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Kafka in Amerika

By Duncan Stuart.

“[T]he quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth”

– Susan Sontag, ‘What’s Happening In America (1966)’


American artist Joseph Cornell never ventured far from his New York City home. Despite this a strange tale about him persists, involving no less a figure than Marcel Duchamp. Apparently, Duchamp, an admirer of Cornell, met him in New York City, and during this meeting Duchamp was impressed by Cornell’s incredible knowledge of Paris. He knew not just the history of the city, but its layout. How had Cornell achieved this knowledge without leaving America? The answer, supposedly, was that he read traveller’s guides with keen interest, and from this had built an immense mental map of the City of Light.

A strange inverse of this story occurs with Kafka’s Amerika: The Man who Disappeared. The novel was published posthumously in 1927, but was supposedly written between 1911 and 1914. What is striking is the knowledge of America it contains. Kafka does not display Cornell’s intimate geographical knowledge, but he seems to have captured the essence of America in the 1910s and 1920s, seeing right through to the dirty underbelly of American capitalism that caught the attention of domestic modernist literature, represented by Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and even more so by Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, both published in 1925.

Kafka’s first intuition of America—a striking one given his propensity for claustrophobic set pieces—is his ability to capture its scale. Compare the openings of Amerika and Manhattan Transfer. Both open begin with the arrival of a ship into New York City—in Dos Passos’s case a ferry. Both capture the throng, part and parcel of the sheer immensity that is America’s defining feature. Manhattan Transfer’s second sentence ends “men and women press through the manure smelling wooden tunnel of the ferry house, crushed and jostling like apples feed down a chute into a press”. The second paragraph of Amerika mirrors this imagery: “quite forgetting to disembark, he found himself gradually pushed up against the railing by the massing throng of porters”.

This enormity takes on various forms. Above, it is the form of a sheer throng, a mass of people. For Charles Olson, American was a vast land. In Call Me Ishmael he writes: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Immensity appears in a nautical form as well; as Dos Passos no doubt knew, but Kafka must have only guessed—the sea plays a crucial part in the American imaginary. This stems from its origins as a settler colony, origins which now appear in their modern guise: as a nation built mostly on the backs of immigrants and their labour. Karl Rossman, Kafka’s protagonist, is himself an immigrant, or something like one (he does not yet know how long he will be staying). Explorers, settlers and eventually immigrants all cross the same vast blue ocean to arrive in and ‘discover’ America. No other place is as heavily defined in terms of its east coast and its west coast.

In Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March—described by Martin Amis as “the Great American novel”—the titular protagonist describes Lake Michigan as seen from Chicago as follows:

I drank coffee and looked out into the brilliant first morning of the year. There was a Greek church in the next street of which the onion dome stood in the snow-polished and purified blue, cross and crown together, the united powers of earth and heaven, snow in all the clefts, a snow like the sand of sugar. I passed over the church too and rested only on the great profound blue. The days have not changed, though the times have. The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sigh, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn’t see a more beautiful color than this

Here the blue of the ocean—universal insofar as the ocean is blue everywhere—unites an earlier settler America with the America of the 1930s; the unifying image is the sea. Such romantic reflections are repeated at the end of The Great Gatsby:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes—a fresh green breast of the new world…the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must hold his breath in the presence of this continent… face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Augie March looks out, across the great lakes, and thinks of sailors; Nick Carraway looks around from the shoreline, and is reminded of similar images, of sailors and settlers crossing that profound blue into a world unknown. Christopher Hitchens claims that what unites these two passages is that both narrators “[d]raw strength from the idea of America”. This is correct in a metaphysical sense, but not an empirical one. Both are drawing strength from the image of the sea or coastline, but this image is inseparable from the idea of America. This may seem to denigrate the great American interior—of which we will speak latter—but let us not forget that it was Lewis and Clark—a could one image a more American duo?—who travelled down the vast river systems, the deep blue veins of America, and in doing so came to solidify the very concept of America itself.

The importance of the sea, the ocean, or what Bellow calls the ‘profound blue’ and its link to immigration and immensity is the first definingly American feature Kafka perplexingly identifies in Amerika. The second is the cruelty of American capitalism, an ongoing and unending saga. A mere twenty pages into Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, Ed Thatcher, a new father, is grifted by an accented stranger, who offers to pay for his drinks, but leaves the bar before Thatcher, leaving him to pick up the tab. This small injustice is the first of many tragedies in Dos Passos’ book, many of them tied to the vicious landscape of American capitalism. Drunks set themselves alight, bums fall from bridges, lawyers sleep with clients, fortunes are made and lost as fast as lust turns to love to hate. In the background of this continual destruction stands American capitalism. Likewise, if The Great Gatsby is anything, it is a tale about the danger of wealth, a cautionary tale about the American Dream.

Kafka’s depiction of American capitalism converges with that of Dos Passos in remarkable ways. Like Dos Passos, he sees the microcosm of capitalist awfulness as occurring at the level of the grift. When Rossman finds himself lost in this strange land—excommunicated by his influential uncle Jakob for accepting a dinner invitation to a colleague’s house—he encounters the roguish Delmarche and Robinson. Within moments of meeting them they have pawned off his best suit, and Rossman feels powerless to object. They have promised to get him a job as a trainee in Butterford. This job, of course, never materialises. Instead, he ends up working in the impossibly large and busy Hotel Occidental. A weakened and pathetic Robinson reappears, causing Rossman to leave his post, and he is promptly fired. Rossman’s excuses—entirely valid—are not accepted, and the relationships and points of connection that got him the job—both he and the Head Cook are from central Europe— are of no use. The Head Cook is powerless to stop his termination. For Kafka and Dos Passos alike a single grift is the narrative gateway into the great America grift, the inhuman machinery of capitalism, one where, in the words of Martin Greenberg, “The interests of ‘discipline’ override the interests of ‘justice’”.

It may, at this point, be objected that immensity, immigration, the image of the sea and capitalism are hardly uniquely American constructs. Kafka could have easily grafted such aspects onto his novel and, if so, the only mystery would be the mystery of universal history. But there is another similarity we find in Manhattan Transfer and Amerika—both novels speak to the redemptive character of America.

Earlier I claimed I would return to the issue of the great American interior. When Bud Korpenning gets off the ferry at the start of Manhattan Transfer, he claims he is attempting to get to the centre of things. He heads for the centre of New York City, an ultimately fatal mistake. Yet Dos Passos closes his novel with Jimmy Herf—the closest the kaleidoscopic book has to a protagonist—leaving New York City. He hitches a ride with a truck driver, who asks him ‘How fur ye goin?’ to which Herf responds ‘I dunno…pretty far.” After the misery which litters Manhattan Transfer, this closing moment is almost absurdly sentimental. It is Dos Passos’s attempt to preserve what is good and noble about the American Dream, and what is good and noble lies inwards, towards the centre.

Greenberg, whom I quoted above, believes Amerika to be the least Kafkaesque of Kafka’s novels. It ends, for him, with “sentimental implausibility.” The faint glimmer of hope here is found in the passages on the Oklahoma Theatre Company. This fragment concludes with Rossman boarding a train to Oklahoma to join the theatre company where all are welcome. He fails to produce papers proving he is an engineer, but it is of no consequence, as “they can use everybody.” The final sentence reads as follows: “When the train began to move they put their hands out the windows to wave, at which the youths opposite dug each other in the ribs and found it stupid.” This is a deeply un-Kafkaesque sentence. Compare it to the final sentence just before this section—what some may want to argue is the true ending of the book—“But even as he spoke he remembered whom he was addressing, he had concentrated too much on the thing itself. Brunelda nodded contently at Delamarche, and fed Karl a handful of crumbs by way of reward.” This latter sentence is the Kafka we know, the one of “hope, but not for us.” The former contains echoes of Manhattan Transfer’s closing lines; head inwards towards salvation.

We could explain this change in style as a kind of birthing pain – Kafka had not yet found his style and voice. So argues Greenberg. But I think this unusual end reflects, itself, a deep intuition or knowledge Kafka possessed about America. He knew its immensity, its cruelty, and its promise.

Perhaps, now, we can ask: how did Kafka know so much about America?


Kafka seems to have had access to a great many materials on America. He was supposedly fond of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and had relatives—uncles, cousins, brothers even—who had visited America. The two most promising sources here are Kafka’s cousin Otto, who lived and worked in America, and Arthur Holitscher’s Amerika: Heute und Morgan (America: Today and Tomorrow), which Kafka read.

The scholar who seems, at least in the Anglophone world, to have done the most work on Holitscher and Kafka is Mark Christian Thompson, author of Kafka’s Blues. Yet Thompson is a rogue agent: his argument is that Kafka writes and aestheticizes blackness. He hooks onto a moment in Amerika where Rossman introduces himself as ‘Negro’. For Thompson, Kafka’s knowledge of the plight African-Americans comes from Holitscher’s book. Indeed, for Thompson that is the key importance of Holitscher with regards to Kafka’s America.

Anthony D. Northey, who has written an entire book on Kafka’s relatives—out of print of course—holds that Kafka may have gleaned much of his knowledge of America from relatives. Luckily there is an article Northey wrote, “Kafka’s American Connection”, that covers similar ground. Yet this article is indeterminate. It reflects Northey at the early stages of his investigations. He thinks some promising connections may be found in Kafka’s cousin Otto, but speculates that Rossman may be based off Kafka’s brother Frank, who also went to the states. Northey is unsure how much contact Kafka actually had with these relatives after their travels. But there is a further problem.  This web of connections is the kind that would have provided the geographical knowledge someone like Cornell possessed of Paris. In Amerika Kafka repeatedly botches these details. In the opening paragraph the Statue of Liberty is holding a sword; Kafka claims the Brooklyn Bridge connects New York to Boston; Rossman seems to cover impossible distances quite quickly. Perhaps these are careless mistakes, left unfixed because Kafka never returned to the manuscript.

Such an explanation cannot be ruled out, but it is deeply unsatisfactory. Kafka mangles the details but captures the essence of America. Are we to believe that his family members’ personal anecdotes, the odd travel book and Franklin’s autobiography are the raw materials from which Kafka pieced America together, bit by bit?

I think not. I opened this essay by talking about Cornell’s encounter with Duchamp. The story is believable. But it would not be believable if the story was that Cornell turned to Duchamp and gave a blisteringly detailed account of what it means for one to be Parisian. Kakfa does not know the layout of America, but he knows its essence. Thompson’s work is more promising in this respect. Yet as interesting as it is, I cannot help but wonder if Kafka’s sensitivity to the racist history of America itself is part of his deep, intuitive understanding of America. In Kafka’s Blues Thompson preforms a linguistic autopsy on Amerika’s original German title Der Verschollene, which literally means “the lost one” or “the one who went missing”. Thompson points out that the word Scholle also has a nautical importance—it indicates one who has gone overboard and is considered lost at sea. For Thompson, Kafka encounters this use of Scholle in his reading of Holitscher. Scholle itself connotes both being lost and also being grounded; its closest English relative is the word shoal. Holitscher opens his book with an account of the poor and wretched who travel to America below deck. Are they not both lost and looking for a new ground, a new home?

For Thompson this paradoxical state of being lost and seeking new ground is an experience common to both blackness and the waves of poor immigrants that have come to America. Indeed, it may be Kafka who is the first to think such a connection. While Thompson’s analysis is striking, this awareness of homelessness and home, of racial tension and impoverishment is itself part and parcel of Kafka’s great intuition of America. This is to say that these notions of striving and wretchedness and indeed, blackness, cannot be disentangled from America. For James Baldwin blackness and whiteness are not easily separable in an America context. Writing in 1953, after visiting a Swiss village in which his blackness was a complete novelty, Baldwin claims:

The time has come to realise that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive

Where does this leave us? It seems family connections are unlikely—though of course Northey’s book is unavailable. Thompson’s argument is rich and intriguing, but his analysis of Holitscher is too narrow. He may be right, but then Kafka would have only gleaned partial knowledge from Holitscher. I have arrived back at my original question, looking for a concrete source that would have splayed America out, like a dissected frog, for Kafka to examine and replicate.

The most convincing explanation remains that there is a convergence between the horror world Kafka envisioned and America itself. In The New York Times, Adam Kirsch writes that “Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited”. I disagree, Kafka’s dream is America. Perhaps then, Kafka’s vision of America is so precise because America itself is Kafkaesque. This is not the knowledge of Cornell, who reads and memorises, this is a different kind of knowledge, an intuition almost. For Kafka, and perhaps for us, Amerika is America.

Duncan Stuart lives in Canberra. His writings have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Overland and Demos Journal. Find him on twitter @DuncanAStuart

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019.