DISCUSSED: Birthdays, Cameralistics, Gluts of Prussian Administrations, Roman Legal Compendiums, Hallmark Cards, The Anniversary of Waterloo, Gloomy Aesthetes, Unfunny Humorous Novels, People Arguing about Knees, Engelbert Klingholz, The Shopworn Literary Device of the Doppelgänger, Fathers

The pale violet notebook had ninety-six pages, five inches by eight and a half. He filled them in a methodical way, beginning each new item on a right-hand page, continuing to the back if necessary. When he made mistakes, he tore out whole pages. Instead of saving the last page for a table of contents as he had in other notebooks, he filled it up too, and listed the contents inside the front cover. Then he sharpened his pen, changed his ink, and filled the blank space he had left on the backs of pages and the pages he had skipped, first squeezing new titles between lines in the table of contents, then, when there was no more room, making a new column to the right. Everything is mixed up in the end—old work, new work; songs and romances; epigrams, dithyrambs, ballads; a fable, a sonnet; a series of “Xenia” after Goethe and Schiller; a “freely rendered” translation from Ovid; the first act of a play; excerpts from a novel—but mixed up in the nicest bureaucratic cursive, without hooks or humps, with tight curls and a distinguished occasional backward slash that gives the impression of finishing something off, putting it behind after reasonable consideration.

“Verse / of the year 1837,” the front cover reads, “dedicated to my dear father / on the occasion of his birthday / as a feeble token of everlasting love. / K. H. Marx, Berlin.”


The “H.” is for Heinrich, which was also the name of Karl Marx’s father, who turned sixty that April. Karl was nineteen, at the end of his first year studying law at the University of Berlin, where he had transferred after a year at Bonn to focus on cameralistics, or public administration—a focus nearly guaranteed to leave him in a dead-end job or unemployable altogether. There was a glut of administrators in Prussia, the Statistical Agency had warned the previous year, with more than twice as many graduates as positions open. Karl would also be warned by his father, who was a lawyer himself, “You would not be able to complain at all if, a few years after having completed your studies, you became an unpaid tax assessor, and then remained an assessor for years after.” They plotted together carefully that fall, exchanging names and making connections. “Herr S. is not von, he is the brother of the Attorney General S. of Cologne and has a post at the Court of Appeal. Herr M. knows him well.…”; “Herr J. and Herr E. are not only excellent men, but are probably important for you, and it would be most unwise and really improper to neglect them….”; and so on.

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Sam Stark is the author of Diderot: French Philosopher and Father of the Encyclopedia, a book for young adults,and coauthor ofSocial Security Risk Machine, a foldout pamphlet published by the Center for Urban Pedagogy. His translations have appeared inCircumference and the late 3rd bed.

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