American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Geschichte der alpinen Literatur

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  • Publication Year: 1939

Geschiclttc der alpinen Literatur, by Aloys Dreyer. 8vo., pp. 159. Munich : Gesellschaft Alpiner Bücherfreunde (25th publication), 1938. Price RM. 7.

The most noteworthy change of the nineteenth century in the approach to mountaineering was the superseding of the scientific tradition, handed down from Saussure, by sport for sport’s sake. The twentieth century, with recourse to artificial aids, now indicates a further trend away from pure sport toward the acceptance of Alpine problems as battle (Kampf), with “do or die” as the corollary in the Eigerwand sense—or lack of it. There is already a revolt against this outlook, initiating, strangely enough, in the series of monotonous climbing papers which it has produced. We have read enough of war and its horrors during 1914-18 and ever since, and it is an important sign that “peace within our time” is becoming acceptable to mountaineers ; we may as well make it a peace of which we can be unashamed.

Always there have been a few thinking, contemplative wanderers, alive to the wonder and beauty of the world in the esthetic and pantheistic relationship discovered by von Haller and Goethe. Henry Hoek believes that Alpinism as a pastime will disappear unless we remove huts, superfluous ironwork, stonemen and records, and return to old simplicities. There is even now a young Swiss group, led by Paul Schucan, which has agreed never again to write an account of an expedition, but to hold the mysticism of its mountain world within itself. Carl Egger, in an arresting paper (Die Alpen, October, 1938), points out the changing attitude— which Guido Lammer (A. J.,49, 297) has long deplored.

Dreyer’s History of Alpine Literature, which has drawn forth the foregoing, is an indication to disillusioned editors of how far ahead German-speaking writers, including Swiss, are in the matter of producing books and articles of permanent value. If future historians trouble to delve into the musty pages of American or British mountaineering journals, they will say, “Ah, yes, our forerunners went here and there, it took them certain lengths of time, they ate this and that ; but did they think or feel ?” Let us, if possible, be remembered for something more. “Alpensteigen ist von Art eine halbe Himmelfahrt” is a good slogan for our banner.

The point is that American, and presumably British, climbers seldom read (the lay public supports the publication of mountaineering books), and consequently develop no ability to write, being almost ignorant of the history and traditions of their sport. Dreyer, for instance, searching for an American to include in his book, is forced to offer, of all persons, Longfellow (Hyperion, 1839), and can find no other worthy. [We do not come out much better in Schirmer's Die Schweiz im Spiegel englischer und amerikanischer Literatur bis 1849 (Zürich, 1929), although the list is somewhat more extensive.] The British make scarcely greater show (Geoffrey Young is not included among Alpine poets and where is our favorite C. E. Montague?), although the author nods to Shelley and Byron, and cites the classic books of Stephen, Dent and Whymper. Possibly because of Mlle Engel’s researches (although these are not mentioned), a fair case is made out for the French (O, rare Javelle!), but one does not have to delve far into Dreyer’s book to realize the overwhelming superiority of German-speaking writers, although the author attempts to be nonpartisan.

If we can take to heart the lesson of this latest publication of the Gesellschaft Alpiner Bücherfreunde (whose membership exceeding 1500 indicates a healthy literary interest) it is of considerable importance. We need not go back to the sentimental school which made much of “the avalanche” and the “cry of the eagle,” but, if we must write at all, let us avoid the pitfalls of record-breaking and conquest attitudes, proving to ourselves anew that the Alpine world is an individual experience in beauty and splendor, lest the spirit of wonder die beneath an ugly heap of timetables, old tin-cans and broken bottles. Early in life one does not readily accept the discipline required, choosing while hot blood runs to break a lance in lists which only riper years perceive as a temple. But it is worth trying, if only the sooner to comprehend that in the depths of our beings we are one with the peaks and the stars. It is the faint but only chance that our alpine journals may one day be the Rosetta-stones of vanished youth.

J. M. T.

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