A Concise History of German Literature to 1900.
THE blurb on the back cover of this book proclaims it as ~the best German literary history in English since Robertson' and the Editor, Kim Vivian, apparently shares this view since, in his preface, he refers to Robertson's work, revised by Edna Purdie, as ~a useful if somewhat dated reference work'.
It is fitting to measure any new history of German literature against J. G. Robertson's book which, despite its occasional datedness and blind spots, remains a notably clear and comprehensive account of German literature from its beginnings to the twentieth century. It would be difficult to find anyone who could undertake an equivalent task today.
Vivian's book follows a different plan: it is a collection of twelve essays by different hands on the traditionally accepted periods of German literature, for example Baroque, Enlightenment, Storm and Stress, and Naturalism. The essays are directed to the reader who has little or no German. The Editor has ~striven to give the volume as much of a neutral tone as possible' and has deliberately not imposed a tight rein on his contributors, though ~each chapter has been harmonized as to structure'. This means that in most chapters a description of the ~background' -- historical, social, or philosophical -- precedes the brief sections on individual authors and their works. It is nowhere implied that the authors are products of the age in which they lived and indeed it is left largely to the reader to establish the connection, where it exists, between background and literary creativity.
The division of labour among experts under loose editorial control is sensible enough. Its main shortcoming is that each contributor seems to have been unaware of the contributions of his fellows. This hardly matters where clear demarcation lines can be drawn around the period, for example Baroque or Naturalism. But where the boundaries are at all diffuse, as with Romanticism and Biedermeier, it is clear from repetitions that each contributor has worked in isolation.
As a student's guide to German literature the Concise History is, by and large, reliable and to the scholar it occasionally opens up new perspectives, for example on women writers before 1700. It contains an index, a useful bibliography, and is enlivened by well-chosen illustrations. However, it is marred by some omissions and inaccuracies which cannot be overlooked. Although the Austrian Grillparzer and his works are treated in some detail (246-9) Raimund and Nestroy receive only incidental mention. Luther is incorrectly said (84) to have been ~rivalled in his Bible translations' by five Catholics, including Murner, Emser, and Eck. Percy's Reliques of English Poetry is described (131) as containing ~melancholy Celtic songs'. Several misprints, including two lines repeated on pages 198 and 199, are evidence of inadequate proof-reading.
The main deficiency of this volume, however, is that it stops short at the year 1900 and it is regrettable that the Editor did not enlist one or two more contributors to bring us up to date. For most students the literature of our own age is at least as interesting and relevant to their lives as that of the Middle Ages or Weimar Classicism and most universities provide appropriate courses. Clearly A Concise History of German Literature requires a supplementary volume on the past ninety years before we can dispense with J. G. Robertson.