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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 Hermann Sudermann (1857–1928)

FROM every new literary mode, however madcap and ephemeral, something of value may be won. In the back-and-forward swing between the fancies of an overheated idealism and the facts of a frigid realism, the pendulum returns to its vertical with something brought from each of the extremes. From the crass realism into which, for a time, the once so fantastic literature of Germany threatened to petrify, emerges Hermann Sudermann, equipped with all the trenchant power of the realistic workman, but bringing to his work the sympathetic insight of the idealist. He deals with social problems, with the struggles of impulsive human nature at war with social conditions; but he does not repel by sordid details, nor delight in depicting mere wretchedness and woe. His characters are swayed by the passions, sorrows, and mental twists, of which all of us in our own experience have had glimpses at least that render them intelligible. His unswerving belief in the uplifting forces of man’s nature gives to his gloomiest conceptions a saving buoyancy; he finds a way to reconcilement with life, even though the way lie through death. Wide gray plains and moorlands, like those of East Prussia where the poet was born, stretch far away; but behind waving reed and withering sedge is the white sky-line of the dawn. Sudermann cannot be classed with any school or cult. In him the swaying pendulum of fads and fashions has come to rest. He is the sane artist; painting the world as he sees it, and seeing it with the intuitions of a poet.

Sudermann at the age of thirty took his place among the foremost German novelists and dramatists that mark the end of the nineteenth century. He is now one of the chief literary figures in the eye of modern Europe. He was born at Matzicken, in the great Baltic plain near the boundaries of Russia, on September 30th, 1857; and the wide outreach of this level country is the scene upon which most of his tales and novels run their course. His parents were poor; and it was a matter of pecuniary necessity when, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a chemist. Subsequently, however, he was enabled to study at Tilsit, Königsberg, and Berlin, and became tutor in the household of the genial story-teller Hans Hopfen. In 1881, after devoting the leisure hours of six years to history, philology, and modern languages, he turned to journalism, and assumed the editorial management of a political weekly in Berlin. In 1885 a collection of his stories from the newspapers was published under the title of ‘Im Zwielicht’ (In the Twilight). Though not without a melancholy touch, they possess the wit and sprightliness of French stories; but they struck a more serious note, which gave promise of greater work to follow. In 1886, with the publication of ‘Frau Sorge’ (Dame Care), Sudermann stepped at once into the front rank of German novelists. Three years later, again at a single bound, he took the first place among the dramatists with his admirably constructed play of ‘Ehre’ (Honor). It began its triumphant career on the Berlin stage in November 1889, and rapidly conquered the theatres of all Germany. Meanwhile in 1887, three volumes of his tales had appeared, under the general title of ‘Geschwister’ (Brothers and Sisters); and two years afterward came ‘Der Katzensteg’ (The Cat Bridge), which some critics have not hesitated to pronounce the most powerful novel of contemporary German literature. In 1890 a new drama, ‘Sodoms Ende’ (Destruction of Sodom), displayed the author’s increasing command of stage technique, which in ‘Heimath’ (Home) becomes complete mastery. The more recent ‘Schmetterlingsschlacht’ (Battle of the Butterflies) is less satisfactory. In 1892 appeared the story of ‘Iolanthe’s Hochzeit’ (Iolanthe’s Wedding), full of delightful humor and merry-making, and without a shade of melancholy. In the following year ‘Es War’ (It Was) made a genuine sensation, running through fifteen editions in twelve months. Sudermann’s fame seems now secure, whatever the future may hold.

The tendency of German novelists to subordinate narrative and dramatic development to sentiment and psychological comment, has rendered the average German novel dull and distasteful to foreign readers. Sudermann appeals to a cosmopolitan taste: in him is no trace either of sentimentality or moral reflection. He is strong, brilliant, concise, effective; the impression he makes is indelible; the mood into which he throws the reader, though somber, is sympathetic; and if melancholy, never morbid. Of the longer novels, ‘Dame Care’ best exhibits the perfection of his workmanship. It is the story of a lad whose life is a constant struggle with adversity; upon him devolve all the cares of a large family, until he has become so completely enslaved by the Lady of Sorrows that he never even thinks of making a claim for personal happiness. To save his aged father from committing a crime, he sets fire to his own property, and is sentenced as an incendiary. Over all his weary life hovers the love that Elsbeth bears him, but he never permits himself to love her; through her he is finally set free from the thraldom of Dame Care. The tale is infinitely sad; but told with tenderness and a sympathetic fidelity to nature. That out of his troubles Paul is led by a woman’s hand into ultimate peace and serenity, shows that here is a realist who does not mix his colors with misery only. In the saving power of woman, Sudermann has firm faith. In ‘Der Wunsch’ the heroine and her conscience are the protagonists: it is a psychological study. Olga falls in love with her sister’s husband; and while she is nursing her sister through a severe illness, the thought comes unbidden: “If only she were to die!” She does die, and the widower offers himself to Olga; but she, conscience-stricken lest it was her wish that killed her sister, and almost convinced of her guilt, wins back her moral tranquillity by committing suicide. In ‘Der Katzensteg,’ it is again the heroine who is the center of interest. Regine exhibits the character-building of a girl, who, with the barbarous elements of her untamed nature, combines a primitive nobility of soul rising even to the sublime heights of complete self-renunciation. ‘Es War,’ the most successful of Sudermann’s novels, draws the picture of an innocent young girl, Hertha, in love with a man much older than herself; he in turn is in love with a married woman. This to Hertha’s unworldliness seems, in spite of her suspicions, impossible; and conviction dawns upon her slowly. The study is perfectly natural: the author has not shrunk from great frankness of speech; but with it all he proclaims his faith in the essential goodness of the human heart.

As a dramatist, Sudermann has won international fame. ‘Ehre’ roused the German public from its apathy, and the new genius was all-hailed as the re-creator of the German stage. Ruthlessly the play points out the falsity of current ideas about honor, of social forms, of conventional distinctions. Its success was phenomenal, and the highest hopes were cherished of a national dramatic revival. ‘Sodoms Ende’ nourished these hopes, for it showed an advance both in power and technique; but it had to be altered by the censor before it could be produced in Berlin, and it is still impossible in English. The title of the play is that given by the hero to a picture he is painting. On his way to success and fame he falls into the toils of a soulless, pleasure-loving woman, who ruins him body and soul. It was in ‘Heimath,’ however, which was produced in January 1893, that Sudermann reached the height of his achievement thus far, and secured international success. The strong character of Magda, the heroine, by whose name the play is known in English, has inspired the genius of three great actresses of our time,—Modjeska, Duse, and Bernhardt,—who have spread the fame of the German dramatist through America, Italy, France, and England. Its theme is the relative duty of parent and child, and the contrast between the self-reliant broad-mindedness of a free child of the great world and the dull petty conventions of a respectable bourgeois home. Magda marks the highest point of characterization that Sudermann’s creative genius has reached. The ‘Schmetterlingsschlacht’ lacks, not the fineness of observation, but the dramatic power, of the other plays. It is a series of debates between three girls who have supported themselves by painting butterflies on fans; two of them, grown weary of this dull life of hard-working virtue, have fallen, and with the third, who has remained virtuous and industrious, they discuss the comparative merits of their modes of living. In 1896 three of Sudermann’s one-act plays were grouped together under the general title of ‘Morituri.’ They are entirely distinct, united only by having each the central idea of death as a liberator. In each the chief character is freed and ennobled by death; rises above himself by the will to die. Sudermann in 1897 finished his ‘Johannes,’—a play which turns upon the Biblical incident of John the Baptist, Herodias, and Salome. Although it is entirely reverent in tone, it was forbidden by the Berlin censor.

An English critic has insisted that Sudermann failed to keep the promise of ‘Ehre,’ in that he has not continued the battle there begun against the “Spiessbürgerliches” element, the Philistinism so dear to the average German heart, against which Goethe and Schiller waged a lifelong war. It may be that he has found it easier to follow than to form the public taste; but his latest works reveal a determination to go his independent way: and it is to Sudermann that we unhesitatingly turn if asked to point out the chief international representative of the German drama at the end of the nineteenth century.