This compelling study traces the development of the nineteenth-century ‘fabrication’ of Goethe as ‘an Anglo-American sage and literary icon’ (p. ix). It shows that Goethe’s role as putative ‘leader of spiritual Europe’ (Thomas Carlyle, qtd. p. 19) and America was partly the product of a ‘cult of personality’, and partly its driving force. By means of six focused essays interspersed with discursive ‘interludes’, Maertz wisely avoids an encyclopaedic approach. Despite an occasional over-reliance on Harold Bloom’s concepts of the anxiety of influence and ‘filial debt’ (e.g. pp. 133, 137, 147, 175), Maertz presents fresh, energetic interpretations of a wide range of Goethe-inspired writing in various genres. Maertz’s attention to the reception of Goethe among religious dissenters in the 1790 s is particularly valuable. His mention of the importance of the two-way trade in religious and literary texts between Britain and Germany deserves further investigation (p. 37; interested readers might refer to Graham Jefcoate, Deutsche Drucker und Buchhändler in London 1680-1811 (2015)). A fine analysis of Thomas Holcroft’s much-maligned translations establishes that his goal was ‘replicating emotional authenticity rather than word-for-word accuracy’ (p. 45). William Taylor, too, emerges as a flawed yet pioneering Anglo-German mediator. Maertz then turns to a young dissenting writer who was influenced by Holcroft and Taylor, yet whose long stay in Germany (1800–1805) enabled a unique level of proficiency in the German language and initiation into the ‘new school’ of Early German Romanticism: Henry Crabb Robinson. Rightly recognizing the accuracy of his interpretation of the critical philosophy of Kant, Maertz also highlights the ‘missionary zeal’ with which Robinson offered German transcendentalism as the antidote to reductive British empiricism (p. 75). Incidentally, it was not entirely ‘ironic’ (p. 71) that Robinson became Germaine de Staël’s tutor when she arrived in Weimar in 1804, seeking philosophical material for use in her polemical work on Germany, De l’Allemagne. Robinson and Staël, disparate in social class though they were, shared the experience of overcoming a Socinian (anti-Calvinist, yet still deterministic) world view as they discovered a new, aestheticized sense of freedom in Germany. Robinson’s long-term allegiance, though, was less to Kant than to Goethe. Maertz acclaims Robinson’s early translations of and commentaries on a selection of Goethe’s poems, and points out the prescience of the young English writer’s placement of Goethe at the pinnacle of German literary achievement. According to Maertz, Robinson’s later (1830 s) series of articles on Goethe in the Monthly Repository were of lesser importance. Even assuming that to be the case, however, Robinson exerted considerable influence through conversation and correspondence on major figures in the canonization of Goethe such as Madame de Staël, Thomas Carlyle and Sarah Austin. But as Maertz explains, the Germanophile dissenters in the wake of the French Revolution did not win the culture war. The anti-Jacobin backlash against continental and especially German culture hobbled even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose attitude to Goethe remained highly ambivalent. The cultural anxiety regarding Goethe’s ‘morality’—in which Coleridge and at times even Robinson shared—was powerful, even though mocked by Goethe himself as prurient ‘Engländerei’. Thomas Carlyle was the British translator, critic and secular prophet who most powerfully pleaded Goethe’s cause, untroubled by un-Christian ‘immorality’. He therefore occupies centre stage in Maertz’s book. In his critical work, Carlyle took up Goethe’s own characteristic fusion of biographical with practical criticism. Goethe was ‘the catalytic, organizing touchstone in Carlyle’s aesthetic vision’ (p. 144). This was enabled by the fact that the two writers shared a political stance of ‘aristocratic disdain’ (p. 142). In one of many thought-provoking and erudite asides, Maertz draws a parallel between the reactionary, anti-Romantic element in Carlyle’s deification of Goethe and Heinrich Heine’s argument in Die romantische Schule (1836): like Carlyle, Heine endorses Goethe at the expense of the Romantics (p. 147). Further, Maertz analyses Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and his adaptation of the genre of the Bildungsroman in Wotton Reinfred (1826–1827). The latter theme is developed further in the final main chapter, ‘The Failure of Romanticism and the Triumph of Realism’. Here Maertz interprets George Eliot’s Middlemarch as ‘an anti-Bildungsroman’, a novel that rejects Wilhelm Meister’s narrative of personal formation (p. 181). Thus, according to Maertz, the ‘enduring achievement of Middlemarch’ is ‘to represent the plight of talented women and outsiders whose capacity for meaningful action is restricted by sexism, narrow-mindedness, and xenophobia’ (p. 188). This conclusion is congruent with Maertz’s earlier focus on Sarah Austin and Margaret Fuller, female writers who, like Eliot and others, attained their own literary voice through an apprenticeship of criticism and translation of German literature. The topics of Literature and the Culture of Personality are thus by no means as dominated by canonical male writers as the name of Goethe might at first lead the reader to imagine. One of the book’s most incisive arguments is that, like the dissenters who inaugurated the reception of Goethe, ‘[w]omen writers in Britain had little choice but to exchange the indifferent culture of their birth for a foreign, nurturing cultural parent’ (p. 175). What Maertz says of female writers in the nineteenth century is equally true of Henry Crabb Robinson: ‘the study and transmission of German literature served as a surrogate for university training based on classical philology from which women were barred’ (p. 171). The book is generally well presented, but contains some glitches. Typographical slips are relatively frequent. The inclusion of quotations in the original German is very welcome, but the reader has to flick to the footnotes at the back of the book to find English translations of long quotations. There is occasional overlap between summary material in the lengthier footnotes and the main text (e.g. pp. 127, 249). Omissions are inevitable in a work of such broad scope, but the absence of Catherine W. Proescholdt-Obermann’s Goethe and His British Critics: The Reception of Goethe’s Works in British Periodicals, 1779 to 1855 (1992) from the otherwise thorough bibliography is regrettable. Maertz’s unduly negative assessment of Coleridge’s engagement with German philosophy might have been modified by Monika Class’s major study Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796-1817 (2012), while Maximiliaan van Woudenberg’s Coleridge and Cosmopolitan Intellectualism: The Legacy of Göttingen University (2017), published too late to be consulted, refutes the supposition that Coleridge failed to study or network properly during his sojourn in 1798–1799 (p. 65). Notwithstanding these cavils, Maertz’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in Anglo-German exchange in the nineteenth century. It will remain a point of reference as scholarship develops further in this area, especially on the many lesser-known texts and writers that this book brings to light. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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