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Knortz, Karl (1841–1918)

Karl Knortz was born in Garbenheim, Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1863, where he lived in the Midwest and in the New York City area. An educator, editor, and cultural historian, he attempted to interpret American culture for German-speaking Europeans and for German-Americans; he considered both groups backward and unacquainted with the American democratic process.

Whitman's works were a vehicle for Knortz's pedagogical program. In 1882, probably the year he started his correspondence with Whitman, Knortz wrote a lengthy essay on Whitman for a German-American newspaper which later appeared, in an extended version, as a monograph both in the United States (1886) and in Germany (1899). Whereas he celebrates Whitman's ideas—his democratic principles, his championship of science, and his liberal attitude toward sexuality and the human body—Knortz's criticism of Whitman's language as dark and confusing reveals a lack of understanding of Whitman's revolutionary aesthetics.

Together with Thomas William Hazen Rolleston, Knortz was coauthor of the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry. Although Rolleston contributed the major portion of the translated poetry, it was Knortz who convinced Jakob Schabelitz, his liberal Swiss publisher, to publish Leaves as Grashalme in 1889. Whereas Rolleston wanted the translation to be as shocking to German readers as the original was to Americans, Knortz, in accordance with his enlightened pedagogical principles, wanted the text as smooth and unambiguous as possible. Fortunately for Whitman's reception in German, Rolleston's view prevailed.

Knortz continued to propagate Whitman's work, for example in his excellent history of North American literature published in Germany in 1891. A curious later book with a strongly anticapitalist rhetoric, entitled Walt Whitman und seine Nachahmer: Ein Beitrag zur Literatur der Edelurninge (Walt Whitman and His Imitators: On the Literature of the Noble Urnings, 1911), identified Whitman's works as creations of a sexually inactive ("noble") homosexual and referred to Whitmanites such as Horace Traubel, Edward Carpenter, and Ernest Crosby as Whitman's followers.


Frenz, Horst. "Karl Knortz: Interpreter of American Literature and Culture." American-German Review 13 (1946): 27–30.

———. "Walt Whitman's Letters to Karl Knortz." American Literature 20 (1948): 155–163.

Grünzweig, Walter. Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Knortz, Karl. Walt Whitman und seine Nachahmer: Ein Beitrag zur Literatur der Edelurninge. Leipzig: Heichen, 1911.

———. Walt Whitman: Vortrag gehalten im Deutschen Gesellig-Wissenschaftlichen Verein von New York. New York: Bartsch, 1886.

Whitman, Walt. Grashalme: Gedichte. Trans. Karl Knortz and T.W. Rolleston. Zurich: Schabelitz, 1889.

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