Columbia Library columns (v.15(1965Nov-1966May))

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  v.15,no.1(1965:Nov): Page 9  

A Neglected Genius
of Colonial Pennsylvania


A BOUT one hundred and twenty-five years before that

/-j\ Independence day in 1845 when Henry David Thoreau
_4_ )V went to live alone by Walden Pond near Concord, iMas-
sachusetts, a German-born mystic named Conrad Beissel (1691-
1763), with several companions, was living the sohtary life in the
Conestoga region of what now is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Not only was Conrad Beissel's self-chosen solitude just as pro-
ducti\'e in a literary sense as Thoreau's later became, but it also
was an expression of the same rebellion against a society which
demanded that a man live by its laws, conform to its customs,
accumulate its wealth, think its thoughts and dress to please
its tastes.

Conrad Beissel was to become one of the most productive liter¬
ary figures in Colonial America. He wTOte—of course in the
German language—at least six volumes of mystical prose and
about forty thousand lines of German religious verse. But
even though eighteenth century America boasted few writers as
prolific, his name does not appear in the histories of American
literature; American literary historians continue to ignore him
because he \\ rote in that other language in which George Wash¬
ington published some of his Pennsylvania proclamations, the

Beissel had been born at Eberbach along the Neckar in Ger¬
many, March i, 1691, son of a no-account baker who had died
several months before his son's birth. The lad's orphaned child¬
hood was one of poverty, neglect and hunger. Precocious of
mind but sickly of body, he withdrew into iiimself and developed
an outer life of make-believe and feigned good fellowship: he
even fiddled for the frolics of weddings. This introspective young
  v.15,no.1(1965:Nov): Page 9