According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, historical periods and entire civilizations may be likened to lights that shine brightly for a time and then grow dim. German literature in the nineteenth century was such a light. The literary luminescence of German classicism and Romanticism and the dynamic, internationally oriented activism of the Young Germans were followed by decades of darkness, a period in which German writers seem to have lost international attention and recognition. Even a well-read person will draw a blank when asked to name German writers between Heine, who died in 1856, and Gerhart Hauptmann, whose first play was performed in 1889, or Thomas Mann, whose early novellas appeared in the 1890’s. From the 1840’s to the late 1880’s, German literature was out of step with the rest of European literature. Where is the German Honoré de Balzac or Stendhal? The German Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray? The German Fyodor Dostoevski or Leo Tolstoy? The German Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville? Yet any history of German literature lists Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Eduard Mörike, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Friedrich Hebbel, Jeremias Gotthelf, Gottfried Keller, Theodor Storm, and other major writers of prose, poetry, and plays who were active around the middle of the century.
One reason that most of these writers were only rarely or belatedly translated and thus reached only a limited audience is that they persisted in exemplifying the attitudes and techniques of German idealism and Romanticism, a heritage that kept them out of the mainstream of European realism. When histories of German literature discuss the German variety of realism—which extended roughly from the 1840’s to the 1880’s—they often modify the word Realismus with an adjective such as poetisch, psychologisch, or bürgerlich.
The concept of poetic realism seems like a contradiction in terms and is peculiar to German literature. The term, coined by the philosopher Friedrich Schelling as early as 1802 and later popularized by Otto Ludwig in his studies of Shakespeare, refers both to a style and to a period. Poetic realism may be regarded as the most...
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