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 Gustav Freytag (18161895)
All of Freytag’s earliest work, with the single exception of a volume of poems published in 1845 under the title ‘In Breslau,’ is dramatic. His first production was a comedy, ‘Die Brautfahrt’ (The Wedding Journey), published in 1844, which although it was awarded a prize offered by the Royal Theatre in Berlin, found but indifferent popular favor, as did its successor, the one-act tragedy ‘Die Gelehrte’ (The Scholar). With his next play, ‘Die Valentine’ (1846), Freytag however was signally successful. This was followed the year after by ‘Graf Waldemar.’ He attained his highest dramatic success with the comedy ‘Die Journalisten’ (The Journalists), which appeared in 1853, and since its first production in 1854 has maintained its place as one of the most popular plays on the German stage. But one other play followed, the tragedy ‘Die Fabier’ (The Fabii), which appeared in 1859.
He had begun in the mean time his career as a novelist with his most famous novel, ‘Soll und Haben’ (Debit and Credit), which was published in 1855 and met with an immediate and unbounded success. The appearance of this first novel, furthermore, was most significant, for it marked at the same time an era both in German literature and in its author’s own career, in that it introduced into the one in its most recent phase one of the profoundest problems of modern life in Germany, and unmistakably pointed out, in the other, the direction which he was subsequently to follow. This latter statement has a twofold bearing. It is not only that as a writer of novels Freytag did his most important and lasting work, but that the whole of this work was in a manner the development of a similar tendency. Although as different as need be in environment, all of his subsequent novels embody inherently the characteristics of ‘Debit and Credit,’ for like it, they are all well-defined attempts to depict the typical social conditions of the period in which they move, and their characters are the carefully considered types of their time. Freytag, with a philosophic seriousness of purpose perhaps characteristically German, is writing not only novels but the history of civilization, in his early work. Later on, the didactic purpose to a certain extent overshadows the rest; and although he never loses his power of telling a story, it is the history in the end that is paramount.
‘Debit and Credit’ is a novel of the century, and it takes up the great problem of the century, the position of modern industrialism in the social life of the day. Its principal center of action is the business house of the wholesale grocer T. O. Schröter, who is an admirable embodiment of the careful, industrious, and successful merchant. In sharp contradistinction to him is the Baron von Rothsattel, the representative of earlier conditions in the organization of the State, which made the nobleman pre-eminently a social force. Freytag’s polemic is not only the dignity of labor under present conditions, but the absolute effeteness of the old order of things that despised it. The real hero of the story is Anton Wohlfahrt, who begins his commercial career as a youth in the house of T. O. Schröter, and ends, after some vicissitudes, as a member of the firm. Mercantile life has nowhere been better described in its monotony, its interests, and its aspirations, as the story is developed; and although at first sight no field could be more barren in literary interest, there is in reality no lack of incident and action, whose inevitable sequence makes the plot. Anton’s career in the house of Schröter is interrupted by his connection with the Baron von Rothsattel, who has, through his want of a business training and his lack of a knowledge of men, fallen into the hands of a Jew money-lender; by whom he is persuaded to mortgage his land in order to embark in a business undertaking which it is presumed will increase his fortune. His mill fails, however, and he is involved in difficulties from which he is unable to extricate himself. Anton, the intimate friend of the family, is therefore persuaded by the Baroness to undertake the management of matters, and after vainly endeavoring to induce his principal to interest himself in the affair, sacrifices his position to accompany the family to their dilapidated estate in a distant province. The Baron will tolerate no interference, however, and Anton finally returns to the house of Schröter and is reinstated in the business. Lenore, the Baron’s daughter, the first cause of Anton’s interest, meantime becomes engaged to the young nobleman Fink; who has been an associate of Anton’s in the office of T. O. Schröter, has but recently returned from the United States, and who first advances funds for the improvement of the estate and ultimately purchases it.
Fink acts his part in the author’s philosophy as a contrast to the Baron von Rothsattel. Although a nobleman, he has adapted himself to the conditions of the century, and is free from any hallucinations of his hereditary rank, even while he is perfectly awake to its traditions. He has entered upon a commercial career not from choice, but from necessity; but he has accepted his fate and has made successful use of his opportunities. Anton marries the sister of T. O. Schröter, and becomes a partner in the business. Fink is however really the one who gains the princess in this modern tale, and is plainly to have the more important share as an actual social force in the future. The old feudal nobility has played its part on the stage of the world; and being so picturesque, and full of romantic opportunity, its loss is doubtless to be regretted. The tamer realities of the modern industrial state have succeeded it. As Freytag solves the problem in ‘Soll und Haben,’ it is the man who works, the man of the industrial classes alone, to whom the victory belongs in the modern social struggle, be his antecedents bourgeois or aristocratic.
Freytag’s second great novel, ‘Die Verlorene Handschrift’ (The Lost Manuscript), which appeared in 1864, concerns itself with another phase of the same problem. This time, however, instead of the merchant and man of affairs, it is the scholar about whom the action centers. Felix Werner, professor of philology, has come upon unmistakable traces of the lost books of Tacitus, whose recovery is the object of his life. In his search for the manuscript in an old house in the country he finds his future wife Ilse, one of the finest types in all German literature of the true German woman, both while at home a maid in her father’s house and subsequently as the professor’s wife in the university town. Werner, in his scholarly absorption, unwittingly neglects his wife, whose beauty has attracted the attention of the prince; and there is a series of intrigues which threaten seriously to involve the innocent Ilse, until the prince’s evil intentions become evident even to the unsuspecting Werner. The covers of the lost manuscript are actually discovered at last, but the book itself has vanished. In this second novel Freytag displays a most genial humor, unsuspected in the author of ‘Debit and Credit,’ but apparent enough in ‘The Journalists.’ The professorial life is admirably drawn with all its lights and shadows; and its motives and ambitions, its peculiar struggles and strivings, have never been more understandingly treated. The story, however, even more than ‘Debit and Credit,’ displays the author’s weaknesses of construction. The plot is so confused by digressions that the main thread is sometimes lost sight of, and the tendency to philosophical generalization, which as a German is to some extent the author’s birthright, reaches in these pages an appalling exemplification. What had been an extraordinary novel pruned of these defects, is still not an ordinary novel with them; and as a picture of German university life from the point of view of the professor, ‘The Lost Manuscript’ stands unrivaled in literature. Again the thesis in this second novel is the dignity of labor, and the nobleman fares no better at the author’s hands than in the mercantile environment of the first.
These two novels, which outside of Germany are Freytag’s best claim to attention, were followed by the four volumes of ‘Bilder aus der Deutschen Vergangenheit’ (Pictures from the German Past: 1859–62), a series of studies of German life from different epochs of its history, intended to illustrate the evolution of modern conditions through their successive stages from the remote past. Freytag’s early work as a university docent had particularly fitted him for this sort of writing, and some of his best is contained in these books.
More important still, however, was his next great work, the long series of historical novels ‘Die Ahnen’ (The Ancestors: 1872–80), an ambitious plan, born of the stirring events of the Franco-Prussian War and the resultant awakening of the new spirit of nationality, to trace the development of the German people from the earliest time down to the present day. To carry out this purpose he accordingly selects a typical German family, which he describes under the characteristic conditions of each period, with the most conscientious attention to manners and customs and social environment. The same family thus appears from generation to generation under the changing conditions of the different epochs of German history, and the whole forms together the consecutive Culturgeschichte of the nation.
This whole long series of ‘The Ancestors’ stands as a monument of careful research into the most minute factors of German life in their time of action. Freytag’s antiquarianism is not of the dilettante kind that is content to masquerade modern motives in ancient garb and setting. He was fully conscious of all the elements of his problem, and he sought to reproduce the intellectual point of view of his actors, and to account for their motives of action, as well as to picture accurately their material environment. It is in his super-conscientiousness in these directions that the inherent weakness of the novels of this series lies. They are too palpably reconstructions with a purpose. Their didacticism is wrapped around them like a garment; and much of the time, that is all that is visible upon the surface. As the series advances this fault grows upon them. They are in reality of very unequal interest. ‘Ingo’ and ‘Ingraban’ are the sprightliest in action, and have been as a consequence the most widely read of these later works, many of which are, in part at least, far too serious of purpose to play their part conspicuously well as novels.
The novels of ‘The Ancestors’ are a culmination of Freytag’s literary evolution. As a playwright he will no doubt be forgotten except for ‘The Journalists’; in which he has, however, left an imperishable play which German critics have not hesitated to call the best comedy of the century. The two novels of modern life from his middle period form together his greatest work, although here, and particularly in ‘The Lost Manuscript,’ he has overweighted his material with abstract discussion, in which his perspective has sometimes all but disappeared. Subsequently, both the ‘Bilder’ and ‘Die Ahnen’ show his decided predilection for historical studies. The struggle in his own case was between the scholar and the man of letters, in which the scholar eventually won possession of the field.
Freytag’s other work includes—‘Die Technik des Dramas’ (The Technique of the Drama: 1863), a consideration of the principles of dramatic construction; the life of his friend Karl Malthy, 1870; and ‘Der Kronprinz und die Deutsche Kaiserkrone’ (The Crown Prince and the German Imperial Crown: 1889), written after the death of Frederick III., with whom Freytag had had personal relations. To accompany the collected edition of his works (1887–88), he wrote a short autobiography, ‘Erinnerungen aus Meinem Leben’ (Recollections from My Life).