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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 Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882)

THE AUTHOR of ‘Black Forest Village Stories’ and ‘On the Heights’ stands out in honorable individuality among modern German novelists, even if the latest fashions in fiction make his work already a little antiquated. Auerbach’s biography is one of industry rather than of incident. His birth was humble. His life was long. He wrote voluminously and was widely popular, to be half forgotten within a decade after his death, and almost entirely forgotten ten years later. He may perhaps be reckoned the founder of the modern German school of tendenz novel writers, and as such holds his place in the history of literature. Half a century ago he was a name not only for Germany but for half Europe.

Of Jewish parentage, his birthplace being Nordstetten, Würtemberg (1812), Auerbach drifted from preparation for the synagogue toward law, philosophy, and literature. The study of Spinoza (whose works he translated) gave form to his convictions concerning human life. It led him to spend his literary talents on materials so various as the homely simplicity of peasant scenes and peasant souls, on the one hand, and on the other the popularization of a high social and ethical philosophy, specially inculcated through his larger fictions. His college education was obtained at Tübingen, Munich, and Heidelberg.

Necessity rather than ambition prompted him to write, and he wrote as long as he lived. A partial list of his works begins with a pseudonymous ‘Life of Frederick the Great’ (1834–36), and ‘Das Judenthum und die Neuste Literatur’ (The Jew Element in Recent Literature: 1836), and passes to the semi-biographic novel ‘Spinoza’ (1837), afterward supplemented with ‘Ein Denkerleben’ (A Thinker’s Life), ‘Dichter und Kaufman’ (Poet and Merchant: 1839),—stories belonging to the ‘Ghetto Series,’ embodying Jewish and German life in the time of Moses Mendelssohn; the translation in five volumes of Spinoza’s philosophy, with a critical biography, 1841; and in 1842 another work intended to popularize philosophy, ‘Der Gebildete Bürger: ein Buch für den Denkenden Menschen’ (The Clever Townsman: a Book for Thinking Men).

In 1843 came the first set of the famous ‘Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten’ (Black Forest Village Stories), followed by a second group in 1848. These won instant and wide favor, and were widely translated. They rank among the author’s most pleasing and successful productions, stamped as they are with that truth which a writer like Auerbach, or a painter like Defregger or Schmidt, can express when sitting down to deal with the scenes and folk which from early youth have been photographed upon his heart and memory. In 1856 there followed in the same descriptive field his ‘Barfüssele’ (Little Barefoot), ‘Joseph im Schnee’ (Joseph in the Snow: 1861), and ‘Edelweiss’ (1861). His writings of this date—tales, sketches journalistic, political, and dramatic, and other papers—reveal Auerbach’s varying moods or enthusiasms, chronicle his residence in different German or Austrian cities, and are comparatively insignificant among his forty or more volumes. Nor is much to be said of his first long fiction, ‘Neues Leben’ (New Life).

But with ‘Auf der Höhe’ (On the Heights), a philosophic romance of court life in the capital and the royal country seat of a considerable German kingdom (by no means merely imaginary), inwoven with a minute study of peasant life and character, Auerbach’s popular reputation was established. His plan of making ethics the chief end of a novel was here exhibited at its best; he never again showed the same force of conception which got his imperfect literary art forgiven. Another long novel, not less doctrinaire in scope, but dealing with quite different materials and problems, ‘Das Landhaus am Rhein’ (The Villa on the Rhine), was issued in 1868; and was followed by ‘Waldfried,’ a long, patriotic, and on the whole inert, study of a German family from 1848 until the close of the Franco-Prussian War.

In spite of his untiring industry, Auerbach produced little more of consequence, though he wrote a new series of Black Forest sketches: ‘Nach Dreissig Jahren’ (After Thirty Years: 1876); ‘Der Forstmeister’ (The Head Forester: 1879); and ‘Brigitta’ (1880). The close of his life was much embittered by the growth of the anti-Semitic sentiment; and his residence in Germany was merely nominal. He died at Cannes, France, in 1882.

‘On the Heights’ is doubtless Auerbach’s best representative. ‘The Villa on the Rhine’ is in a lower key, with less appealing types, and less attractive local color. Moreover, it is weighted with more philosophizing, and its movement is slower. In ‘On the Heights’ the emotional situations are strong. In spite of sentimentality, a true feeling animates its technique. The atmosphere of a German royal residence, as he reveals it, appears almost as heavy as the real thing. Auerbach’s humor is leaden; he finds it necessary to explain his own attempts at it. But the peasant-nurse Walpurga, her husband Hansei, and the aged grandmother in the family, are admirable delineations. The heroine, Irma von Wildenort, is genuinely human. The story of her abrupt atonement for a lapse from her better self, the gradual process of her fantastic expiation and of her self-redemption,—through the deliberate sacrifice of all that belongs to her treacherous past,—her successful struggle into a high ethical life and knowledge of herself (the element which gives the book its force), offer much that is consistent, and appealing and elevating to the conscience.

Auerbach crowds material into the book, tangles up too many different skeins of plot, offers too many types to study and interests to follow, and betrays a want of perspective in its construction. But in spite of all its defects it is a novel that should not be forgotten. For reflective readers it will always hold a charm, and its latent strength is proved by its triumph over its own faults.