Popular Literature in Germany.
By GOTTFRIED KINKEL.
Science begins, with us, to adapt itself to the educated public at large, and belles lettres, in their turn, once the property of these educated classes, have condescended a step to those whom we designate by the strange name of the people, as if we ourselves were no part of the people.—In this sense is rising among us a popular literature that may easily begin a revolution in the literary world.
In every age, writers, and even German writers, have busied themselves with the lower classes, but in the same direction as now. Gessner described for us Arcadian shepherds from whose weary and wearisome sentimentalities we were to learn virtue. Iffland, and Schiller also, in his “Cabal and Love,” on the stage, Lafontaine and innumerable others in romances, depicted the common citizens’ life, often with the intention of showing a factitious aristocratic existence in contrast with a healthy activity.—Others wrote, in arrogance, to make a jest of the clownish ways of artizans and peasants. But, by none of those earlier writers, was the life of the poorer classes treated in its whole depth, force, and fulness.
All literature depends on the spiritual tendencies of its time, and those problems of which some are in every age proposed by the nations to themselves. With us, are now awake in full earnestness the questions as to pauperism; the Communist, Social tendency; and this it is which has given a new interest to the life of the common people. On these questions of modern times, to which distress and disturbance, in some regions, with the stream of emigration, have given, of late, the most powerful interest among ourselves, rests also the sympathy which Charles Dickens, by such books as Nicholas Nickleby, which Eugene Sue’s else so formless and confused works have found in Germany. Yet we Germans had earlier turned our eyes upon our laboring classes, though we have, just at present, less reason to concern ourselves for them, as they are neither so oppressed, nor so demoralized as in France, perhaps, also in England.
The first class of such writings in our new German literature, is formed by pictures of peasant life, not ideal, like those of Gessner, but true to nature. Our great Karl Immermann, who precedes, as standard-bearer, almost all efforts of this newer school, made a beginning in his “Münchausen” by pictures of life of Westphalia, at that time the most patriarchal, compact, and powerful in all our country. The subject of pauperism was not introduced there, because the hamlet-patriarchs, of that region, are, for the most part, richer than the nobility; thus the novelist, in the portrait of his magistrate, does not move by sympathy, but conquers the reader by healthy power. Münchausen is greatly indebted for its influence to this interest in the life of the people. Somewhat earlier, a Swiss writer said by some to be a pastor in the Canton of Berne, published his “Bauernspiegel,” in which is described the noble peasant-life of his Swiss home. Pity! that the book moralizes too much and paints rather in black, than in pleasant colors. It is apt to be so with parsons if they venture into the narrative line; and thus the book has missed the friendly reception it would have been sure of in Germany if its tone had been as beneficent as its descriptions were powerful. Many writers of talent now followed the lead of Immermann. Weill in his “Elsasser Geschichten,” Frank in his “Viere Brudernaus dem Volk” and his writings “Aus dem Böhmerwald,” Auerbach in the “Schwarzwalder Dorfgeschichten,” gave scenes from their home life, and especially the last named has excited the interest and gratitude of the public.
Hacklander, a lively comrade, who in youth shared the bachelor’s life, full of gay freaks in many cities in Germany, and afterward traveled in the East, gave us bold Daguerrotypes of what he had seen. He, then, under the title of “Soldatenleben im Frieden,” (Life of the Soldier in time of peace,) relates his experience in the barracks at an earlier period, painting, masterly, good and bad through all the grades of rank and manners. It is a book, not only humorous and interesting for us, who are in the midst of these things, but which will remain, a monument of culture, as to our preparations for defensive war, which, though in detail pedantic, and often ridiculous, yet, when considered in relation to arming a nation, on which all depends, assume so great and elevated a meaning. And it is not just this minuteness in detail, even with the greatest and most urgent purpose, the peculiar characteristics of our German efforts?
Beside these works, which seek to represent the common people, and attract to them the interest of the upper classes, are those addressed to the people themselves. These are mostly sad af affairs as yet. There are plenty of books of piety, sad political works both of the conservative and destructive sort, intended for the people, but by our bad theological and philosophical manner, the writers spoil the game. The chasm between the classes has been sunk so deep in the course of the centuries, that the writer, educated among the cultivated, can rarely translate his thoughts to the mind and manners of the peasant or burgher. Even so the preacher, from his pulpit, rarely can reach the inmost heart of his audience. The schoolmasters have experience that might enable them to write for the people, but they disdain it, and dabble rather in the province of learning, or they are too poor and too hard-pressed to write. We have not even a history written in the true popular tone, although Edward Duller came near giving us such an one. Were our theatre better, it would, at least, be an organ for the populace of the towns, through which the best thoughts of the instructed class might flow to the people, but it is sustained principally by light French ware, by the fleeting charm of the Italian Opera, or by local jests that amuse without improving the people. Only one work can I here mention with pleasure, also from the pen of Auerbach, “Der gebildete Bürger.” Yet this want begins to be, in some measure, supplied by what are called ‘Volks Calendern,’ ‘People’s Almanacs,’ of which there have been many since 1830. * * *
As a sign of the times, we should mention that the fertile novelist, Spindler, in his old age, feels this impulse to write for the people; he also publishes under the tile of ‘Deutsche Vergis meinnicht’, a two frank annual containing merely stories for the people. Observe, too, that the aristocratic literature begins to give place. Of all the Saloon-writers, among whom Stereberg and the Countess Ida Hahnhahn hold now the first rank, there are none who can vie with those of the democratic tendency, and the annuals intended for elegant society find no more publishers, readers, nor gifted writers. * * * Such annuals are not read as the “Historical Pocket-Books” of Hormayr and Von Raumer, the “Literary and Historical Pocket-Book,” edited by Prutz, and the “Lower Rhine Annual for History and Art,” edited by Lersch in Bonn. This has great merits as to the history of Politics and Art in Rhineland, is also clear and readable in manner. Of the more elegant annuals, both as to literature and outward form, I would mention two as worthy your attention in the other home. One is the “Urania,” to which Tieck was formerly a contributor, published by Brockhaus in Leipsic. I s chief interest lies in two novels by Gutzkow and Sternberg. The other is the “Rhine Pocket-Book,” which is ornamented by good engravings and contains, beside the novels and tales, an excellent treatise by Creizenach of Frankfort, under the title of “Rhenish Letters upon Literature,” which expresses with genial force the former and present Literary life of Upper Rhine. And the best poets of the Rhine-land have contributed to this, so that the book combines the interest of belles letters, and serious essays, with that of a poetical “Musen Almanach.”*
“Correspondence of the Schnellpost.” New-York Daily Tribune, 27 January 1845, p. 1.