'Relations Stop Nowhere': The Common Literary Foundations of German and American Literature 1830-1917.
In recent decades German-American literature has been given some fitful attention, although American scholarship tends to neglect the German side, while Germanisten sometimes lack a detailed awareness of the American context: this has been especially noticeable in treatments of Charles Sealsfield. Hugh Ridley offers an entirely original approach. He endeavours to show that there are comparable purposes and strategies in German and American literary history. He is concerned not primarily with reciprocal influence but with parallel responses to political and social context in a shared Sonderweg of Germany and the United States distinct from developments in Britain and France. At stake is the defence of a usable national literature while nationhood is still inchoate and insecure. This purpose, however, encountered hindrances that led to a foreshortening of the canonical memory. Among these, as Ridley repeatedly illustrates, are an elitist suspicion of the democratic potential that was supposed to make America attractive in the world and an idealistic aesthetic antagonistic to realism. (Ridley's recurring assertion that realism could not thrive in American or German literature must refer to the literary-historical canon, since there is plenty of actual realism in both literatures.) Popular literature might reflect the national spirit most directly but it could not be admitted to the elitist value system in America: Ridley mentions that Mark Twain was 'simply eliminated from American literary history by the genteel critics' (p. 101) and that Uncle Tom's Cabin was neglected until recently, or was dismissed in Germany as kitsch (Ridley expresses a pronounced loathing for Walther Killy's initiative on that topic).
Ridley postulates a number of parallels and comparisons which might not seem obvious, such as between Emerson and Young Germany, particularly Ludolf Wienbarg, in regard to the demand for activism in literature and the ambivalence towards Goethe; between the Tormdrz and ante-bellum literature, with the Civil War and the foundation of the Reich as literary-historical caesurae respectively; between Emerson and Fontane in connection with the aesthetic transfiguration of reality; between Emerson and Wilhelm Riehl in regard to anthropology with its racialist potential; between the dichotomy of Kultur and Zivilisation and the racism and hostility to the modern of Van Wyck Brooks, or, among the dissidents, between the socialist criticism of Lukacs and Granville Hicks. There are, to be sure, less congruent phenomena in both nations, as Ridley constantly points out. Madame de Stael, a significant transmitter of German culture in America, was firmly rejected in Germany, while defenders of American exceptionalism against European influences imposed what Ridley aptly calls' a kind of cultural Monroe Doctrine' (p. 88).
The second part turns to specific topics, beginning with Sealsfield's Die Prarie am Jacinto, effusively praised as a masterpiece neglected in both literatures, a work of originality and virtuosity, leaving moralistic contemporaries such as James Kirke Paulding behind for a leap from Cooper to Hawthorne; the mustang is Sealsfield's Moby-Dick, the prairie his heart of darkness. Ridley then turns to the idyllic and the utopian, going back to the eighteenth-century German fantasy novels of America, then turning to Friedrich Gerstacker's South Sea narratives. This leads to a discussion of the visual arts that is beyond my competence for comment, except to note that when Ridley complains of the displacement of the primitivist Edward Hicks by the more canonical Hudson River School, he might have added that it was closely involved with the Dusseldorf Malerschule, in a sense the same school with exchange of personnel. He continues with the importance of the composer Beissel from the Ephrata community for Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus and the links between Mann and Whitman, and concludes with a detailed discussion of Nietzsche's echoes of Emerson.
Alongside a number of minor misprints the gremlins have been at work here and there. Regrettable among some dozen misspellings of names in text and bibliography is 'Clifford, Albrecht Bernd' for Bernd, Clifford Albrecht, thus cited as 'Clifford' in text and index; similarly, Northrop 'Fyre' also falls out of alphabetical order. The Harvard Germanist Kuno Francke apparently is given the name of the Heidelberg philosopher Kuno Fischer. Sealsfield's desperado Bob Rock is renamed' Rocks'. Sealsfield's monastic order was not dissolved--I believe it exists to the present day--and its superior was not Bernard Bolzano, who was a secular priest and professor. Gerstacker translated Melville' Omoo, not Typee.
The book is firmly and confidently written, ranging over a vast space of erudition; its wealth of nuance cannot be adequately conveyed here. There are places where one could take issue with the results of the author's adventurous probes. However, as a scholar in Ireland Ridley is, as it were, a neutral between American and German traditions, without obligations to their sacred cows. He is always respectful of American critical achievement, and it is refreshing to encounter his 'belief that German culture and history justly lay major claim to our interest [...] for intrinsic reasons' (p. 9), as well as his evident understanding that the much-cited characterization of nations as 'imagined communities' does not mean that they do not exist. His book should be long treasured as a rich source of stimulating insights.
JEFFREY L. SAMMONS
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|Author:||Sammons, Jeffrey L.|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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