(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gustav Freytag 1816-1895

German novelist, journalist, playwright, and cultural historian.

As a journalist and supporter of the progressive liberal movement, Freytag is considered a key figure in nineteenth-century German nationalism. However, he is best known for his 1855 novel Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), that examines commercial enterprises and celebrates middle class virtues. Freytag is of interest today mainly because of the disparity between his phenomenal popularity as a novelist from his own time until well into the twentieth century, and his complete dismissal from the literary canon both inside and outside Germany since World War II. Because of the perceived anti-Semitism in his novels, scholars today consider Freytag's work indefensible and embarrassing.

Biographical Information

Freytag was born in Silesia, in 1816. His father, Gottlob Ferdinand Freytag, was a doctor and the mayor of Kreuzburg, and his mother, Henriette Albertine Zebe, was the daughter of a clergyman. He was educated at the gymnasium in Öls, where he excelled in Latin and Greek and was awarded a diploma in 1835. Freytag then studied philology at the University of Breslau and both philology and literature in Berlin. He returned to Breslau as a lecturer in grammar and literature where he taught until 1843 when he was denied promotion to full professor. Freytag left teaching the following year. During this period Freytag produced a book of poetry, several historical dramas, and a libretto.

In 1847 Freytag, after a visit to Leipzig, relocated to Dresden and married Emilie Scholz, a wealthy aristocrat. He eventually returned to Leipzig, and after the purchase of a summer home in Siebleben, divided his time between the two locations. Freytag established a partnership with the literary journalist Julian Schmidt as owners and editors of the journal Die Grenzboten (The Border Messengers). With the magazine as his forum, Freytag became a strong supporter of German unification that would include Prussia but exclude Austria, and an advocate of the literary aesthetics associated with the English realist novel. He believed that the 1848 Revolution would result in a transfer of power from the aristocracy to the middle class, but was deeply disappointed in the actual results, particularly the street violence that followed. As Eda Sagarra reports, these events “convinced Freytag, as it did many other middle-class German liberals, that the threat to the new political and social order in Germany came, not from the princes, but from the ‘radical elements.’” In 1855 Freytag produced his most famous novel Soll und Haben, a work on the world of commerce, and followed it several years later with his novel of academic life Die verlorene Handschrift (1865; The Lost Manuscript). In both texts, Freytag championed the cause of the middle class and praised its superior moral virtues.

Freytag continued to write over the next two decades, producing a five-volume social history of Germany, a biography, and a six-volume series of historical novels. In 1881, he moved from Leipzig to Wiesbaden and published his memoirs and a short work on Martin Luther. After the loss of a son to diphtheria in 1884, Freytag's wife was committed to an asylum. The couple divorced in 1890 and Freytag married Anna Götzel Strakosch the following year. Freytag died in Wiesbaden in 1895 of an inflammation of the lungs.

Major Works

Freytag's best-known work is the liberal, nationalist novel Soll und Haben, a popular if not critical success that continued to sell well throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Through its hero, young Anton Wohlfahrt, the novel contrasts middle class and aristocracy, German and Jew, and German and Pole—valuing the first term of the opposition over the second in all three cases.

With his friend Julian Schmidt, Freytag gained ownership of the journal Die Grenzboten, in which the two advocated literary realism and optimism. Both men shared an admiration for the novels of Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Freytag was intensely interested in the structure of the novel, a concern that drew Schmidt's admiration. For the most part, Schmidt was responsible for the critical theory that appeared in Die Grenzboten, while Freytag contributed concrete examples. Soll und Haben was, in fact, intended as a prime example of the theoretical recommendations that appeared in the journal.

In 1865, Freytag published his second novel Die verlorene Handschrift about a pair of university professors who travel in search of a lost manuscript attributed to Tacitus. Once again, Freytag celebrated through his characters the values and virtues of the middle class in contrast to the ruthlessness and vice he associated with the aristocracy.

Freytag also produced several plays, among them Der Gelehrte (1858; The Student), a one act tragedy; Die Valentine (1847; Madame Valentine) and Graf Waldemar (1850; Count Waldemar), two socio-political plays in which the nobility is represented as arrogant and frivolous; and Die Fabier (1859; The Fabians), often unfavorably compared to Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In addition, Freytag wrote two comedies: Die Brautfahrt oder Kunst von der Rose (1844; The Bridal Journey) on the courtship of Emperor Maximilian and Maria of Burgundy; and his most successful play, Die Journalisten (1854; The Journalists), involving the writing staffs of two competing newspapers, one progressive, the other reactionary.

Freytag's other major works include his memoirs, biographies, and most notably a five-volume history of German social and cultural life, Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit (1859-63; Pictures of German Life), and its fictional counterpart Die Ahnen (1872-1880; The Ancestors), a six-volume series of historical novels that follows a German family's progress from the fourth century to Freytag's own time.

Critical Reception

Modern scholarship on Freytag in English focuses on the contrast between his success in his own time and his almost complete obscurity today. Most criticism concentrates on the novel Soll und Haben, which was enormously popular at the time it was written and for many decades afterward. It received mixed reviews by critics; Schmidt praised it, but English reviewers panned it as an imitation of Dickens, and many German critics regarded it as “too prosaic.” Many critics found that the novels emphasized concerns that were quickly losing relevance in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet Soll und Haben's phenomenal success with the German public is well documented as it went through printing after printing and was often presented as a confirmation gift to young German boys. Curiously, despite its anti-Semitism, it was also given to young Jewish boys as a bar mitzvah gift throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The book has been derided and neglected since World War II, as its overt anti-Semitism has become an embarrassment for modern Germans. Jeffrey L. Sammons (1969) denies that Freytag was anti-Semitic in that “he did not hate the Jews, nor would he have advocated persecution of them.” But Freytag is today known as an anti-Semitic writer in part because, as Sammons points out, he was “a liberal individualist who placed the responsibility for the condition of the Jews not on the society that oppressed them but squarely on the Jews themselves.” Sagarra agrees that Freytag's record on Jews is mixed since he had many Jewish friends and, in fact, was married to a Jew. He wrote in defense of Jews in his literary journal and joined a group opposing anti-Semitism in 1890. Still, according to Sagarra, Soll und Haben has a “justly deserved reputation as a major document in the history of anti-Semitism in Germany,” largely based on the negative stereotypes associated with virtually every Jewish character in the novel.

Although Freytag wrote several plays, only one, The Journalists, has continued to merit critical attention. As for the others, Martin Schutze, writing in 1913, suggested that even then the individualism advocated in most of Freytag's extremely doctrinaire dramas was outdated. According to Schutze, “The individual, in modern literature, is represented as an organic and integral part of the whole social structure. The early mid-nineteenth century individualism seems to us blind, empty, and fatuous.” Freytag's major work outlining his dramatic theory Die Technik des Dramas (1863; The Technique of the Drama), has fared no better, although it earned him an international reputation at the time of its publication. Schutze claims that the text “attained an immediate fame and has to a certain extent maintained for nearly two generations its position as a standard text book of dramatic construction.” Still, Schutze acknowledges that the work did not survive the changing aesthetic climate brought about, in part, by Zola's essays on naturalism some fifteen years later. According to Schutze, “Freytag, an empiricist, like Aristotle in a larger measure, undertook, at the close of an era in the moral and aesthetic history of mankind, to fit a dramatic theory to ideas that had already received their cues for their final exits.” Freytag's theory of the drama, as well as his plays, were outdated by the end of the nineteenth century.