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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 Friedrich Spielhagen (1829–1911)

WORKS so widely different as Gutzkow’s ‘Knights of the Mind,’ Freytag’s ‘Debit and Credit,’ and Spielhagen’s ‘Problematic Natures,’ all acknowledge in ‘Wilhelm Meister’ their common spiritual ancestor. ‘Wilhelm Meister’ is at once the finest blossom of German novelistic literature, and the seed-sack of its later yield. Romanticist and realist alike have found in this granary of thought some seed to plant in their own minds, and to develop in their own ways. It is far from being a model of form and composition, but it is an inexhaustible treasure-house of ideas; and to these subsequent writers of fiction have gone, choosing each that which best suited him, and transforming it into something new and fair, and withal his own. Structurally these later novelists have made a great advance over ‘Wilhelm Meister.’ As the complex George Eliot was the lineal descendant of the simple Madame de La Fayette, so Spielhagen, with his mastery of technique, is the descendant of Goethe, with his careless construction and often amorphous heaping-up of thoughts. ‘Problematic Natures’ is related to ‘Wilhelm Meister’ in this respect also, that it contains materials enough to furnish forth half a dozen average novels: it is notable for its exuberance of creative power.

Friedrich Spielhagen was born at Magdeburg on February 24th, 1829. His taste for philosophical and philological pursuits was gratified at Berlin, Bonn, and Greifswald; but gradually he came to find in pure literature his surest and at last exclusive stay. In the autobiography which he published in 1890, under the title of ‘Finder und Erfinder’ (Finders and Inventors), we have a detailed and voluminous account of Spielhagen’s early years. His young literary predilections were fostered chiefly by chance: in his father’s house there was no complete set of Goethe; only ‘Hermann and Dorothea’ and the first part of ‘Faust.’ Good fortune threw an old set of Lessing into his hands. Heine’s ‘Book of Songs’ and Freiligrath’s poems were likewise fortuitous favorites. But the rapid and strong growth of his literary genius he attributes above all to Homer, in whose works he saw nature transfigured. It was a weary and disheartening struggle with Spielhagen before he was able to make his love of poetry the central fact of his life. For him as for many another, the choice of a career raised obstinate questionings; and between his native impulses and torturing doubts of his own ability he for a long time wavered. His first novelistic ventures, ‘Clara Vere’ (1857), and ‘Auf der Düne’ (On the Dune: 1858), made no impression. It was not until 1860, with the publication of the first part of ‘Problematische Naturen’ in four volumes, that his fame as a German novelist was established. A position as feuilletonist for a Hanoverian newspaper was offered to him; and he was under a contract to produce four volumes of fiction a year. He now shudders at the thought; but he did not then. Moreover, he had four volumes ready in his mind: these formed the second part of his famous work, to which against the author’s judgment a different title was given.—‘Durch Nacht zum Licht’ (Through Night to Light). With the completion of this book, Spielhagen was fairly launched upon the ocean of literature; and thenceforth he has been an indefatigable voyager on its many seas.

An attempt to give in brief space a notion of the wide range of interests and ideas covered by Spielhagen’s many novels would be fruitless. His was essentially a bourgeois mind: with methodical facility he could produce works on most diverse themes. Writing easily and rapidly, he strove faithfully never to let the printer’s devil get at his heels. Spielhagen always took life very seriously, though not lacking in humor, as his ‘Skeleton in the House’ shows. His contemporaries sat to him for his characters, and events amid which he lived furnished him with materials. This resulted in some cases in giving too much emphasis to passing states of public feeling; in other cases the enthusiasm of the partisan disturbed that serene aloofness from the strife of opinions which is essential to the poetic creator. But Spielhagen had kept pace with the progress of things, and had in some respects outgrown himself. An eminent English critic said of him, that he more than any other seemed to have retained his youth. Those who love him as the author of ‘Problematic Natures’ and ‘In Reih und Glied’ (In Rank and File) must be disappointed in his more recent work. Overproduction did indeed cause a deterioration in quality; and we miss in the latest books that fineness and firmness which distinguish ‘Quisisana’ (1880). ‘Quisisana’ is free from tendency, psychologically interesting, faithful, direct, and tender: it best exhibits Spielhagen’s best qualities. It is a romance of the man of fifty: a type which Goethe introduced into German literature, as Balzac introduced the woman of thirty into French. This hale and vigorous man of fifty is in love with his beautiful ward; but he heroically sacrifices his own happiness by marrying her to the young man whom she loves, while her lavish filial affection for himself only augments his own anguish. This simple tale is in its workmanship and feeling at once delicate and strong.

Spielhagen was only twenty-two years of age when he began to work upon his first great novel. After a weary trip from publisher to publisher, it appeared in Berlin eight years later. Young authors naturally identify themselves with their heroes; and in their early works seek to reveal their own microcosm. This book is in essence, though not in form, a novel of the first person. Its title is taken from a phrase of Goethe’s: “There are some problematical natures who are unsuited to any situation in life, and whom no situation suits. Thus there arises a terrible conflict, in which life is consumed without enjoyment.” For a time Spielhagen believed himself to be such a nature: but as the novel advanced, confidence in himself grew; slowly he detached himself from his hero, and gained in objectivity. The title, which originally read ‘A Problematic Nature,’ was changed to the plural. In it is depicted the strife between the anciently intrenched feudalism and the resistlessly advancing industrialism. The inner problem however is, to use the author’s own words,—

  • “to portray the life of a man, most richly endowed by nature, who, in spite of his struggle towards the good, is ruined because he does not know how to set bounds to himself; and makes the discovery too late that the most enthusiastic efforts to attain ideal ends are doomed to failure, and the striver himself to destruction, if he refuse to recognize the conditions of our earthly existence.”
  • In spite of the author’s great productivity, and the wide popularity of many of his later novels, it is always ‘Problematic Natures’ that one first recalls when Spielhagen’s name is mentioned.

    Of the dominant importance of this work in the author’s life, he himself seems to be conscious. The circumstances, both inward and outward, under which it came to be written, are the leading theme of the autobiography. His theories of his craft in general are set forth in his ‘Technique of the Novel,’ a companion-piece to Freytag’s ‘Technique of the Drama.’ Spielhagen also wrote several dramas, some of which attained a moderate success. He enriched the German reading public by translations from the French and English; several works of Michelet, Roscoe’s ‘Lorenzo de’ Medici,’ and Emerson’s ‘English Traits.’ He was from his youth shy about publishing poems: his first collection appeared in 1893; in which many a poem reveals some soul experience in the poet’s early life.

    Spielhagen, however, is first of all the novelist. If his works display a “tendency,” his democratic principles and philosophy show themselves in the development of the plot, and are never directly preached from the pages; his generalizations are under artistic restraint. “It is the business of novelists,” he says, “to give world pictures,—pictures of their nation and its aspirations during a certain period.” Thus each of Spielhagen’s works has added a touch to his great picture of the age in which he lived; and the mass of his creations is a thoughtful and poetical portrayal of persons and events that have an actual counterpart in the private annals or public history of our time. Spielhagen died in 1911.