Heinrich von Kleist on Würzburg culture, 1800

Nowhere do we more readily receive an idea of the cultural level of a city and its prevailing tastes than in its reading libraries.

Listen to what I encountered there, and I will say no more about the intellectual level of Würzburg:

“We would like to have a couple of good things to read.”

“The collection is at your disposal.”

“Something of Wieland?”

“I rather doubt it.”

“Or Schiller, or Goethe?”

“They would be hard to find.”

“What! Are all of their books loaned out? Are the people here such readers?”

“Hardly that.”

“Who are the most avid readers here?”

“Lawyers, merchants, and married ladies.”

“And the unmarried ones?”

“They may not borrow books.”

“And the students?”

“We have been instructed not to give them any.”

“Well, then, please tell us, if so little reading is done here, where in the world are the works of Goethe and Schiller?”

“By your leave, sir, such things are never read here.”

“You mean, you do not have them here in your library?”

“They are not allowed”.

“What sort of books are all these on the shelves, then?”

“Chivalric romances. Nothing but chivalric romances. On the right, chivalric romances with ghosts; on the left, chivalric romances without ghosts, as you prefer.”

“Ah, I see.”

— Heinrich von Kleist, tr. Miller, An Abyss Deep Enough, Dutton, 1982, p. 61; letter to Willhelmine von Zenge from Würzburg, Sept 13-18, 1800.

We should never sneer at the romance novel, the most durable of all literary forms. Romance novels have been written and read continuously since God knows when. St. Augustine complained about them, Dante complained about them, Cervantes complained about them, Kleist complained about them, but the romance novel is invulnerable and laughs at the whiny literati. Most of Hamlin Garland’s works were romance novels. Sinclair Lewis began his career writing romance novels. Realism is just a fad, whereas romance novels will still be around when New York , London, and Paris are crumbling wastelands inhabited only by the wind.

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Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 4:14 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. A little off-topic, but it may interest you to know that Heinrich Bluecher’s main role at Bard College, both in and out of the classroom, was the suppression of radical thought and activity in favor of establishment liberalism. Louis Proyect’s retrospective at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/05/23/heinrich-blucher-and-hannah-arendt/ is a good source. Professor Bluecher played a major role the the Common Course (freshman anti-Marxist indoctrination, mandatory) as well as aiding (according to the testimony of his own private letters, kept at the Bard Library) in administration crackdowns against student protests of several flavors.


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