[(essay date 1958) In the following essay, Arndt describes similarities between the Harmony Society (a utopian religious movement) and its fictional counterparts in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. Arndt observes that the 1829 rewriting of the novel includes an increased emphasis on emigration as a response to political problems, and he highlights Goethe’s reliance on numerous contemporary texts that depicted America as a land of liberty attended by great practical challenges.]
The subject of this paper, the influence of George Rapp’s Harmony Society on the “Auswandererstaat” in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, would undoubtedly have been thoroughly explored long ago, except for two circumstances—inadequate knowledge of the institutions and history of the society and neglect of the Wanderjahre by Goethe scholars.
Our information concerning the Harmony Society has been fragmentary because complicated legal and political problems have prevented the full examination of its extensive archives, and scholars have had to depend largely on visitors’ reports, which tend to confuse Rapp’s society with Robert Owen’s New Harmony.1 The neglect of the Wanderjahre seems to be due principally to its obscurity and the frightening effect of its tedious style, even on devoted students of Goethe.2 All studies of the work begin with an apology for its form, though they may urge the reader not to be deterred from pressing on to find the buried gold.
Goethe’s interest in the Harmony Society and the possible importance of the society for the understanding of the Wanderjahre have been suggested though not pursued. Erich Küspert, in his New Harmony: Ein historischer Vergleich zwischen zwei Lebensanschauungen (Nuremberg, 1937), calls attention to Goethe’s interest in the society; his study is, however, based almost exclusively on the Reise Sr. Hoheit des Herzogs Bernhard zu Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach durch Nord-Amerika in den Jahren 1825-1826 (1828) and on The New Harmony Communities (1905) by George Browning Lockwood, who knew no other source than the accounts of Bernhard and other travelers.
In addition to Küspert, who wrote for economists and sociologists, two others scholars have suggested a possible relation between the Harmony Society and the Wanderjahre. Walther Linden, in his revision of Bielschowsky’s Goethe, sein Leben und seine Werke (Munich, 1928), suggests the influence of Robert Owen’s New Harmony, but without realizing that New Harmony was the second settlement of the Harmonists, that they had sold this settlement to Robert Owen, and that the founder of the Harmonists, a contemporary and countryman of Schiller, had been Owen’s teacher. Robert Hering comes closest to the problem in his extremely detailed and careful study, Wilhelm Meister und Faust und ihre Gestaltung im Zeichen der Gottesidee (Frankfurt, 1952). He raises the question whether Goethe’s and George Rapp’s paths might not have crossed in Württemberg before Rapp emigrated to America, but he does not pursue it further. Perhaps he would have done so, had he lived to finish his studies. If he had had time or opportunity for further study of the Harmony Society, Hering certainly would not have described the “Auswandererstaat” as… das Wunschbild eines Gemeinwesens, das die...