A New History of German Literature

David E. Wellberry (editor)

Harvard University Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013 http://dannyreviews.com/
A New History of German Literature contains some two hundred five-page essays on a broad range of topics. These are organised chronologically, with each essay labelled with a year and sometimes a date, but there is no other structure.

The scope extends beyond literature narrowly conceived. Among other excursions, there are essays on Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgement and Hegel's philosophy of art, on Mozart's opera The Magic Flute and Schubert's song-cycle Winterreise, and on Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will and Edgar Reitz's Heimat television series. "German" is also generously interpreted, with an essay on Old Norse literature, five on aspects of Yiddish literature, and even one on Petrarch (on his relationship with emperor Charles IV). And there is good coverage of the medieval and early modern period, with the mid-point of the volume falling right on 1800.

There is some flexibility with the "dating", with a few essays taking a single event or publication as representative of a career or longer-term developments. The piece on Hildegard von Bingen, for example, takes its date from her writing to Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147 but is actually a fairly general account of her life. But these essays are the exception: most of them are more narrowly focused and the collection makes no attempt to be systematic or comprehensive. Many notable writers are omitted entirely: there is nothing at all on Erich Kästner, Arthur Koestler or Wolfgang Koeppen, to take just one letter of the alphabet. So, despite a decent index, A New History is not terribly useful as a reference.

On the other hand it is a great volume to browse in, with the essays tackling interesting, sometimes slightly off-beat topics rather than commonplace and familiar ones. Anyone after a short biography of Kafka, for example, can find one in any number of other places; here we have instead essays on (respectively) the historical and biographical backgrounds to The Judgement and The Trial. There are also pieces on Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's epic poem The Messiah and Ferdinand Kürnberger's The Man Who Was Weary of America. The result is a deeper probing at a selection of locations rather than a more comprehensive surface survey. (The essays assume a general knowledge of German history and culture, but no specialised knowledge of their topics.)

There is a certain enforced serendipity to browsing A New History, however. The short titles, used in the table of contents and the running headers, are often not much of a guide: "1666, February: Commit your way to the LORD", for example. The essays do begin with more informative one line summaries, in this case "By order of Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, Paul Gerhardt is removed from the office of deacon at Saint Nicolai Church in Berlin". But this essay itself is more general than that suggests, being an overview of Gerhardt's "place in the history of Protestant piety".

I have read maybe half the essays in A New History of German Literature and continue to browse in it. It has given me different perspectives on works and writers with whom I already had some familiarity, but it has also exposed me to many of whom I had never heard.

August 2013

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%T A New History of German Literature
%E Wellberry, David E.
%I Harvard University Press
%D 2004
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0674015037
%P 1004pp