Ludwig Lewisohn.

The spirit of modern German literature; online

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Professor in The Ohio State University




Copyright, I9i6,by

Printed in U. S. A.



This small volume is not polemical in spirit
or intention. When, however, through the kind-
ness of my friend Professor A. R. Hohlfeld, the
University of Wisconsin invited me to lecture on
some phase of modern German literature, an ap-
propriate opportunity seemed provided for recall-
ing to the calmer and more reflective among us
the true character of the clearest self-expression
of modern Germany.

If my praise of certain German novels and
plays and poems seem excessive, let me remind
my critics to ask themselves whether they have
read these novels and plays and poems with a full
and exact mastery of the German tongue. Let
me beg them, at all events, not to ascribe my esti-
mates to the enthusiasm of the narrow specialist.
I am not that. Period by period, I know English
literature rather better than German, and French


reasonably well. Nor have I myself much re-
spect for any criticism that is not intelligently
aware of at least two literatures besides the one
under discussion.

That the scholar may not ask for some sub-
stantiation of my statements in vain, I have added
a commentarj' ; but I have relegated it to the back
of the volume in order to spare the general reader.

LuDWiG Lewisohn.

The Ohio State University,
August, 1916.




I The Nation and Its Literature ... 3

II The Novel of Doctrinal Naturalism . . 14

a) Wilhelm von Polenz

b) Georg von Ompteda

III The Naturalistic Lyric 23

Detlev von Liliencron and His Group

IV The Drama of Hauptmann and Schnitz-

LER 33

V The Novel of Pure Naturalism ... 41

a) Clara Viebig

b) Gustav Frenssen

c) Thomas Mann ,

d) Arthur Schnitzler

VI Reality and the Moral Life .... 56



I The Protest of Personality . . . .61
Friedrich Nietzsche



II The Struggle of Personality for Libera-
tion 75

Richard Dehmel

III The Expression of Personality Through

Beauty 86

a) Rainer Maria Rilke

b) Stefan George

c) Hugo von Hofmannsthal

IV The Interpretative Novel loi

Ricarda Huch

V The Interpretative Drama 109

VI Goethe and the Spirit of Modern Ger-
many 113

Commentary 121




The art of criticism, if it is to have dignity and
permanent value, must largely abandon both tlie
expression of mere opinion and the habit of judg-
ing. In its more elementary sense the judging
of books has happily grown to be almost unneces-
sary. No books that are quite worthless are apt
to rise into the field of serious discussion. Some
energy of thought, some beauty of phrasing, will
be found to belong to every work, in any language
that, in our age, employs the critical intelligence.
As a spectacle the literary annihilation of Georges
Ohnet by the late Jules Lemaitre was both whole-
some and edifying. But one wonders whether
the blows of that keen and supple blade were not



wasted. I am very sure, at least, that an Ameri-
can critic, executing public justice on Mr. Harold
Bell Wright or Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter would
not rob those respectable persons of a single
reader. No, the grim, old-fashioned judging of
books need be to us neither a temptation nor a
danger. Our criticism is far more subtly men-
aced: by the opinions of second-rate minds de-
livered with an air of moral authority; by the sub-
stitution of tribal formularies for a living sense
of the nature of all the arts.

These, and especially the art of literature, grow
out of an impassioned experience of life. To
every poet, to every "maker" in the wider sense,
a god, in the fine words of Goethe, has given the
power to express what he has suffered. The
method of expression is necessarily, at least in its
most obvious aspects, traditional. Here certain
standards may be applied. The soul of the work,
however, like that soul from whose experience it
grew, is unique. It is a new thing born into this
immemorial world. If it were not, if it could be
judged by critical formulae derived from the books


of old — these would suffice us. Is it not ckar
then, that what the critic needs for his task is,
above all, a deep sense of the nature of life and
a sensitive perception of living beauty? How
rarely, among us, does he possess these qualifica-
tions! — In the most scholarly of our weeklies a
critic has recently been reviewing a number of
modern plays. He does not like the people in
these plays, and the problems discussed fill him
with moral discomfort. But he, poor man, mis-
takes the dislikes and revulsions bred in him by
the temper of his spiritual parish for the laws of
a changeless order, and rashly proceeds to lecture
such profound and subtle masters as Jules Le-
maitre and Arthur Schnitzler upon the unveracity
and perversity of their report of the life of man.
Such a critic, evidently, needs humility — a hu-
mility and wisdom that will not come to him
through another course in the history of literature,
but through a course in hunger, love and grief.
To know life, then, directly and not through the
mist of tribal taboos, to be sensitive to beauty and
aware of its power to assume forms ever new and


strange — these are the precious parts of a critic's
equipment. Nor will a critic so equipped fail of
his reward. For books approved in his spirit will
have the best chance of being memorable, since
they will have sprung, whatever their imperfec-
tions, from the perennial source of all true art —
the struggling, agonizing human soul.

And so my excuse for venturing to give you an
account and an interpretation of certain modern
German books must be not that I have read them
and assorted them with a doctoral acquiescence in
the rules of a preceptist criticism. It must be and
it is that these books — like certain other books
written in England and France and America —
have been a living experience of my mind and
heart. I have responded, as at a command, to the
heroic manhood of Liliencron, I have shared Deh-
mel's struggle of liberation from the lusts of life,
I have identified myself with Thomas Mann's
brooding curiosity of our mortal lot, I have walked
with Stefan George in the gardens of a timeless
and ineffable beauty.

Yet I would not have you think my account of


the spirit of modem German literature at all
desultory, or my choice of books* by which to in-
terpret it merely arbitrary. I have read a great
many poems and plays and novels written in Ger-
man between 1885 and 1914. They varied, of
course, immensely in value and in character.
Gradually, however, I seemed to hear a recurrent
note — a deep tone; or, rather, a series of tones,
like a theme in music. This theme admitted of
infinite variations in an infinite variety of artistic
moods and rhythms. But it recurred and gath-
ered breadth and force and clearness and assimi-
lated other themes into its dominant melody.
And from certain books it seemed to sound forth,
in its two chief phases, most fully and most
greatly. These are the books of which I have
chosen to speak. And when, finally, I turned
to the critical literature of my subject, which I
had faithfully striven to forget, I found myself
in substantial agreement with the most sensitive
and learned minds in attributing to the books of
my choice preeminent significance and represen-
tative power.


I have dwelt largely, especially in my second
lecture, on the lyric which, in our own day, in-
terprets so closely the temper of the poet and
his contemporaries. We are so keenly aware of
ourselves, so watchful of the complexities of our
inner lives, and we have learned to express our
thoughts and moods with a new exactness and a
new fineness of shading. Here, too, the artist
speaks directly and thus most clearly. The nov-
elist and the playwright may attribute to their
characters thoughts and feelings that are no true
utterances of the psychical contents of the age.
The speech of the lyrist cannot be questioned.
For this importance of the lyric I am glad to be
able to adduce so noble an authority as that of
Karl Lamprecht. "More than any other poetic
kind," he writes, "lyrical poetry has either first
or, at least, first effectively introduced nearly all
changes in the recent history of creative litera-

My account, then, will be of what is finest and
of much that is most poetical in the modern
literature of the German tongue; those elements


in that literature which voice most clearly the
spiritual temper of our German contemporaries.
This will seem strange to you. For, judging from
your experience within our own civilization, you
will conclude at once that these books are the
possession of small circles in the great German cen-
ters of culture and of solitary lovers of the art of
letters here and there. It happens to be true,
on the contrary, that no nation, in any age, has
accorded the masterpieces of its contemporary
prose and verse so wide and eager a welcome as
the modern Germans have accorded their own.
At the risk of boring you with dull figures I
must substantiate this sweeping statement. The
best modern anthology of Gennan lyric verse, a
choice of poems almost perversely rigid in its
standards, attained a sale of one hundred and
twenty-five thousand copies in eight years, a sec-
ond volume by the same editor a sale of forty-
five thousand copies in three. Hans Benzmann's
excellent selection from the contemporary lyric
has passed through seventy-five large editions in
nine years; a selection of the one hundred best


poems of Richard Dehmel through twenty edi-
tions in five years. The volumes of poets as diffi-
cult and subtle as Rilke and George have reached
from five to six editions and are never out of print,
the poetical dramas of Hofmannsthal have passed
through ten, twenty, and even thirty editions.
The novel circulates widely in every country.
What gives the sale of certain German novels its
importance is their spiritual weightiness and ar-
tistic distinction. Thomas Mann's Budden-
brooks has long passed its fiftieth edition, Clara
Viebig's Our Daily Bread its twenty-second and
her Watch on the Rhine its twenty-eighth. Gus-
tav Frenssen's Jorn Uhl has exceeded a sale of
two hundred and thirty thousand and his Holy
Land (Hilligenlei) of one hundred and forty
thousand copies. A book so lyrical and delicate
as Hermann Hesse's Peter Catnenzind has sold
more than fifty editions, and even Ricarda Huch's
severe Ludolf Ursleu has been reprinted more than
ten times. I must not extend this list inordi-
nately. It suffices to add that the plays of Arthur
Schnitzler in the original single volume editions


have reached a sale of over four hundred thou-
sand copies and those of Gerhart Hauptmann of
far more than one million. I abstain from men-
tioning the enormous circulations of reprints of
native and foreign classics or of scientific, histor-
ical and philosophical works. For I merely de-
sired to show you that the dissemination of the
finest contemporary literature in Germany is prob-
ably without parallel.

This dissemination of fine art is not an acci-
dent. It is, on the part of the modern Germans,
in Eucken's weighty words, due to the ''craving
for a stronger, deeper life." He proceeds:
"Fashion may have much to do with this wide-
spread interest in art, and the average society per-
son certainly looks to art rather for enjoyment
than for inner culture. Yet we may very perti-
nently ask what it is that gives this fashion its
power and why men court beauty so eagerly?
And the answer can only be that we are possessed
by a longing for more soul in life, more inward
joy and that it is as an antidote to the level mo-
notony of our ordinary environment that we seek


to introduce into it the quickening and ennobling
influences of art." Let me quote, in addition,
from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's incomparably
pregnant and beautiful discourse: The Poet and
Our Age. 'T almost regard as the characteristic
gesture of our time man with a book in his hand,
even as the kneeling man with folded hands was
the gesture of another age." And everywhere,
among his contemporaries the Austrian poet sees
"a hidden reckoning with the poet, a hidden yearn-
ing for him, a hidden seeking of refuge in his
power." He sees this even in the readers of scien-
tific books and manuals. For "what their yearn-
ing seeks is the connective emotions, the cosmic
emotions, the intellectual feelings, just those
which a true and austere science must always
deny itself, just those which the poet alone can
give. . . . They seek the poet and they name him

If the student of literature desired some
further evidence of the modern German's quest
for beauty, he would but need to turn to the other
arts. And not alone to music and painting and


sculpture with its interesting experiments in wood
and ceramic media, but even to the humbler crafts
and decorative arts. He will find there an ad-
mirable effort to render comely the plainest uten-
sils of daily life: lovely glasses and vases and
cups, chairs and beds and couches of delicate
and strong design. And he will meet in his
daily studies, among his least expensive volumes,
charming examples of the modern German craft
of bookmaking: ample and fair pages, fonts of
type that are in harmony with the matter, cover
designs occasionally elaborate but oftener of a
beautifully balanced simplicity. In modern Ger-
many, in a word, the finest fruits of civilization


"In widest commonalty spread,"

because common men have learned to desire and
to prize them.



The first effort of the modern movement in Ger-
man literature was an effort to understand life:
to master reality by grappling with it on its own
relentless terms. The generation that reached
maturity in the years that followed the founding
of the empire confronted a world in which a pal-
lid idealism seemed very vain and futile. Great
national tasks were to be performed, economic
and social justice was to be established, the re-
sults of the empirical sciences were to be assimi-
lated by the minds of men. What was to be ac-
complished could not be determined without a
deep and detailed knowledge of that reality which
all desired so eagerly to transform. And thus
the men of 1885, in the service of every duty and
ideal which they embraced, demanded that art



represent life, the life about them, with stringent
and austere exactness.

Their fervor was the fervor of idealists and
reformers. It is a very shallow criticism that at-
tributes to the consistent naturalists a morbid love
of ugliness and disease. Much as Zola taught
them, they were no children of his spirit. They
were not determined, like that great romanticist
gone astray, that man should be a brute at any
cost. Their acute and detailed observation was
born of their deep compassion, of their desire
that man should become less of a brute. They
were all convinced meliorists in those early years
and their cruelest pictures of life cried out, by that
ver>' cruelty of delineation, for the righting of
some unendurable wrong. In brief, the first phase
of naturalism was a militant phase. It was really
doctrinal and polemic and its superb creation of
the illusion of reality was often discounted by
some flagrant ethical intention. So Hauptmann
plead in Before Dawn for temperance, and in The
Reconciliation for moral health, Sudermann in
Honor and Schnitzler in Fair Game (Freiwild)


for homelier and juster views of personal honor,
and Hartleben in The Education for Marriage for
a more wholesome adjustment of the life of sex.
The far-reaching success of such a novel as
Gabriele Reuter's Of Good Family (1895) was
due less to its sound and close description of cer-
tain conditions than to the passionate cry of ac-
cusation that rang from its pages.

So, too, it was their doctrinal character that
robbed some, at least, of the early naturalistic
plays and novels of a more lasting value. Life,
in them, was seen with marvelous exactness of
detail. But the details were often selected and
arranged according to some antecedent theory of
social justice or scientific fact. Industrial move-
ments and natural forces were more apt, especially
in the novel, to be the protagonists than men and
women. As a protest against a shallow idealism
the movement was admirable. But it, too, at
times, raised probabilities into certainties and re-
placed vision by doctrine. Since, however, it
turned its passionately eager attention upon the
details of actual life, it introduced into literature


a new closeness of observation, a new power of
reproducing the very texture and rhydini of life.
And this power has remained a permanent and
priceless possession.

In its acutest form the life of doctrinal natural-
ism was quite brief. Only a few men of blunter
artistic sensibilities, like Max Krefzer (b. 1854),
the first of the naturalistic novelists, clung to it
steadily. The vast theoretical claims of science
soon dwindled and rapid and effective social legis-
lation ameliorated, to an extent unparalleled else-
where, the condition of the masses. The German
mind, therefore, soon turned to contemplate, with
entire freedom, the life and fate of the eternally
separate human personality. Not, however, be-
fore doctrinal naturalism, in the hands of a few
calm and temperate artists, had produced works
of far more than passing interest and power.

George Moore has very justly pointed out that
all the naturalists mastered form, building their
books logically and writing them with high ex-
pressiveness of style. In Germany, too, the novel
lost its romantic unwieldiness and slipshodness,


and the always rather amorphous Novelle became
organic. To-day the German novel, in fineness of
stylistic texture and beauty of structure, yields
neither to the French nor to the English. And
this change, too, is due to the efforts of the nat-
uralists. Men of moderate gifts and originality,
like Heinz Tovote (b. 1864), began to write with
a structural finish, a self-contained mastery of
their medium that would have been the despair
of the most notable masters of an earlier period.
The creative imagination disciplined by constant
contact with reality, expressed itself in severe and
severely organized forms.

From the very extensive group of German
thesis-novels {Tendenz Romane)^ or novels of
doctrinal naturalism, I select two. We are not
unfamiliar with this kind of art in America. But
neither Upton Sinclair's The Jungle nor even
a book of such sound intention as Winston
Churchill's The Inside of the Cup will bear com-
parison with the calm, elemental strength of
Biittner the Peasant by Wilhelm von Polenz
(1861-1903) or with the cool yet sensitive nar-


ration of Sylvester von Geyer by Georg von
Ompteda (b. 1863.)

Buttner the Peasant (1895) is the story of the
downfall and economic ruin of an independent
peasant farmer. For many generations the Biitt-
ners had tilled these fields and the very souls of
the sturdy race had come to cling to this par-
ticular bit of earth. This tenacious love of the
soil is nowhere stressed with romantic fervor;
it is treated with a grave and almost silent reti-
cence. The present owner of the farm, Traugott
Buttner, when entering upon his inheritance was
forced to assume heavy mortgages. Not the toil,
the energy and the sobriety of all the years can
save the farm. One loan leads to another, the
strong old man becomes hopelessly involved.
During the very hour in which his land is being
sold in the court of the neighboring town, he plows
once more his ancestral field, wrung by a sense of
the blind injustice that rules the world. A not-
able creation, tliis man, quite equal to old Tul-
liver in The Mill on the Floss, perhaps even more
intensely seen and clearly projected. Almost as


good are Biittner's wife, his sons and their wives,
his daughters and the village folk. Not so the
characters who represent the antagonistic forces oi
the struggle. For these, in a far more specialized
sense than the Biittners themselves, are the instru-
ments of social and economic forces, the forces,
namely, that destroy the farmer and his family.
And it is here that the weakness of doctrinal nat-
uralism betrays itself. You cannot reduce hu-
man beings to their sociological and economic
functioning without leaving out their humanity.
The inn-keeper and the money-lender had their
own human passions and sanctities; each could
have made out a case for himself; the latter, at
least, could have laid the blame for the part he
played in the destruction of the Biittners upon
historical and economic forces that had molded
him and his kind. The other necessary fault of
the thesis-novel is this: its structure is too intel-
lectual, following not the rhythm of life but the
steps of an argument. Biittner the Peasant is ad-
mirably constructed and Polenz is very eager to
hide the polemic purpose he has so much at heart.


Yet we are always aware of that purpose.
Neither the massively conceived and executed
characters, nor a deep, clear sense for the elemental
things of earth and sky, can make us forget that
we are reading a contribution to the agrarian prob-
lem at a certain period of the economic history of

A far more delicate piece of work is Sylvester
von Geyer (1897). It forms a link between the
novel of doctrinal naturalism and the novel of
pure naturalism: doctrinal naturalism that ob-
serves and then arranges its observations in order
to prove, proclaim or justify an opinion or a doc-
trine: pure naturalism that yields itself to the
physical and spiritual texture of human life and
makes a record too deep for special pleading, too
complex — like that life itself — to be interpreted
by intellectualistic formulae.

Ompteda's avowed purpose is to illustrate the
life of "a typical stratum of the German people
to whom it owes much that is solid and great,
much that has made it what it is in the world to-
day." Despite this doctrinal statement and the


obviously heavy documentation — very exact and
very artistically woven into the book — the reader
is soon absorbed by the special and unique charm
of the strangely troubled soul of Sylvester von
Geyer. The other characters, too, play their
parts out of a full and not a social or economic
humanity. One hears, indeed, pointedly the
rumor of time and change; as in a far greater book
to be discussed presently, the generations show a
profoundly significant change in nervous organi-
zation. But there is little attempt to interpret
this fact by some narrow doctrine or some merely
external cause. The cool and somewhat pale, but
beautifully tempered narrative, with its high hon-
esty, its sad sincerity, rolls on to the appointed
tragic end. The modern novel cannot show, in
any language, many books of greater spiritual dis-
tinction and charm. In German literature it
marks the liberation of the novel from the in-
fluence of Zola and its development into a native
form of pure and self-sustaining art.



The revival of lyric impulse and accomplishment
which is, in some ways, the most notable thing in
modern German literature, also began under die
banner of naturalism. We are very familiar with
the insistent cry that the modern poet treat mod-
ern subjects, that forge and wheel and steam be
rendered poetical. The younger German poets
of the later eighties took up the gauntlet of
modernity with a fine single-mindedness. They

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Online LibraryLudwig LewisohnThe spirit of modern German literature; → online text (page 1 of 6)