I have not written about the literary tradition of Indian Summer. It is a Bildungsroman, a novel of personal growth, of which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) is not the first but for a long time the most read, the most important. Certainly the center of the German tradition. So that is the tradition.
R. J. Hollingdale, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, argues that “the overwhelming presence of Goethe” crushed nineteenth century German-language literature and channeled the “most original” thought into philosophy, a field “Goethe had not harvested” (9-10). Hollingdale is not wrong.
The existence of Indian Summer and other German literature would seem to refute Hollingdale, if it were not for passages like this, where a mother is giving her son, who is maybe twelve, a gift:
“You’ve been asking me for them for a long time, which I’ve had to refuse since you weren’t yet ready. They are the Works of Goethe. They belong to you. A great deal in them is for a more mature age, indeed, the most mature. You can’t choose which books you’ll now take in hand or which ones you’ll save for later days. Your Foster Father will add that to the many kindnesses he has shown you; he’ll choose for you, and you’ll obey him in this, just as you have in everything up to now.” (144)
The mother has given her son her personal set, full of her notes and underlinings. Her son protests, but she insists, and anyway “Since I will probably still want to read the works of this remarkable man sometime during the remainder of my life I am going to buy a new set of books.”
With Goethe you do not simply read a book, but rather a fifty volume set, tied up in string. Or that is what Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry does:
As if I had all these threads [of association] together in the clumsy knot of the string, I fell upon it and hastily began to untie it, and when at last it came loose, the golden fruits of his eighty years of life fell apart gloriously, spread over the couch and tumbled over the edge on to the floor so that I had my hands full, trying to hold the riches together. From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end, during which time the winter returned, and the Spring came back, but the white snow, whose shining I saw but heeded not, passed me by like a dream. (Green Henry, tr. A. M. Holt, III.1, p. 312).
Now that is a serious reader. Green Henry (1854-5/1879-80) is yet another jumbo-sized Bildungsroman, although with an entirely different flavor than Stifter’s novel. Where Stifter’s Heinrich has two father figures, poor Green Henry has no father at all; where Heinrich moves smoothly from one stage of growth to the next, Henry stumbles from mistake to mistake, eventually, in an inversion of Stifter, rejecting an artistic vocation and entering the Swiss civil bureaucracy.
Henry does not even get to keep his set of Goethe. His mother takes it away because of its dangerously addictive properties. Goethe was the Angry Birds of the nineteenth century. But readers of Stifter know that Goethe needs to be read under proper adult supervision.
Both Indian Summer and Green Henry are drenched in Goethe. There are constant allusions and references to Goethe, or at least Goethe’s work is so all-encompassing and inescapable that the later novels appear to be constantly referring to Goethe. Keller, Stifter and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (and its 1821 sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering) share a common ethos. They are all novels of idealism, Kantian ideas worked out through fiction. Stifter is in a way the most radical of the three, with the most abstract characters inhabiting the most “realistic” landscapes.
Eh, I should do some sort of massive re-reading of Goethe. I do not know how to convey what a titan he was. And in the context of Stifter’s and Keller’s novels, he had only been dead for twenty years!