figurative "bootstraps" (1834)

Chris Waigl cwaigl at FREE.FR
Thu Aug 18 03:03:26 UTC 2005

Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

> Checking around a bit more, I see that Michael Quinion looked into this a
>few years ago but couldn't find the "bootstrap" incident in the tales. [...]
Here is some more material on the origins of the two most important
Münchhausen editions (Raspe's and Bürger's). This is for Münchhausen
fans and those interested in how it came about that two Germans authored
basically the same book simultaneously, one with the "pulling oneself
out of the swamp by one's hair" anecdote, and one without, in two
different languages. Anything about "bootstraps" is speculation.

(This is a corrected version of what I sent in e-mail to Gerald Cohen.)

Chris Waigl



[1] Literary Encyclopedia: Raspe Rudolf Erich. Sarah Kareem, University
of California, Los Angeles
First published 06 October 2004.
[2] Literary Encyclopedia: Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his
Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785). Sarah Kareem,
University of California, Los Angeles First published 06 October 2004.
[3] Introduction to "The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen".
Rockville, MD:, Mon Jan 15 2001.
[4] The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Introduction.
Rockville, MD:, Mon Jan 15 2001.

Raspe lived in London from 1775 onwards, fleeing his creditors. Further
trouble ensued. [1] then notes:

By 1782 Raspe was ready to start afresh. He relocated to Cornwall and in
1784 had persuaded the Cornwall mining industrialist Matthew Boulton of
the need for an Assay Office, headed by Raspe, to conduct investigations
into Cornish soil. [...]
It was during this busy period that Raspe is thought to have written
_Munchausen_; although no mention of it is made in his correspondence,
he spoke of his authorship to friends. Raspe's reason for not publicly
declaring his authorship of his most successful work remains a subject
of scholarly debate. Whatever his motivation, the work was published
anonymously in 1785, the forty-two page text appearing under the title
_Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns
in Russia_ and available for the chapbook price of one shilling.

There were a number of further editions in rapid succession.
[2] discusses Raspe's sources:

The author of the 1785 text was Rudolf Erich Raspe, an exiled Hanoverian
curator, mining entrepreneur, and geologist. The provenance of the
_Munchausen_ canon pre- and post-1785 has proven much more difficult
to pin down definitively. In 1781 and 1783 the first rumblings of the
Munchausen phenomenon are barely felt; seventeen comic anecdotes titled
respectively _M-h-sche Geschichten_ and _Noch zwei M.-Lügen_
appeared in the Berlin comic magazine _Vade mecum für lustige Leute_.
The tales were exaggerated stories typical of German folklore attributed
to an aging German officer named Münchhausen. It is possible, although
not known for certain, that Raspe was the author of these anecdotes.

This is the version that became canonical in the English-speaking world;
it doesn't contain the lifting-oneself-by-one's-hair anecdote.  The one
that did, by Bürger (1786), is considered the "original" Münchhausen
book in Germany. [3] notes about the German version:

Of all the conjectures, of which these are but a selection, the most
accurate from a German point of view is that the book was the work of
Bürger, who was the first to dress the Travels in a German garb, and was
for a long time almost universally credited with the sole
proprietorship. Bürger himself appears neither to have claimed nor
disclaimed the distinction. There is, however, no doubt whatever that
the book first appeared in English in 1785, and that Bürger's German
version did not see the light until 1786. The first German edition
(though in reality printed at Göttingen) bore the imprint London, and
was stated to be derived from an English source; but this was,
reasonably enough, held to be merely a measure of precaution in case the
actual Baron Munchausen (who was a well-known personage in Göttingen)
should be stupid enough to feel aggrieved at being made the butt of a
gross caricature.

And [4] concurs:

The poet Gottfried August Bürger translated the second edition of
_Münchhausen's Narrative_ into German as _Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser
und zu Lande, Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyhernn von
Münchhausen_ (1786). He also included several of his own stories into
it. Bürger's work became the most popular, and a new edition was
published in 1788. Raspe's groundwork was forgotten, but it was revealed
in 1847 in Heinrich Döring's biography of Bürger.

In fact, I have seen a few other dates from the early 19th century when
someone in a literary journal pointed out that Raspe, and not Bürger,
was the original author. But the point is that almost from the very
beginning, two versions existed, one (in German) with and one (in
English) without the anecdote, and their readerships seem to have been
unaware of the respective other text.

The real question now is how the "raising oneself by the straps of one's
boots" metaphor that Ben documented merged with the English Münchhausen
story. This must have happened in the 20th century.

The following is speculation, but I can imagine two ways:

1. Via translations from German of texts that contain the German idiom
"pulling oneself out of a swamp by one's hair". A bit of searching
turned up Nietzsche's _Beyond Good and Evil_:

The desire for "freedom of will" in the superlative, metaphysical sense,
such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the
half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility
for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors,
chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be
precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull
oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.

Here is the Library of Congress record for the translation:

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900.
Beyond good and evil, prelude to a philosophy of the future,
by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Authorised translation by Helen Zimmern.
New York, The Macmillan company, 1907.
xv, 268 p. 20 cm.

2. Gustave Doré's illustrations of Théophile Gauthier (Son)'s 1862
French translation of the Bürger version. One of the engravings depicts
Münchhausen pulling himself and his horse out of the morass:
The Doré illustrations have been (and still are) widely used in
translations of the Münchhausen book, and it is easy to find 20th
century records that have Raspe as the author. Some of the books are
billed as children's books, which makes re-tellings (and additions from
the Bürger version) more likely.


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