Adalbert Stifter Stifter, Adalbert - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Studien. 6 vols. 1844-50

Bunte Steine. 2 vols. 1853

* Mount Gars; or, Marie's Christmas Eve 1857

Erzälungen. 2 vols. 1869

Limestone and Other Stories 1968

Other Major Works

Der Nachsommer. [Indian Summer] 3 vols. (novel) 1857 Witiko. 3 vols. (novel) 1865-67

*Also published as Rock Crystal, 1945.

John Urzidil (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Adalbert Stifter and Judaism," in The Menorah Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1948, pp. 327-38.

[In the following essay, Urzidil comments on Stifter's portrayal of the Jewish protagonist of "Adibas."]

Until Stifter's "Abdias" appeared about a hundred years ago no German writer had made any attempt towards an appreciative rendering of Jewish character and fate. Poets had naturally chosen subjects from the Old Testament, and the wisdom of the Scriptures was reflected in many a German poem and legend and story. But almost no attention had been paid to the fate of the Jew in the Galuth; no enlightenment was offered on living Jewish qualities and their causes.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Nathan der Weise (1779) can hardly be considered an attempt of that kind, though its hero is a high-minded Jew who hails cosmopolitanism and urges a world religion for all mankind. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's story Die Judenbuche (1837) sheds no light on contemporary Jews, nor does it fight primitive prejudices. Friedrich Hebbel's tragedy Judith (1939) is a compound of general human conflicts; it did not explain the living Jewish character to the Gentile public, except perhaps in some scenes where the Jewish populace is the actor. Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826), in his short stories, shows an earnest desire to improve the conditions of Jews, but characterizes them nevertheless as mere windbags, cunning and shrewd. Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), in a deeply touching poem "Der arme Jude," tells the frustrations of an itinerant peddler. This poem echoes F. G. Klopstock's (1724-1803) ode to the Emperor Joseph II, which raised fervid objections to the discrimination practiced against Jews.

But these poems were only very brief lucid interludes in German literature. The key-questions—what are the true characteristics of Jews, what is behind them, why do Jews act as they do?—were never seriously approached. The single feeble attempt of that sort is a short story by Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), "Jonathan Frock," dealing sympathetically with the complicated position of a Jew amidst his Gentile surroundings.

In the whole of German classical literature nothing can be found that is even remotely comparable to Shylock's dramatic outcry: "Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Shakespeare was obviously well aware of the tragic problems of the Jews. "Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe," Shylock laments. The outcry and lament remained without any significant influence upon the literary renderings of Jewish characters. Charles Dickens, famed for his understanding of human misery and his bold social criticism, took over only Shylock's evil aspects, and failed to note the causes of Jewish afflictions.

Only one of Dickens' contemporaries, who lived far away in Austria, realized the Jewish problem in its profundity. He was Adalbert Stifter.

This German-Bohemian novelist was born at Oberplan in the Bohemian Forest in 1805 and died in Linz, Upper Austria, in 1868. He wrote Bunte Steine (Colored Stones), Studien (Studies), Der Nachsommer (Late Summer), Witiko, and other stories. None of his works has thus far been published in English except the tale Rock Crystal (Pantheon Books Inc., New York 1945). The Jewish legend "Abdias" is one of the Studien, published (1844-1850) by Gustav Heckenast in Budapest.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there were almost no Jews in the villages and small towns of the Bohemian Forest, where Stifter was born and spent his childhood. Only a few itinerant Jewish peddlers visited that part of the country. From Stifter's narrative one gets the impression that he must have early gathered experiences with Jews which had a profound influence upon him. But not till he settled in Vienna, in 1826, did Stifter meet Jews as a social group.

That was in the "Biedermeier" days, a phase of Austrian reactionary philistinism which resembled somewhat the early Victorian period in England. In Vienna—as well as in Berlin—Jews were active in the literary life, in art and music. They were often in close touch also with aristocratic and patrician circles where Stifter was received, or where he taught their youngsters. However, Stifter's rendering of the Jews in his "Abdias" was not influenced by his contacts with these privileged Jews, who were the least able to open his heart to a deeper understanding of Judaism. He was not clever enough to excel in the elegant drawing-rooms where rich Jewish bankers foregathered in a witty society; he was no stimulating causeur, he lacked ironical and satirical qualities. His mind worked slowly, gradually, silently, like nature: he was ardent but serene, tranquil and true to himself, for he came from the woods and the meadows. The city Jews of Vienna favored other intellectuals, like Friedrich Hebbel, who was just the one to make fun of Stifter and write sarcastic verses about him. Stifter, although aggrieved, dismissed all that.

With an unfailing instinct he formed the Jewish type of his Abdias not according to the assimilated and emancipated Jew, the well-to-do bourgeois or intellectual. Rather he went to the basic Jewish character, its attractive as well as uneasy attributes, its biblical nobleness, its sentiment, piety, and distress. He seeks the very Jewish heart. He does not wish simply to contribute something to the fashion of "toleration" in vogue at the time, nor is he out to attain a reputation in influential Jewish circles. His Abdias was hardly the type to be joyfully welcomed by advanced city Jews; on the contrary, they must have sensed rather an exposure of their assimilationism which Stifter had not intended.

Stifter detested compromises and concessions. He followed the purest impulses of his heart. Spiritually, he was preoccupied with two ethical spheres which he tried to unify: Goethean "Humanität" and Christianity. He was a Catholic; but above Catholicism he considered himself a Christian "Humanist." His kind of Christianity accepted the Jewish people and Judaism as the true landmarks of the Lord and His solemn promises; Jews as the tribe of Jesus, that part of mankind which, due to the grim entanglements of fate, was forced to bear the heaviest burdens and to meet insoluble frustrations. He regarded Jewry as a permanent active unison of nationality and religion, a conception which is commonplace to us today but which was not commonplace to a Gentile writer during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Born into the simple popular Catholicism of his Bohemian backwoods, Stifter occasionally describes how he adhered to it with pious devotion during his childhood. Later on he filled in this Catholic outline with the purified values of Humanität and of Catholic Christianity. It was Goethean Humanität that transformed the dictum "Anima naturaliter Christiana" into "Anima naturaliter humana." At least, he bestowed upon his Christianity such a world-wide sympathy that it led to an understanding of all forms and fates and destinies. Thus, Stifter was able to write his "Abdias," and to describe, free of prejudice, even lovingly, a Protestant milieu in "Der Waldgänger," without being disconcerted by the Catholic atmosphere of the Austrian monarchy. Thus, also, he could write his Witiko, in three large volumes—one of the earliest and very few literary avowals of a German writer from Bohemia for the Czechs, who were treated at that time as a negligible political and cultural quantity.

In this, too, he followed the leadership of Goethe, who through many years tried to understand the spiritual and political struggles of the Czechs and other Slavic nations. It is noteworthy that therein Stifter was diametrically opposed to Friedrich Hebbel who, although a complete stranger in Austria, permitted himself to hurl insults against the Czechs and Poles. He dared to call them "Bedientenvölker" (nations of servants), which may be an appropriate German nationalist term but sounds somewhat strange when used by the author of Judith. Stifter, on the contrary, was a precursor and protagonist of that moral progress which is still far from realization today in the greater part of the globe.

Stifter called Goethe the examplar and genius whose "grand calm and serenity dissolves the conflict of blind passions into a noble harmony." Once he said of himself: "True, I am no Goethe; but still I do belong to his spiritual kinship; and from my writings, too, the seed of what is pure, noble-minded and candid enters into the hearts." Such a statement should not be mistaken for immodest self-praise. Stifter wished to indicate his ideological origin, wished to assure himself of his literary duties and to clarify his intentions. The basic ideas of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister—the vanquishing of blind impulses by ethical moderation, the creative forces of self-denial, are also paramount in Stifter's novel Der Nachsommer, which Nietzsche praised as one of the few outstanding works of German literature. We must remember that Nietzsche, one of the most misunderstood and vilified thinkers, whatever may be argued against him, was a sincere admirer of Goethe, Keller, Stifter—and Heinrich Heine.

Stifter remarks in one of his letters that "the rational dignity (Vernunftwürde) of man in his morals, in his science and in his art is the highest, most glorious and most desirable aim, which should endure, should be revered and should reign in the purest form." He considers as the marks of all real power "moderation, self-control and moral organization." The only law to guide and govern the world should be "the law of justice, the law of ethics, the law which permits everyone to be respected, honored, and enabled to lead a secure life together with all others." He does not recognize different morals for private and public life, for the individual and the community. No "liberal" in the sense of the nineteenth century, he yet opposed all reactionary attitudes. Himself a child...

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Walter Silz (essay date 1954)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stifter, Abdias (1842)," in Realism and Reality, University of North Carolina Press, 1954, pp. 52-66.

[In the following excerpt, Silz discusses the structure and merits of "Abdias. "]

One of the modern theorists of narrative literature, Georg Lukács, has evolved a view of the Novelle for which Adalbert Stifter's "Abdias" seems a perfect illustration. The Novelle, says Lukács, is "the embodiment of the isolated remarkableness and dubiousness of life. . . . The strident arbitrariness of Chance, beneficent or destructive, but always striking irrationally, can be balanced only by a clear, purely objective comprehension of it, without comment. The Novelle...

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J. P. Stern (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Propitiations: Adalbert Stifter," in Re-Interpretations: Seven Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature, Basic Books, 1964, pp. 262-68.

[In the following excerpt, Stern analyzes "The Ancient Seal," which he calls one of Stifter's finest works.]

In structure and style, "The Ancient Seal" is representative of Stifter's finest work. Like so many of his stories, it revolves round the idea of pathetic irony. Its characters—like those of Henry James's later novels—are endowed with an all but flawless moral perfection, where morality is perfection of mind and heart. This perfection is impaired by the merest single flaw, and it is through this flaw...

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Lore Segal (review date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life on the Flip Side," in The New Republic, Vol. 159, November 23, 1968, pp. 35-8.

[In the following review of Limestone and Other Stories, Segal explains what makes these stories moving and beautiful.]

David Luke, the excellent translator of Adalbert Stifter's stories, has, in his introduction [to Limestone and Other Stories], "placed" the Austrian writer for the English speaking reader: Stifter was a contemporary of Metternich and a disciple of Goethe, working in the post-romantic era, in the classic, idyllic mode of the German literary tradition.

This allows the reviewer to come to the material as a modern reader, and...

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David Luke (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Limestone and Other Stories, translated by David Luke, Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968, pp. 3-31.

[In the following excerpt, Luke places Stifter's work in the context of Biedermeierera German culture.]

The three stories in [Limestone and Other Stories] were all written toward the end of what is now often called the "Biedermeier" period of Austrian culture, which Stifter pre-eminently represents and yet transfigures. The last of them was first published in 1848. The Biedermeier "period," if it is possible to give it a chronological definition, corresponds roughly to that of Mettermeli's political ascendancy between 1815 and 1848...

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Keith Spalding (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Adalbert Stifter," in German Men of Letters, Vol. V, edited by Alex Natan, Oswald Wolff, 1969, pp. 183-208.

[In the following excerpt, Spalding describes the evolution of Stifter's approach to short fiction.]

[Stifter] approached the content of stories as a teacher might—indeed, some critics have maintained (and in some parts of Stifter's works can demonstrate convincingly) that the pedagogue was stronger than the imaginative writer. He certainly limited his range by insisting that a moral purpose be reflected in all his writings. Hence the apparently unsophisticated story-content of his Novellen:

A man gives up the woman he loves for the sake of...

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Martin Swales (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stifter: Granit" in The German Novelle, Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 133-57.

[In the following excerpt, Swales demonstrates the tension between individuality and generality in "Granit" and other works by Stifter.]

"Granit," from the Bunte Steine collection, is a Rahmenerzählung, a story with a narrative frame. It begins by describing a granite block that stands in front of the narrator's childhood home. The narrator recalls how one day, while he was sitting on this stone, a trick was played on him by Andreas, the Schmiermann (seller of grease and pitch). The boy allows his feet to be smeared with cart grease—and...

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H. R. Klieneberger (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Adalbert Stifter and the Reception of His Work," in The Novel in England and Germany, Oswald Wolff, 1981, pp. 59-86.

[In the following excerpt, Klieneberger proposes reasons for the wide fluctuations in Stifter's reputation.]

There are few, if any, writers whose reputation has fluctuated as widely, who have been the subject of as much controversy among critics and literary historians as Stifter has. For there is a radical ambiguity about him which has fascinated and repelled one generation of readers after another. His work exemplifies in a particularly acute form the problems raised by the German contribution to prose-fiction: the critical response to...

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Christine Oertel Sjögren (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Allure of Beauty in Stifter's Brigitta," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXXXI, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 47-54.

[In the following excerpt, Sjögren explores themes of aesthetics and eroticism in "Brigitta."]

Stifter's "Brigitta," which appeared first in 1844, and was revised for inclusion in the Studien of 1847, introduces the problem of beauty and ugliness in the first sentences, with the observation that in human relationships there are mysteries, such as the charismatic attraction of certain individuals not necessarily beautiful. Thereafter, this theme is temporarily replaced by the theme of character development and...

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Christine Oertel Sjögren (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myths and Metaphors in Stifter's Katzensilber," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 86, No. 3, July, 1987, pp. 358-71.

[In the following excerpt, Sjögren analyzes the significance of the "brown girl" in "Katzensilber."]

Stifter's "Katzensilber," the only tale written expressly for the collection Bunte Steine of 1853, has recently been accorded two divergent interpretations. Joachim Müller, stressing the good works of the "brown girl," regards the story as a vehicle for edification. According to him, she exemplifies purest humanity set off against the title "Katzensilber" (mica), a traditional symbol of falseness and...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Putz, Franz. "Reduced to an Ideal." Austria Today (January 1993): 52-54.

Short overview of Stifter's life.


Blackall, Eric A. Adalbert Stifter: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, 432 p.

The first major study of Stifter in English.

Fehlau, Uland E. "Symbolism in Adalbert Stifter's Works." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology XXXIX, No. 1 (January 1940): 239-55.

Traces the development of Stifter's use of literary...

(The entire section is 226 words.)