Fritz Reuter

WHATEVER merit wondering foreigners may be willing to ascribe to the Germans, there are yet boundaries which, in any fair view, this hardworking people has not crossed. They may be victorious in war over all their neighbors, and they may be the teachers of the teachers of all the rest of the world in the quiet studies of peace, yet the less-trained barbarians of other countries comfort themselves by the thought that none of the German professors can teach his pupils how to write good novels, and that no education, even one beginning at the cradle, is sure to produce genuine humorists. But there has recently died in Germany an author, Fritz Reuter, who wrote good novels and who was a real humorist. He was much admired in his own country; in foreign parts, however, he is less well known than he deserves. This

limitation of his fame is due to the fact that he wrote almost entirely in Plattdeutsch, a dialect which presents certain difficulties to foreigners, but none which those conversant with German could not overcome by a few hours’ work. The resemblance of Plattdeutsch to English is much greater than that of English to High German, and after the reader has worked out a few pages carefully, he will be surprised to find with how little difficulty he can go on. In the vocabulary alone will any difficulties be found; the construction of the sentences is perfectly simple. The Plattdeutsch is a dialect that has survived among the country-people of some parts of North Germany; it is a natural language, formed by the mouths of men, not an artificial one like the more successful High German, which was molded in great measure by scholars who followed Latin models. It is that which Reuter first learned, and which he always preferred to use.

Reuter’s life was a singular one. He was born November 7, 1810, at Stavenhagen, or Stemhagen as it is called in Plattdeutsch, a large farming village in Meekdenburg-Schwerin. His father was the Bürgermeister of the place. One of Reuter’s few writings in High German is a description of his childhood in this quiet town. He draws an admirable picture of its sleepy loneliness sixty years ago, of the intimate knowledge every one had of every one else, of the different schools, of the dancingmasters, of the rare balls to which the rigid Bürgermeister gave his children only reluctant permission to go, of the sending of the watchman into the ballroom after them when they had overstayed their time, of the yearly markets, etc., etc. Those who are familiar with his writings will find here a delightful record of the people and scenes he knew so well how to write about.

In 1830 he was at Jena, nominally a student of law; in fact, however, he was more devoted to those societies of the students which discussed the future glories of Germany, than to his duties in the university. For this he suffered most unjust punishment. Soon after the French Revolution of July and the outbreak at Frankfurt, the German governments became alarmed at the loud but harmless talk of the young and enthusiastic members of the Burschenschaft, and to their own great disgrace they proceeded to take violent measures against these youths. The lead in this mediæval persecution was taken by Prussia, and it is a blot in the history of that over-praised country which its indiscreet admirers would do well to recall. Fritz Reuter suffered along with many others. In the first place, he had to undergo a year of “ preventive ” imprisonment, and then, at the age of twenty-two, he was condemned to death. His sentence, however, was commuted to one of thirty years’ imprisonment, by the grace of his Majesty King Frederick William III, At the accession of Frederick William IV., in 1840, after seven years’ confinement, Reuter was set free. This time he had spent in different Prussian fortresses, at Silberberg, Glogau, Magdeburg, and Graudenz, besides his stay in the Hausvogtei at Berlin.

In his Ut mine Festungstid (My Prison Life) he has given a very interesting description of this part of his life. In his different prisons he met with different sorts of treatment according to the disposition of the commandant. In some the cruelty was very great. The young men who were punished with this pompous severity for their youthful folly were often in separate cells; in Magdeburg, when this was the case, their lot was especially hard. Their cells were on the north side of the bleak fortress, — he was once painting portraits there of the officers of the post, and he speaks of it as the coolest north light a painter could wish, —they had but a brief time for daily exercise in the open air, and Reuter was the only one who came out of it without gray hair. Most of the rest, young men of twenty four and five, bore more alarming signs of the rigor of their punishment, in their shattered health. All of this, and even the gross indignities he met with at the Hausvogtei in Berlin, where he was insulted as well as ill-treated by the arrogant officials, he describes with hardly a word of complaint. He gives plenty of room to the practical jokes he and his young friends were continually playing upon one another; but this merriment only brings into stronger relief the misery of their situation. With all his cheerfulness, however, his heart was full of wrath at the system of justice which left him at thirty free, to be sure, but even less prepared to struggle with the world than he had been when he entered his prison. lien he had been looking forward to a life-time of imprisonment, he had naturally discontinued preparing himself for any profession, and now, with want staring him in the face, he was fitted for nothing. He tried painting and farming without success, and then he taught school in Treptow and afterwards in New Brandenburg. With this humble occupation he would probably have remained contented, and he would have gone to his grave as one whose life had been ruined, had it not been that some of his friends, who had been charmed by the humor of his talk, urged him to print some of the stories he had written down for their entertainment. At first he was reluctant, but he finally consented. His fame was made at once, and soon his fortune. His first book was called Läuschen un Rimels (Tales and Poems). For us it has no especial interest, but its exact local color, its neat presentation of familiar jests, its happy framing of bits of rustic stupidity, made it very popular among his fellowcountrymen of Meeklenburg-Schwerin, and indeed throughout Germany.

From this time he devoted himself to authorship, writing both novels and poems. Of the novels the best is Ut der Franzosentid (The Time of the French), which has been translated into English by Mr. Charles Lewes, under the title of In the Year '13, and in that dress it is probably familiar to many of our readers. It is certainly in its way a masterpiece. The story is simple enough, the plot is of the meagrest sort, but one reads Fritz Reuter much more for the present enjoyment of the story, with its vivid sketches of people, its intermingling of humorous and pathetic scenes, its occasional caricature, and its all-pervading kindliness, than for the remoter intellectual joy of unriddling an intricate plot, His charm lies, in great measure, in his humor, and in the way he draws the peasant villagers whom he knew in Meeklenburg-Schwerin. Take, for instance, Uncle Huse, who is being carried off a prisoner by the French, and who thus unfolds martial plans to Witte, the baker, and Miller Voss, his companions in misery.

“ ' Now I ask you, Miller Voss, when you see this mill, what idea comes into your head ? ’

“ ‘ Herr Rathsherr,’ said the miller, and he got up and stood a little distance off, ' I hope you don’t mean to treat me in that manner? ’

“ ' I only ask you, Miller Voss, what idea comes into your head ? ’

“ ' Well,’ said the miller, ‘ what idea ought to come? I think it’s a rusty old thing, and that, in spring, it ought to have new sails; and that, if the stones are no better than these down here, the Stemhagen folk must get a devilish lot of sand along with their flour. ’

“ ' And you are right there, neighbor,’ said the baker.

“ ‘ And he’s wrong there! ’ cried my uncle Huse. ' If he had answered properly he would have said that it must be set fire to. And it will be set fire to; all the mills in the whole country must be set fire to.’ And he stood up and walked with long strides about the millstones.

“‘Lord save us!’ said Miller Voss.

‘ Who is to do this wickedness? ’

“ ‘I,’ said my uncle Huse; and he slapped himself on the breast and went nearer to the two, who wondered what could be coming next, and said in a low voice: ‘When the Landsturm1 rises, we must set fire to all the mills as a signal, — that’s called a beacon; and the best proof you know nothing about war-matters is, that you don’t even know what a beacon means.’

“ ‘ Herr Rathsherr,’ said Miller Voss,

‘ it’s all the same to me whether it’s a beacon or a deacon, but whoever sets fire to my water-mill had better look out.’

“ ‘Water-mill? 'Wind-mills I mean, Miller Voss; who ever said anything about water-mills? Water-mills lie in the ground and don’t burn. And now I ask you, has the Burmeister as much knowledge and courage to act in time of war as I have ? ’

“ ‘ He’s never said he would set mills on fire,’ said the baker, and looked at the Herr Rathsherr rather doubtfully, as if he did not quite know whether he was in fun or earnest.

“‘My dear Witte, you look at me like a cow at a new gate. You are, no doubt, astonished and thinking what does a Stemhagen Rathsherr like me know of wars and Stratagems. My dear Witte, you knead your dough with your hands, in the baking - trough; I knead mine in my head, by thought, If I were where I ought to be, I should be in the presence of the King of Prussia, talking with the man. “ Your Majesty,” I should say, “ you are rather in difficulties, I think.” “That I am, Herr Rathsherr,” he would say, “money is devilish scarce just now.” “Nothing else?” I say. “That’s a mere trifle; ” ’ and he proceeds to explain how he would get the money by means of a forced loan from the Jews, and with twenty or thirty regiments he would fall on the enemy’s rear and defeat him. ' You must always fall on the enemy’s rear, that is the chief thing; everything else is rubbish. A tremendous battle! Fifteen thousand prisoners! He Sends me a trumpeter: “ A truce.” “No good,” say I, “we have not come here to play.” “ Peace,” he sends me word. “ Good,” say I; “ Rheinland and Westphalia, the whole of Alsatia and three fourths of Lothringen.” “I can’t,” says he, “my brother must live.” Forward, then, again! I march to the right and quiet Belgium and Holland; all at once I wheel to the left. “ The devil take it!” says he. “Here’s that confounded Rathsherr again in my rear.” “ First regiment of grenadiers, charge! ” I command; the battery is taken. “ Second regiment of hussars to the front! ” He ventures too far forward with his staff. Swoop, the hussars come down upon him. “ Here is my sword,” says he. “ Good,” say I, “ now come along with me. And you, my boys, can now go home again; the war is at an end.” I now lead him in chains to the foot of the throne. “ Your Majesty of Prussia, here he is.” “ Herr Rathsherr,” says the king, “ask some favor.” “Your Majesty,” say I, “I have no children, but, if you wish to do something for me, give my wife a little pension when I leave this life. Otherwise I wish for nothing but to retire to my former position of Stemhagen Rathsherr.” “As you like,” says the king; “ but remember that whenever you may happen to come to Berlin, a place will be kept for you at my table.” I make my bow, say “ Good day,” and go back again to Stemhagen.’ ”

Reuter has been given the misleading name of “ the German Dickens.” In general this habit of classifying an author by comparing him with some better known writer in another country arises from some very obvious and not very important similarity between them, and it is so in this case. While we find in both these authors a keen eye for the ludicrous and a tendency to caricature, we detect very important differences. Reuter avoids drawing such impossible characters as most of those in Pickwick Papers, for instance, at whom we are forever laughing but who excite in us no trace of sympathy, nothing except amusement. He is by no means averse to caricature, but he lets the character also appear to us in the light of a human being. Instead of caricatures of different classes of people, such as we find in Dickens, he gives us copies of individuals, and he never lets his humor run away with him so far as to lessen our impression of the reality of the people about whom he writes. They all seem to be studies from nature, as, in fact, many of them were. Fritz Sahlmann, for instance, who figures in In the Year ’13, was at first vexed at the prominence given his boyish pranks in that book, but soon he learned to regard it with pride. In Ut mine Stromtid again (of this novel an Fnglish version appeared in Littell’s Living Age a few years since, with the title. From SeedTime to Harvest) Bräsig is as amusing as Sam Weller, but he is as kind as he is absurd; we are able to feel fond of him as well as to laugh at him. He has no improbable virtues laid upon him; he is simply saved from the greater improbability of being a character who is only absurd and nothing else.

Reuter was at his best in his drawing of peasants and villagers. He detected very clearly their main qualities, and while he exaggerated them somewhat, he left a definite and apparently truthful impression of these characters as a whole. They were never made any better than they are, nor is there any bitterness in our hearts when we laugh at them. His kindliness never deserted him, and yet he had the rare art of being able to draw people who are good and kind and amiable, as well as interesting and possible, and without a trace of the vapidity which so often belongs to the good characters of fiction. Such, among others, are the pastor and his wife, and the wife of young Joehen, in this same novel.

The same good taste which preserved his fun from artificiality kept his pathos from being melodramatic. In the opening chapters of Ut mine Stromtid there is certainly pathos in the description of Habermann’s ruin and bereavement, but this is by no means overdrawn. There is no violent assault upon the reader’s feelings. As the novel runs on it reads like a truthful record told by a man whose humor flavors everything he says. It is not a well - constructed story, but yet it will not be found tedious by any one who has learned to know the characters, and that is no difficult task. It contains much broad farce, of which Brasig’s account of his adventures at a water-cure may be taken as an example; but the truth to nature is not sacrificed by making the different characters insensible to each other’s absurdities, as is sometimes the case with Dickens, for instance, in whose writings we so often find all the dramatis parsonœ. as blind to the ridiculousness of their neighbors as they are to their own.

In Reuter’s poems the same qualities are perhaps even more noticeable than in his prose writings. The poems are of different sorts. De Reis’ nah Belligen is absolutely absurd. It recounts the adventures of two peasants, who, having heard that there is a good agricultural school in Belgium, determine to take their two sons to it, and who by their ignorance and inexperience fall into all manner of difficulties. The opening of the poem is the best part; the tumbling into bass-drums and the frequent arrest of the two peasants by the police soon become threadbare incidents. Still this boyishness does not need any severe denunciation; a greater fault is the lack of suitability between the pretty love of the peasant girl who is left behind and the loutishness of her betrothed. The separate scenes, however, are well enough.

Kein Hüsing (Houseless) is a poem of a very different sort. It is a sad story of what, so stringent were the laws of proprietorship, might very well have happened a few years ago in some parts of Germany. A young peasant, Jehann, and the young girl, Mariken, whom he loves, are miserably poor, and cannot get permission from the owner of the estate on which they live, to marry. He, the proprietor, is an avaricious man, and, what is worse for them, he has himself been tempted by the girl’s beauty. Matters go from bad to worse, Jehann and Mariken find themselves rebuffed in every direction, and one day Jehann in a fit of rage kills his master with a pitchfork and runs away. The girl, soon to be a mother, remains behind. After the birth of her child she goes mad, and drowns herself, and the poem ends with the reappearance of Jehann, who sees his child for the first time and hears from one of his old friends of Mariken’s sad fate. This tragedy is told with the most impressive simplicity, and certain parts, notably where Mariken is tempted to make away with herself, and the final scene of Jehann’s return, are full of feeling, and free from exaggeration. The author does not seem to be preaching a sermon; he escapes the fault of giving his characters too much to do in the way of reforming the world. He tells his story and lets it go for what it is worth. This is his most sombre work, but here, as well as elsewhere, he avoids weakening the impression he wants to make by too facile an utterance of grief. In such stories as these the apparent impartiality of the writer has the greatest rhetorical force; the less direct the appeal that is made to our emotions, the more likely they are to respond.

A third poem, named after its heroine, Hanne Nüte, is very charming. It describes the love of a young peasant man and woman, and gives an account of the interest taken by the birds in these young people. As a story the poem has but little value; it begins well, and the reader cannot help wishing that more had been made out of it, for it is brought to a very hasty end. But the talk of the birds is delightful; they chatter together as freely as they did in Æsop’s Fables, but not for the purpose of inculcating moral lessons. To say that Fritz Reuter had a warm love of nature would be very inadequate, for nowadays every one has that, but in this poem he certainly showed an innocent enjoyment of nature which is not shared by all who contemplate her. This, with all its defects of composition, is the most pleasing of his poems.

Dörchläuchting, a translation of which has appeared in Littell’s Living Age with the title, His Little Serene Highness, and De Reis’ nah Constantinople (The Journey to Constantinople) are two rather broad caricatures. The firstnamed ridicules the petty pomp and affected grandeur of the powerless German rulers of the small principalities of the last century. Dörchläuchting himself is a contemptible mass of silliness and weakness; but besides the scenes in which he is the chief figure, there are some in which more interesting characters are brought in. The fun of the book is not the only thing to be noticed; it is, to be sure, an amusing caricature, but it is also not without merit for the light it throws on what, not so very long ago, was the great weakness of Germany. The other piece is an amusing account of the adventures of a party of neighbors from Rostock, who go together on an excursion-party to Constantinople. There is a slight love - story running through it, but the greater part of the book is devoted to laughing at the ridiculous efforts of a vulgar woman to show off her Bildung, or culture, with an amusing account of her husband’s escape from her domineering ways. Besides this, there is an adventure with a pseudo-baron, who is a very transparent humbug. This little sketch is much less important than almost anything Reuter wrote, but nevertheless it is very pleasant.

In addition to this short list he wrote but little. It is by this he is to be judged, and by but part of it that he will be remembered. He was a writer without pretense, almost, indeed, without ambition; but while this limited the amount of his work, it improved the quality, by confining him to the simple record of things he knew. He was nowhere ungenuine, his humor and his pathos came from his heart, his simple vein of poetry he never learned from books. He never aimed very high; it was a very narrow corner of the world he undertook to write about, but he set that before us full of life and full of cheerfulness, and with its own beauty; a writer who has done this has succeeded.

T. S. Perry.

  1. Levy en masse.