Friedrich Spielhagen

THE second volume of Herr Friedrich Spielhagen’s reminiscences 1 opens with the year 1851, ten years before the publication of Problematischen Naturen, and covers some of the final experiences that went into the composition of that romance. Like the first volume, it is conceived from a literary point of view, and will be read by men of letters with interest, as much because of its suggestions and its inherent challenges to those among them who are writers of another way of thinking as because of any of the new personal facts which its pages divulge. The author intimates in the preface that he writes for the general public. But this intimation is hardly fulfilled by the actual performance, the story of the author’s life being broken into by pages of observations upon purely literary matters ; and much longer and considerably oftener, even, than in the first volume is the narrative held suspended, while the hero of it records at length his youthful manner of solving problems of æsthetics and life. Such reflections are scarcely the stuff with which the ordinary reader concerns himself, even in Germany. where a good deal more of it is produced than elsewhere. Men of the literary fraternity will perceive that, inasmuch as speculative subjects actually engrossed a good deal of the mental life recorded, it was obligatory on the author to admit them into his autobiography. Yet, even while acquiescing wholly in the introduction of the themes, and while entertained personally by all the details which Herr Spielhagen offers, many critics will raise a question whether the treatment of the themes is always felicitous. He gives almost the same loose rein to his memory, when writing retrospectively of abstract problems, as he did to his speculative fancy when his youthful mind first considered them. The long, roundabout roads, it is true, are strewn with delicious fruits of observation and brilliant flowers of thought. Still, interesting and clever as the writing is, for the sake of the reputation of the book as a work of art one wishes the most of it absent.

As the main lines of the author’s analyses and theories of authorship are laid down at full length in his Vermischte Schritten, and again in his Theorie und Technik des Romans, the lines might surely have been contracted here into “ points " without essential loss. Brief paragraphs, containing a quintessence of his speculations, would have afforded sufficient rest from the narrative style, and enough contrast to the descriptive passages of the book, if contrast were the author’s aim. At any rate, let him who fancies the contrary observe what the final impression is which the opposite method brings about, —this method, I mean, of extending abstract remarks until they reach the length of essays.

If any one fact more than another has distinguished realism in literature, it has been the tact that writers have looked upon and described the personages of their books psychologically, and the retrospective view which Spielhagen takes of Ids life is strongly affected by this psychologic habit. The surroundings of his boyhood, his family, his passionate friendships with men, his intercourse with acquaintances of both sexes, the various occupations of his earliest manhood, — all these are described with epic breadth, but not with the simple epic intention of merely narrating. His intention, on the contrary, is that of the narrator, of the scientist, and of the pedagogue. He wishes to depict his life, and at the same time he anxiously portrays his ancestors. His environment and friends, too, must be sketched ; less, however, for their own sake than because they exercised an influence upon him, and in so far as they served him later for backgrounds in romances and as characters in short stories. From these stories and romances, particularly from the one romance Problematischen Naturen, his inspiration to write the present volume started. Here are imbedded the facts that fascinate his attention ; and just as an anatomist lays bare the nerves of a ganglion in order to trace each nerve separately to its origin, so does he uncover, one by one, the multitudinous experiences that converged in the production of this romance.

His babyhood in Magdeburg, where he was born on the 24th of February, 1829, and his boyhood in Stralsund, where he played on the docks, among fish women and glistening mountains of herring, or sailed mornings out over the sea to Ruegen with his father, the engineer of the port, or in autumn wandered inland, where the swash of the yellow waves of the sea was continued in the swish of the salty wind strokes across endless fields of yellow grain, —these, the very earliest years and the earliest occupations of his boyhood, were alone devoid, as it would appear, of everything like thinking. " Although even as a child it could not have been with me quite as with other children,” the author adds, in a tone of reluctant confession, “ much as I would give, at this date, to write that I was a normal child. I read fluently and voraciously from my fourth or fifth year, and so long as we lived in Magdeburg I went in the family by the nickname of the ‘ little old fogy.’ ” In Stralsund the epithet fell into disuse; which argues that the child’s excursions on the Baltic Sea and into the wheat fields of the “ inland ” soon called forth a counteraction of the physical man against the unhealthy intellectuality that the schoolmaster in Magdeburg had foolishly encouraged. Spielhagen grew to be a strong lad and a strong man, about five feet four inches in height, with a long body and short muscular legs, broad back, sinewy arms, and a spacious chest, with firm ribs that spread to give ample room to the lungs without the least regard to the fashion of slender waists.

As Pomeranian fortunes went, the family were very well to do. A spacious house, stable, and garden composed the boy’s intimate world, in contrast to the great wide outside world of the docks and the sea ; while his talented mother, his sturdy father, a sister, and brothers made up the nucleus of an acquaintanceship that had its outermost members in the master and hands of the dredging-machines in the channel, and in country squires and their families on the landed estates inland.

At school his bosom friend was Adalbert, Mecklenburg, a boy of his own age, twelve or fourteen years old, “ whose dramas and songs were infinitely more actable and singable " than Spielhagen’s own, yet in comparison with whom he felt that he stood upon vantage ground, — why, he could not tell, until one day when Adalbert had asked him into his den. This was a poor, shabby room that his friend had rented, just off the pavement of a side street. Adalbert, as he relates, flings himself into a chair by a pine table, with the intent to read his last drama, and begins by stretching one leg out under the table, stooping over the manuscript lying upon it, and pronouncing carelessly and monotonously. One hand, meanwhile, rubs a knee incessantly. Spielhagen, in a chair near the window, is ready to spring to his feet for impatience, — his well-developed feet, so different from the bony, lank extremities in the shiny broadcloth and coarse leather which Adalbert is caressing. But of a sudden two facts strike the listener and hold him. One is that an agreeable manner lends worth to matter. The other is that dramas may he written by inexperienced men like his friend, because one-sided passions and their conflicts compose the substance of dramatic compositions. The moment gave birth, in short, to the germs of the theory on the nature of the various branches of writing, which was developed later into the author’s Theorie und Technik des Romans.

So long as Spielhagen remained in Stralsund. he pursued the long, ill-fenced road of æsthetic inquiry by the light of his own and Adalbert’s intuitions. Now and then some incandescent-like, fitful illumination fell across the path, in the form of casual remarks in the works of the poets which they read. When both graduated, at last, and departed, each his own way, for the university in Berlin. Spielhagen was still bent instinctively in the same literary direction ; but, as literature was not regarded as a career either by his family or by himself, in the last moment, and because Adalbert was destined for the medical profession, he too determined to study medicine. On the journey from Stralsund to Berlin, however, there occurred many halts, and he made use of one to write a letter home, asking permission to study law instead of medicine. The elder Spielhagen was grievously pained by such irresolution in his son, — his cleverest boy, yet the only one of all his children who was frivolous ! Nevertheless, he consented indulgently to the change. But Friedrich. meanwhile, had altered his plan for a third time, and was attending lectures on philosophy, and next to none of those on jurisprudence !

As at the .university in Berlin, so in Bonn (where he knew Carl Schurz) ; so, also, in Greifswald: he was studious, but his indefatigable industry was wholly without end or aim. In Greifswald, for the first time, he gave himself up to dissipations. But directly afterwards he went through his year of compulsory military service with faultless promptness and obedience, “ since obedience and promptness were the virtues required of him.” A certain self-respect prevented him, as it would seem, from indulging in violent, uproarious opposition, as it is certain that a morbid or cynical reticence marked his behavior to the outspoken hotspurs of the rebellious years 1848 and 1849. Spielliagen’s passionate antipathy for the aristocracy was, similarly, no reason whatever to his Machiavellian mind why he should avoid noblemen, but rather a good ground why he should seek to know them : the revenge of the clever consists in the very penetration that enables them to see through the powerful. Besides, with the strict scrupulosity that is characteristic of truly intelligent minds, he made a distinction between institutions and the persons who belonged to them. So, though a republican by conviction, he served the subalterns and officers of a monarchical army in exemplary fashion ; and, though a democrat in every fibre of his soul, he selected a family that was noble by descent in which to become a tutor. For, to the mortification of his family, he turned to private teaching. His pupil was the heir of a large estate in Pomerania, and during one year and six or eight months young Spielhagen gave lessons in Latin, a few hours every day, in the schoolroom of the castle, and wandered many hours through the forest glades of the castle park.

The peacefulness of country life for a while enchanted him ; then it palled upon him. He left it, and there succeeded two or three months of idleness, when he wended his way, one day, up the stairway of Dessoir’s modest lodging in Berlin. Had he not the stuff in him for an actor ? Spielhagen asked of the tragedian, telling him the story of his life. Actor ! replied the practical man of the boards. Why, if he had but a drop of the genuine actor’s blood in his veins, he would have been standing on the spot where he now stood six years before ; or rather, he would have let the devil take Ludwig Dessoir and his advice, and have bounded with both feet upon the stage. Now he had learnt too much, thought too much. A man cannot, swim on the theatrical sea with the ballast of four years of university education and twenty of reading. Dessoir said, however, he might try, if he liked. But Spielhagen turned his downcast face to Leipzig and the chair of a professorship.

His story Clara Vere had wandered like a forlorn outcast from one editor’s office to another, without finding acceptance at any publisher’s hands. So, as he appeared to have no prospect of success as an author, he undertook to enter upon the career of a philologist. There was Schiller’s inadequate analysis of poetical compositions, as laid down in his essays on Naive and Sentimental Poetry, to be undermined and replaced by a better one ; and he undertook the task for his doctor’s dissertation, entitling his own essay Objectivity in Art. For a time the effort promised to be successful. But out of Schiller’s artificial and genial fabrics there confronted him so many formulas half assthetic, half ethical, definitions half general, half arbitrary, conclusions half logical, half fanciful, that he grew more and more bewildered. He struggled and wrestled with the apparitions for months, writing at last to his friend Bernhard “ of the beautiful soul ” (for whom Adalbert of the lank legs and shaggy hair, of Stralsund memories, had been forgotten) that they would be the death of him. “ I said last year,” he continued, “ that I was done thinking of the stage, because an actor, after all, is the servant, of a superior master ; and a proof that acting is not a supreme art is supported by the fact that women equal men in the practice of it. But my pride is bent; my courage is entirely broken.”

Accordingly, Spielhagen packed his trunk again, this time for Magdeburg and the theatre. A bright June morning found him, some weeks later, rowing over the Elbe, in a little boat, to a trial recitation before the director of a summer theatre in a coffee garden. When he arrived at the place, the daily rehearsal of the troupe was just over, and the stage cleared. The busy director took a seat on a sofa. Two elderly actors placed themselves respectfully behind him. They were ready ; he might begin. Spielhagen of a sudden forebodes that his performance will be a failure. The garish sunlight streams through the glass roof upon the stage, the curtain of which is rolled up, while shafts of sunbeams full of dancing atoms of dust streak the twilight of the dim, wide, empty space of the room below, showing piles of chairs and empty benches. In the boxes of the galleries a few charwomen mop the floors. Behind him, in the background of the stage, motionless figures of men and women — future comrades — tarry to witness the afterpiece of his performance. This latter is colorless and impotent. The polite director rises at the close, and is about crushing him by asking one of the company to play the same role, by which means the difference would dawn even upon his inexperienced mind, when an elderly actor intervenes. Their young, new comrade is nervous, and the trial is hardly fair; he inclines to grant him another ; and later, when the sickly, overworked director leaves town, he actually causes the troupe to receive Spielhagen as one of its number. As often as he can he also secures minor rôles for him. A month after, the same good-natured mentor attempts to soothe his mortification over being hissed by telling anecdotes of similar experiences in his own life. But on stepping out of the boat in which the troupe had rowed themselves across the river, and saying good-night, stage life for Spielhagen was at an end.

Three days later a letter came from Leipzig, mentioning a position that was open in a private college there. It was that of a teacher of English. Hardly anything could be more acceptable, and on entering upon his duties Spielhagen began at once to renew his acquaintance with the works of the great English writers of the eighteenth century. The time he used to spend in society lie now spent in bookshops ; society, as lie knew, not inclining to men who had been before the footlights. As chance would have it, in one of these little bookshops R. W. Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America fell into his hands. This book incited him to read the complete works of Poe, Bryant, Bayard Taylor, and Longfellow, and to translate many of the poems of these authors. The publication of the translations made him known, it seems, at least to book publishers; for an enterprising young firm in Hanover soon proposed that he should translate The Nile Notes of an Howadji, by Mr. George W. Curtis, and, after the completion of the Notes, Emerson’s English Traits. In a little more than a year three other volumes were rendered into German. Spielhagen was coming into good repute as a punctual and cheap translator, when, unexpectedly, his novel Clara Vere found at last a friend in the senior partner of the Hanoverian firm of printers. Its publication at this time gave a turn at once to the author’s fortunes ; for, breathing as it does a bitter hatred of aristocratic institutions, the book won the heart of the editor of the North German Gazette. Spielhagen was solicited by him to write serials for the paper, and, throwing over the task of translating, the author complied by writing Auf den Dunen, and a year after, in 1859, the first part of his famous Problematiselien Naturen.

From Leipzig he had been ordered, meanwhile, to Erfurt, to be drilled ; and here he rose in rank to a lieutenancy of the reserve. Here, too, and at this time, he became betrothed.

A future volume may depict the subsequent episodes of his life as an editor in Hanover and Leipzig, and, later, as an influential member of the cultivated society of Berlin. Certain erotic experiences of these periods are offered in the Gedichte,2 together with elegies, satires in Horace’s style on German and American manners, and burlesque romanceros in Heinrich Heine’s style on the heroes and maidens of mythology. Indeed, since it accords 3 with the limitations which Spielhagen sets critically to lyric art to relegate such matters to poems as involve passing feelings and insights, we may regard the Gedichte as a key not only to volumes to come, but also as an addition to the confessions of the Finder and Erfinder. Loves and friendships possess an interest for the retrospective glance of Herr Spielhagen solely as they contributed to the production of his great novel. Hence he portrays Adalbert and Bernhard, because on them the characters of the Baron and Dr. Franz were modeled, whereas he passes over his passionately beloved mistress in Leipzig with a brief reference to his sonnets on Resignation. What a different art is this from the confessions of Lamartine, from the autobiographies of Jean Jacques and the romanticists ! Herein is but another evidence of the aflinity of Herr Spielhagen’s writings with the realism of his day. Hardly anything could so correspond to the practice of modern artists of excluding the splendors and gloom of the red sun’s risings and settings from their canvases, in order to give place to the common sights of plein air, as this omission from the description of his life of a man’s most intense infatuation.

  1. Finder und Erfinder. Von FRIENDRICH SPIELHAGEN. Leipzig : Stackmann. 1890.
  2. Gedichte. Von FRIEDRICH SPIELHAGEN. Leipzig: Stackmann. 1892.
  3. See Spielhagen’s essay entitled Edgar Poe versus Henry Longfellow.