The American in Holland/Down the Rhine into Holland

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The American in Holland by William Elliot Griffis
Down the Rhine into Holland

"Monday, September 19, 1869. Cold and raw to-day, as in early morning we sailed out of Prussia into Holland. Passed the examination of the customhouse officers at Emmerich. All right! Arnhem soon in sight."

So declares my diary.

My thoughts were something like these. Having no dutiable articles, cigars, brandy, diamonds, or gunpowder, we soon satisfied the Dutch custom inspectors that we were neither smugglers nor peddlers. On a Rhine steamer we two, Quandril and I, - one of us fortunately able to see with a sister's eyes, - moved out of the great German into the tiny Dutch world. Having spent a summer, our first, in Europe, and seen the kingdoms of the world, British, French, Italian, and Teutonic, we were to enter Brave Little Holland. From High Dutch to Low Dutch means a descent in geography, as well as a change of language.

We were coming into an Egypt-like, hollow land, where old Father Rhine loses his name. We had seen his mountain cradle and rocky nursery, 'twixt sky and glacier, place of riotous youth and terrific leap at Schaffhausen, strong race and majestic flow through the heart of Europe. We had passed cities, castles, peaks, and spires, as we rode upon his back and slipped down the gradient.

We shall see how the river behaves in old age and in the valley of the shadow of death. Its unity lost, divided into as many branches as there are bars to a gridiron, it will be henceforth hard to tell where and what the Rhine is. We shall be confused by many names. The flood with twelve thousand feeders, and draining enough square miles of plain and valley to make two Empire States, holds its name only from the German frontier to the little town of Wijk-bij-Duurstede. From snowflake to sea-shroud it ought to be one, but its unity lost, we shall behold it reaching its ocean grave by means of many outlets. The Rhine story, as of too many human lives, is from in excelisis to de profundis.

We are entering a geographical cellar, moving between dikes into the world of wooden shoes, gyrating windmills, canals crossing the country like strips of steel, and houses down below on the dry land. We see their ridgepoles lower than our decks.

Meditative storks perch on the chimneys. They are one-legged, each like a Blondin in mid-air, their beaks and necks long enough for balancing poles. The American notes that granite instead of wooden piers front the towns. The steamer passes swiftly the broad-prowed lazy galliots bumping against the river waves. Brick and brickyards multiply. The raw material ground off by glaciers from the tops of Swiss mountains, the scourings of the German hill slopes, the silt from France, the ooze rolled down from a thousand streams through ages of ages, make the beds of Holland's rivers, which ever tend to rise higher.

It is an historic land whose threshold we cross this autumn morning. Being just out of college, Motley's pages are fresh in my mind. Did I not read "The Rise of the Dutch Republic" and "The History of the United Netherlands" while at Rutgers, - the school "On the Banks of the Old Raritan" founded by Dutchmen? Were not my fellow students descended from the first settlers of New Netherland? Did they not bear names which, on first sight, when read in the college catalogue at home in Philadelphia, seemed fearfully and wonderfully Dutch? Shall I ever forget the peals of merry laughter, as Quandril and the other sisters read the double and triple-decked names and tried to pronounce them? Of English descent, and my ears more accustomed to names from Devon and Notts in old England, I found in these labels of personality linguistic puzzles, then and to us equal to anything in Sanskrit or Choctaw.

Verily, everything Dutch was then new, odd, and outlandish.

Four years of college life made these name-puzzles plain. Like their owners, they proved to be "gentle and easily entreated." To learn their meaning became a delight. In number, of course, the "vans" led. From places such as Cleve and Blaricum; from the hills, the meadow, the turf, the tower, the sea, the well, the pile, the dike, the bilt, and the buren; or their homes "at the" (ten) oak or the ash, the forefathers of these lads had long ago come westward across the sea. That list of names bloomed into a parterre of brilliant flowers. Even yet they are fragrant with those rich associations of friendship which only college life can beget. Other family names mirrored history. They showed the callings and occupations of the industrial people who first settled New Netherland, - the empire region containing the Middle States, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Happy were the vacations of those four college years, when, during summer rest and frolic, I enjoyed Dutch America, so full of names of Indian origin, of classic romance, and of nation-making history.

One must look on the map, where "the American Rhine" flows from the Cloud-Tear Lake on Mount Marcy to the salt Atlantic, to find the old Dutch America in its length. Does not its best part lie between the Adirondacks and the Catskills and in the valley of the Mohawk? Behold here a land of innumerable "kills," once pure, cold, and crystal-clear trout streams, or watercourses over which beavers made their homes. Here also are plenty of "dams," like Rotterdam and other place-names ending in that sound, - jocose, rather than profane, to the English ear, but falling innocently with its broadened vowel upon the Dutch tympanum. Few are the "dikes," but plenty are the "hooks," like Kinderhook (the children's corner). Many a sunny nook, like Claverack (clover reach) and Coxsackie, are suggestive of Dutch outdoor origins. Within this romantic region are Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle's land, into which Irving, who was of Scottish origin and knew very little of real Holland, imported old Teutonic legends and reset them in a Hudson River valley environment. So also does Boucicault, the Irishman, make his Rip, the Catskill Dutchman, on the stage talk German, both of Pennsylvania and of the Fatherland, but not the Dutch of Holland.

Yet who does not forgive the owner of Sunnyside his caricatures, or his "immortal jest," because of his gayety, his style, his stimulus to research?

Here also is Corlear's country and the scene of the labors of the Iroquois culture-hero, Hiawatha. Here dwelt some of the first of America's literary men: Van der Donck, the lawyer, who wrote the best description of New Netherland, and after whom, as the young lord or yonk heer, Yonkers is named; Domine Selyns, the Latinist and poet, who versified well in two languages; and Megapolensis, the learned scholar, who preached the gospel to the Indians long before John Eliot. In this same land arose the first school of native American writers, Hoffman, Irving, Cooper, and Drake. They made a literature distinctive of the soil, when "literature" on our side of the Atlantic meant little more than political tracts, sermons, or polemics bound in pigskin. Here also was the seat of the Indian republic ; first of five and then of six confederated nations. The Iroquois, senators of the forest, met in council at Onondaga, but they dominated the whole land between Niagara and the Hudson, and from Corlear's Lake to Chesapeake Bay.

Here lies the halcyon region of winter sports, of sleds, sleighs, of stoves, of the ice yacht and the toboggan. Here most of the first things in United States history took their rise. Here the idea of a national union, first conceived by Leisler in 1690, and again set forth in 1754 by Franklin, was born and nourished. Here constructive principles were wrought out. Here the most decisive events in colonial, revolutionary, and constitutional history took place. This is Dutch America, too often and inaccurately called "New Netherlands," but always, and from the first, New Netherland, possibly so named in token of victory over secession and foreign enemies, and of the consolidated union of the Dutch United States beyond sea.

In this enchanted land, and in the time of college days, the student from Philadelphia - city founded by the son of a Dutch mother - first sailed up the Hudson River by summer moonlight, to reach the star-daisied meadows of Greenbush, the fair fields of Guilderland, the wonders of Indian Ladder, and the superb scenery of the Helderberg, - all places named long ago by the Dutch colonists. How I enjoyed the lovely homes there, rich in culture, religion, and happiness. Here were men of sturdy character, faithful mothers, pink-checked maidens, lads strong and hearty. It was like traveling in a foreign land, while yet at home, to note quaint and curious survivals of speech, custom, belief, architecture, and farm detail copied from "Patria," the old home-land beyond and below the sea. How often did we, lads and lasses, read poetry together, talk of Motley and the glorious art and wonders of Holland, the land I was already learning to love. With most of them there was a sentimental and ancestral strain of admiration for things Dutch which I, of English descent, could not share. Mine was but a student's passion to see the country that led Europe in freedom's wars, - England's dike against the Spanish flood.

On this autumnal day of 1869 the student's dream has become vision. How natural it all seems! Land and story fit well together. The people are like their country. We glide all day along a river the bed of which is higher than the fields on either side of it. We pass many Dutch towns and cities with not a few reminders of Holland's heroic past, and in mid-afternoon we enter a forest of masts, and amid a crowd of hulls find lodgment on the Boompjes, - the avenue of little trees, - to spend a scant thirty hours in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, the first to greet our eyes, the second in the kingdom, and the home of William Penn's mother, - not the least of Rotterdam's honors. The sounds were strange enough. Many of the sights still glow in memory.

The next day at sunset, on a steamer neat and comfortable, loaded with several myriads of what looked like red cannon-balls, but which proved to be Edam cheeses, we dropped down the Maas through the darkness, past unseen historic towns. It was after midnight that we entered the North Sea, bound for Hull and Glasgow. Our voyage was to be "between the hooks" of Holland and of New Jersey.

Good-by, Netherlands. We hope to see more of you when we come again. We have read of your old republican days on the pages of Motley, who is now our American envoy at the Court of St. James. May he live to finish his full story of the United Netherlands, yes, even of their career until the Republic died in 1795. Meanwhile, only the kings of one house and line rule over this land wrested from the river and the ocean floods. King William III. and his Queen Sophia, with children and kin numerous enough to make an imposing court, with a sufficiency of possible heirs, hold the affections of the Dutch people.

So we - Quandril and I - thought and felt in 1869, not knowing that Japan - land that for two hundred and fifty years had shut herself from all the world except Holland, and which was even then in the throes of civil war, the old and the new contending - would woo us both away, even under the shadow of Fuji Yama, and mid-life come before we should see Netherland again. From the Hook of Holland to Sandy Hook, - both named by the Dutch and both once spelled "hoek," - we had begun our salt-water voyage.