Hugh Ridley. "Relations Stop Nowhere": The Common Literary Foundations of German and American Literature, 1830-1917. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 317 pp. $96.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-420-2183-9.
Reviewed by George Blaustein (Program in the History of American Civilization, Harvard University)
Published on H-German (January, 2008)
Separated at Birth: German and American Literary History
Relations Stop Nowhere is a probing literary history of Germany and the United States. It is also a meta-history addressing the complexities of canon formation and the processes by which national literatures are constructed. Moving beyond the now-familiar understanding of literary canons as constructed, Hugh Ridley's comparative approach breaks new ground, raising questions that ought to challenge literary and cultural historians in the United States and in Germany.
For Ridley, a "national literature" is an institution or set of institutions that "legitimize" a nation's culture (or yearn to legitimize it). "As George Bancroft remarked in 1824," he writes, "a national literary history enables a people 'to embalm their own memories in a permanent literature'. The institution maintains, modernizes and preserves memories and identities, organizing important sites of symbolic power" (p. 14). Sustaining this institution is "a whole network of literary life--periodicals, academics, public taste and convention," not to mention academic disciplines such as Amerikanistik and Germanistik (p. 14). National literature thus constitutes a broad "imagined community," but also a site of intense competition over what is (or should be) "American" or "German" (p. 14). Ridley does not cover what we might call the "base" of national literature; readers must look elsewhere for, say, a history of literary periodicals or universities. (His footnotes often point the way to such studies.) His concern is, instead, the common national dreams, tendencies, dilemmas, and frustrations of writers and intellectuals in both countries.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 is comparative, sketching "structural parallels" between the formation of and debates over "American literature" and "German literature" in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The chief structural affinity between German and American literary history is the status of both nations as "latecomers"--"young nations" slow to develop a stable national literature. This state of affairs set in motion common patterns, anxieties, and frustrations among litterateurs who aspired to be custodians of a national culture. Both a meta-exceptionalism and a meta-Sonderweg are at play here: slow to become established "nations" (or so people at the time believed) yet rapidly modernizing in the nineteenth century, both nations need to achieve a true "national literature." Both German and U. S. literature were always catching up to someone else, usually the supposedly more stable national literatures of England and France. (A twist: American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson saw themselves as catching up to the Germans, too.)
Early (often elite) boosters of national literature adopted democratic, nationalistic rhetoric, but the realization of their dreams "involved the masses in ways not originally envisaged by that élite, and ... a mass public shaped by commercial interests rather than by the aspirations of that élite" (pp. 29-30). This paradox beset the project from the beginning. Georg Gervinus--a grandfather, along with the Brothers Grimm, of German literary history--wrote Geschichte der poetischen National-Literatur der Deutschen (1835) not for scholars or even writers themselves, but rather "for the people." But for all its nationalist boosting, the book was suffused with "cosmopolitan, internationalist values" (p. 34). Furthermore, Gervinus wanted to embrace present and future literature, yet was "out of sympathy with the writing of his day," considering it inferior to Weimar Classicism (p. 37). And despite his expansively democratic rhetoric (tall talk about linking "literature and the masses")--his was an exclusive canon, and he could not really bring himself to "treat as art the literature that was aimed at the masses" (p. 37-38). It is clear that the term "national" (as in the American Bancroft's assertion that "Goethe was the most national poet of the Germans") was less a stable category than a way of reconciling stubborn contradictions.
This tension between democratic rhetoric and elitist taste is to be seen in Gervinus's American analogs, among them Emerson, Bancroft, and Evart and George Duyckink (whose Cyclopaedia of American Literature appeared in 1855). In order to emphasize similarities between German and American literary emergence, Ridley downplays the importance of "nature" or the frontier in the American imagination. Long a plank of American exceptionalism, the idea is considered by Ridley something of a red herring as far as the institutional progress of national literature is concerned, "largely because it had no effect. Nothing seemed to be happening under the influence of this belief" (p. 45). It would help if Ridley grounded this claim in more examples: for instance, James Fenimore Cooper wrote many of his Leatherstocking Tales in Paris and was later mocked by D.H. Lawrence for it. Ridley emphasizes the social and the political: the term "democracy" was more important than "nature" for the construction of national literature, thus bringing Germany and America closer together.
One of Ridley's more lucid insights is his delicate exploration in chapter 3 of German and American mutual perceptions and misperceptions in the nineteenth century. This material will intrigue scholars of the 1848 revolutions, as well as those curious about the undulations of anti-Americanism over time. He offers a complex narrative of mutual projection: nineteenth-century literary Americans were "keen to copy the Germans' successful relationship to literature," while nineteenth-century Germans longing for political unification "became increasingly anxious to copy the Americans' relationship to nationhood" (p. 49). German liberals applauded American expansion before 1848, while American intellectuals like Emerson grappled uneasily with economic "progress" (p. 51), especially when slave-holding interests drove progress and imperial expansion. Ridley unfortunately does not attend to American slavery and abolition here. Canonical writers such as Fenimore Cooper "complained bitterly at the over-emphasizing of money in American ideas of democracy" (p. 52). But Germans, especially liberals in the age of Franz Metternich, "needed their vision of America kept clean and unsullied by criticism" (p. 52), and (as Ridley notes in a nice twist) they even chided Cooper for his criticism and dyspepsia. At these moments the book shines: Ridley shows with great nuance the constitutive importance of America in the German imagination, and the awkward position of American writers with respect to those who celebrated German liberalism.
The failed revolution wrought a change in the German perception of America. Thereafter came Ferdinand Kürnberger's Amerikamüde (1855), but Ridley reads this satirical novel not as "anti-American" in itself, but rather as a self-conscious "comment on post-1848 thinking in Germany" (p. 57). The German view was undoubtedly more jaded, to judge by the grim picture of American business civilization painted in Reinhold Solger's Anton in Amerika (1862). In short, in the latter half of the nineteenth century the "dislocation between literature and the nation" became clearer, especially in America--making the battles over literary history that much more poignant. The rest of chapter 3 treats shared anxiety and "cultural despair" (pp. 58-59), as Ridley tracks similar debates about culture through both countries. By the end of the century, the most influential American critics, such as Harvard Brahmin Barrett Wendell, had become queasy about democracy itself: they worried it was incompatible with art and individual genius. The democratic masses in both Germany and America, after all, were flocking toward dime novels. Among those concerned with a national literary heritage, the thriving "democratic" book market seemed to obliterate heritage itself.
The remaining chapters of part 1 pursue different dimensions of the tension between elitism and democracy. Chapter 4 turns to the struggle for realism in the nineteenth century; here again German and American literary nationalists shared the frustration that true realism never really settled in either country, despite all the polemics on its behalf (as opposed to England and France, understood by nineteenth-century writers to be the norm of literary evolution). Chapter 5 ("Hunting for American Aesthetics") challenges the old assumption that German literature was "born of criticism" or excessively concerned with aesthetic theory, while American literature lacked a robust aesthetic tradition well into the twentieth century. In fact, Ridley suggests, there was indeed an American aesthetics, and it was influenced by conservative German "systematic philosophical idealism" (p. 99). This aesthetic disposition was not often stated (it was even somewhat "secret"), but Ridley insists that it underlay many of the decisions made by Emerson as well as by Theodor Fontane. This point is crucial to chapter 6 ("Exclusions from the Canon"), in which Ridley argues that much "popular literature" was excluded from canon for "aesthetic" reasons, rather than, say, because of "affronted Puritan morality" (p. 129). After all, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was scorned by critics and future literary historians not because it was immoral--quite the contrary--but because its style was billed "sentimental and escapist," and its guiding purpose merely ethical rather than truly artistic (p. 137).
These chapters are suggestive but not always conclusive, and certain oversights should be noted. For instance, in his discussion of realism, Ridley makes only a passing mention to Vernon Louis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), the monumental literary and intellectual history that enshrined "critical realism" as the chief virtue to which American writers were to aspire. Ridley notes, correctly, that after World War II, this "failure" to produce "real" realism was transformed into a demonstration of national distinction: the persistence of the "romance" in America and the Novelle in Germany. However, he pays little attention to the fact that literary historians such as Richard Chase viewed American romance positively, while the German tendency was associated with Adolf Hitler's demonic romanticism. This neglect is somewhat surprising considering Ridley's lengthy discussion of Thomas Mann. In this case and others, he has successfully identified previously neglected structural affinities but has not explored the radically opposing connotations of such affinities in the United States and Germany.
Ridley concludes part 1 with a chapter on the history of anthropology and the various attempts in both countries to pin national literature to "the people," anthropologically understood. Though aspects of nineteenth-century anthropology led disastrously to Nazi ethnology, Ridley wants to rescue certain of its nobler intentions from the stigma of "blood and soil." He suggests that Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl's 1858 manifesto for Volkskunde was, for all its failings, a call to understand "the broad mass of the people," something echoed in Emerson's call for an art that dealt with the "meal in the firkin" and the "ballad on the street" (p. 148). This anthropological impulse even anticipated the progressive American criticism of Van Wyck Brooks, who in 1918 called for a "usable past" as a lever against both crude political nationalism and the stale, commercialized art of the past. If nothing else, Ridley concludes, such an approach made literature relevant, rather than "buried under academic paraphernalia and an obfuscation, which only the student movement of 1968 began to clear away" (p. 156).
Part 2 ("The Mid-Atlantic Space") is transnational where part 1 was comparative. Ridley excavates cases of literary intersection and transatlantic influence in an effort to demonstrate that German and American literary history are best viewed in tandem. A review does not offer enough room to do justice to his interpretations. In effect, he applies the insights of part 1 to our understandings of Charles Sealsfield (a.k.a. Karl Postl), Herman Melville, Goethe, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann. Ridley's fervent appreciation of Sealsfield's remarkable achievements--long ignored by literary historians in both countries--is especially convincing. In general Ridley makes the case for a "mid-Atlantic stance" cognizant of the joint German-American literary heritage as the ideal interpretive position for literary historians today. This mid-Atlantic space is also a kind of field through which figures and ideas pass, transformed in the process: Emerson championed Goethe; Nietzsche championed Emerson; in both cases ideas emerged from the Atlantic "radicalized." These case studies work well alongside other efforts to re-approach outstanding works of German-American literature from a comparative and transnational perspective, notably the essays collected in German? American? Literature?: New Directions in German-American Studies (2002).
Taken together, Relations Stop Nowhere is an ambitious and provocative work of scholarship, covering an immense terrain--perhaps too immense. The writing is not as clear as it should be, and the book has no shortage of "academic paraphernalia" and "obfuscation," despite his condemnation of the same in chapter 7. The argument is at times frustratingly circuitous, and even readers reasonably well acquainted with the figures and concepts under discussion will find many of the threads hard to follow. Ridley acknowledges the amount of "re-thinking," "re-positioning," and "re-contextualizing" necessary for a project of this sort--indeed, invoking Whitman, he wants to "travel by maps yet unmade" (p. 9). Still, one wishes he had arranged the old maps more clearly, and given his readers a brighter lamp through his own new territory, especially because the questions raised are so important.
Non-literary historians might be confused by the book's unclear chronological scope. The subtitle announces a different starting point than the book jacket, and Ridley seems as much concerned with twentieth-century critics and literary historians as he is with the nineteenth-century figures. Indeed, many of his more intriguing points are about literary historians from the 1930s and 1940s, for instance the brilliant pairing of the American Marxist critic Granville Hicks and Georg Lukács. The book concludes, furthermore, with a long discussion of Thomas Mann and a nod to Saul Bellow. This widened scope renders the work simultaneously more ambitious and more diffuse.
The title is a quotation from Henry James (a later introduction to his own first novel, Roderick Hudson), and it is appropriate to conclude with the full sentence: "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." Indeed, the relations between German and American literary history might be endless, but Ridley has begun admirably to draw a circle around them, and will hopefully inspire others to do so as well.
. One could argue that Ridley exaggerates the stability of English and French national literatures. As a side note, for instance, it would be intriguing to relate the constructions of German and American literary history to the argument put forward by Gauri Viswanathan that "English literature" as we know it was forged largely for purposes of imperial export, and that the results were far from stable (Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India [Oxford University Press, 1998]).
. Henry James, preface to Roderick Hudson, in The Novels and Tales of Henry James , vol. 1 (New York: Scribner's, 1907-1917), vii.
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George Blaustein. Review of Ridley, Hugh, "Relations Stop Nowhere": The Common Literary Foundations of German and American Literature, 1830-1917.
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