Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Whatever Happened To George Dibbern?

I recently re-read Henry Miller's essay Quest, from Stand Still Like The Hummingbird. In the middle of this admiring profile of George Dibbern's 1941 autobiographical book Quest, Miller, from his perspective of 1945, wrote:

"[Dibbern] was put into a concentration camp in New Zealand because of his German origin. And not for the first time. The same thing had happened to him in the same place during the First World War. His publishers do not know what has happened to him in the interim. I wrote him as soon as I had read his book. I hope that others who read him will do likewise."

This inspired me to go on a quest of my own, to find out what happened to George Dibbern after Miller wrote this review of his book in 1945. [read excerpts of Miller's review here]


First, a bit about Dibbern. Born in 1889 in Kiel, Germany, George sailed to New Zealand in his youth, an expereince that left a deep impression on him. In 1930, the middle-aged Dibbern was broke, in a post-war Germany that was leading toward fascism. His boat, which he'd named Te Rapunga (Maori for "the dark sun"), was calling out to him. Off he sailed back to New Zealand, an experience he wrote about in his novel Quest, published in 1941. As a German in New Zealand during wartime, he was rounded up and kept in an internment camp in January '41, the year he was published.

One of the chief points of interest about Dibbern is his declarartion that he was not a German but a citizen of the world, going so far as to create his own flag and his own passport. His customized passort was not accepted by his New Zealand captors on Somes Island, as one might expect.


Henry read Quest in 1945, wrote a review of it, and saw it published in Circle magazine on July 8, 1946. But it didn't stop there. Henry also felt compelled to write to George at the internment camp:

"Dear George Dibbern . . . great pleasure and instruction on reading the book Quest . . . learned from publishers . . . once again prisoner of war . . . are you all right . . . discovered wonderful book through George Leite. . . good friend Emil White is a good friend and distant relative of
Dr. Bertel. .[..] .. . . . send you a book . . . from the publishers . . . The Power Within Us . . . I hope you are not reading much now, but writing. Your book is a wonderful human document, a spiritual more than a physical saga. I felt that you were a brother, and it’s as a brother that I write you and pray that you are well. All your reflections about life, about war, about people, about the Bible, impressed me deeply. So few men think for themselves. That’s what made your book a feast. . . I always wondered, of course, whether you would continue cruising about, whether you would find nothing but disillusionment whenever you put ashore. The purpose of self-liberation, which you seem to have achieved, is to rejoin society but how difficult, especially when it’s the kind of world we now have . . . The more you succeed in freeing yourself from passions and prejudices, from stupid fetishes and inhibitions, the less place there is for you in the world. That’s how it seems. I know something of what it’s all about, because I made a similar struggle all my life. The feeling of being cut off is an agony. . . This is just to let you know how a book sometimes reaches out and finds warm friends in some unexpected place. I shall send it on its way now — to the four quarters of the earth. You must have friends everywhere. You breathe a spirit as warm and large as Walt Whitman’s. I salute you as one of the good, honest men of the earth, one we shall always be proud of. Call on me if there is anything you think I can do for you. Your book should be translated into many languages. Has it? There I might really be able to help. Let me know. A friend. Signed Henry Miller."

Henry made George Dibbern his personal project and crusade. Henry sent Dibbern money, urged friends to send money to his wife and kids in Germany, encouraged people to buy Quest, and made attempts to have the book re-published.

After five years at the camp, Dibbern was finally freed. Four years later, he won a lottery. With the winnings, he bought an island in Tasmania. One of his sailing crew, Eileen Morris (whom he met in 1935) became his lover and mother to one of his children. According to the New Zealand Maritime Index, Dibbern wrecked Te Rapunga in 1958, and tried to sell his Tasmanian island that same year. Henry Miller's support of Dibbern and Quest continued until George's death in 1962.
The quest for information on George Dibbern has been taken up by Erika Grundmann, whose website is the basis of much of what I have uncovered here. She has written a biography on Dibbern called Dark Sun, for which she has provided the first chapter on-line (this is the source of the Henry Miller letter I've included in my post; it also elaborates on Dibbern's situation in the camp and his reactions to the letter). The webiste includes photographs of Dibbern and Te Rapunga.
Grundmann has also posted a tribute to Henry on Valentine Miller's wesbite. In it, she tells of her discovery of the Miller-Dibbern correpondence, and includes excerpts from these letters, i.e.:
"Dear Henry, what a friend you are! I think you are a kind of angel or reassuring pilot whose letters of cheer always come at the very moment I need them most.” [July 22, 1947]"

LINKS: Reviews of Quest . . . . Review of Dark Sun [1] [2]. . . . Vintage copies of Quest for sale [Terry's] [ReadInk]. . . . Various Henry Miller papers relating to Dibbern, sold as Lot 54 from PBA Galleries. . . . the University of Victoria's Henry Miller Collection contains a typed letter from Miller, dated Jan 30, 1958, which is an appeal for funds for Dibbern (ref. item 1.23).

I hope Miss Grundmann will not mind that I borrowed so liberally from her. Perhaps she will be satisfied that I am drawing attention to her work.


Anonymous IanHank said...

I remember my Dad telling me of knowing George Dibbern who used to live on Te Rapunga in Auckland. George told Dad "I never bother to lock the boat up Max, it only makes people think you have something worth stealing" Dad also said that George died of a heart attack one day in an Auckland street. As to Te Rapunga being wrecked in 1958, I was sailing south from Great Barrier Island to Mercury Islands (N.I. east coast NZ.)inDec. '75 and met Te Rapunga and also Ngataki("South Sea Vagabond," Johny Wray)sailing north, both vessels were in the first Trans Tasman yacht race. It was like sailing through history.

7:49 pm  
Blogger Rob O'Neill said...

Yes, as Grundeman wrote, Dibbern died of a heart attack in Auckland. His boat, Te Rapunga, is still there, but hasn't seen the water in many years. She's In a shed near the airport hopefully being looked after. I might just pop out there and check...

6:15 am  
Anonymous Dennison said...

Thanks for this. I've posted a two part review of Dibbern's Quest on my website www.oceanhermit.com

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