Stefan ZweigThe Discovery of Eldorado

2.11 Stefan Zweig, The Discovery of Eldorado – J. A. Sutter, California, January 1848, in Decisive Moments in History, Twelve Historical Miniatures, Arachne Press, 1999, german original text first published in Leipzig 1927, Die Entdeckung Eldorados – J. A. Sutter, Kalifornien, Januar 1848 in Sternstunden der Menschheit, Leipzig 1927, first published as “Film eines phantastischen Lebens“ Johann August Sutter on April 25th 1926 in the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna

a) Background

Stefan Zweigs text appeared 2 years after the novel L’or by Blaise Cendrars (text 2.10). It was the second text of world literature, which brought the life and the fate – and in particular of the role of law– of John August Sutter to the attention of a worldwide public. Blaise Cendrars novel obviously was the base of the text of Stefan Zweig. The english translation of Stefan Zweig’s text Sternstunden der Menschheit is called Decisive Moments in History. It consists of a series of 14 miniatures all addressing crucial moments in history. It is remarkable that the title of the first edition of the text in Vienna was “Film eines phantastischen Lebens” (film of a phantastic life)
Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 22, 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world. Zweig was born in Vienna, the son of Moritz Zweig (1845–1926), a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer, and Ida Brettauer (1854–1938), from a Jewish banking family. He studied Philosophy at the University of Vienna and in 1904 earned a doctoral degree with a thesis on “”The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine”. At the beginning of World War I, like patriotic, Stefan Zweig refused to pick up a rifle; instead he served in the Archives of the Ministry of War, and soon acquired a pacifist stand like his friend Romain Rolland, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1915. He then moved to Switzerland until the end of the war. Zweig remained a pacifist all his life and advocated the unification of Europe. Zweig left Austria following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. He then lived in England. Because of the swift advance of Hitler’s troops into France and all of Western Europe, Zweig and his second wife crossed the Atlantic Ocean and traveled to the United States, where they settled in 1940 in New York City, and traveled. On August 22, 1940, they moved again to Petrópolis, a town in the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro. Feeling more and more depressed by the growth of intolerance, authoritarianism, and Nazism, and feeling hopeless for the future for humanity, Zweig wrote a note about his feelings of desperation. Then, in February 23, 1942, the Zweigs were found dead of a barbiturate overdose in their house in the city of Petrópolis, holding hands. Zweig was a prominent writer in the 1920s and 1930s, befriending Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. He was extremely popular in the United States, South America and Europe, and remains so in continental Europe. His work had become contested in certain circles.

Zweig is best known for his novellas, novels and biographies (see biography) Zweig enjoyed a close association with Richard Strauss, and provided the libretto for Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). Zweig was a passionate collector of manuscripts. There are important Zweig collections at the British Library and at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

b) Summary

Stefan Zweig had a close relationship to Switzerland, where he lived during parts of first World War and where he frequently visited Zurich and the Engadin. The text at hand is a miniature in the book Decisive Moments of History, in which besides the story on General Sutter, the story on Lenin and the Russian Revolution has a close link to Switzerland. The text at hand appeared in 1927, 2 years after the publication of Blaise Cendrars novel L’or. The life and the fate of Johann August Sutter had been almost forgotten for 50 years. This text was instrumental for a renewed – this time worldwide – attention to this person of Swiss origin, who founded Nueva Helvetia in California. Zweig obviously used Blaise Cendrars as his major source. In the broader contexts of this Anthology which uses a broad concept of legal culture the text merits attention, since again it was the encounter with law that was the decisive and driving factor of the short text. In that respect Zweig gave the person of Johann August Sutter an additional twist by ranking him amongst the Desperados, emigrating to the United States and by naming his vision and the actual territory Eldorado.

The story starts with Johann August Sutter’s violations and persecutions under laws of Switzerland, which made him flee the country, thereby leaving his wife and 4 children behind. The text at hand reads like a factual reportage of the major and dramatic stages of the life of Johann August Sutter. The heading of the paragraphs are Europamüde (tired of Europe), der Marsch nach Kalifornien (the march to California), Neu-Helvetien (New-Helvetia), Der verhängnissvolle Spatenstich (the fateful stroke of the spade), Der Rush (the rush), Das Ende (the end). The text has a “legal beginning” – the violations of law before his disparture to Switzerland – and ”legal end” – the obsession with the legal battles still flickering in his mind. “Nur eine Idee flackert noch wirr in dem dumpf gewordenen Hirn: Das Recht, Der Prozess. (Only one idea still flickered in his numbed brain: The law, the legal proceeding).

It is fair to say, that the short story basically tells Johann August Sutter’s encounter and struggle with the law after the Gold rush in US courts and his numerous petitions to the Congress of the United States personally presented in Washington DC. We should not forget, that Johann August Sutter’s encounter with the law was situated immediatly before the termination of the Mexican rule and after the formation of the State of California, US law became the law of the land in a crucial phase of the American westword movement, where legal institutions and law were not yet consolidated. (see text 2.8)

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.11_ZWEIG_Discovery of Eldorado


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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