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World Literature Turns Political, 1835/36: The Early Afterlife of Goethe's Pronouncement in German Cultural-Politics and in the Young Germany Movement

from Special Section on Goethe's Narrative Events edited by Fritz Breithaupt

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2019

Patrick Fortmann
Affiliation:
University of Illinois, Chicago
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Summary

ON JANUARY 31, 1827, Johann Wolfgang Goethe famously ushered in a new era: “National-Literatur will jetzt nicht viel sagen, die Epoche der Welt-Literatur ist an der Zeit und jeder muß jetzt dazu wirken, diese Epoche zu beschleunigen” (National literature has not much meaning nowadays: the epoch of world literature is at hand, and each must hasten to ease its coming). Yet, dispersed remarks on the subject notwithstanding, the reading public only became aware of the late Goethe's preoccupation with literature's global reach and his attendant dismissal of national poetic roots in 1836, when his secretary Johann Peter Eckermann published his carefully curated account of Gespräche mit Goethe (Conversations with Goethe). The posthumous publication lifted Goethe's idea out of a period of relative quietude in German cultural politics and thrust it into the middle of a heated, high-stakes debate. That debate, better known as the campaign against the so-called Young Germany movement, pitted the writers of this liberal and cosmopolitan group (Ludolf Wienbarg, Karl Gutzkow, Theodor Mundt, and Heinrich Laube) against an alliance of state-paid censors and nationalist-moralist critics (chief among them Wolfgang Menzel). Although the enthusiasm for as well as the resistance to world literature was merely one point of contention among others, Goethe's idea nevertheless got entangled in the series of public exchanges, culminating in the official ban of the group's writings by the Diet of the German Confederation—still one of the most infamous events of press censorship in German history. In the course of that campaign, waged to defame the Young Germans as Goethe's border-crossing students, Weltliteratur took a turn towards politics. It was the Young Germans who first brought the political dimension of the idea to the fore—a dimension, at which Goethe had only hinted with the contrast to national literature and the corresponding affinity to cosmopolitanism. The public debate about the movement became a debate about the politics of world literature, playing out along fault lines that persist to this day: the tensions between cultural centers and marginalized peripheries, world citizenship and local belonging, emancipated secularism and religious identification, as well as the competing artistic preferences for universal forms or regional traditions.

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Goethe Yearbook 26
Publications of the Goethe Society of North America
, pp. 217 - 232
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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