Not all strangers, of course, come to stay for good. German writer Wolfgang Koeppen (1906-1996) describes his arrival in New York harbour on the ship ‘Liberté’.
The New World greeted me with a cold wind and grey skies. Anticipation had driven our ship’s passengers out of bed before daylight, but the closer we got to land, the less we yearned for the gradually approaching form. A herd of amateur photographers swarmed over the decks like frightened sheep. The Statue of Liberty reared up out of the sea in a ragged cloak of mist, a worthy sister to those beloved giantesses in Europe ― Bavaria, Germania, and Berolina — whose hollow heads you can climb into, peering through their blind eyes at the mute, outspread horizon: a matron sullenly holding up a wet torch, but illuminating nothing.
Now the famous skyline stepped out from behind the homely symbol of freedom, the skyscrapers huddling together on the tip of that very solid and expensive rock. I thought of economic statistics, of success plotted with curves on a graph, I saw stock prices climbing, rockets taking off: the very heavens should be quaking! But you couldn’t see paradise any better from here than anywhere else, and from the perspective of the visitor approaching the continent, the world’s richest city seemed like a village with megalomania: the view looked familiar, and this painting was more true-to-life than outsized or overpowering.
The ship glided slowly, pulled by tugboats, toward the new Rome, the Rome of the fabled western hemisphere. Its towers weren’t praising God, nor were they inquiring about an all-powerful Being, for they had arrived at their own omnipotence. I expected to feel a frisson as I confronted the enormity of human freedom and the acclaimed belief in human happiness through technical and material progress ― but that shiver never materialized. New York City, stretching up in the morning mist, was a stage set of steel, concrete, glass, and brick which made me think of houses of cards and storms which might be brewing far away. Beneath its highest rooftops, other roofs cowered, looking as humble as they were: mere sheds, apparently, much like ground-level barracks, which drew down the giants and attempted to reduce them to their own level. Everything seemed temporary and arbitrary while appearing at the same time to follow the kind of easily-grasped order which a playful but not very imaginative child might have devised.
It pleased me, however, to see the chunky, old-fashioned ferryboats plying across the shallow harbour, and I was delighted to see their wheels turning, churning up foam, as they crossed the Hudson heavy with their human freight. This was the America I had anticipated: it made me think of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, even if the Mississippi and the Camps of Green were far away and the era of those writers was past. The docks mentioned by Melville still encircled Manhattan like black honeycombs, and the Liberté was swallowed up in them as if by some huge maw.
Disembarkation proceeded according to an ancient, strict ritual. First the privileged people in first class were allowed into the country, then the cabin section with all its black-clad priests, and the emigrants had their turn at the very end, herded into the sacred precincts of the demigods, invited to the thick carpets and brocade armchairs of the great ballroom. Immigration officials were sitting here at tables cleared of those lavish suppers which were the pride of the shipping line. I wasn’t asked whether I wanted to assassinate the President: that turned out to be a myth. The officials were friendly and informal, stamping documents left and right, and they left assassinations to the foreigners.
This mighty America trusted me ― it trusted me right away. It expected me to recognize with my very own eyes that the U.S. was God’s country. I was instinctively afraid of failing to live up to this expectation, and I was ashamed. Was I travelling with a false passport? I received my entry visa, walked down the gangplank, my last tangible connection to Europe, and stepped over a bridge into the huge customs hall.
The hall was America and yet it was like something out of Kafka, a space with such a vaulting roof, such far-flung boundlessness, that it seemed to disappear into thin air and become totally unreal. Pale sunlight fell through panes of frosted glass to form shimmering shafts of dust motes. The concrete floor was worn and scratched, and numerous crude wooden barriers and desks of the cheapest sort stood all around with small mountains of baggage lying scattered between them, like a harvest gathered on a field ― the flotsam of Europe, raised out of the belly of the Liberté and somehow ordered alphabetically according to the owners’ names. I looked for my own things, found them, and observed that they were shabby.
This is the moment when an immigrant has the urge to tear the clothes off his back and burn all the possessions he has brought along, so that he can step into his new life naked and unencumbered, anticipating different, more glittering trappings. But since such behaviour wouldn’t be appropriate even in America, and might negate all my efforts to travel this far, I waited for the customs official, who approached unhurriedly. From the star on his chest I recognized him as the good-natured policeman of the film strips, but he took a stern, Prussian view of his duty. Every bag had to be opened and searched. What kind of contraband was he worried about in this land of abundance? I never found out. My baggage received the clearance stamp which was given out at the last barrier of the hall.
I went through the gate. I had arrived in America. I was standing in New York. I had often dreamed about this, and now it was like a dream. The dream of being here had fulfilled itself, and as in that dream there was no foreignness: I too was at home here, and America lay at my feet like my own personal property. I sensed freedom. I felt freedom. The wind was freedom. Nobody asked me where I was going, what I was going to do, or what I wanted to undertake from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Mexico to the icebergs of Alaska.
Wolfgang Koeppen, Amerikafahrt (1959)
(In Gesammelte Werke in sechs Bänden Vol 4,1986)
translated from the German by Susan Thorne
Wolfgang Koeppen is included in city-pick New York, featuring over sixty writers on the city. Other city-pick titles include Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, Venice, Dublin, St Petersburg, London and Amsterdam.