Die Geschichte der Deutschen Gesellschaft in Leipzig: Von der Grundung bis in die ersten Jahre des Seniorats Johann Christoph Gottscheds.
Though in the course of time 'Deutsche Gesellschaften' were founded in eighteen towns, they have attracted surprisingly little attention, even though they offer an interesting way of approaching German literature and ideas in the Enlightenment period. The majority were located in university towns, and academics therefore constituted a significant proportion of their membership. Hundreds of men (and sometimes women) would meet regularly to discuss poetry and prose. The earliest and most important of these societies was the Deutsche Gesellschaft at Leipzig. Though Johann Christoph Gottsched, its Senior for eleven years, played a key role in it, he was by no means its founder, much as he liked to represent himself as such. It began as the Gorlitzer Poetisches Kollegium in 1697, but even this had its precursors reaching back to the 1620s.
Detlef Doring's aim in this study is to explore the growth of the society's influence from 1697 to 1730. This reason for this--at first seemingly curious--cut-off point, rather than 1738, the year in which Gottsched demitted office as Senior, is that Doring fully expects the picture of the later years of Gottsched's stewardship to be modified considerably once the mammoth undertaking of editing his correspondence (a project launched with the support of the Saxon Academy of Sciences in 2000) starts to produce results.
In fifteen chapters, Doring leads us through the development of the society from its origin in a group founded in January 1697 by four friends from the Gorlitz Gymnasium, its various guises first as the Gorlitzer Poetisches Kollegium, then as the Teutschubende Poetische Gesellschaft in the 1720s, its conversion into the Deutsche Gesellschaft in 1727, and attempts to turn it into a (Saxon) Royal Academy of German Language and Literature after the model of the Academie Francaise. Particular attention is given to the statutes, the membership, and the nature of members' literary output at various junctures. Before Gottsched joined, it was essentially a club for students who dabbled in poetry, three-quarters of them theologians or lawyers. Interestingly, several of the early members later owned, founded, or directed important libraries, an example being the law student Georg Christian Lehms (1684-1717), still remembered for his book on women poets, Teutschlands galante Poetinnen (Frankfurt a.M., 1715), who became court librarian at Darmstadt.
Much of the members' poetic output deemed to meet the group's literary criteria in the early eighteenth century is preserved in the society's official manuscript collections (some 4,600 pages), now in Leipzig University Library. In Chapter 6 Doring offers a provisional survey of this material. Much of it is occasional verse (in Latin and in German) for birthdays, name-days, weddings, and so on, but there is also a great deal on the role of poetry. On the other hand, there is precious little on the status of the German language, which shows that the society can scarcely be regarded as a latter-day Sprachgesellschaft.
Chapter 8 deals with the transformation of the Collegium Poeticum Gorlicense into the Teutschubende Poetische Gesellschaft under the presidency of Johann Burkhard Mencke (author of the satire De charlataneria eruditorum (Leipzig, 1715), and son of the founder of the Acta eruditorum, the first German learned journal). Though the details are far from clear, the result was the widening of membership and the abandonment of an exclusive focus on Silesian poetry. One of the new leading figures was Johann Friedrich May (1697-1762),who, even before Gottsched, had aspirations to see what had originally been essentially a student poetry club turned into the German equivalent of the Academie Francaise. May, who would succeed Gottsched as Senior in 1738 and hold this position until his death, proved rather ineffective, however, so that he must be seen as largely responsible for the society's eventual decline.
When Gottsched joined, in March 1724, the society had recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary (in 1722), possessed a substantial library, built up by Christian Clodius, with a printed catalogue, and had a number of ambitious projects on the stocks. Yet little came of them. The society was still more of a social club of literary dilettantes than an organization seriously devoted to setting an example for the improvement of German language and literature. In Chapter 11 Doring persuasively suggests that, though the details are elusive, there is good reason to believe that around 1725 there were not merely tensions within the membership but a serious rift: on the one side there were people like Johann Andreas Fabricius who accorded low priority to German language and literature, and on the other the 'Gottschedians' who wanted to turn the Teutschubende Poetische Gesellschaft into a literary and linguistic academy with real scholarly ambitions. Another bone of contention was the production of occasional poetry, which had been a traditional activity of the society but which some deemed hardly consonant with aspirations to improve German literature. Whatever the precise circumstances, in the course of 1727 new statutes were introduced, Mencke's role was reduced to that of a figurehead president, Gottsched as Senior exercised the real power, and many members quit. The new statutes accorded prose a higher priority than poetry, particularly condemning occasional verse (especially epithalamia in honour of 'Hinz und Kunz', which would now be banned), hence now the change of name from 'Teutschubende Poetische Gesellschaft' to 'Deutsche Gesellschaft', a name deliberately calqued on 'Academie Francaise'. The desire to enhance the status of the society led to admittance of members of the nobility: seventeen of thirty-eight new members in 1727 were noblemen. In contrast, the long-standing link with provincial Gorlitz was abandoned. The dominance of theologians also declined, such as did join being men sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas. The novel admission of a woman, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, in 1730 caused more dissension among the members, Georg Christian Wolf lamenting to Gottsched: 'O Tempora O Mores! Wahrhafftig der jungste Tag muss nun bald kommen.' But by and large the reform of the society and its enhanced profile met with approval, both within Leipzig and elsewhere.
Chapter 15 focuses on the society's attempts to achieve recognition as an academy on a par with the Academie Francaise. Through what we would now call an astute PR programme, it strove to gain the support of influential noblemen at Dresden. The idea of an academy at Dresden was not new: Leibniz had had such a plan, as had the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich Konig. It was through Konig that Gottsched aimed to win the support of Count Ernst von Manteuffel, the Saxon Minister of Foreign Affairs, for his plan to have the society accredited as a Royal Society; Manteuffel was to serve as it were as the Cardinal Richelieu for the new academy. However, it all foundered on differences of opinion between Konig and Gottsched: not only did they fall out about opera (of which Konig, unlike Gottsched, was an enthusiastic supporter), but Konig took umbrage when he became aware of criticism of court poets voiced by someone in the Gottsched camp. There was no chance now of Manteuffel becoming patron of the society. Gottsched also failed in his attempts, through contacts with the Prussian Society of Sciences in Berlin and the Deutsche Gesellschaft in Jena, to agree on a spelling reform which, had it succeeded, would have enhanced immeasurably the society's standing throughout the German-speaking world.
This is an excellent piece of work, shedding valuable new light on the intellectual life of Leipzig. It draws attention to rich but as yet largely unexploited resources for research, and points to areas on which much more work is needed, e.g. the extent to which members of the Deutsche Gesellschaft were also involved with other learned societies in Leipzig and elsewhere.
The book concludes with a selection of source material: poems, speeches, and letters. There is an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature and an index of names.
JOHN L. FLOOD
INSTITUTE OF GERMANIC STUDIES, LONDON
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|Author:||Flood, John L.|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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