George Dibbern: His Life and Quest
Adventurer ~ Sailor-Philosoper ~ Free Thinker ~ Self-declared Citizen of the World
San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1946
Bookman’s Notebook, by Joseph Henry Jackson,
In a day when the literary journals are full of notes on revival of interest in older writers—Trollope, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald as reason in point, perhaps it won’t be wholly amiss to do a note here on another revival, this one deliberately stimulated yet I think worth commenting upon.
In 1941 so short and yet so long ago, the dignified firm of W.W. Norton of New York, an organization never given to publishing trash of any kind brought out a curious and compelling book called Quest.
The Manuscript came to the firm from the South Seas, unsolicited and from a man they had never heard of. Without hesitation the publisher sent it straight to press and if it had not been for the war the history of that book might have been a very different thing.
A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY
George Dibbern was a German. In a moment you’ll see why I use the past tense here though Dibbern is still very much alive.
Dibbern had knocked about the world a good deal in his time and in the Germany of 1930 he began to feel somehow as though he were caught in a trap. There was little work for a man. It was almost impossible to make ends meet. Workmen’s minds were a confusion of ideas, out of which there was beginning to emerge the outline of Nazism that was to come. Everywhere there was discontent and—what troubled Dibbern most—the notion that the way to correct things was through some sort of violence. One man said “Bolshevism is the answer! Arise! Kill!” Another said “The Jews are to blame! Kill them all!” Still another cried “A strong army and navy is what we need!” No one, it seemed to Dibbern, spoke of goodwill, understanding, of sincerity and forthright decency.
It was too much for him. He had a wife and children, true, but he was also a man himself. And he could not be himself in a world such as the Germans were building around him. With incredibly little money and a partner, he set out in a small ketch which since he had known the South Seas he called Te Rapunga or the Dark Sun in the sense of the moment before the dawn. The words may also be interpreted as “Longing.” Somewhere he was going to find himself if he could.
At the same time Dibbern denationalized himself which gets back to my saying that he was a German he even invented his own flag and worked out his own passport in which he stated that he felt his place to be “outside of nationality,” and that it was his intention henceforth to be “a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples.”
His book Quest is the story of a decade [actually 4 years] of wanderings around the world in the Te Rapunga and a good book it is, too.
REVIVING DIBBERN’S QUEST
As I’ve suggested, I believe that it the US hadn’t found itself in the war so soon after Quest appeared, the book would have had a far better sale. The publishers believed in it. As things fell out, a country at war had little time to spare for a book by a man who had done something that just couldn’t be done in a world at war. And Quest temporarily died.
Dibbern in spite of his personal renunciation of German citizenship, was interned in New Zealand. Apparently you can’t just de-nationalize yourself if you want to; I’m not up on the legal ins and outs of it, but that seems to be the case. Dibbern’s internment, however, was in New Zealand and now that the war is over, he’s free again, and hopes to resume his wanderings, meantime working on a new book to be called “Test.”
As for the “revival,” the story is that a group of admirers of Dibbern headed by Henry Miller down at Big Sur, have arranged to buy up the copies that are left of Quest and sell these for Dibbern’s benefit. He’ll get his royalties of course: the publisher pays those on the number sold at the regular discount. But this group will also forego any profit, turning over to Dibbern the difference between the wholesale and the retail price. In a way this looks like a crack at the bookseller, but this is a special case, and no booksellers are objecting.
The point of this note is to suggest that Quest may be worth your attention, if you have gathered from the above noted that it’s the kind of book that attracts you.
If that’s the case send your check for $3.10 to Henry Miller, Big Sur, California with a note ordering Quest and you’ll get it. You’ll also be contributing to Dibbern’s chance to put to sea again in Te Rapunga and to his effort to do his next book on which he’s engaged.
For that matter, another result may be that Norton will reissue Quest. Publishers can’t very well keep in print a book on which they lose money: they’d go out of business if they did. But if they see new interest, that’s something else. And Dibbern is too unusual a human being, I believe, to be forgotten by the publishing world. Certainly HE shouldn’t be allowed to go out of print like an old book.