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Moonlight in Vermont

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The Farm in the Green Mountains
By Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, translated by Ida H. Washington & Carole E. Washington
New York Review Books Classics, 2017

The Farm in the Green Mountains is Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir of her life in exile during WWII. In 1938, she and her husband, the successful playwright Carl Zuckmayer, were forced to flee Austria when the Nazis, who had previously banned Zuckmayer’s plays, revoked their citizenship. Thanks to the influence of their friend, the journalist and radio broadcaster Dorothy Thompson, they were able to immigrate to the United States. Thompson summered in Vermont, which is how Herdan-Zuckmayer first came to the place that would become her unlikely home for the rest of war.

The Zuckmayers rented an isolated house on 193 acres, had it fitted with indoor plumbing, and lived off what they could raise. It was a hard, often dangerous life, as far from the couple’s privileged backgrounds as imaginable. Both had grown up fully ensconced in the progressive social and artistic movements of German speaking Europe. As a child in Vienna Herdan-Zuckmayer had studied at a school for girls run by the social reformer and educational pedagogue Eugenie Schwarzwald. Through Schwarzwald she met her first husband, a Communist politician named Karl Frank, but the marriage lasted only a short time and by the early 1920s Herdan-Zuckmayer had moved to Berlin to study medicine. To make ends meet she worked as a secretary and an actress—her mother had starred at the most prestigious theatre in Vienna—and it was in this milieu that she met Zuckmayer.

They married in 1925, the same year his comic play The Merry Vineyard became a runaway success. Zuckmayer’s next two plays were also big hits, and along the way he found time to write the screenplay for Josef von Sternberg’s Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel. The couple was rich and famous, but it wasn’t to last. As Herdan-Zuckmayer archly puts it:

[W]hen we were married… Zuck owned two suits and a pile of debts, and I had two dresses and a lampshade.

Six months later Zuck had his first great success, and after a year we had a house in the country, an apartment in the city, a child in the cradle, fine suits and expensive dresses, and lampshades everywhere.

By the time they fled to America they “still had three suits, eight dresses, and two children.” The lampshades, and much besides, didn’t make it.

As suggested by the light touch with the lampshades, Herdan-Zuckmayer doesn’t dwell on loss. In fact, she almost never talks about her pre-war life, a choice that speaks both to her determined personality and to the circumstances of the book’s creation. The Farm in the Green Mountains—first published in 1949, revised in 1968, and now reissued in English translation—was never even intended to be a book. It was based on letters Herdan-Zuckmayer wrote to her in-laws back in Europe after the war. On a visit to the Zuckmayer parents, the writer and editor Erich Kästner (best known for the delightful children’s book Emil and the Detectives) read the letters and arranged to have them published in his newspaper. Thus emboldened, Herdan-Zuckmayer expanded them into this book, which was a huge success in Germany.

The book retains some of the qualities of its source material: not haphazard, exactly, but certainly episodic. Although loosely chronological, it is mostly organized thematically. There’s a chapter on the telephone (the couple shared a party line with eight other families, each of whom had been given a distinctive ring composed of long and short sounds that had to be mastered). There’s one on winter (the fire had to be kept going day and night lest the pipes freeze; until the snowplow came through it was an hour-and-a-half roundtrip on snowshoes to the nearest store). And there are several on the farm animals (93 in all, including obstreperous goats and stubborn geese).

But whatever the ostensible subject, each chapter is really about this remarkable couple. Zuck, as Alice calls him, is stoic, good-natured, unafraid of getting his hands dirty. He’s the one getting up every night to feed the stove. He’s also frustrated, cursing inventively in a mixture of English and German admired by the locals. Whenever he sits down to write, something gets in the way: the pigpen door falls off its hinges, a drake fights a gander, the fire smolders and fills the house with smoke, the “water from a cloudburst would pour through the roof into the kitchen.”

He jumps up from his work at a moment’s notice not only because crises have to be dealt with, but also because he struggles to write in this new world: “He had lost his voice and resonance, and he could at best carry on monologues with his desk drawer. Into this vanished the piles of outlines and sketches.” Worse, the constant woodcutting breaks the skin at the base of his nails and filled his fingers with splinters. Often he can’t write for bloody fingers: “the keys of his typewriter, the a, e, r, and other much used letters showed brownish spots.”

The sound of the typewriter, Herdan-Zuckmayer notes, became an emotional seismograph: sometimes “it sounded like the quick, regular hammering of a mill,” sometimes “it was like the slow dripping of water from a wet cliff,” and sometimes “it stopped, and it was quiet for days, weeks, and months.” At such times, Zuck comes close to being the lost and floundering emigrant Herdan-Zuckmayer describes, not without sympathy, at the beginning of the book, those unwilling to “throw overboard their ballast of prejudices, class feeling, and desire to dominate.”

But Zuck has pluck. As does his wife. She declares, quite rightly, that nothing scares her, “a very important factor in farm life.” It helps that she is a woman: “The women were usually the point of stability in the first years of the emigration story.” Their work, she argues, was suited to holding back despair. Only repetitive work like washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking, and sewing could disperse the uncertainty, unpredictability, and unhappiness of emigrant life. These tasks shared the same structure, “going from a disorderly beginning to a state of clean orderliness, or giving form and taste to unformed material.”

Giving form to unformed material is as much the province of the memoirist as of the housewife. But for Herdan-Zuckmayer, at least, shaping experience doesn’t mean whitewashing it. Again and again she returns to the contradictory nature of emigrant experience, in which the newfound life that gives émigrés so much is at the same time so destructive of the people they once were.

Most of the time Herdan-Zuckmayer understates the difficulty of their lives, adhering to “the friendly old New England custom of making the best of a difficult situation.” On New Year’s Day 1943, for example, the couple’s two rambunctious wolfhounds break into the kitchen and smash thirty-six glasses within a few seconds. Herdan-Zuckmayer is unfazed: “I am very glad,” she deadpans to the breathless Zuck, who arrives just as the dogs depart the kitchen in a whirl of snow and broken glass, “that the glasses hadn’t been washed yet.”

But such moments are always accompanied by something darker: we never forget that what is being made the best of is something difficult. Herdan-Zuckmayer laughs at herself because she knows she’ll cry if she doesn’t. She tells her husband and her children (two girls: they had accompanied their parents to America, but were mostly away at school and seldom figure in the books) that she has walked as many steps across the cavernous kitchen as it would take to get to Florida; when they pooh-pooh the claim she concludes, “They were right, but sometimes exaggeration keeps one from collapse.”

Herdan-Zuckmayer is genuinely interested in and grateful for her American life, but she never hides how hard it is. She delights in a magazine article called “Farming Isn’t Fun”: “it makes you happy when someone else expresses in writing what you have thought silently and angrily to yourself.” That anger is evident on a particularly foul wintertime tramp through the woods laden with provisions: “the way home was so bitter that I fell down eighteen times, eleven because the snow gave way, seven from rage.” Anger couldn’t hide other, even more debilitating emotions. Depression and anxiety are never far away, especially after the US declares war on Germany and she and Zuck are subjected to (fairly benign but worrisome and isolating) restrictions as enemy aliens: they give up their radio so that the shortwave reception can be disabled, promise not to keep a weapon, and petition the authorities if they want to travel.

At times like these we are reminded of the book’s origins. Herdan-Zuckmayer’s audience is clearly European. American readers might not need to know the composition of Congress or what a station wagon is (“You can also carry schoolchildren, ducks, geese, goats, pigs, and pieces of furniture in it; in sort, it is a most useful vehicle for country living”). But the author’s outsider perspective means they will learn from it too, mostly about themselves. A shrewd anthropologist of wartime America, Herdan-Zuckmayer notes how American individualism is balanced by the homogeneity of capitalism. Explaining how little the different parts of the country resemble each other—“a place in Texas looks quite different from a place in Vermont, New Orleans in the South has no resemblance to Boston”—she adds, “for just that reason [Americans] seem to have set up points where they demand uniformity: the same gas stations for gasoline, the same sandwiches and ice creams in the drugstores, the same things to buy in the chain stores.”

The Farm in the Green Mountains has undeniable historical interest. But it also has unexpected relevance to the present. In the current climate of relentless privatization and demonization of the public good, readers might be surprised at Herdan-Zuckmayer’s conclusion about what unites Americans when they are at their best: neither a philosophy of individualism nor the leveling of capitalism, but a shared belief in and reliance on public institutions. This conclusion unites the book’s two longest chapters, which concern the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the library at Dartmouth. It’s hard to imagine topics having less to do with each other. But for Herdan-Zuckmayer each is about the idea of the public good she found central to wartime America.

Calling the USDA “one of the most significant and important institutions in America” might seem like overstatement. But without it she and Zuck would have starved to death. They had no farming ancestors to turn to for advice. Instead they had the USDA, with its invaluable pamphlets (“How does one select a healthy horse?” “Dairying for beginners,” “Types of potatoes on Vermont farms,” “How to make a good manure pile”), its soil testing service, and its patient answers to innumerable questions.

What in our current climate might be called officious or inefficient or worse, un-American even, is to Herdan-Zuckmayer and so many others a lifeline. For Alice and Zuck, the USDA held “the key to keeping peace, preventing hunger, and preserving life.” Its services are practical and progressive, designed to educate and make farmers independent and successful. It “teach[es] people what they need to know for a new world.”

Herdan-Zuckmayer is even more generous with her praise of the Dartmouth library, calling it “my rock, my refuge my cloister.” But what she loves about the library is its openness and generosity rather than its elitism or selectiveness. In comparison to the libraries she knew in Europe, with “their varying and uncertain hours, their many prohibitions, their attendants in gray smocks” that make her feel like a petitioner, at Dartmouth “all is hospitable and unforced.” The very design is inviting: she rhapsodizes about the open stacks, rightly noting that “the best part” is that “the book you are looking for is surrounded by books you didn’t know about, or have forgotten, or that you perhaps knew once and now find again.” Even the undergraduates appreciate it: “the students, who have been romping like St. Bernards and Great Danes on the playing field, come through the hall on tiptoe like the tame bears you feed sugar to, and they buzz like muted trumpets.” But it’s not just the Dartmouth community that profits from this wealth of knowledge: the library is for anyone who wants to use it, and Herdan-Zuckmayer exults in “this feeling of common property,” a feeling especially moving to a refugee from a regime that banned her husband’s books.

Yet despite the idea of the common good exemplified by the USDA and the library, America remained for the Zuckmayers an ambivalent idyll. Yes, it had rescued them from shipwreck, but it felt more like a lifeboat than a real home. So when in 1946, the US government asked Zuckmayer, now a US citizen, to travel to Europe as a cultural attaché the couple was ready to return. They had “no false illusions” about what awaited them. Even in remote Vermont they had “imagined the destruction and the terrible conditions over there.” But the situation in Europe was worse than they expected. Many of their friends were dead, “blown to pieces by bombs, burned up in fires, or hanged by Hitler’s courts.” Many of their enemies were unchanged, “just waiting for a new era of insanity.” And they themselves were different, unable to readjust to everyday life, such as having servants once again:

We sit here and don’t lift a finger. We carry on conversations with the guests, but we catch ourselves listening to the noises in the kitchen with one ear… we no longer have the innocence of the upper class… with every sound the individual links in the chain of the work pass before our eyes.

Thus even when they settle in Switzerland, even when Zuck’s typewriter sounds fluently again—“it sounds like a mill that can hardly take care of the quantity of grain given to it”—Herdan-Zuckmayer knows they’ve also lost something. The exiles have been exiled from their exile.

She devotes herself to reintegrating into European life, but she never forgets the farm, dreaming of a triumphant return without the privations of wartime. After five years the dreams become reality. But you can’t go home again, even when home is “a place in which one [has been] reborn through a second childhood.” Vermont is the same, but they’re not. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to farm and are unwilling “to waste time on work that was now not absolutely necessary for survival.” Just as they struggled to keep up their old life when they washed ashore in the new world, now they can’t return to the place that had been their refuge. “Wherever we go,” she concludes with equal parts briskness and melancholy, “we are visitors and never at home.” The Farm in the Green Mountain is a beautiful book about the poignancy of homelessness and the paradoxes of exile. Even in peaceful and beautiful Switzerland, Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was always thinking of the place she couldn’t return to, the farm where she and her husband spent “the most difficult and the happiest time of our life.”

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.