A little-known writer who immigrated to the United States more than a century ago helped build a collection of Latvian books in the Chicago Public Library, but failed in his efforts to bring bibliographic and orthographic reform to his homeland.
The legacy of Jānis Šmits, known in America as John Johnson Schmidt, is a series of short stories he penned while still in his homeland, as well as a catalog of Latvian books held in the Chicago Public Library.
He was born June 10, 1877, at Martyniškiai, near Žagare in what today is northern Lithuania close to the border with Latvia, according to an obituary written by literary historian Teodors Zeiferts.1 When he was young, Schmidt’s family moved first to Kurzeme, then to Rīga. It was around the turn of the 20th century that Schmidt began to publish his stories, starting with “Saprašanās,” which appeared in 1899 in the journal Jaunā Raža. As an author, he was known as Šmitu Jānis.
“In Latvian literature, he flared up like a meteor,” Zeiferts wrote in the newspaper Latvis, “but then suddenly disappeared.” Schmidt had the ability to view a mundane event and unravel the psychology of its characters, although his prose was still evolving, Zeiferts observed.2
The writer and critic Andrievs Niedra was in general ambivalent about Schmidt’s work, but clearly did not care for “Saprašanās.”
“(H)is psychological characterization leaves on me such an unnatural and unlikeable impression,” Niedra complained, “that I would like to compare it to the whining heard when dragging your thumb in a wet glass.”3
While periodicals such as Austrums published Schmidt’s work, Mājas Viesa Menešraksts did not deem his creations worthy. When Schmidt in 1901 reported that he no longer would be writing for the periodical, the editor responded with a public rebuke, noting that Schmidt had never worked for Mājas Viesa Menešraksts. The editor added, “By not publishing his manuscripts we thought he would get the hint not to work for the wastebasket, because we take no joy in receiving worthless third-rate literature.”4
Perhaps it was such rejection that eventually convinced Schmidt to leave his homeland for America, although he also spent time in jail “because he was associated with students who were alleged to be working against the government,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal, which reported on his adventures in 1908.5
Schmidt was one of several Latvians who arrived in New York in May 1904 aboard the steamship Norge. On the passenger list, his profession was listed as journalist. One of the other Latvians traveling on the ship was Nicholas Dozenberg, who would become an active socialist and, eventually, a communist and then a Soviet spy. Schmidt listed his contact in America as Charles Carol (Kārlis Karogs), a polyglot missionary in New York who helped many Latvians and other immigrants get settled.
(The following month, the Norge sank off Rockall, an uninhabited islet northwest of Ireland in the North Atlantic Ocean. An estimated 635 people drowned, more than three-fourths of all who were aboard the ship.)
Schmidt headed to the Midwest, perhaps with an eye to write for a Latvian newspaper about the St. Louis World’s Fair.6 Interestingly, one of Schmidt’s stories, “Vampīri,” published in the February 1900 issue of Austrums, featured a Latvian emigrant named Jānis writing from Chicago to his father back in Rīga.7
He stayed for a while at Edwardsville, Illinois, where he studied at the LeClaire school created by industrialist N.O. Nelson. He also studied for a short time at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
At some point, Schmidt ended up in Chicago, but in 1908 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He never graduated and left in 1913. While at Wisconsin, according to The Badger yearbook, he was a member of the International Club of foreign-born students and of the Socialist Club.
Schmidt returned to Chicago, where he lived for the rest of his life. Initially, Schmidt worked a number of odd jobs. In 1918, for example, he was an employee of the Kimball Café in downtown Chicago, according to his draft registration card. However, he also worked with the Chicago Public Library, which that year published a catalog that he compiled, Russian Literature, Including Ukrainian.8
By 1920, Schmidt had joined the library staff at the University of Chicago and had become a member of the American Library Association.9 The library may be where he met his wife, Grace Gunderson, who also was on the staff.
After Latvia gained its hard-fought independence, Schmidt traveled back to his homeland in the spring of 1922. Among his goals was to aid in reforming the nation’s orthography and library system. Written Latvian at the time was based on the Gothic alphabet, but was being reworked to rely instead on the “modern” Latin alphabet. In an eight-part series appearing in the newspaper Latvijas Vēstnesis, Schmidt proposed what he called the “Latvian people’s synthetic orthography,” designed to take into account common usage and variations in pronunciation. According to Kārlis Egle, who wrote a memorial about Schmidt for the journal Latvju Grāmata, the proposal went nowhere.10
Also unsuccessful was Schmidt’s idea for a central Baltic library based in Rīga. Schmidt, according to Egle, “returned to America, disappointed in his cherished hopes, rejected, alone.”
The year 1929 was fateful for Schmidt. Although he had not achieved success with his ideas in the homeland, he reportedly was working on a novel and other material that he hoped to publish in Latvian and English. His 63-page catalog covering some 2,500 titles, Latvian Books: Čikāgas Publiskās Bibliotekas latviešu grāmatas, was published by the Chicago Public Library.11 And, a quarter-century after arriving in the United States, Schmidt applied to become a naturalized citizen. However, all of what could have been came to an end in May during a train voyage.
As reported by Zeiferts, Schmidt and his wife, Grace, were traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. During a short stop on May 7, 1929, at Tutwiler, Mississippi, Schmidt hurried off the train to fetch sandwiches. Back on the train, he suddenly collapsed. At the next stop, Grace got off with the body of her husband. Rather than transporting the body back to Chicago, she arranged for her husband to be buried right away. Schmidt, then, is interred somewhere in Mississippi, but so far I have not managed to locate where.
Because of his death, Schmidt’s citizenship application was denied.12
Early Latvian librarians in America
Schmidt was one of at least three early ethnic Latvian immigrants who used their linguistic skills for significant work in American libraries.
Rudolfs Šmits (only child of the Kanādietis editor Jānis A. Šmits) worked in the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C., from 1936 to 1940 and then joined the Library of Congress. Among his accomplishments was leading the Cyrillic Bibliographic Project and compiling Half a Century of Soviet Periodicals, 1917-1968: A Bibliography and Union List of Serials Published in the USSR. He died in 1972.13
Earlier, Henriette Derman (Henrieta Dermane, 1882-1954), wife of revolutionary agitator and literary critic Vilis Dermanis (1875-1938), studied library science at Simmons College in Boston. She worked at the Library of Congress from 1917 until 1921, when she and Vilis returned to Latvia. In May 1922, Vilis, who had been elected to the Latvian parliament as a socialdemocrat but became a communist, was arrested and charged with distributing counterfeit money. Three months later, Henriette was taken into custody. In December, the pair was among 90 persons deported from Latvia to the Soviet Union in an exchange of political prisoners. After they settled in Moscow, Henriette continued her work with libraries. In 1930, she became head of the Moscow Library Institute, which trained new librarians. However, both Henriette and Vilis became victims of the Stalinist purges of 1937-1938. Arrested in 1937 for alleged counterrevolutionary activity, Vilis was shot in 1938. Henriette, arrested in 1938, died in 1954 in the Vorkuta labor camp.14
Herman Rosenthal (1843-1917), born in what today is Jaunjelgava, Latvia, emigrated to the United States in 1881 with a goal of establishing Russian Jewish agricultural colonies. His career eventually took him to the New York Public Library, where in 1898 he became head of the Slavonic Division. Rosenthal compiled A List of Russian, Other Slavonic and Baltic Periodicals in the New York Public Library, which was published in 1916.
1. T. (Teodors Zeiferts), “Jānis Šmits,” Izglītības Ministrijas Mēnešraksts, July-August 1929, 78-79. See also Kārlis Egle, “Rakstnieka Jāņa Šmita piemiņai,” Latvju Grāmata, September/October 1929, 279-281. My interest in Schmidt was piqued while researching the Latvian immigrant newspaper Kanādietis, which was edited by a similarly named man, John A. Schmidt (Jānis A. Šmits). In a reference work by Alberts Prande, Latvju rakstniecība portrejās (Rīga: LETA, 1926), p. 264, the two were conflated into one.
2. Teodors (Zeiferts), “Jānis Šmits,” Latvis, July 5, 1929, p. 2.
3. Andrievs Niedra, Nemiera ceļi, III. sejums (Rīga: R.L.B. Derīgu grāmatu nodaļa, 1938), p. 231.
4. “Paziņojumi,” Mājas Viesa Menešraksts, June 1901, p. 480.
5. “Escapes from Russian Rule,” Wisconsin State Journal, October 29, 1908, p. 8.
7. Jānis Šmits, “Vampīri,” Austrums, February 1900, 158-168.
8. John J. Schmidt, comp., Russian Literature, Including Ukrainian (Chicago: Chicago Public Library, 1918).
9. “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9R6Q-F4W?cc=1488411&wc=QZJG-2JV%3A1036473701%2C1037511801%2C1037716501%2C1589335285 : 14 December 2015), Illinois > Cook (Chicago) > Chicago Ward 7 > ED 406 > image 31 of 44; citing NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). See also “NECROLOGY,” Bulletin of the American Library Association 24, no. 11 (1930): H299-301, as well as Annual Register (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920), p. 434
10. Egle, p. 280.
11. Chicago Public Library, Latvian Books: Čikāgas Publiskās Bibliotekas latviešu grāmatas (Chicago: Chicago Public Library, 1929). The catalog noted that the Latvian collection in the library was begun in 1913.
12. Ancestry.com. U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992 (Indexed in World Archives Project) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
13. “Death of Staff Member,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin, December 4, 1972, p. 515.
14. John V. Richardson Jr., “The Origin of Soviet Education for Librarianship: The Role of Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, Lyubov’ Borisovna Khavkina-Hamburger, and Genrietta K. Abele-Derman,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 41:2(Spring 2000), 106-128. See also Jūlijs Ķipers, “Tik nezaudēt ikdienā zvaigznes,” in Oskars Gerts et al., eds., Dabas un vēstures kalendārs 1982 (Rīga: Zinātne, 1981), 264-267.