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Lost Voices: Rare German Narrative Prose 1840-1940

The research project will investigate German narrative prose between 1840 and 1910. It will analyse mainstream bourgeois realist prose, as well as emerging working-class writing and writing by white-collar workers (and with regard to white-collar workers’ prose, extend the period of investigation up till 1940). It will thus focus on a period which saw Germany developing from a feudal, agriculturally-based society to a bourgeois, industrialized and increasingly pluralistic society. This enormous social development was accompanied by debates in the cultural fields, especially in prose writing, which appealed to the increasing number of literate people. Debates in the cultural sphere became particularly important because, after the failed revolution of 1848/49, public debate had no political arena anymore and was transferred to the cultural sphere.

The project pursues a particular pathway within the larger framework of the increased interest in the decades leading up to the first German unification in 1871 and the Kaiserreich (1871-1918). It has two main aims: 1) To promote a more diversified understanding of German realist prose as a multi-vocal phenomenon, embracing conflicting and suppressed middle-class narrative concepts. 2) To highlight the different strands within narrative evolution after the middle classes ceased to be the sole cultural player by considering under-researched working-class and white-collar workers’ prose fiction.

The project covers the whole period (1840-1940) of the rise and establishment of German bourgeois society and thereby surpasses the boundaries of studies confining themselves exclusively to realism, naturalism, working-class prose or early modernist narrative writing. The objectives are in particular:

1. To widen the range of authors and texts discussed beyond the literary canon in order to establish a fuller picture of the fundamental changes during the period covered.

2. To make visible how modes of bourgeois, working-class and white-collar workers’ narrative writing are dependent on each other.

3. To take social, sexual and regional differences into consideration over a period when German society started to become pluralistic.

4. To discuss prose fiction not just as an expression of social change, but as a force actively shaping it by constructing concepts by which change can be understood.

5. To ask what determines the socio-aesthetic position of a narrative text (apart from the author, narrator and story) and to use the findings to highlight a non-linear evolution within prose fiction.

The timeline will attend to the political, social and historical background of the period covered by the research project (1840-1940) in order to contextualise the literary texts discussed. The vertical axis provides chronology; the horizontal axis adds classification in categories including politics, economy, society, socialist movement, literature and different professions within the working classes (traditional artisans, miners, workers in the textile industry, in the iron and steel industry as well as factory workers in general) and Angestellte.

A database of relevant texts is still under construction and will be published at a later stage.

Among authors examined closer in the context of Dorfgeschichten (‘village tales’) are:

  • Heinrich Zschokke, Alexander Weill, Wilhelm Martell (pseudonym of) Pochhammer, Ernst Willkomm, Josef Rank, Berthold Auerbach and Jeremias Gotthelf for a formation of the new genre
  • Louise Otto, Ernst Dronke, Karl Gutzkow, Julius Schmidt and Gustav Freytag for the critical discussion of the genre before and after the March Revolution of 1848/49
  • Adolf Glassbrenner, Gottfried Keller, Sebastian Brunner, Karl Braun, Friedrich Spielhagen, Christian Friedrich Hebbel and Karl May for the further evolution of the genre up to the 1870s

Among authors of importance in the context of white collar workers' prose are:

  • Theophil Zolling, Richard Nordhausen, Max Freund, Gerhard Ferdinand, Ewald August König and Otto Hahn, focusing on social class interaction in mid to late nineteenth century
  • Philipp Kniest, Fritz Anders, Theodor Duimchen, Georg Asmussen, Hermann Hesse and Harry Nitsch, dealing thematically with acquisition and loss of social status
  • Robert Walser, Gustav Falke, Heinrich Reth and Julius Boerner, who produced autobiographical writings that reflect on, or include, vocational activity as Angestellte
  • Well-known authors such as Wilhelm Raabe and Gustav Freytag, and now forgotten authors like Fritz Müller-Partenkirchen and Gerhard von Amyntor produced more general portraits of professional life, Berufsromane and Kulturbilder

Among authors of importance in the context of early working class prose are:

  • Ernst Dronke and Georg Weerth as ‘prototypes’ of authors writing working class prose; both published in the 1840s
  • Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, an aristocratic politician who wrote to represent the interests of the first official working class party active throughout Germany (1860s)
  • August Otto-Walster, Carl Lübeck and Robert Schweichel as professional writers of bourgeois origin who became involved in working class’ concerns (1870s and 1880s)
  • Carl Fischer, Moritz Bromme, Franz Rehbein and Wenzel Holek as blue collar workers publishing autobiographies (~1900)


This article initially examines some inherited assumptions behind constructions of ‘triviality’ and ‘significance’ as aesthetic parameters in the German literary-critical discourse. The challenge implied by such an examination is, however, presented cautiously. The intention is not to aim for a deconstructive alternative discourse that analyses contradictions as end in themselves to create, in Terry Eagleton’s words, in ‘a linguistic nihilism which makes commitment to one interpretation impossible’. Nor do I wish to present an ‘unfalsifiable argument’, by positing, for instance, that literature written by women is so other, or so unreferenced in historically dominant textual modes that it can never be trivial. Rather, I shall strive for a notion of plurality that acknowledges the contextual integrity of viewpoints, and which makes the assumptions behind those viewpoints as conscious as possible in order to leave potential reciprocal bearings of differing hypotheses open.

Reflections on the Mechanisms of Marginalisation

An enquiry into the mechanics of ‘triviality construction’ in German prose fiction, a concept usually connected with popular literature and bestsellers, necessitates a consideration of literary-critical proposals presented in the late eighteenth century. Jochen Schulte-Sasse observes:

There are two periods in German literary history in which the writing and reading of popular literature – as far as sheer numbers are concerned – expanded dramatically. The first occurred in the 1770s, the second in the last three decades of the 19th century. […] According to Rudolf Schenda’s estimate[1] only 15% of the population could be considered potential readers in 1770. By 1900 this figure had risen to 90%.[2]

 In Kritik an der Trivialliteratur seit der Aufklärung, he observes that Schiller had defined his aestheticism as much on opposite as on confirmatory values.

Schiller […] beschäftigt sich zu Beginn der neunziger Jahre, in der entscheidenden Reifezeit seiner klassischen Ästhetik, auffallend intensiv mit unzulänglicher Literatur. Seine ästhetischen Schriften sind in dieser Zeit häufig mit dem Versuch durchsetzt, das Wesen der publikumshörigen Modeliteratur zu bestimmen. Das Neuartige seiner Versuche besteht eben darin, daß er die Trivialliteratur nicht als schlechte, technisch weniger geglückte Kunst versteht, sondern daß er sie affirmativ zu bestimmen sucht, weil er in ihr [...] ein Antisystem sieht. Schiller entwickelte zu den wesentlichsten Begriffen seiner Ästhetik einen affirmativen Gegenbegriff, der die “Unkunst” charakterisieren soll. Seltsamerweise hat die Schillerforschung von diesen Gegenbegriffen bis heute kaum Notiz genommen.  […] Der Blick in die “Niederungen” der Literatur und die Abgrenzung des eigenen Schaffens von den Intentionen der Massenliteratur werden sich jedoch für den Werdegang der Schillerschen Ästhetik als ebenso wichtig erweisen wie der Einfluß Kants.[3]

The problematic highlighted by Schulte-Sasse is the formation of systemic, ‘vertical’ binary oppositions within a hierarchical framework of ‘Kunst’ and ‘Unkunst’ in the very attempt to legitimise the ‘lowlands of literature’. Disputing the  idea of a classical age in which Wieland, Goethe and Schiller ruled the literary market and theatre, and arguing for a literary history that includes  “gelesene Literatur”,[4] Günther Jahn and Wolfgang Kayser deem the legacy of a “Literaturwissenschaft” orientated in “Hochliteratur” problematic. They consider the value-neutral, non-systemic distinction “fiction” and “non-fiction” in English literature an advantage.[5] Schulte-Sasse identifies some of the effects which available analytical vocabulary has in practice:

Es sollte […] bedacht werden, ob das scheinbare Phänomen ‘Kitsch’, das wir so selbstverständlich als existent voraussetzen, nicht eine Funktion seiner Definition sein kann. Oder: ob die Schlagworte ‘Kitsch’ und ‘Trivialliteratur’ es im Deutschen mit Recht nahelegen, hinter diesen Worten einen ganz bestimmten, ausgrenzbaren und definierbaren Bereich von Literatur zu vermuten. Denn die andauernden Definitionsbemühungen könnten im deutschsprachigen Raum bedeutungs- und begriffsgeschichtliche oder allgemeinere geistesgeschichtliche Voraussetzungen haben, die mit den literarischen Verhältnissen selbst gar nichts oder zumindest gar nichts m e h r zu tun haben; eine theorieimmanente Tradierung systematisierter literarischer Wertvorstellungen könnten den Blick für die Eigenarten und Gliederungen der Massenliteratur weitgehend verstellt haben. Es sei nur am Rande darauf verwiesen, daß sich z.B. die modern Massenliteratur in Deutschland und Amerika nicht wesentlich unterscheidet, aber trotz der vielen “theories of evaluation” hat es in Amerika kein Pendant zur Kitschtheorie gegeben. Man sah und benannte meistens isolierbare Aspekte des literarischen Versagens und nicht einen abgeschlossenen, der hohen Kunst prizipiell entgegengesetzten Bereich der Literatur, den man begrifflich abgrenzen könnte.[6]

The absence of vertical, global judgement parameters may be useful in freeing up the borders of a dominant discourse respecting literature by women and other minority groups, while the presence of such parameters is conducive to consensus in respect of denigratory critical signifiers, such as “romanhaft”, which re-appear to denote accusation of triviality. Such signifiers pose as authority, yet actually function as cumulative commonplaces, to borrow Aristotle’s rhetorical term.

What kind of task is the revision of existing discourse parameters? The typification of Trivialliteratur has in Germany been debated in terms of both content and form. Albert Klein and Hans Hecker locate Schiller as precursor to the debate by quoting Hoberg’s etymological analysis, which identifies systemic polarity as collective precept

Ursprünglich verwies der Terminus “trivial” in der Tradition literarhistorischer Forschung auf ungemein populäre Lesestoffe, die wenig Beziehung zur anspruchsvollen literarischen Kunst der Zeit aufwiesen. Das in diesem Sinne Triviale wurde als Unterströmung zur eigentlichen Literatur einer Epoche verstanden. [...][7]

Beyond this, however, Hoberg’s findings highlight that the intertextual “quality” versus “substandard” debate had not been overcome:

Marianne Thalmann ersetzte 1923 die inhaltlichen Kategorien [e.g. Räuberroman, Schauerroman, Kriminalroman, Westernroman, Abenteuerroma, Frauenroman etc] durch den Sammelbegriff “Trivialroman”, der [...] eindeutig negativ akzentuiert war.[8]

Available conceptual tools of analysis establishmutually exclusive opposites and seem to preclude the constellation of paradoxical, or even relativised positions, which would amount to a critical notion of ‘difference’, rather than of ‘opposite’. While relativised positioning is identifiable as an aim of the original affirmatory validation or definition, which Schulte-Sasse attributes to Schiller, this traditional mode of thinking was not in fact transcended by it.

The case of Frauenliteratur

In order to distance nineteenth-century Frauenliteratur from the status of subgenre to the already negatively connoted Trivialroman, Jeannine Blackwell argues for more valid methods of differentiation. According to her, the concept ‘triviality’ is attributable to women’s writing when this demonstrates unreflective conformity to norm, particularly where ‘norm’ is synonymous with denigration:

Frauenliteratur, like the terms Frauenroman and Frauendichtung, is a two-way mirror. It is a distressing reminder of the impotent and flowery sentimentality of Wilhelminian German literature: garden dwarfs, the Gartenlaubetüchtige Hausfrauen, Hedwig Courths-Mahler, Vicky Baum. It is harmless literature, to be classified next to the children’s stories, the cookbooks […][9]

While appropriation of the Gartenlaube for exemplification of a black-and-white argument is problematic,[10] Blackwell’s identifies the overall conservative gist of Die Gartenlaube, as well as of a specific strand of Frauenliteratur and joins the ‘content versus form debate’ by locating triviality in content, characterised as much by what is ignored as by what is depicted.

Blackwell further asserts the need for reassessment of ‘peripheral’ or ‘minor’ narratives as unclassifiable in relation to recognised genres. She goes on to provide the now perhaps well-known argument that because aesthetic and genre parameters were originally formulated by an ethnographically narrow group, these parameters are context-specific and not universally relevant:

Feminist critics must reshape the critical tools to deal with the anonymous, the unrecognised, the uncanonized, the “trivial”; to reconstruct or rediscover the verschollen; and to locate and describe the dear ladies who read the books back then. […] Of this “other Germany” of the powerless we find precious little in the reference works […] This new art […] finds no outlet in the subsequent periodization of the era: not Naturalist drama or Neoromantic or Symbolist verse […] It is to misunderstand the authority of women’s writings to push them into the framework of almost exclusively male movements which happen to be simultaneous (Enlightenment, Storm and Stress, Romanticism, Expressionism) and then find them wanting.[11]

Women’s writing can be placed paradoxically inside, as well as outside commonly recognised literary movements, neither quite one nor the other, to bypass the cultural tradition of conceptualising in terms mutually exclusive opposites, which ultimately prevents a paradigm shift. The aim here is to achieve comparisons that highlight aspects of similar and differing priorities and opportunities pertaining to male and female authors who aimed at a similar ‘new middle class’ demographic.

The Case of Popular Literature

Charlotte Niese’s Licht und Schatten and Luise Westkirch’s Ein moderner Märtyrer are examples of late nineteenth-century novels which posit social observations and critique while avoiding the confrontational approach of authors like Gabriele Reuter, Helene Böhlau or Lou Andreas Salome,[12] instead adopting the approach of mid-nineteenth century aristocratic authors such as Luise von Francois and Malwida von Meysenbug. Contemporaneous observer Otto Heller articulates the positive potential of the cautiously-inclined author:

Der direkten Beteiligung an der Frauenbewegung enthalten sich [diese] geistvollen Frauen, weil sie vorerst die Kräftigung der idealistischen Triebe aller Menschen ohne Unterschied des Geschlechts nottuend dünkt.[13]

Heller was one of the academic commentators whom Roy Pascal refers to as lending half-hearted support to the demands of women’s emancipation groups.[14] Heller further claims that narratives which transgressed “the limits of what could be said at this time”[15] could prove counter-productive to their own cause:

Die fanatische Fraktion der Frauenrechtlerinnen [stiess] die öffentliche Sympathie ab, und man blieb infolgedessen in weitesten Kreisen blind gegen die Berechtigung der Bewegung.[16]

Available options for female authors seem to emerge as two different kinds of marginalisation, either to be perceived as ‘radical’ and ‘fanatical’ or as ‘lightweight’ and ‘inconsequential’, depending on narrative mode chosen. However, Lotte Ravicini, the founder of the Museum of Women’s Literature, observes in respect of the less confrontational authors of bourgeois origin:

Belletristische Werke “kleiner” heute oft vergessener Autorinnen [and Autoren] […] geben Einblick in Geisteshaltungen, gesellschaftliche Veränderungen, in praktische Verhaltensweisen und kulturelle Gepflogenheiten. […] Feminin geprägte Werke, verbreitet über Zeitschriften und Bücher, [haben] die Emanzipation der Frau vor allem im 19. Jahrhundert diskret, aber dezidiert vorbereitet.[17]

The use of narratorial circumscription potentially contributes to collective perceptual attrition, and therefore augments the more challenging or confrontational narrative, since successes gained in debate potentially fail to impact on subconsciously held, ingrained values.[18] One hypothesis in respect of this type of narrative is that if triviality is constellated, it is likely found in form rather than in content. A second, more generic hypothesis emerges that triviality is a contextual variable, depending on time and place, and is not identifiable on universal grounds.

A Case in Point: Luise Westkirch‘s Ein moderner Märtyrer

Critical opinion was sharply divided about Westkirch’s work: even with scant reception, markedly different assessments, which do not seem properly to engage with her narrative, are in evidence. According to Heinrich Spiero, she pales in the footsteps of her – female – predecessors:

Ein neues Geschlecht von Frauen trat auf, das die Forderungen, Hoffnungen, Wünsche schriftstellerisch vertrat, an ihrer Spitze die besonnene und organisatorisch veranlagte Helene Lange, dann Paula Müller und Elizabeth Gnauck-Kühne […] und zahlreiche jüngere, vor allem Alice Salomon und Gertrud Bäumer […] Schlicht und noch mehr mit dem alten Erzählerton etwa Claires von Glümer Luise Westkirch (geboren 1858) in zahlreichen sozialen Romanen und Novellen. [...] Sie bemüht sich, gerecht zu sein, schildert wohl einmal einen Streik unter scharfer Hervorhebung der Hetzer und mit warmer Teilnahme für die aus Solidarität […] Mithungernden – eigentliche Leidenschaft fehlt ihr.[19]

Richard Weitbrecht, in Blätter für literarische Unterhaltung, does not deem her achievement modest but comes to an unjustifiable conclusion about the inadequate construction of the novel: 

Luise Westkirch ist eine der schärfsten und gewandtesten unter den schriftstellerischen Bekämpferinnen der Socialdemokratie; und zwar bekämpft sie die Socialdemokratie nicht durch Declamation gegen sie oder durch romanhafte Enthüllungen über sie, sondern durch einfache Darstellung der Verhältnisse, wie sie wirklich sind. Dabei steht sie in keiner Weise auf Seite des Kapitalismus; in diesem neuesten Roman sogar ganz ausgesprochen auf der Gegenseite. Denn sie zeigt uns diesmal die Folgen, welche das harte Regiment des Vaters zeitigen muß, nachdem der weichgemuthe Sohn die Herrschaft angetreten hat. Unter dem Vater waren die Arbeiter Hunde an der Kette; der Sohn läßt sie frei, um zu erfahren, daß Kettenhunde, wenn sie plötzlich losgelassen sind, eben die Eigenschaften der Kettenhunde nicht über Nacht verlieren, und, fügen wir bei, die Eigenschaften freier Menschen auch nicht geschwind gewinnen, nachdem sie ‘geläutert’ sind. Die Masse wird überhaupt nicht geläutert; das wird blos [sic.] der Einzelne, sei er Arbeiter oder Fabrikherr, Bauer oder König. Hierin steckt die falsche Rechnung dieses Romans.[20]

Arguably, had the novel presented the reformation of the factory workers enmasse, the result would have been didactic as well as unrealistic, with the effect of trivialising or sentimentalising this social novel’s import. Interestingly, Weitbrecht does not address Westkirch’s novel’s strategies to achieve the “Erläuterung der Masse”, which according to Nicholas Rennie is an essential subject of nineteenth-century literature and an “aesthetic problem for literature and visual arts”.[21] Yet it is with regard to this that an unfavourable comparison to high-status social novels by male authors could more feasibly have been made, at least on aesthetic grounds. A case in point is French naturalistic writing, and specifically, Emile Zola’s novel Germinal. Zola’s portrayal of the miners-as-crowd in Germinal contributes to the construction of an apparently egalitarian text by virtue of minimising narratorial commentary – an aspect commonly quoted to explain  Germinal’s canonical standing for the late nineteenth-century Sozialroman.[22] In this narrative, exemplification of the crowd proceeds largely through representative depictions of individual characters, who actualise the needs and priorities that exist in the “amorphous entity”.[23] Zola achieves such a portrayal by using narrative techniques which a contemporaneous female writer could not have afforded to enlist in the same way.

A Comparison of Ein moderner Märtyrer and Emile Zola’s Germinal

An exploration of some of the differences and similarities between Ein moderner Märtyrer and Germinal helps to elucidate the meaning of the divergent social contexts in which male and female nineteenth-century authors were working. A marked similarity between Ein moderner Märtyrer and Germinal is that  proletarian susceptibility to demagogic manipulations is portrayed to similar effect –lack of responsibility is shown to arise from lack of education, opportunity and autonomy, which compromises the ability to achieve a sense of dignity, perspective and the potential for exercising choice. The crowd in Zola is led by one of its own ranks before loyalty flips into lynch mob mentality; in Westkirch, it is similarly led unsuccessfully by characters ‘of proletarian ilk’ before narratorial focus returns to recommend reform from above. A further similarity is that both narratives pose questions about the meaning of individuality in the light of the dangers and illusory perceptions manifesting in collective, crowd mentality – a thematic which Weitbrecht credits Westkirch with later in his article.  White-collar employees are shown to be especially manipulable in both narratives, though in respect of them, Westkirch emphasises loyalty as noble and hence protective virtue, whereas Zola portrays it as self-interest.

Some crucial differences between these narratives arise as a result of stylistic devices applied by the authors. Zola’s number of representative proletarian protagonists is relatively greater than Westkirch’s, and he provides a significantly greater degree of mimetic treatment, employing the narrative device known as free indirect speech (FIS). Roy Pascal elucidates some of the potential effects of this device:

The fact that pieces of FIS are intertwined with the objective narrative also means that the subjective responses are ordered within the narrator’s overriding perspective. […] Zola’s use of FIS in Germinal is very skilful, both in respect to its inner structure and to its contextual integration. One might object to it only that it is somewhat too blatantly signalled, that it occurs almost too frequently, and that the author seems to enjoy taking advantage of it to introduce rather drastic obscenities.[24]

Importantly, Pascal highlights that an appearance of, rather than actual objectivity is achieved by its use, although Zola’s skill in applying it is not disputed. In Germinal, “Erläuterung” of the mass ensues through a relentless depiction of degrading social realities that condition and disfigure psyches and break bodies. While proletarian characters are depicted as animal- and herd-like in direct consequence of their living conditions, two great narratorial achievements of Zola’s novel are, firstly, the depiction of fine gradations of sensibility between characters, and secondly, a consistent portrayal of spirit in even the most broken, who, for instance, do not entirely lose the capacity for empathy even in extremity, and who evince a degree of solidarity in the desire to survive. In the absence of Zola-esque corporeal “sordid” or “obscene” reality, a precept after all lauded by Weitbrecht as “Verhältnisse, wie sie wirklich sind”, the proletarian characters of Ein moderner Märtyrer are viewed through a ‘bourgeois filter’ – the narrative succeeds in mediating the powerlessness and deprivation behind the vociferous, inarticulate passions voiced by proletarian characters, but it, at best, implies their individuality, rather than mediating it with a sense of immediacy. It seems that without Zola’s descent into graphic lavatorial detail, explicit sexual (though not pornographic) references, detailed descriptions of repulsive physical symptoms and of violence etc., a convincing, powerful portrayal is unlikely to emerge, given the socio-historical context that is the subject. Whether its absence provides justifiable means for denigration of Ein moderner Märtyrer, however, is debatable.

In Westkirch’s novel, the apparent lack of character substantiation can be located particularly where proletarian emotionality is shown through a narrow narratorial focus, for example, by foregrounding the psychological issue of envy, while backgrounding instinctual reality. Covetousness of material assets valued [and possessed] by the middle classes provides morally accessible material for a middle class reader and thus functions as a perceptual bridge for the narrative’s target demographic.[25] The implied readers’ sense of justice thus is appealed to without compromising perceptions of the author’s own integrity and sexual morality, a position which Westkirch, unlike Zola, could not have recovered from. Zola transcended notoriety[26] by becoming the head of a new movement; he was despised but respected, and ultimately viewed in terms of greatness. The difference, the impossibility of the transcendence of notoriety by a woman is locatable in the fact that when despised, she would not have been respected. Female authors were in a position of trying to prove intellectual and literary worth along established discourse lines, with the prospect of differing forms of marginalisation, as previously outlined, rather than being potentially in a position to change discourse parameters. Further, they moved in and against an epistemic circle of hostility that resided in academic establishments, which were poised against their critical and creative effort.

Instead of portraying grim corporeal reality, Westkirch’s narration proceeds via thematic sublimation. Seen from this perspective, a more penetrating analysis belies the foregrounding of narrowly focalised motive-attribution. The trait of envy, for instance, is gradually revealed as a complex psychopathology.  When the benevolent new factory owner Erwin Relling consistently supplies coveted objects and previously unavailable development opportunities (cf. EMM, pp. 152-3), they cannot be valued for three identifiable reasons. Simple narratorial commentary and rhetorical questioning elucidates the first: “sie schätzte [den] Wert genau nach der geringen Mühe, die es sie gekostet hatte, ihn zu erlangen” and “kann Wert haben, was umsonst geboten wird?” (EMM, pp. 153 and 157) A more detailed exposition from implied protagonists’ perspectives relates the second reason: well-meant improvement in the accommodation arrangements of young bachelors inadvertently imposes the strictures of a bourgeois sexual morality that is inaccessible to the workers, for whom the previous easy instinctual expressions facilitated by lodging in other workers’ homes are replaced with predictability and boredom (cf. EMM, pp. 156-7). The third and most subtle reason effectively substantiates the social thesis of the narrative, which is referred to both in the novel and by Weitbrecht as “Kettenhund” mentality. The series of negative side-effects that accompanies Relling’s initiatives is ultimately shown as stemming from the same complex cause: psychological subordination, when added to economical dependence in an emphatically authoritarian system, gives rise to infantile attitudinal and behavioural patterns, in which personal responsibility, self-discipline and self-respect atrophy. In the absence of the latter attributes, dissatisfaction results from unabated (because unappeasable) expectations, and empowerment cannot ensue:

“Was hab ich mir über den Achtstudentag gefreut. Aber nu wollt‘ ich heilig, meiner müßt‘ schaffen bis Mitternacht. Ich möcht‘ wissen, was so ‘n Herr sich denkt. Wenn der Lohn nich verdoppelt wird, woher sollen denn die Groschen kommen für all das Bier?“ Dem stimmten alle bei. “Die Väter lernen das Saufen, wo sie’s noch nicht gekonnt haben, und was die Söhne sind, die kriegen den Heiratsdusel, stracks nach der Einsegnung.“ (EMM, p. 154)

While Westkirch, in comparison with Zola, provides a ‘sanitised’ narrative, her psychological realism cannot be said to constellate triviality, rendering, as it does, shifting and relativised, rather than static, black-and-white values. The above exposition, in fact, in this respect goes further than Zola’s, arguably making Ein moderner Märtyrer a different, rather than inferior achievement.

A further Case in Point: Charlotte Niese’s Licht und Schatten

Charlotte Niese’s Licht und Schatten sidesteps the comparisons levelled at Westkirch by providing what is better described as a Gesellschaftsroman, rather than a Sozialroman. The setting is Hamburg at the time of the last great cholera outbreak in 1893. Simultaneity is used as structural device so that the narrative lacks a forward gist towards reform (whether this be achieved by envisioning success or depicting disaster). The depicted societal layers are given roughly an equal amount of narrative space. Characteristic of naturalist prose, society is presented with reference to sordidness and social periphery, though not in a Zola-esque or egalitarian manner. Like Westkirch, Niese focalises a bourgeois perspective, in fact she does this so overtly as to come close to character exemplification, for instance, of a vilified proletarian social democrat – yet the specifics here invite direct comparison with Zola’s demonic character Bijard in L’Assommoir, whose degradation, likewise, appears in the absence of mitigating factors and thus is shown to be limitless. Stylistically, however, Niese, like Westkirch, signals authorial respectability throughout. The narrative’s emphasis on region and its overt, conservative tone contributed to Niese’s eventual categorisation as Heimatdichterin. Yet she remains unclassifiable enough to be subject to Spiero’s critical denigration:

Charlotte Niese  [war] bei sehr ungleichem Schaffen eine eigenartige, heimatliche Begabung. Ihre Hamburger Romane sind zu blaß, haben nicht den rechten Ton für die große Stadt und dabei zuviel rein romanhafte Bestandteile. Aber schon ihre Skizzen [...] erwärmten durch die Zartheit und Echtheit, mit der [sie] vorgetragen wurden.[27]

His assumptions about gender disposition in authorship are discernible in his preference for her autobiographical narratives, which are ‘fragile and real’. Licht und Schatten is here accused of being pale and unrealistic, yet it depicts physical and psychological depravity, domestic violence, attempted rape and murder, as well as several deaths resulting from abuse and neglect, alongside the chaos and tragedy ensuing from the cholera outbreak. Spiero’s comments seem to be another example of a lack of real attention on the part of the critic when it came to female-authored narratives – in this case in an unusual volume, entirely devoted to female authors. To illustrate the point about critical disparity, another, arguably more attentive reviewer, comments the narrative “viel zu wenig geschätzt”, and as a “fein gebaute[n] Roman, der zu dem Gewaltigsten gehört, was an Thematik die neue Zeit dichterisch gegeben hat.” Dr Reinhold Muschler likens the novel‘s structure to a fugue:

Wuchtiges bäumt sich auf, Ungeheuerlichkeiten tollen hoch, Entsetzliches wird miterlebt, aber nicht der Sensation halber, sondern nur als Fugenthema, das den melodischen Strom des Weltgeschehens nicht zerreißt, sondern ihn in seiner immerwährenden Harmonik doppelt begreifen läßt aus dieser kreischenden Dissonanz heraus.[28]

A difficulty for the interpreter is that atfacevalue, Licht und Schatten advocates maintenance of traditional societal structures, and specifically, of the cultured patriciate’s ideals. It calls for the refinement and restoration of long-established but disappearing ideals, rather than for foundational social change – effectively it argues  for a “strengthening of idealistic urges in all people”, which has been alluded to earlier. Retrospective ideals here serve as a means of resistance to a rising tide of materialism, which is attributed to the wealthy Wirtschaftsbürgertum.[29] Social structure, in this novel, is made up, firstly, of a heterogeneous working class, made up of an industrial proletariat, incidental and resident dock workers, and of domestic servants, secondly, of a dichotomised bourgeoisie, and thirdly, of a ‘new middle class’ of Angestellte, white-collar workers who are presented as peripheral yet pivotal. This class is conceptually allied with the conflicted Bürgertum and hence appears as both peripheral and crucial to business success. The overt focalisation of the restoration of ideal values could be seen as a simplistic or retrogressive response to unstoppable, collective changes.  What appears as a straightforward recommendation, however, is undermined sub-textually by an idiosyncratic character.

Folkert Dierks, who both opens and closes the narrative, emerges from the marshes of Schleswig-Holstein to seek work as a dock worker in Hamburg. He is a kind of natural, primitive man who lacks formal education and social grace, but who has an unshakeable inner integrity which makes him a pivotal narratorial axis, without fitting into any of the foregrounded social milieus. An alternative agenda here appears, not so much counter to, as independent from, the narrative’s momentum towards societal ideals. Omniscient narration shows him as an indeterminate character; his simplicity is variously ‘dim-witted’, inarticulate, ‘slow’, heroic, fine-feeling, compassionate and ultimately able to unmask pretence and fallacy. He is offered social advance but resists this; unable to achieve authenticity in the city, he finally leaves, alone, for a smallholding on an island. He functions as one aspect of a gendered refutation of the determinacy encoded by positively connoted social values, which as are vested in the narrative’s overt heroes and heroines.

The complementary part of this refutation appears in his complex female counterpart. She, like him, is essentially an outsider to the main societal scheme, but, rather than embodying resilience and health, appears as an emblem of psychological dysfunction and of disorientation. The ostensibly minor character of Rose is a strikingly beautiful proletarian character who is ambitious for social advantage. The novel’s psychological realism marks her as emotionally damaged by her environment and as unable to relate meaningfully even to kin in consequence, to return to an ambivalent and subtle social questioning beneath its apparent censure. Narrative simultaneity juxtaposes Rose’s material and sensual preoccupations with those of one of the centralised bourgeois characters, Valeska, to establish a proximity that increases the egalitarian import of the novel. Valeska inhabits character traits that reference, consciously or otherwise, Schopenhauer’s misogynistic tract on the facile “European lady”,[30] yet her development in the novel towards greater scope for compassion and authenticity serves firmly to place critique of her self-serving disingenuity in society, rather than in gender. The neatness of Licht und Schatten’s social categorisations is consistently undermined from the conceptual margins it constellates. Rose is embroiled in a chaotic chain of narrative events and she eventually suffers a breakdown after being left for dead by the previously referred-to demonic character, who jealously attempts to kill her. She is rescued, and taken in to convalesce under the auspices of a homely country woman. Her rehabilitation fails, however, and she finally sails off to America to become a society hostess – the novel’s nod at the phenomenon of the demi-mondaine. In the context of Licht und Schatten, this is a radical step ripe for censure. It is, however, reported with little narratorial interference, characteristic of naturalistic convention:

[Her] behaviour can be understood […] as little subject to moral judgement as the machine because it is similarly determined by heredity, milieu and ‘moment’.[31]

Narratorial distancing here reinforces the character’s ambivalent status and peripherally thematises women’s sexuality. Chris Weedon identifies that a major obstacle regarding women’s enfranchisement in society revolved around patriarchal priorities, which initiated self-censorship along with the extraneous kind:

[…] in the period between 1890 and the outbreak of the First World War the possibilities of realising sexual feelings and desires were still circumscribed  by dominant patriarchal social values which denied women the right to be both independent and sexual, inside and outside marriage.[32]

It is significant that Rose is ultimately observed, in naturalistic fashion, rather than judged. She must leave the confines of German society in order to delimit her life from the censure of her sensuality as well as of her material ambitions. Thus she complements the challenge presented by Folkert in respect of the narrative’s overtly posited value system. The dual gender scenario ends with a subliminal envisaging of lack affecting both genders: the man, Folkert, needs recourse to nature to realise himself, while the woman, Rose, needs cultural liberation.

[1] Cf. Rudolf Schenda. Volk ohne Buch. Studien zur Sozialgeschichte der populären Lesestoffe 1770-1910. Frankfurt: 1970, pp. 444f.

[2] Jochen Schulte-Sasse. “Toward a ‘Culture’ for the Masses: The Socio-Psychological Function of Popular Literature in Germany and the U.S., 1880-1920”, in: New German Critique, No. 29, Spring-Summer, 1983, p. 86

[3] Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Die Kritik an der Trivialliteratur seit der Aufklärung. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1971, pp. 14-5.

[4] Cf. Wolfgang Kayser. „Das literarische Leben der Gegenwart”, in: Deutsche Literatur in unserer Zeit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959, p.26.

[5] Cf. Günther Jahn. Materialien zur Trivialliteratur. Dortmund: Crüwell-Konkordia, 1972, p. 7.

[6] Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Die Kritik an der Trivialliteratur seit der Aufklärung. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1971, p. 18.

[7] Albert Klein and Heinz Hecker. Trivialliteratur. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1977, p. 21.

[8] Rudolf Hoberg. “Trivial. Zum Wortgebrauch im heutigen Deutsch”, in: Helga de la Motte-Haber (ed.) Das Triviale in Literatur, Music und Bildender Kunst. Frankfurt, 1972, pp. 9 – 20. Quoted in Albert Klein and Heinz Hecker. Trivialliteratur. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1977, p. 15.

[9] Jeannine Blackwell. “Anonym, verschollen, trivial: Methodological Hindrances in Researching German Women’s Literature”, in: Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 1 (1985), p. 43.

[10] The magazine’s content in respect of the emergent Frauenfrage, for instance, is not clear-cut on closer inspection, and  includes, if cautiously, emancipatory content from the late 1880s. Fanny Lewald, for instance, contributed a story in 1889 and Helene Lange a critical article on education in 1903.

[11] Jeannine Blackwell. “Anonym, verschollen, trivial: Methodological Hindrances in Researching German Women’s Literature”, in: Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 1 (1985), p. 46

[12] Cf. Aus guter Familie. Berlin: Fischer, 1895; Halbtier Berlin: Fontane, 1899; Fenitschka Stuttgart: Cotta, 1898

[13] Otto Heller. “Die deutsche Schriftstellerin von gestern und heute”, in: Pädagogische Monatshefte, Vol. 4, No. 8/9, 1903, p. 257.

[14] Cf. Pascal, From Naturalism to Expressionism, p. 205.

[15] Jackson, Taboos in German Literature, p. 81.

[16] Heller, “Die deutsche Schriftstellerin von gestern und heute”, p. 253.

[17] Kabinett für sentimentale Trivialliteratur. University of Zurich, 2004.

[18] Cf. James Hillman. “The Feeling Function”, in: Marie Louise von Franz/James Hillman. Jung’s Typology. New York City: Spring Publications, 1971, pp. 90-1. Hillman’s lucid exposition of the nature of the feeling function demonstrates its non-logical rationality and hence its immunity to syllogism.

[19] Heinrich Spiero. Geschichte der deutschen Frauendichtung seit 1800. Leipzig/Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1913, p. 85f.

[20] Richard Weitbrecht. “Aus der Erzählungsliteratur“, in: Blätter für literarische Unterhaltung. Vol. 1, No. 5. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1897, pp. 74-5

[21] Nicholas Rennie. “Narrative, the Individual, and Crowds in an Age of Mass Production”, in: Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1996, p. 396

[22] Cf. Norbert Bachleitner. Der englische und französische Sozialroman des 19. Jahrhunderts und seine Rezeption in Deutschland. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodolpi, 1993

[23] Ref phrase?

[24] “Emile Zola – use and abuse”, in: Roy Pascal. The Dual Voice. Free indirect speech and its functioning in the nineteenth-century European novel. Manchester University Press, 1977, pp. 112 – 122

[25] Westkirch’s target demographic can be ascertained from content as well as style – her frequent intertextual, historical and philosophical references assume an educated readership. She also published “Erzählungen” in Die Gartenlaube in 1897 and ? which feature attractive, intellectually sophisticated Angestellte of both genders, whose orientation was glamour 

[26] An example of Zola’s notoriety can be gleaned from Max Dauthendey‘s memoirs. Dauthendey recalls a conversation between two men in the streets of Würzburg upon publication of Germinal: “Zola, dieses Schwein, sollte in Deutschland verboten werden”, and observes the extent to which the “Wohlbehagen des Bürgergeistes” was disturbed by the “neuen Armuts- und Arbeitergestalten, die, ungewaschen und ungekämmt, verhungert und ungehobelt, in Fabrikluft schwindsüchtig und elend geworden […] das Erbarmen und die Bewunderung der Dichter gefunden hatten.“ Max Dauthendey. Gedankengut aus meinen Wanderjahren. Munich: A. Langen, 1913, Vol. 1, p. 159f.

[27] Heinrich Spiero. Geschichte der deutschen Frauendichtung seit 1800. Leipzig/Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1913, p. 104 [italics mine]

[28] Charlotte Niese. Von Gestern und Vorgestern. Leipzig: Grünow, 1924, p. 10

[29] For a detailed explanation of the conceptual differentiation, cf. Volker Ullrich. Die nervöse Großmacht. Aufstieg und Untergang des deutschen Kaiserreichs 1871 – 1918. Frankfurt: Fischer, 2007; pp. 280-90 and Ingo Meyer. Im 'Banne der Wirklichkeit'? Studien zum Problem des deutschen Realismus und seinen narrative-symbolistischen Strategien. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009; p. 136

[31] Lilian Furst and Peter Skrine. Naturalism. London: Methuen, 1971, p. 20.

[32] David Jackson. Taboos in German Literature. Providence, R.I. : Berghahn Books, 1996,  p. 9

15th June 2012

Room 136, Old Library, University of Exeter

We are going to hold a one-day conference as part of the project 'Rare German Narrative Prose 1840-1940', funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This project is designed to promote a differentiated understanding of German prose since the middle of the nineteenth century. Gert Vonhoff investigates the oppressed trends within bourgeois realism; Sabrina Stolfa analyses the impact of the emergence of Angestellte (white collar workers) on narrative prose and Beke Sinjen’s field of research is early working class prose. This way we aim to reconnect with a literary phase over-researched on the one hand, and neglected on the other.

Guest speakers will be Prof Baßler, Professor in Modern German Literature at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Dr Ruth Whittle, Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Birmingham, and Hanneliese Palm, Head of Institute and Archive at the Fritz-Hüser-Institut, Dortmund.

Areas of interest for the seminar encompass neglected authors, literary trends and sub-genres, affinities between history, culture and literature as well as lesser-known prose of well-known authors. The people running the Leverhulme project will present their findings, which include the influence of sciences on literature, parameters and aesthetic judgements of working class prose and development of a female voice relating to the literature of Angestellte.

We very much hope that you will be inspired by the above topics and will be our guest for the day. If you intend to join us, please let us know by 8 June, stating also whether you would like to book a buffet lunch and refreshments.

Please email or

Download the Censored by Forgetfulness Booklet Conference.

The Leverhulme funded project, which started in May 2010, is situated at the:
Department of Modern Languages
College of Humanities
Queen’s Building
Queen's Drive
University of Exeter
Exeter EX4 4QH
United Kingdom

Prof. Gert Vonhoff (Project Leader, bourgeois prose)
Associate Professor in German

Beke Sinjen (working-class prose)
PhD student in German

Sabrina Stolfa (white-collar workers’ prose)
PhD student in German

Bourgeoisie (Gert Vonhoff)

After the political arena was closed, when the revolution of 1848/49 had failed, much of the cultural and ideologically liberal consensus-building and positioning derived from the literary field, first and foremost from narrative prose writing. Yet literary research in this area has, to this day, mainly been confined to a notion of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism, a reduction that does not do justice to the diversification of knowledge in the fields of social and cultural historiography. What is not understood is the impact modernisation in its many different facets had both on the diversification of realist writing and on the emergence of new modes of narrative writing based on the new social 'players' and their ideological needs.

The analytical framework developed in my latest monograph on German prose from 1750 to 1845 (Gert Vonhoff, Erzählgeschichte, Münster 2007) will help to describe processes of narrative evolution, not in a traditional linear pattern of progress, but rather as a spiral model of evolutionary processes based both on aesthetic and social developments.

My research questions include: Is the concept of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism too narrow and static for an exploration of the different modes of bourgeois-based narrative prose between the 1850s to the 1890s? For the development of bourgeois realism in its programmatic phase of the 1850s and early 1860s, is the emergence and evolution of the Dorfgeschichte (rural tale, tale of the village) a crucial influence, proving more multi-faceted than previously realised? Can the impact of technological progress and the sciences be studied in different modes of realist literature, rather than just in naturalistic prose?

White-collar workers (Sabrina Stolfa)

When Angestellte emerged as a new social class with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, their collective identity had yet to be defined, both in political and sociological terms. Emerging into a strongly hierarchised society inevitably meant dealing with shifting notions of status, not only concerning conscious attempts at self-modelling, but also resulting from fluctuating economic pressures.  My search for nineteenth century prose samples that in some way typify or delineate Angestellte traces these ‒ often colliding – processes, which led twentieth century researchers to speak of Angestellte as a heterogeneous “non-class”.

From the beginning, attempts at self-modelling by Angestellte proceeded not only from positive values to emulated and claimed, but significantly also from perceptions of its 'other', from negative values to be excluded.  The latter was perceived as being located in the working classes, the former in the bourgeoisie. Partly because this two-fold process of identity-formation seems in prose fiction (and literary non-fiction) to occur more at an affective than a cognitive level, and partly due to economic pressures, an often conflictual and unresolved sense of collective self resulted, one which must at all times defend its inner values in order to confirm its uncertain social standing. Inner conflicts were exploited by politicians who feared any potential solidarisation of the employed workforce and who helped forge the sense of separatism from the working classes, as well as inherent predispositions towards internal hierarchisation.

Whereas by the Weimar Republic these inner tensions had become external pressures, nineteenth century texts rather evidence unconsciousness of the Angestellten-position in social terms. The research question 'what constitutes Angestellten prose fiction' itself is a paradigm leading not only to enquiries about authorial origin and narratorial positions, but to philosophical, thematic, structural and stylistic preoccupations. The heterogeneity of this social class is one of the challenges taken up in this strand of the project, to ask who its spokesmen and women were, what positions they took up and what attitudes they fostered.

Blue-collar workers (Beke Sinjen)

My research focuses on early working class narrative prose from 1840 to 1900 (1920), during which period prose writing no longer addressed only the bourgeois literate, but increasingly also a newly emerging group of working class readers. The aim is to distinguish different modes of writing beneath the dominant paradigm of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism: How should working class prose be defined? Is it enough to relate it to the author’s or readers’ social background? Is working class prose written by workers or written for workers? Should established literary criteria be applied? As most of the authors related to working class (e.g. Georg Weerth, Ernst Dronke, August Otto-Walster, Robert Schweichel or Carl Lübeck) are marginalised in our cultural memory, analysis of their prose fiction will need to take account of these research questions.

Starting point of the survey is the 1840s, before the failed 1848/49 revolution, drawing a line from the Vormärz to the Nachmärz demonstrating that even in pre-industrialised times an interest in the social question existed. As the 1850s were a reactionary decade, with political organisations and trade unions of journeymen and workers being repressed by the state, working class prose appeared to vanish. When two foundations of socialist parties in the 1860s testified the strengthening of the socialist movement, both parties edited their own journals which became the preferred medium of prose publication. Social democrats began to utilise the daily press – initially dominated by bourgeois agents – to reach a broader public and party calendars became a medium of Aufklärung in order to create political and self-awareness. Because the socialist movement had to face extraordinary intervention by the German government from 1878 to 1890 (the Socialist Laws), it will be of specific interest to find out whether or how literary production changed under state repression. The survey reaches out to the first autobiographies written by blue collar workers around the turn of the century.

Part of the work is searching for authors unknown today and making samples of their prose fiction available on this website. Further research questions will include: What does it mean when elements of eighteenth-century bourgeois prose such as the optimistic strong narrator or the mono-perspectival narrative re-emerge in nineteenth-century working class prose? To what extent can similar stylistic devices have different effects in different social contexts?