In 1844, when the Boston Daily Advertiser proclaimed Charles Sealsfield “the greatest American author,” the competition was sparse. Even so, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were not chopped liver. But Sealsfield surpassed them in popularity, in part because a mystery surrounded his identity. At his death, in Switzerland in 1864, readers discovered that Sealsfield, who claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania, was the pseudonym of Karl Anton Postl, a fugitive priest born in Moravia. Postl fled the Metternich regime and made his way to New Orleans. A decade before Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States to gather the observations published as Democracy in America, Sealsfield traveled widely and felt comfortable enough in his adopted English to write The United States of North America As They Are in Their Political, Religious and Social Relations (1827).
Disillusioned by sectional animosities that would erupt in the Civil War, Sealsfield returned to Europe and wrote a novel in his native German titled Das Kajtenbuch (1841). Translated as The Cabin Book, or Sketches of Life in Texas (1844), it became Sealsfield’s most famous work. Fame, like oil, comes in spurts and sometimes leaves a messy residue. Until Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller in 1956, The Cabin Book, published in dozens of editions, had outsold all other fiction about Texas. It inspired German immigration to the Hill Country. Today The Cabin Book survives only on microfilm and faded pages in large libraries. Recently, Nabu Press issued a reformatted version of a 1923 edition. Responsible as much as any other novel for the image of Texas as an arena for frontier egalitarianism, The Cabin Book lives on as a scholarly curiosity.
Anyone seeking to satisfy curiosity finds a frame narrative, a Lone Star Arabian Nights set in “the land where you sow nails at night, and find horseshoes in the morning.” Col. Morse, a newcomer from Maryland, regales a group of “grandee planters” with his ecstatic reactions to Texas: “It was to me a new, an enchanted world!” Lost for four days on the prairie, “an everlasting sea of grass,” he survives to recount colorful encounters and pungent conversations about the Texas Revolution, statehood and much else. Published five years after the Battle of San Jacinto and five years before Texas joined the Union, Sealsfield’s novel bears witness to the state’s messy infancy. Like other popular writers at the time, Sealsfield made readers wild with visions of the Wild West. His description of it as “the most beautiful country of the earth” can still evoke awe. Despite Sealsfield’s casual acceptance of slavery and his passionate portrait of freedom-loving (white) Texans as “democratic aristocrats,” his work can still induce Cabin Book fever.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.