Colin Ross covers his tracks
On the impossibility of mapping the written accounts of the 1930s American journeys
On Wednesday August 8, 1934, the Salt Lake Tribune carried a short report, titled ‘Author seeking material'. It related that “Dr. Colin Ross (...) was in Salt Lake City Tuesday to study religious and spiritual influences for a book he is writing on America.”1 Tucked away in the paper’s local and regional section on p. 15 it may not have provoked a lot of agitation, although the anonymous journalist did ask Ross about his controversial opinions regarding Hitler (“much misunderstood in foreign countries” was the reply). Yet in our attempts to reconstruct an itinerary of Ross’s 1934-1935 journey in the United States this tiny bit of news was quite explosive. Being the most solidly reliable piece of evidence in putting Ross at a precise location at a definite time, it sent all other indicators of time and place awhirl.
At first sight his combined writings’ datelines for this American journey, in periodicals and books, suggest that he traveled from Chicago, where Ross resided during much of this sojourn, to New York, then southward to Florida, from where he turned west through the southern states, and from New Mexico diagonally northwestern through Utah, Oregon, and Washingon state, and from there, finally, eastward to North Dakota. They represent a nice, more or less round trip. But while according to this itinerary Ross visited Washington, D.C. in late July, early August, the cited little news report abruptly placed him over 3,300 km west within days of that time frame. What does this mean? And can it be reconciled with the datelines’ implied route?
One alternative itinerary that this little report might lead one to imagine, following an east-west direction from Chicago to Salt Lake City through the Midwest, cannot be discussed, let alone supported, for sheer lack of datelines. Another alternative, having Ross interrupt the general drift of his itinerary and dash back and forth between the mid-Atlantic states and Salt Lake City seems quite impractical and unlikely, for his “study” did not seem to have any urgency. What’s more, another of his articles was datelined “Salt Lake City, in January”.2 So, why the hurry? And why go to Salt Lake City in August at all? (As he had a sturdy Mercedes-Pullman limousine at his disposal for him and his family, we will not consider alternatives to road travel; other means of transportation Ross never mentioned.)
This leads to a possible third alternative: would he have combined this brief visit with a speaking engagement? After all, lectures and panel discussions were an important source of income to finance his travels and enhance name recognition. But in such a case one would expect the drift of Ross’s trip to have been really different from what it seemed initially. In fact, one of his articles’ dateline, “Amarillo, in August”,3 seems to lend support to an altogether new route. However, assuming that Ross drove from Salt Lake City to Amarillo inescapably forces one to accept that this alternative reverses the east-west direction that the datelines between Florida and New Mexico suggest. Yet that, too, cannot be made to stick. Because it simply doesn’t explain away, regardless in which direction he traveled, the three-month gap between the successive datelines of Amarillo, Texas, and Tucumcari, New Mexico, towns less than 200 km apart on US Route 40. In the end, the cited little report made every attempt at creating a plausible itinerary futile. As a final alternative, of course, there could have been a number of separate itineraries. But where’s the evidence for that?
It is certainly not in the datelines of the written accounts of his 1934-1935 journey. Nor, incidentally, do the ones of his 1938-1939 American journey allow a reliable reconstruction. Both simply don’t match the geography. It is, therefore, not a stretch to suspect that datelining magazine or newspaper articles—probably not just Ross’s—are often made to carry a false promise of veracity. While Ross’s travel writing was largely made possible by working as a correspondent for various German-language newspapers and magazines (as a rule his books collected a selection of these reports written en route), he certainly was no news reporter. One can responsibly assume that Ross, unburdened from the need to deliver reports hot from the needle, simply mailed his reports. If he did, one must factor in at least a week for his reports to arrive at their destination and in print. One may therefore safely assume that, for example, the dateline for his article “Columbus (Georgia), early September ”, published on September 5, 1934, in the Berliner Morgenpost4, was merely meant to convey the impression to the reader that s/he was presented with up-to-date information or, at the very least, recent writing5 (as a matter of fact, this article’s dateline has the shortest window between it and the date of publication during his American journeys). In other words, one shouldn’t be surprised to find datelines being routinely postdated, either by moving up the date or changing the location where it was allegedly written or mailed.
But there is more to pinpointing Ross than false datelines. A second circumstance that makes that his printed work specifically defies reconstruction is that his 1930s writings about America became increasingly reflective. Before that time, a prologue and, sometimes, an epilogue were commonly the places for more wide-ranging considerations. In between, travel adventures were more heavily featured, in often lively forms, such as reproduced dialogue or almost filmic, minute-by-minute observations. But shortly before he set out for his 1933-1935 journey to North America Ross told his book publisher that he wanted to change tack and do more research in order to provide his readers with up-to-date knowledge.6 Besides an incentive to play around with the datelines, this resolve contributed to an increased fuzziness between travel and reflection, or, more precisely: lived experience was gradually overshadowed by (national socialist) propaganda. Most removed from the everyday is his last book on America, Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ (1942), with its datelines, such as there are, jumping all over the country. In this case, only his film footage of the 1938-1939 journey on which the book is partly based allows reconstruction, albeit roughly (see Map + Timeline).
It is from his 1930s writing onward, one must conclude, that Ross began to cover his tracks. Either by a semblance of an itinerary that takes the reader in as long as it keeps up the appearance of progressing over familiar geography. Or by doing away with narrative simulation altogether in order to foreground socio-political, economic, and ideological reflections. For the erstwhile travel writer the itinerary had become subordinate, if not irrelevant, while for his readers it became elusive. It’s not just that we don’t know Ross’s American itineraries, we’re not supposed to.
One must, however, entertain the possibility that the puzzle may be solved one day as more and more evidence will be unearthed from the American paper trail Ross’s activities have left, like the little Salt Lake Tribune report.
Nico de Klerk
1 Anonymous. Author seeking material in S.L. Salt Lake Tribune: 1934 August 8; 129 (116) [morning edn]; 15. See Library.
3 Colin Ross Die Todeswelle. Fahrt durch die Dürre-Gebiete in Amerika. Berliner Morgenpost: 1934 August 22; 200; 1-2. See Library. The article was reproduced as ch. 19 in his book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. See Library.
4 Colin Ross. Die groteske der Baumwolle. Ein Besuch im amerikanischen Streich-Revier. Berliner Morgenpost: 1934 September 5; 213; n.p. See Library.
5 But that, too, could be camouflaged rather easily. His interview, for example, with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, made during his stay in Washington, allegedly in the summer of 1934, was only published eight years later in his 1942 book Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’, when Perkins was still in office (a shorter version had been published as Frauenregiment in den Staaten? Berliner Morgenpost: 1934 August 5; 200; n.p. see Library). See: Colin Ross: Der Kampf der amerikanischen Frau um Brot und Mann. In: Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ als Programm und Phantom des amerikanischen Imperialismus. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942: 117-126. See Library.