Thursday, April 24, 2008

German regionalists and prestige

I've complained before, and I'll complain again, about the poor presence of 19th century German-language literature in English. Reading Gotthelf and von Droste-Hülshoff provides another clue as to why this might be.

Most of the first cohort of German Romantics were gone by the time Goethe died, age 82. Hoffmann was gone, Heinrich von Kleist, Novalis, Schiller. Hölderlin was still alive, but basically insane and unproductive.

With the important exception of Heinrich Heine, almost every major German-language writer in the next generation or two was a sort of regionalist. Jeremias Gotthelf and Gottfried Keller in Switzerland, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in Westphalia, Edouard Mörike in Swabia, Adalbert Stifter in Austria, Theodor Storm in Schleswig-Holstein.

All of these writers wrote about where they were from, sometimes exclusively. I wonder if that makes them look minor to outsiders? Unambitious. It can't help that they all specialized in lyric poems, hard to translate, and/or novellas and tales, which have their own prestige problem, rather than big fat novels (excepting Keller's Green Henry and Stifter's two novels). Not so long ago, "regionalist" was almost a term of abuse in the United States, a way to dismiss a writer. This reader prefers small and perfect to ambitious and flawed, and in the right hands I'm as happy out in the provinces as in Paris or London or New York. But other readers seem only to want attempts at the Great German/ Russian/ American Novel.

Penguin Classics has kept Mörike in print, so someone is reading, or teaching him. And I came across a rumor that NYRB is republishing Stifter's Rock Crystal next fall. So there's some good news. To NYRB: there's a lot more good stuff where that came from! Green Henry? The Black Spider?


  1. Isn't it interesting how being a "regionalist" writer has become something of value today? After, I don't know, 1870, most great American writers I think of are associated with a region.

    Same thing with my favorite contemporary or near contemporary authors -- the South, the West, New England, New York, Midwestern; regionalism is a selling point these days, not a knock.

  2. Yes and no. Associated with a region, yes - everyone is from somewhere. Regionalist, no - think James, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald on to Bellow, Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo. The whole Great American Novel tradition. Faulkner has always been the sore thumb here.

    Note that I did not include any women. Feminist critics and scholars deserve a lot of credit for rehabilitating the reputations of "regionalists" - Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, and so on.

    But I agree, many of our finest writers are regionalists, and always have been.

  3. I do agree that from modernism on writers are more associated with a region than strictly what I'd term regionalist (as in limited to local color), but I really do believe that regionalist has become a mark of respect today.

    To be called a southern writer, in the tradition of Faulkner, O'Conner, Williams, et cetera, is a huge honor these days and something writers play to.

    Cormac McCarthy is perhaps our best living writer and has regionalist tendancies -- albeit in two different regions.

    There are a host of New York writers who write "New York" stories and take immense pride in doing so, and there are readers who buy these stories simply because they are "New York" stories.

  4. It's just that "limited to local color" I want to defend. That's how Kate Chopin and many others were dismissed, for decades.

  5. Oh, I agree entirely! I think the reason it is a badge of honor to be "regionalist" today is that the Chopins and the Flannery O'Conners and the others like them have earned the recognition they deserve -- writers like that these people are so closely associated with places, and they court just such a reputation for themselves.

    When I say "limited to local color," I don't mean limited with a negative connotation, as in "they are of limited ability or importance."

  6. It's a complicated question, worth more thought - how do tastes for things like local color change?

  7. I just picked up a 1992 trans. of *The Black Spider*. It looks like it was published in the UK, although the publisher, Knightscross, lists Atlanta alongside London as a base of operations. It was translated by B. O. Adefope. I can't locate much info about the publisher or translator on-line. Re. older translations of *The Black Spider*, there's a neat post at Will Schofield's blog, Journey Round My Skull (

    I also came across a 1999 edition of an older trans. of *Rock Crystal* by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore. It was issued, again, by a British publisher, Pushkin Press.

    Re. Theodor Storm: I highly recommend Denis Jackson's site at

    Jackson translated Storm's *Der Schimmelreiter* for Angel Classics. He's posted lots of info about Storm's region as well as a great bibliography and lists of translations of Storm's works.

  8. The Storm site is impressive, thanks.

    The Journey Round My Skull posts are a hoot - I put them in my "Black Spider" post. Great stuff.

    Thanks again - amazing what a struggle it is to find this stuff.

  9. Thanks for the compliments on the site! I wish I had stopped by in April for an ego boost.

    I picked up a Hesperus edition of Storm's Lake of the Bees in a 2003 translation. It's next to one of the Angel/Jackson editions on my to-read shelf.

    Any more info on the "B. O. Adefope" translation of Black Spider? It sounds like a hoax even with the printed book as evidence.

    I recently found Three Swiss Realists with translations by Robert Godwin-Jones. It includes Gotthelf's "Hans Joggeli, the Rich Cousin" (presumably one of his uber-regionalist works, which doesn't scare me...yet); Keller's "Pankraz, the Sulker" (great title) and "Forger of his Fortune"; and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's "The Monk's Wedding."

    Unfortunately it's from one of those third-rate academic publishers, so it's basically a bound manuscript (as if typesetting never existed) with underlining instead of italics -- they really spared no expense! I'd rather read an e-book -- that's a bad sign for publishers, coming from this self-declared book fetishist.

    Finally, Green Henry was reprinted by Tusk Overlook a couple years ago.

  10. I didn't realize Godwin-Jones runs "19th-Century German Stories," a website I'm sure we've all come across in our book searches. His translation of Gotthelf's "How Joggeli Finds a Wife" is right here (I'll be reading an 'e-book' after all): link.

  11. The only other info I found about the Adefope translation is that it was the subject of a brief review in the TLS in 1993. Here's the citation: "The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf and translated by B. O. Adefope TLS, the Times Literary Supplement. London:Jun 18, 1993. Iss. 4707, p. 24."

    The reviewer was anonymous.