Letter from Heinrich Marx to son Karl

in Berlin

Written: Bad Ems, August 12, 1837
Source: Marx Engels Collected Works Vol 1, pg 674-677.
Publisher: International Publishers (1975)
First Published: Marx/Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Abt. 1, Hb. 2, 1929
Translated: Clemens Dutt
Transcribed: S. Ryan
HTML Markup: S. Ryan

Dear Karl,

My letter, written when I was greatly excited, may have hit you rather hard, and I am sincerely sorry if this was actually the case. Not as though I would thus have committed an injustice; I leave it to you to judge for yourself whether I had a valid reason to lose my temper. You know, you must know, how much I love you. Your letters (so long as I do not find in them any traces of that sickly sensitivity and fantastic, gloomy thoughts) are a real need and would have been particularly so this summer for your deeply feeling mother and myself. Eduard has been ailing for the last six months, and has grown quite thin, his recovery is very doubtful, and, what is so rare among children and so exhausting, he suffers from the deepest melancholy, really fear of dying. -- And you know what your mother is like -- she won't go from his side, she torments herself day and night, and I am for ever afraid that she will be overcome by these exertions.

For the last 7-8 months, I myself have been afflicted by a painful cough, which has been continually irritated by the eternal necessity of speaking. Sophie, too, is never quite well and is always taking medicine without success. In this situation -- what with your love affair, Jenny's prolonged indisposition, her profound worry, and the ambiguous position in which I, who have always known only the most straightforward course, find myself in relation to the Westphalens -- all this has deeply affected me and at times depressed me so much that I no longer recognised myself, and so I ask you: have I been too hard under the influence of the most profound ill humour?

However much I love you above everything -- except your mother -- I am not blind and still less want to be so. I do you justice in many matters, but I cannot entirely rid myself of the thought that you are not free from a little more egoism than is necessary for self-preservation, and I cannot always dispel the thought that were I in your position I would show greater consideration for and more self-sacrificing love towards my parents. I received nothing from my parents apart from my existence -- although not to be unjust, love from my mother -- and how I have fought and suffered, in order not to distress them as long as possible.

Do not put forward your character as an excuse. Do not blame nature. It has certainly treated you like a mother. It has given you strength enough, the will is left to man. But to abandon oneself to grief at the slightest storm, to lay bare a shattered heart and break the heart of our beloved ones at every suffering, do you call that poetry? God protect us from the most beautiful of all nature's gifts if that is its immediate effect. No, it is only weakness, over-indulgence, self-love and conceit which reduce everything to their own measure in this way and force even those we love most into the background!

The first of all human virtues is the strength and will to sacrifice oneself, to set aside one's ego, if duty, if love calls for it, and indeed not those glamorous, romantic or hero-like sacrifices, the act of a moment of fanciful reverie or heroic feeling. Even the greatest egoist is capable of that, for it is precisely the ego which then has pride of place. No, it is those daily and hourly recurring sacrifices which arise from the pure heart of a good person, of a loving father, of a tender-hearted mother, of a loving spouse, of a thankful child, that give life its sole charm and make it beautiful despite all unpleasantness.

You yourself have described so beautifully the life of your excellent mother, so deeply felt that her whole life is a continual sacrifice of love and loyalty, and truly you have not exaggerated. But what is the good of beautiful examples if they do not inspire one to copy them? But can you, with your hand on your heart, pride yourself on having done this up to now?

I do not want to press you too hard, certainly I do not want to offend you, for as a matter of fact I am weak enough to regret having offended you. But it is not merely that I, and your good mother, suffer from it, perhaps I would let that pass. In no one's heart is there so little selfishness as in that of good parents. But for your own good I must not and will not ever abandon this text until I am convinced that this stain on your otherwise so noble character has disappeared. Quite soon you will and must be the father of a family. But neither honour nor wealth nor fame will make your wife and children happy; you alone can do that, your better self, your love, your tender behaviour, the putting behind you of stormy idiosyncrasies, of violent outbreaks of passion , of morbid sensitivity, etc., etc., etc. I am hardly speaking any longer on my own behalf, I am calling your attention to the bond that is to be tied.

You say yourself that good fortune has made you its pet child. May God in His infinite goodness make it ever attend you closely, as much as frail humanity permits. But even the happiest man experiences gloomy hours, no mortal basks in eternal sunshine. But from him who is happy one has every right to demand that he meet the storm with manly courage, calm, resignation, cheerfulness. One can rightly demand that past happiness be an armour against temporary suffering. The heart of the happy man is full and wide and strong, it must not allow itself to be easily shattered.

Your dear mother has forwarded your letter to me here. The plan you have outlined is fine, and if properly executed, well fitted to become a lasting monument of literature. But great difficulties are piling up in the way, particularly because of the selfishness of those who are offended, and of the fact that there is no man of outstanding critical reputation to be at the head. On the other hand, the paper is suitable for creating a reputation. Here the question arises whether your name appears in this connection. For it is precisely to gain a reputation, a reputation as a critic, that is so essential for you, as helping towards a professorship. Nevertheless, I could not derive any certainty on that score from your letter. May God give you His blessing.

It seems that my trip to Berlin will not materialise. After the big expenses I have had this year it would make too great a demand on my funds. And then also I must confess that I have had some intention (although not very definite) to try if possible to transfer to the magistracy. However, I would have liked to know in advance the opinion of Herr Jaehnigen, whose co-operation could in any case be very useful. But since this did not come about, I see little hope for the matter. I did not want to ask anything of you that went against your feelings, but perhaps you could have acted more wisely. -- I hear, by the way, that Herr Jaehnigen and his wife are making a trip to Paris and will pass through Trier. You have missed a lot, for this summer Frau Jaehnigen has written some really exceptionally tender letters to your Jenny.

I am looking forward with great desire to receiving a letter from you to hear more about your undertakings. But I ask you to go into rather more detail.

Today I have sacrificed my morning walk for you, but there is just time to make a smaller one and to write a few lines to your good mother, to whom I will send this letter. For it would irk me to write again at length, and in this way your mother has a big letter all the same.

Good-bye, my good Karl, and always hold me as dear as you say, but do not make me blush with your flattery. There is no harm in having a high opinion of your father. In my position I have also achieved something, enough to have you, but not enough by far to satisfy me.

Your father


P.S. The supposed funeral sermon which you asked me for is a work of about ten lines, which I no longer possess, but which I believe Sophie has, and which even in the last version has undergone some alterations.