Letter from Heinrich Marx to son Karl

in Berlin

Written: Trier, March 2, 1837
Source: Marx Engels Collected Works Vol 1, pg 670-673.
Publisher: International Publishers (1975)
First Published: Marx/Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Abt. 1, Hb. 2, 1929
Translated: Clemens Dutt
Transcribed: S. Ryan
HTML Markup: S. Ryan

It is remarkable that I, who am by nature a lazy writer, become quite inexhaustible when I have to write to you. I will not and cannot conceal my weakness for you. At times my heart delights in thinking of you and your future. And yet at times I cannot rid myself of ideas which arouse in me sad forebodings and fear when I am struck as if by lightning by the thought: is your heart in accord with your head, your talents? Has it room for the earthly but gentler sentiments which in this vale of sorrow are so essentially consoling for a man of feeling? And since that heart is obviously animated and governed by a demon not granted to all men, is that demon heavenly or Faustian? Will you ever -- and that is not the least painful doubt of my heart -- will you ever be capable of truly human, domestic happiness? Will -- and this doubt has no less tortured me recently since I have come to love a certain person like my own child -- will you ever be capable of imparting happiness to those immediately around you?

What has evoked this train of ideas in me, you will ask ? Often before, anxious thoughts of this kind have come into my mind, but I easily chased them away, for I always felt the need to surround you with all the love and care of which my heart is capable, and I always like to forget. But I note a striking phenomenon in Jenny. She, who is so wholly devoted to you with her childlike, pure disposition, betrays at times, involuntarily and against her will, a kind of fear, a fear laden with foreboding, which does not escape me, which I do not know how to explain, and all trace of which she tried to erase from my heart, as soon as I pointed it out to her. What does that mean, what can it be? I cannot explain it to myself, but unfortunately my experience does not allow me to be easily led astray.

That you should rise high in the world, the flattering hope to see your name held one day in high repute, and also your earthly well-being, these are not the only things close to my heart, they are long-cherished illusions that have taken deep root in me. Basically, however, such feelings are largely characteristic of a weak man, and are not free from all dress, such as pride, vanity, egoism, etc., etc., etc. But I can assure you that the realisation of these illusions could not make me happy. Only if your heart remains pure and beats in a purely human way, and no demonic spirit is capable of estranging your heart from finer feelings -- only then would I find the happiness that for many years past I have dreamed of finding through you; otherwise I would see the finest aim of my life in ruins. But why should I grow so soft and perhaps distress you? At bottom, I have no doubt of your filial love for me and your good, dear mother, and you know very well where we are most vulnerable.

I pass on to positive matters. Some days after receiving your letter, which Sophie brought her, Jenny visited us and spoke about your intention. She appears to approve your reasons, but fears the step itself, and that is easy to understand. For my part, I regard it as good and praiseworthy. As she intimates, she is writing to you that you should not send the letter direct -- an opinion I cannot agree with. What you can do to put her mind at rest is to tell us eight days beforehand on what day you are posting the letter. The good girl deserves every consideration and, I repeat, only a lifetime full of tender love can compensate her for what she has already suffered, and even for what she will still suffer, for they are remarkable saints she has to deal with.

It is chiefly regard for her that makes me wish so much that you will soon take a fortunate step forward in the world, because it would give her peace of mind, at least that is what I believe. And I assure you, dear Karl, that were it not for this, I would at present endeavour to restrain you from coming forward publicly rather than spur you on. But you see, the bewitching girl has turned my Old head too, and I wish above all to see her calm and happy. Only you can do that and the aim is worthy of your undivided attention, and it is perhaps very good and salutary that, immediately on your entry into the world, you are compelled to show human consideration, indeed wisdom, foresight and mature reflection, in spite of all demons. I thank heaven for this, for it is the human being in you that I will eternally love. You know that, a practical man though I am, I have not been ground down to such a degree as to be blunted to what is high and good. Nevertheless, I do not readily allow myself to be completely torn up from the earth, which is my solid basis, and wafted exclusively into airy spheres where I have no firm ground under my feet. All this naturally gives me greater cause than I would otherwise have had to reflect on the means which are at your disposal. You have taken up dramatic composition, and of course it contains much that is true. But closely bound up with its importance, its great publicity, is quite naturally the danger of coming to grief. Not always, especially in the big cities, is it necessarily the inner value which is decisive. Intrigues, cabals, jealousy, perhaps among those who have had the most experience of these, often outweigh what is good, especially if the latter is not yet raised to and maintained in high honour by a well-known name.

What, therefore, would be the wisest course? To look for a possible way by which this great test would be preceded by a smaller one involving less danger, but sufficiently important for you to emerge from it, in the event of success, with a not quite unimportant name. If, however, this has to be achieved by something small, then the material, the subject, the circumstances, must have some exceptional quality. I racked my brains for a long time in the search for such a subject and the following idea seemed to me suitable.

The subject should be a period taken from the history of Prussia, not one so prolonged as to call for an epic, but a crowded moment of time where, however, the future hung in the balance.

It should redound to the honour of Prussia and afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy -- if need be, through the mind of the very noble Queen Louise.

Such a moment was the great battle at La Belie Alliance-Waterloo. The danger was enormous, not only for Prussia, for its monarch, for the whole of Germany, etc., etc., etc. In fact, it was Prussia that decided the great issue here -- hence, at all events this could be the subject of an ode in the heroic genre, or otherwise -- you understand that better than I do.

The difficulty would not be too great in itself. The biggest difficulty, in any case, would be that of compressing a big picture into a small frame and of giving a successful and skilful portrayal of the great moment. But if executed in a patriotic and German spirit with depth of feeling, such an ode would itself be sufficient to lay the foundation for a reputation, to establish a name.

But I can only propose, advise. You have outgrown me; in this matter you are in general superior to me, so I must leave it to you to decide as you will.

The subject I have spoken of would have the great advantage that it could very soon be presented apropos, since the anniversary is on June 18. The cost would not be very considerable, and if necessary I will bear it. -- I should so very much like to see good Jenny calm and able to hold up her head proudly. The good child must not wear herself out. And if you are successful in this project -- and the demand is not beyond your powers -- then you will be in a secure position and able to relax somewhat from the hothouse life.

In point of fact, too, it is impossible not to be enthusiastic over this moment of time, for its failure would have imposed eternal fetters on mankind and especially on the human mind. Only today's two-faced liberals can deify a Napoleon. And in truth under his rule not a single person would have dared to think aloud what is being written daily and without interference throughout Germany, and especially in Prussia. And anyone who has studied the history of Napoleon and what he understood by the absurd expression of ideology can rejoice greatly and with a clear conscience at his downfall and the victory of Prussia.

Give my cordial greetings to our friend Meurin. Tell him that until now I have not been able to carry out the commission with which I have been charged. I suffered from a cold for eight days and since then I have not ventured any farther than to attend the sitting.

Your faithful father