summoned to take my morning Tipple,’ followed immediately by, ‘The voyage has done me a tremendous amount of good; I feel at least 5 years younger’. A good time was clearly had. In one letter from Engels to Laura, Tussy offers a shaky post script: ‘What with Niagara Falls and Niagara Beer we are most of us beyond the writing stage. When I pull myself together I’ll write.’ Just after leaving Lake Placid Engels writes ahead to Sorge in Hoboken, near New York where they well soon be arriving, ‘…get us another 150 cigars of the usual brand. We’re right cleaned out.’
The chief complaint is not the American beer since ‘the German beer, i.e. brewed after the German fashion, is quite excellent…’, but the ‘dearness’ of European wine, not even obtainable at hotels. Although he did bring 24 bottles of Ohio wine (?!) and a Californian Riesling back with him for the return voyage (‘which we are drinking with gusto’). Not too bad he says; a good flavor, but no bouquet. His voyage to America was on the steamer The City of Berlin (which occasioned all amount of puns and jokes, especially about the food), which was, coincidently, the vehicle of emigration (on a different trip) of one of the Rustbelt’s ancestors from the Old Country.
Along with the tales of healthy hedonism (at a sprite 68 years old no less), Engels offers more than a few of his sly, penetrating observations of the emerging power ‘whose history goes back no further than commodity production’ and is capitalism’s ‘promised land’. He stays in the realm of the anecdotal for the most part, but occasionally he offers something profound, like this to Laura: ‘Don’t you believe that America is a new country – it is the most old-fashioned place in the world; [in French] to Europeans like us it is exceedingly provincial, and we are all Parisians compared to the Americans…upon this primitive stage they have grafted a lot of supra-modern novelties many of which are no improvement and none of which are beautiful.’ Later in the same letter he describes coming into New York City after dark as ‘a chapter of Dante’s Inferno’ full of ‘awful noises on all sides’ and ‘arc-lights…not to light you but to attract you as an advertisement.’
An American, he says, ‘cannot bear the idea of anyone walking in front of them in the street, he must push and brush past him – and roughly too’. ‘We poor benighted Europeans,’ he moans ‘cannot see the slightest occasion either for the hurry or the rudeness.’ Even Boston is ‘a sprawl.’ New York, he says, ‘is the grandest site for the capital of Capitalist Production…But everything there, made by man, is horrid.’ He did love the natural beauty; the Hudson and the St. Lawrence, the Falls at Niagara where he put on a wet suit and hat to ride the Maid of the Mist (I’d love to see a picture of Engels so decked out!), the mountains upstate, especially the ‘very lovely’ Adirondacks, of which he wrote, ‘I already feel an urge to go out there again…the August sunshine of Lombardy is combined with the fresh breeze of our Rhenish October.’
He does, in his private letters, occasionally indulge in a kind of ethnic profiling that is distasteful to say the least. He must know it is distasteful as well, because with very few exceptions, his public writings do not engage in such stereotypes. Some of it is playful, even ironic, as it often was with Paul Lafargue’s creole background. However, what is overwhelming in his writings, is his basic tolerance and empathy, both of which he had in abundance. He is laid back, way back on this trip, even writing white lies, school boy-like, to comrades to get out meetings and focus on the fun. I have never done that.
Unfortunately none of these letters are yet up on the Marxist Internet Archive. They are in Volume 48 of the works. The ‘Anti-Durhing’ it is not, but it makes for a great insomniacs read and offers yet more proof that Engels was not just a brilliant communist, he must have been a helluva traveling companion as well. Salút, Old Man. Thanks for making a sleepless night finally end enjoyably.