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“John Maynard” is the title of a poem by Theodor Fontane (1819 - 1898), a well-known German author. Its story appears to be based on a real event, the burning of the steamer called Erie in 1841 off Silver Creek in Lake Erie. A couple of different authors, one of whom may have been Charles Dickens or James Fenimore Cooper, wrote prose stories based on this event. Then Horatio Alger wrote a poem about it in English. Apparently Fontane was inspired by an earlier rendition to write his own poetic version of the story in German. During the telling and retelling of the story, many of the original names and facts were changed.

Here’s the story of the Huberman family involvement with “John Maynard.” It began in the summer of 1996 when I sat down at the Reference Desk at the Canisius College library (where I worked on nights and week-ends as a reference librarian) and saw a simple note which said, “John Maynard, Theodor Fontane.” It rang a bell in my mind, and the head of the Reference Department told me that she had received a request to find an English translation of the “John Maynard” poem. She had been looking in databases and catalogs all day long with no success. I had recognized the name of the poem because our family hosted two exchange students from Buffalo's German sister city, Dortmund, in 1985 and 1986. They had both been shocked that we had never heard of John Maynard, and we had somehow located a copy of the poem and read it in German at the time. As I took over my duties at the reference desk that night, I thought I would just check the World Wide Web to see if it might hold any clues to the existence of a translation. I had several “hits,” most of which were links to a copy of the poem in German. I printed it out so that I could enjoy reading it again, and proceeded to look at another interesting internet site “Theodor Fontane: Eine Bibliographie der Übersetzungen seiner Gedichte, Bearbeitet von Derek Glass (King’s College London).” [Note: Sadly, Derek Glass died in 2004, and his bibliography has been removed from the King's College website. This is a PDF of an imperfect web archive version of the bibliography.] This looked promising, but as I looked first at list of translations by language, I found no listing of "John Maynard" in English. At the end of the bibliography, the translations are listed by the title of the work also, and I discovered that “John Maynard” had been translated into Latvian, Russian, Hungarian, Korean, and French, but not into English, at least as far as Derek Glass had been able to discover. Amazing!

My daughter, Julie, was at home when I returned from the library, and I told her this story of my search for an English translation of “John Maynard.” She had just returned from Duisburg, where she had spent a year and a half teaching English and improving her German. She immediately made a rough translation of the poem, and began to think about a more poetic version. We then joined up with my younger daughter, Amy, who had just been working as a summer intern in a living history museum in Maine and had come across a reference to the story of John Maynard (without mentioning any specific names) in a nineteenth-century Universalist sermon in the archives of the museum. She had taken an intensive German course in Köln, and she writes poetry, so the idea of translating the poem excited her. Thus, for the rest of the summer, translating “John Maynard” became a family entertainment as we drove to and from our summer cabin in New Hampshire.

By the end of the summer, we (primarily Julie and Amy, with a few suggestions from other family members and friends) had a completed translation that I brought in to the Canisius library. I e-mailed it to Derek Glass and asked him whether he knew anything about the origin of the poem. He was interested in our translation but couldn’t make it an official addition to his bibliography because it had never been published. He recommended that we send a copy to the Theodor-Fontane-Archiv (Postfach 60 15 45, 12215 Potsdam, Germany) for their records, and I did that. Meanwhile, I showed the translation to another reference librarian at Canisius, because I know that she teaches German and thought she might be interested. She remembered reading something about the poem, and the next day she brought me a photocopy of a fascinating article about the origins of the poem by Burt Erickson Nelson followed by his own translation of the poem. This article appeared in the October/November issue of Der Volksfreund/People’s Friend, a newspaper published locally for the German-American community. When I told Derek Glass about this article, he was delighted to find that a translation of the poem had actually been published and could be added officially to his bibliography. This he has done. And, in response to my initial question to him, he sent me some very interesting discussions of the origin of the poem, auf Deutsch, of course.

Since that time, we have discovered, by checking Derek Glass's bibliography, that the translation by Julie and Amy has been published in a small German newsletter, Mitteilungen der Theodor Fontane Gesellschaft, Nr. 12, Juni 1997, S. 40. Now it is also an official part of the bibliography.

Meanwhile, I received a letter from a German man who had contacted the Theodor-Fontane-Archiv looking for an English translation of John Maynard. He enclosed a photocopy from a couple of pages of a German reading book which included the poem and some of its history and asked me to look for any relevant newspaper articles I could find from August, 1841, the date of the original incident of a burning ship on Lake Erie, which was probably the inspiration for Fontane’s poem.

By now, I had become interested enough to spend part of a day at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library looking for newspaper articles from 1841. Unfortunately, according to the Special Collections librarian, the only Buffalo newspaper they have from 1841 is very incomplete and resides in the Rare Book Room where it can be seen only by appointment. But she went through files and brought out scrapbooks and helped me find some fascinating information about the original incident, all published long after it occurred, but some published within the lifetimes of some of the people involved. The photocopies I made were so hard to read that I decided to type up the relevant parts of the articles. Just at that time, Canisius College set up website homepages for all of the library employees, and that inspired me to think about what I might put on the web. I realized that I already had copies of "John Maynard" in both German and English plus three or four newspaper articles in electronic form. I put them up on the web, and the rest is history.

A subsequent trip to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society library turned up an actual article from 1841, and as the internet has provided access to more and more articles, I have added many 1841 articles to the site.

Since the early years of this website, many people have contacted us with further information about the poem, translations of some of the items on the website, theories about the origins of the names in the poem, mention of relatives who survived the disaster, and many questions and comments. For many years, Norman Barry, a retired Gymnasium teacher from Bad Schussenried, Germany, has been a major contributor to the website as he has worked on finding original newspaper articles, writing essays on various topics related to "John Maynard," and translating many articles. The site has grown in unexpected ways, and we are always receptive to suggestions from “John Maynard” fans. This project has a life of its own.

John Maynard lives!


Anne Huberman


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