Achim von Arnim Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Achim von Arnim 1781-1831

(Full name Ludwig Joachim von Arnim) German novella and short story writer, poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, editor, and critic.

An influential figure in the German Romantic movement, Arnim inspired among his contemporaries a renewed interest in their national literature and culture. His unfinished novel, Die Kronenwächter, was Germany's first historical novel, and is considered important to the development of that genre in German literature. He is also known for his collection of folktales and lyrics, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which he compiled with Clemens Brentano, and which prompted a significant revival of interest in German folklore. He is best remembered, however, for his numerous novellas, including Isabella von Ägypten, Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau, and Die Majoratsherren. In these works Arnim blended folkloric motifs with Romantic sensibility, seeking to reveal a higher historical truth and to invigorate the German national spirit.

Biographical Information

A descendant of Prussian nobility, Arnim was born in Berlin and raised there by his maternal grandmother. He attended the university of Halle, where he pursued studies in the sciences, particularly experimental physics. While attending Halle, Arnim published several articles in scientific journals. In 1800 he entered the University of Göttingen, where he met Brentano, his later collaborator and lifelong friend. Brentano encouraged Arnim to abandon his scientific studies and concentrate his talents on writing. While travelling through western Europe and England between 1801 and 1804, Arnim published his first novel, Hollins Liebeleben. Modeled closely on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, the novel received little critical attention. Arnim eventually settled in Heidelberg, where he organized and became a leader of the Heidelberg Romantics. There he published Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which brought him the recognition he sought. Goethe, especially, encouraged his literary efforts, and Arnim looked to him as a mentor. Although Goethe approved of Arnim's style, he could not support the younger man's preoccupation with German medievalism, and the relationship deteriorated. Arnim's literary concerns were shared, however, by such figures as Brentano, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, and Joseph Görres, and together this group edited the short-lived journal Zeitschrift für Einsiedler, which encouraged the study of German folklore. It was discontinued after five months but was published in book form as Tröst-Einsamkeit, Stirred by the wars of liberation against Napoleon, the Heidelberg Romantics then concentrated on more realistic and historical depictions of Germany, composing patriotic war songs and producing nationalist propaganda. In 1809 Arnim returned to Prussia, where he developed the mature writing style characteristic of his later work, particularly his novellas. In 1811 he married Brentano's sister, Bettina, and the following year he published his best-known novella collection (commonly known as Novellensammlung 1812). Arnim returned to his family estate in Wiepersdorf, forty miles south of Berlin, in 1814, and he remained there until his death of a stroke in 1831.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The novellas Isabella von Ägypten, Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau, and Die Majoratsherren are regarded as three of Arnim's finest efforts, and they were quite popular in nineteenth-century Germany. In these works, Arnim successfully blends a historical picture of Germany with elements of the fantastic and grotesque. Isabella von Ägypten pairs the historical Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with such fictional and mythic figures as the gypsy princess Isabella, a golem, and a mandrake root that becomes the dwarf Cornelius. Arnim employs these figures in an historical allegory depicting the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty. In Die Majoratsherren religious figures, such as Adam, Eve, and the Angel of Death, are featured in a critique of French decadence prior to the Revolution. Der tolle Invalide is considered by many to be his most accomplished work. In addition to skillfully combining the realistic and the fantastic in this story of a man's madness, Arnim also conveys a psychological awareness and moral insight not found in any of his other compositions.

Critical Reception

Although Arnim is generally given a minor position in the German Romantic movement, he is recognized for his part in inspiring a renewed interest in German folklore. Despite the initial popularity of Arnim's works, critics long censured them as confusing and poorly organized conglomerations of history and myth, elevated themes and grotesque imagery, and Romantic aesthetics and political commentary. Recent commentators, however, have found unifying patterns of imagery unifying Arnim's novellas, and they have observed consistent and coherent applications of the author's aesthetic, moral, and political views in the works. Increasingly, they have come to regard Arnim's novellas as his most successful creative works. In this shorter form, critics agree, Arnim overcame his predilection for extraneous detail and his tendency toward diffuseness which mar his longer works. Vickie L. Ziegler's comments on the collection Der Wintergarten can be applied to many of Arnim's novellas: "Wintergarten was not simply a futile literary exercise from a man who read too much; it was Arnim's attempt to advance his own deeply held beliefs about the interdependent role of literature, political action, and religious belief."