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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Fritz Reuter (1810–1874)

AMONG the novelists of the German realistic school, Fritz Reuter occupies the first place. No one of them has come nearer than he to the heart of life, nor understood with greater sympathy the lives of the people, in whose apparently monotonous and commonplace conditions he found endless dramatic possibilities of humor and pathos. He is the novelist of the proletariat; his works are steeped in the clear sunshine of the working-day world. With the romantic moonshine of an artificial nobility he had nothing to do.

His life was favorable for the fostering of his peculiar genius. He was born on the 7th of November, 1810, at Stavenhagen in Mecklenburg-Schwerin: his boyhood was passed in this sleepy, out-of-the-way German town, among such types of people as he has immortalized in his novels. His father was burgomaster and sheriff of the place, and was also a farmer; he purposed however that his son should study law. Until his fourteenth year the boy was educated at home with private tutors; then he entered the gymnasium at Friedland in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and afterwards passed through the higher classes of the gymnasium at Parchim. In 1831 he attended lectures on jurisprudence at the University of Rostock, going the following year to the University of Jena, where he became a member of the Burschenschaft Germania. The government, alarmed by the revolutionary agitation of 1830, was on the lookout for undue exhibitions of patriotism among the student body. The riot at Frankfort in 1833 served as a pretext for making arrests. Reuter was seized, on no other evidence of guilt than that of wearing the German colors, was tried and condemned to death for high treason. This sentence was commuted by King Frederick William III. to thirty years’ imprisonment. Reuter was taken from one Prussian fortress to another; in 1838, through the intervention of the Grand-Duke of Mecklenburg, he was delivered over to the authorities of his native State. A two-years’ imprisonment in the fortress of Dömitz followed. In 1840, Frederick William IV. having proclaimed an amnesty after his accession, Reuter was set free. Severe as his experiences had been, they had ripened him and prepared him for his life’s work, though at that time he was scarcely aware of his gifts. He went to Heidelberg to resume his legal studies; but the death of his father compelled his return to Stavenhagen, where he undertook the charge of the farm. During this period he gained that practical knowledge of agriculture and of the farmer’s life which he has interwoven in his masterpiece, ‘My Apprenticeship on the Farm.’ In 1850 he was obliged, however, to abandon farming: removing to Sreptow in Pomerania, he became a private tutor, and soon afterwards married Luise Kunze, the daughter of a clergyman. His life at this time was full of drudgery; but he found occasion to write a number of tales and anecdotes in prose and verse, which were published in 1853 in a volume with the title ‘Läuschen un Rimels’ (Funny Tales and Nonsense Rhymes). These were written in Piatt Deutsch, the Low German which is so well adapted for the expression of simple and natural feeling, and for the portrayal of the concrete life of the people. Reuter was possessed with the spirit of homeliness, and he used the hearty dialect with consummate tact to embody this spirit. The great success of his first book led him to write and publish another, ‘Polterabendgedichte’ (Nuptial-Eve Stories). In 1855 appeared ‘De Reis nah Belligen’ (An Account of a Journey to Belgium), a humorous poem relating the adventures of a number of Mecklenburg peasants, who travel to Belgium for the sake of learning the secrets of an advanced civilization.

In 1856 Reuter removed to Neubrandenburg, devoting himself entirely to literary work. In 1858 he published ‘Kein Hüsung,’ a poem of village life; in 1859 ‘Hanne Nüte un de Lüdde Pudel,’ considered his masterpiece in verse; and in 1861 ‘Schurr-Murr,’ a collection of tales. Soon afterwards he began the publication of ‘Olle Kamellen,’ literally ‘Old Camomile-Flowers,’ meaning “old tales, old recollections,”—a series which was to include his best work. The first, ‘Zwei Lustige Geschichte’ (Two Pleasant Stories), included ‘Wo aus ik tau ’ne Fru kamm,’ a little skit of how he wooed his wife; and ‘Ut de Franzosentid’ (In the Year ’13), a novel of the time of the uprising of the German people against Napoleon. The scenes are laid in Stavenhagen, Reuter’s native town; and its characters are drawn from real life. This work has had enormous popularity in Europe and America. No. 2 of the series, ‘Ut Mine Festungstid’ (My Imprisonment), was founded on Reuter’s own experience as a prisoner. Nos. 3, 4, and 5 were embodied in ‘Ut Mine Stromtid’ (My Apprenticeship on the Farm); No. 6, the last of the series, was entitled ‘Dörchläuchting.’

Of these novels the greatest is ‘Ut Mine Stromtid.’ On it is based Reuter’s claim of being the most eminent realist of his country. Nothing could be more true to life than this straightforward story of Mecklenburg farmers, of their quiet simple lives, relieved by homely fun and homely pathos. The light of Reuter’s genius does not serve as a halo to idealize lowly existence, after the manner of sentimentalists: like penetrative daylight it reveals the little details which make up the picture. He is masterful in his drawing of character. His men and women are persons whom the reader knows, and loves or hates: so abundant is their life, so impressive their personality. The good-hearted comical bailiff Bräsig; the twins Mina and Lina; Parson Behrens and his bustling, loving little wife; the stripling Fred Triddelfitz; the rascal Pomuchelskopp,—are from the world Reuter knew best. He paints the sunshine and shadow of their lives with unrivaled delicacy of touch. The humor of Triddelfitz’s love-making, the pathos of the old pastor’s death in his quiet home, are consummate in truthfulness. The strong humanity of the novel places it in the first rank.

After a journey to the East, Reuter published ‘Die Montechi und Capuleti in Konstantinopel’; but the book shows plainly that the author was out of his element.

He died in 1874. In 1875 appeared his ‘Nachgelassene Schriften’ (Posthumous Works) in two volumes, supplementing the edition of his writings in thirteen volumes which had been published between 1863 and 1868.