Der Verschollene; Amerika

Der Verschollene; The Man who Disappeared; Amerika

(written 1911-14; published 1927)

Kafka’s first novel is often known as Amerika in English, and this was the title used by Kafka’s friend Max Brod when he first published the novel in 1927. However, the title which Kafka gave to this novel was Der Verschollene, ‘The Man who Disappeared’. It could also be translated as ‘The Boy who Disappeared’.

This original title emphasises the difficulty which the seventeen year old protagonist Karl Rossmann has in maintaining and asserting his own identity in America. This is not a realistic America: e.g. the Statue of Liberty is depicted holding a sword.

Kafka had never been to America; many of his descriptions were inspired by Arthur Holitscher’s book Amerika heute und morgen (America today and tomorrow; 1911-12). Holitscher’s socialist account of America was ambivalent: he admired its industrial progress, but deplored its social and racial inequalities. As Jennifer Marston William (2003) points out, Holitscher’s book includes the photo of a lynched black man, and this may explain why, at the end of the novel, Karl says that his name is ‘negro’. Thus he identifies with the people at the bottom of the American racial hierarchy.

The novel was also inspired by Charles Dickens (David Copperfield) and by the films of Charlie Chaplin.

Der Verschollene, like Kafka’s other novels, can be read as an account of a failed assimilation. Whenever Karl seems to have found a stable position in America, disaster strikes; he is cast out again. The novel shows the extremes of wealth (Uncle Jakob) and poverty (Therese Berchtold) in America. The final completed section, featuring the ‘Nature Theatre of Oklahama’ [sic] combines utopian and bureaucratic elements.

Further Reading

Esther K. Bauer, ‘Lost between Power and Desire: The Brunelda Episode in Franz Kafka’s Der Verschollene’, Journal of the Kafka Society of America 29 (2005), 3-14

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Karl Rossmann, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up: The Flight from Manhood in Kafka’s Der Verschollene’, in From Goethe to Gide: Feminism, Aesthetics and the Literary Canon in France and Germany 1770-1936, ed. by Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005), pp. 168-83

Stanley Corngold, Complex Pleasure: Forms of Feeling in German Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, Chapter Six

Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Visions of the New World: Photography in Kafka’s Der Verschollene’, German Life and Letters 59 (2006), 423-45

Gerhard Kurz, ‘Therese’s Story in Der Verschollene’, in Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading, ed. by Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg and Ronald Speirs (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011), pp. 94-107

Joseph Metz, ‘Zion in the West: Cultural Zionism, Diasporic Doubles, and the “Direction” of Jewish Literary Identity in Kafka’s Der Verschollene’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 78:4 (2004), 646-71

Kenneth Payne, ‘Franz Kafka’s America’, Symposium 51 (1997), 30-42

Jennifer Marston William, ‘Why Karl calls himself “Negro”: the representation of waiting and the waited-on in Franz Kafka’s Der Verschollene’, West Virginia University Philological Papers 50 (2003), 9-16

Jennifer Marston William, Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010), Chapter 1 on Der Verschollene, pp. 42-67

John Zilcosky, Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism and the Traffic of Writing (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003)