Bernhard van Dreveldt (1835-1866)

Young Bernhard's Courtship

In 1860, Anton's son Bernhard returned briefly to Germany to settle financial accounts with his uncle. While in Cologne, he fell in love with the younger sister of Theodor's wife.

April 6, 1860

Dear Uncle Theodor!

I feel the urgent need to confide in someone, and you are the person in whom I have the most trust. You are the ideal person to give me advice. I am in a state of almost fevered excitement. Since my arrival in Europe my life has been given a particular goal, and for me there is only one further purpose. I now know that if all goes well (I don't even want to contemplate the alternative) I will partake of such joy as I have never been worthy of, nor ever will be. I am very clear that if it should not work out, I will be as unutterably miserable as ever a human being can be. All of this talk has but one object. All of my thoughts are filled with your sister-in-law Maria. I know now that I not only love Maria, which has always been the case, but that I worship her. Without Maria, there will never be joy in life for me.

There can be no question of a relationship between me and Maria's sister Agathe, which I could have told you when I was at Voorthuyzen recently. Only Maria is in a position to make me happy. Without Maria I will be nothing and completely incapable of working, since the business would have no purpose without her. But at her side, work would be a high pleasure, even if I had no rest from morning to night. If only to know that she took some use or comfort from my letters. Dear Uncle, I now understand what a joy it is to be able to work for such a noble and loved being. You will consider me empty-headed and my feelings fleeting, but I tell you that my love for Maria didn't start the day before yesterday. I have loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her, and sometimes, in my very eventful life, the thought of her was all that kept me going. Otherwise, I might have perished. Papa must have known this, because sometimes, when we confided in each other, he would say, "Bernhard, if you want to make me happy, you should marry. Go to Cologne and fetch Maria; I know that you love her." If only the fetching were so easy. Although I am independent and can venture to offer her a secure, if modest, life, still, will she accept it?

I don't know if you can understand my feelings, but place yourself for a moment in the position of a man who has staked his entire happiness and fortune on a single card and who is still uncertain whether he will win or lose. I don't dare make the decisive move, even though when it comes to business, I'm generally quick to seize an opportunity. I find now that I'm not suited to high-stakes games. I'm generally not bashful or monosyllabic around ladies and have no trouble forming short-lived relationships, to the extent I have wanted them. But now, when it is a matter of being or nonbeing, I can't bring myself to utter the word.

And on top of it, there's the disfavor caused by my relationship with Agathe, with whom I started a little something. As a result, they all seem to think that I'm stuck on Agathe, and Maria will probably be even more reserved. Even though I thought about nothing but her for the past five years, she knows nothing of that. Your in-laws are very dear people and have received me with open arms; how much I would like to call them Father and Mother. The old man is still very weak, though.

Theodor, I have tried to give you as true a picture of my feelings as I can. If you are in a position to give advice or help me, I ask, as a friend and relative, that you do so and answer immediately. Even though the affairs of lovers is uninteresting to third parties, for me it is a question of life and death. Don't forget my regards to my aunt and the children.

Your nephew Bernhard

Evidently, Bernhard found his courage because next day, Maria wrote to her brother-in-law Theodor and Bernhard added a few words of his own:

April 7, 1860

My dear Theodor!

If you can put in a good word for Bernhard, please do it soon, better by word than in writing. Our situation is unhappy. Father is angry and doesn't want to hear of it. Come to our rescue soon. We are depending on you for a positive outcome.

Theodor, there is nothing that I can add to what is written above. You may draw your own conclusions. I am in the process of moving out of their house. If you can do anything for us, please come and as soon as possible. Bernhard

1997 by Kenneth Kronenberg and C.H. von Gimborn

Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family: The van Dreveldts' Experiences along the Missouri, 1844-1866 was published in 1998 by University of Nebraska Press.

Paper presented at a conference at Harvard University, "The German-American Tradition: German-American History and Literature in the context of American multilingualism," Sept. 17-19, 1998.

Personal Traits, Success, and Failure in Immigration: The Letters of the van Dreveldts

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This page was added on February 21, 1997