Heiko Muehr, a native of Bremen, Germany, has studied history at Indiana
University and written an M.A. thesis on Rev. Joseph Kundek, the Croatian
missionary who colonized Dubois County, Indiana with German Catholics.
Muehr's review of Finding the Grain appeared in Schatzkammer 23 (1997).
The following excerpts are from an interview that was part of a series titled
"Reclaiming a German-American Past: The Dubois County Oral History Project"
conducted under the aegis of the Oral History Research Center, Indiana
University, with the support of an Indiana Heritage Research Grant, a joint
effort of the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Humanities Council, and
Indiana Univ. The original tapes and typed transcripts of these interviews
are deposited in the Lilly Library, Indiana Univ., and copies may be secured
through the Oral Research Center, Hall West, Room 401, Bloomington, IN 47405,
Accession number 93-73. "For any photocopy, or for extensive use of the transcript
in any publication, permission must be obtained from the Oral History
The following excerpts are from an interview that was part of a series titled "Reclaiming a German-American Past: The Dubois County Oral History Project" conducted under the aegis of the Oral History Research Center, Indiana University, with the support of an Indiana Heritage Research Grant, a joint effort of the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Humanities Council, and Indiana Univ. The original tapes and typed transcripts of these interviews are deposited in the Lilly Library, Indiana Univ., and copies may be secured through the Oral Research Center, Hall West, Room 401, Bloomington, IN 47405, tel. 812/855-2856. Accession number 93-73. "For any photocopy, or for extensive use of the transcript in any publication, permission must be obtained from the Oral History Research Center."
M: This is Heiko Muehr. I'm interviewing Norbert Krapf in the Jasper Public Library the day after he gave a poetry reading here as part of the annual Strassenfest. It's August the 5th, 1993, and I'm doing this interview for the project "Reclaiming a German-American Past: The Dubois County Oral History Project." Norbert, you grew up here in Jasper, could you tell me a little bit about growing up in Dubois County?
K: Sure, I was born here in 1943. And my parents are from this area, in fact, my family on both sides has been here, my mother's family since 1840 I know from my research, my father's family probably arrived in Spencer County just to the other side of the Dubois County line in the late 1840s. In 1848 they were "charter members" of Ferdinand Parish. My dad grew up in the little community of St. Henry; I guess you'd have to call it a village or a hamlet, and my mother on a farm west of Ireland, which seems like a strange name for a town in this area except that it was founded like Jasper by Scots and Irish Presbyterians who moved on when the Germans came in. But they were both farm people basically, especially my mother, and I spent a lot of time out in nature, I spent a lot of time on the farms in the summer helping local farmers haul hay, doing a lot of hunting, very involved in sports, in baseball and football especially, and some basketball.
There were 10 children in my father's family, 6 in my mother's family, all German Catholic. None of us knew where we came from in Germany at the time that I was living around here. That was typical and there was no German taught in the schools when I was in high school and grade school. That all changed. That was from 1917, World War I, through about 1973 when it was begun in the high school, Mary Jo Meuser teaching it. But I would hear German spoken by my parents and by their contemporaries, we had 4 children in my family, and my parents would speak it to one another over our heads at the table until we would understand it, then they would stop. But it was, I'm not a linguist in German, but it was a form I understand of 19th century German laced with Hoosier English. So the world seemed German because that's all I knew, yet people weren't connected with the heritage in a sense.
My dad, you might find this interesting, went to school for only 8 1/2 years, he desperately wanted to go to high school, but as I've said in a couple of poems, he couldn't because the nearest high school was over at Holland, from St. Henry it was too far to walk, there was no school bus and they couldn't afford to buy a horse to send a kid to high school. But half of his school day was in German and half was in English. My father read German quite well, he would have German prayer books and he liked to speak it very much, so he would talk to me in German and I would answer some things. That comes up in some of my poems. My mother speaks German but she never read it, so what she speaks is only what she heard on the farm. I took them, my wife and I took them to Germany in 1976 (my father died in 1979). My father got along very well with his German. My mother speaks a dialect, but people in the south of Germany could understand her.
M: Yes, that's amazing.
K: Yes, it is, I mean they had to listen for a little while and then it would click. So I think that this was probably typical of their generation, and when I was here in Jasper I was also in Boy Scouts, I was involved and I loved to get out into the woods. I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours squirrel hunting with my father. Now it startles me to think back. I must have been, I think I was ten when I was going out into the woods with a rifle and a shotgun. I would never let my son go out at that age with a gun [laughs], but of course he's grown up in a very different world around New York.
I didn't know, of course, that I was going to become a poet when I was here and I never knew that I would become very involved in researching the German heritage, first through my own family history, and then expanding outward into other papers, letters and journals from the area. That happened only after I moved away from here--I went to Notre Dame--I went to St. Joe's in northern Indiana where a lot of Jasper boys have gone to college, there was a tradition for that, and I was the first one on either side of my family to graduate from college even though we came in the 1840s. Now I think there was a first cousin of mine who graduated with me, we were classmates, but until then not one person on either side of the family had graduated from college. We were part of the "grays," the farmers, and working-class people who came from Germany in the 1840s and beyond, that settled this area, some in the '30s too...
Eventually I moved to Long Island. I started to write poetry, I had finished my Ph.D. and I always say I thought it was now time to begin my education. Here I was from a German-American community, had taken only one semester of German, I wanted to find out where our families had come from. I think the moving away had a lot to do with that. When you move away that far from where you've grown up and your family has lived for generations, you can't be aware as a young person how much a part of your psyche is formed by the locale and the culture, the people, the place. And as I say in the introduction to my folktale book Beneath the Cherry Sapling, I've always loved literature that has a strong, deep sense of place. And so I started to take German classes in a local adult education at night and then at the New School in Manhattan, and I started to listen to German Lieder, I started to read whatever I can in German, and I started to trace family history. And I started to write poetry. It all began to come together, as a way of exploring the past. I was exploring my past, but before I could explore my past I really had to discover or rediscover it. So it's been an ongoing process and it's involved translating folktales, set in the region where my--this is very interesting--my mother and father's families came from villages about 20 miles apart in Unterfranken but nobody knew that until I discovered it. They came independently to Dubois County and then married, and then a hundred and some years after my ancestors came to the U.S., I came along and discovered where they came from...
M: I wanted to get to the subject of inspiration. I wondered when looking through your book of poems Somewhere in Southern Indiana, whether Theodore Dreiser is somebody who inspired you, was an influence.
K: You ask whether he was an influence on me? Not directly, except in one case: when I wrote the poem "Uncle" in Somewhere, I had just read his short story, "The Lost Phoebe," which moved me very much and reminded me somewhat of the story of my uncle, my godfather, and the death of his wife and then his remarriage. But I started to like Dreiser's fiction in college and read more of it on my own. I'm not a Dreiser expert, but I've been interested in him and when I really connected with him was when I read his book A Hoosier Holiday, published in 1916. It's a book that's not [in 1993] in print, and I got a first edition of it, read it, was very interested in that. There are certain parallels in that someone from a German Catholic background in Indiana moves to New York. Dreiser became a nationally known, if not internationally known novelist [laughs]. Well, I don't have to deal with that burden! Dreiser hadn't been back to Indiana for 30 years. And that really hooked me. I was fascinated to read that book, and I read it and underlined it and almost couldn't believe that there was actually a passage in which he came to Jasper, the outskirts of Jasper, and described having something like a religious experience in nature, among the trees, and then responded to the courthouse and St. Joseph's Church.
M: That's in A Hoosier Holiday?
K Yes, and my long poem "Theodore Dreiser's Cathedral" is my reaction to part of the book. I knew for a couple of years that I wanted to write about the subject of Dreiser's return to Indiana, but I had no way of knowing how long it would be or what the product would be. I wrote that poem when we were in Erlangen. I wrote a whole spate of poems. There was a period of a couple of years when I deliberately wrote very little poetry, I was fed up with the poetry scene, I was having trouble finding a publisher. I'd been sending long manuscripts around for nigh onto 15 years without success, having good luck with little pamphlets and chapbooks, but I wrote that poem in Germany. And it just connected. But if you read the poem you'll see that it's not ancestor worship, it's more like arguing with a relative. There's a kind of combative tone to it. That was really fun, I enjoyed it. That poem just came, I knew that material so well, it was no strain at all. He was coming into my territory. Here we were, both Hoosier Germans, and he was coming right into my life, my history. To Dubois County and to the courthouse. Responding was very easy. There's a certain amount of sarcasm in the way I talk to him, as you can talk only to a relative, but you wouldn't dare talk that way to someone you don''t know very well. So, that was a pleasure. He's an interesting figure, a powerful writer. He's not especially popular among literary critics, recently, because he's a clumsy writer, he's wordy, he's not an "artiste." He's not an artist's artist. But I like a kind of rough edge, I respond to a certain roughness in his voice and in his manner of writing. He's kind of a bumbler in some ways, too, and I appreciate that about him. But he romanticizes this area, you see. That's where I had him [laughs] because I knew it from the inside. It was fun to respond to him, but he wasn't somebody that I constantly held up as a model, somebody that I revere, he was just someone that I like. I've taught Sister Carrie a number of times, and by the way, I taught a course in German-American writers in Erlangen and I included his Jennie Gerhardt a novel which I think is underrated. It's about an immigrant family, I like it, it's somewhat melodramatic, but I think it's a good novel, nonetheless.
M: So what did you include in that course?
K: Well, let's see, I did Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and I included William Heyen's book of poems about the Holocaust. First it was called The Swastika Poems, then he expanded it into Erika: Poems of the Holocaust. I taught that in Erlangen in 1989, but I had taught some of those poems in Freiburg in 1980. I didn't know whether to include this difficult material in a Hauptseminar in contemporary American poetry. I published an essay-review of the expanded Heyen book. I included some poems by Sylvia Plath, who is the one poet that German students knew about. I think that she kind of sensationalizes her German past, "hystericalizes" it, if that is a word, but she's an interesting writer. As you probably know, in German universities--especially if it's an English class, which is a foreign language--you don't cover nearly as much material as we do here, you are supposed to explore the material in great depth.
M: Actually, I just thought this might be an interesting question for somebody who has lived both in America and in Germany. How do you think about your identity, do you think that you're a German-American or a special kind of German-American? Do you see yourself as a Hoosier living in New York?
K: All of those [laughs].
M: All of those.
K: All of those things.
M: But if you, if you would have to...
K: Well, there isn't one that I am any more than the other, I'm all of those. My work is included in Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest, in an anthology of New York State poets, in some Long Island anthologies, and in various "theme" anthologies and textbooks. I'll be included in The Hoosier German Anthology, the big book that Eberhard Reichmann has been working on for years. I have a book of Long Island poems coming out, I have a book of poems about Germany. It's all part of what I do, and I am from a German community in Indiana. I'm very much a Hoosier still. I live on Long Island, but I'm still a Midwesterner, I consider myself. I'm not a German, I'm a German-American. Is there a German-American poet? I don't know. I'm an American poet who writes of his German background. What kind of labels people want to use doesn't concern me all that much.