The literary fortunes of Adalbert Stifter (SHTIHF-tur) have risen and fallen several times in the German-speaking world, but in the United States he has remained nearly unknown outside the circle of scholars of German literature. Born October 23, 1805, in the village of Oberplan, in the Czech Republic (then a part of the Austrian Empire), he was the son of a linen trader and small-scale farmer. His mother was the daughter of a butcher. After his father died in an accident in 1817, Stifter’s maternal grandfather took him to the well-respected school of the Benedictine monastery of Kremsmünster, where he succeeded admirably. He left Kremsmünster in 1826 and entered the University of Vienna as a student of law. In Vienna, partly because he was often in financial difficulties, he experienced the sadness of being rejected as the suitor of Fanny Greipl, whose parents thought that he was beneath her. Supporting himself as a private tutor, often tutoring the children of prominent families, and occasionally selling a painting he had done, he married Amalia Mohaupt on November 15, 1837, even though he was still in love with Fanny.
In the 1840’s he began to succeed as a writer, but his gifts as a painter served him well in the moving descriptions of his native Austrian landscape found in his prose. The first novella he published, Der Condor (the condor), was well received, and it was soon followed by a number of others during a period of unusual creative activity. Abdias and Brigitta in particular secured for him great fame. By 1850, six volumes of his works, each volume appearing under the title Studien, had been published. In 1849 Stifter moved from Vienna to Linz, and in 1850 he was appointed as an inspector of schools for that part of Austria, a task that took away precious time from his writing. The revolution of 1848 caused him to become disenchanted with political action, and he sought in education a means of ennobling humankind.
His most cogent statement of aesthetic, moral, and philosophical principles is found in the preface to his 1853 collection of novellas, Bunte Steine (colorful stones). In his view it is not the dramatic, cataclysmic events and emotions of life that are actually powerful, but rather the quiet, steady working of rational conduct. This philosophy, which he called the “gentle law,” is reflected in the best-known novella from Bunte Steine, Rock Crystal, and in his most widely appreciated novel, Indian Summer. The latter work especially has been faulted for dwelling too much on the details of the scenes and characters portrayed, but for Stifter, the general is seen through the particular and the discrete is an embodiment of overarching principles. By means of the serene word, he hoped to embody the ideals of classical German humanism, although in his personal life he was not able, in an age of revolution and social change, to achieve the ideal to which his prose tends. After an unfortunate series of deaths of individuals who were close to him and after suffering from illnesses himself, he committed suicide in January of 1868.
His admirers have included such famous writers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthall, Thomas Mann, and W. H. Auden. Since at least the 1850’s, however, opinion has been divided in regard to Stifter’s stature, with the earliest and most notorious attacks on him led by the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel. Stifter’s supporters admit that his prose is one of loving devotion to the seemingly unspectacular, but they find in this devotion an atmosphere of rarest beauty and profundity.
Adalbert Stifter’s childhood in a village environment was a significant formative experience for the author. The quiet rural and forest landscape of his native surroundings informs the scenery of much of his literature. From his early...
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