Wilhelm Raabe (RAHB-uh) wrote almost exclusively in the form of prose narrative. A small number of verses represent his only known departure from storytelling. His narrative production was substantial, however, with thirty titles usually designated as novels, another nineteen that may be classed as novellas, and a third group, also numbering nineteen, which are more loosely termed “stories” or “tales.” Altogether, thirty-one of the shorter works appeared between 1859 and 1879 in six collections authorized by Raabe. Many of his works, including novels, were first published serially by various popular literary magazines before their appearance in book form. The periodical Der Illustrirten Deutschen Monatshefte (published by G. Westermann), which printed thirty-two of Raabe’s works, also distributed his work to the German-speaking immigrant population in the United States; translations into English have been few, and hardly representative of Raabe’s full achievement: The Hunger-Pastor, Abu Telfan, and the novellas The Black Galley and Else von der Tanne.
Until about the middle of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Raabe was widely characterized as a creator of eccentric figures unappealing to a broad audience, and as the writer of a rather difficult, idiosyncratic style ill suited to any but the specialist’s attention outside Germany. These perceptions among his German readers probably harmed more than fostered his reputation, and they kept his name from the commonly accepted pantheon of nineteenth century German prose masters.
Critical reevaluations have since shown that the structures of Raabe’s works, while superficially disorganized, are purposeful and consistent below the surface. His characters’ seclusion from the world is not merely an idyllic retreat, but rather a safe position from which the writer quietly seeks nothing less than to unhinge the world and his own times. As for Raabe’s apparent role as dispenser of wisdom for the proper conduct of life, critics have generally discarded the bad habit of citing him out of context and have come to view the “quotable” pronouncement as only one of the more obvious parts in a literary-aesthetic scheme reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of education through alienation, the establishment of aesthetic distance. Raabe’s humor, too, is now generally seen in broader definition, complex in its nature, informing the attitude and tone of the works, determining fundamentally the relationship of content to language. His humor is hardly conceivable, even in the most “optimistic” stories, without recognition of the bitterly serious questioning of life’s ultimate values in some of his other, “tragic” works.
There is not general agreement that one should even call Raabe’s major prose works novels. The question is not so much one of length, even though they scarcely exceed two hundred pages in modern editions. More at issue are definitions based on formal and thematic characteristics. Raabe himself used the term “novel” (German: Roman) more sparingly than some literary historians have done in referring to his books, probably in order to distinguish them from conventional nineteenth century models, which typically exhibited a more predictable, sequential narrative form and a less pronounced narrator presence than his; he may have also used the term sparingly in order to disassociate his “stories” from the then-current, narrower use of the term Roman to mean a “love story with obstacles.” His reluctance to be thought of as merely a novelist, like his unconventional narrative style in general, thus suggests his refusal to accede to the popular preference for literary entertainment.
Arnds, Peter O. Wilhelm Raabe’s “Der Hungerpastor” and Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield”: Intertextuality of Two Bildungsromane. New York: P. Lang, 1997. A comparative study. Includes bibliography and index.
Daemmrich, Horst S. Wilhelm Raabe. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An extremely helpful orientation to Raabe’s life and works.
Sammons, Jeffrey L. The Shifting Fortunes of William Raabe: A History of Criticism as a Cautionary Tale. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992. Describes critical reactions to Raabe’s work and the author’s disappointment that his social criticism was largely overlooked.
Sammons, Jeffrey L. Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Includes an extensive bibliography.