Adalbert Stifter 1805-1868
Austrian short story writer and novelist.
Stifter is regarded as one of the one of the masters of nineteenth-century German-language short fiction. Written in a carefully polished style, his stories often focus on humble European peasants, relying on evocative descriptions of these characters' ordinary lives and the beauty of the rural landscapes they live in for their dramatic power. Approaching his writings with a strong liberal philosophical sense, Stifter characteristically took as his theme humankind's relation with an awe-inspiring but not always benevolent natural world.
Stifter was born in the village of Oberplan in southern Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. His father, a linen weaver and farmer, died when he was twelve, and Stifter was forced to leave school and work in the fields. Through the intervention of his grandfather, however, Stifter continued his education, studying law at the University of Vienna before pursuing careers as a landscape painter and private tutor. In his thirties Stifter began to write fiction, and in 1840 his stories "Der Condor" ("The Condor") and "Das Heidedorf" ("The Village on the Heath") first appeared in the literary journal Iris. Supporting himself by working as a teacher and educational administrator, Stifter pursued his avocation as a writer, publishing stories as well as two novels, Der Nachsommer (1857, Indian Summer) and Witiko (1865-67).
Major Works of Short Fiction
Early in his career Stifter emulated such popular authors as Jean Paul. Yet as he matured, Stifter developed a low-key, didactic manner of writing that set him at odds with literary trends. He was a perfectionist, and often rewrote stories that had already been printed in magazines before they were republished in book form. "Die Mappe meines Urgroßvaters" ("My Great-Grandfather's Notebook"), Stifter's own favorite among his works, ultimately went through four different revisions. His first multivolume collection of short fiction, Studien (1844-50), includes several of his most acclaimed short works, including "My Great-Grandfather's Notebook"; "Abdias," about the Joblike sufferings of an African Jew who immigrates to Austria; and "Der Hagestolz" ("The Recluse"), in which a young boy learns from a neurotic, emotionally frigid old man the value of love and joy in living. Most of the tales in Bunte Steine (1853), Stifter's second collection, are set in his native Bohemian woods. The title translates as "Colored Stones," and each story is given the name of a different mineral, such as "Kalkstein" ("Limestone; or, The Poor Benefactor"), "Turmalin" ("Tourmaline; or, The Doorkeeper"), and "Bergkristall" ("Rock Crystal;" also translated as "Mount Gars; or, Marie's Christmas Eve"). "Rock Crystal," perhaps Stifter's best-known work, tells of two children trapped in a snowstorm whose rescue reunites two warring villages. Although in later years Stifter concentrated on longer fiction, he continued writing short stories until his death. These later stories, including "Nachkommenschaften" and "Der Waldbrunnen," are included in the posthumous collection Erzählungen (1869).
Stifter's early stories were widely read and critically praised. However, by the late 1840s, his reputation suffered as he developed what his detractors regarded as a long-winded, unexciting narrative style overladen with descriptive details. In a famous preface to Bunte Steine, Stifter defended himself against detractors, such as dramatist Friedrich Hebbel, who called him irrelevant. Nevertheless, his reputation declined until the early twentieth century, after philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche praised his novel Indian Summer. Modernist authors, such as Thomas Mann, championed him; later, the Nazis endorsed his work for supposedly embodying the conservative virtues of German civilization. For the most part, Stifter's writings were not widely available in English translation until after World War II. Much of the scholarly commentary on his work published in English deals with the original German versions of his texts.