(Re-)Writing the Radical: Enlightenment, Revolution and Cultural Transfer in 1790s Germany, Britain and France ed. by Maike Oergel (review)
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Reviewed by
Maike Oergel, ed., (Re-)Writing the Radical: Enlightenment, Revolution and Cultural Transfer in 1790s Germany, Britain and France. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012. 272 pp.

This collection examines a range of discursive responses to the shock of the French Revolution in the “long” decade of the 1790s—a brief period lengthened by the scale and consequences of a reading and writing public’s efforts to make sense of a changed world. Specifically, the essays in this volume look at how the effects of radical transformation were received and processed across national boundaries. Referring in her introduction to distinct ways in which the notion of universal reason came under new scrutiny in late eighteenth-century Germany, Britain, and France, Maike Oergel notes that “[t]hese developments contributed to bringing about the unusually fertile international intersecting of different discourses—aesthetic, intellectual, and political—which characterizes the ‘revolutionary’ decade and which is the subject of this volume” (1). The “thorough-going critique of Enlightenment values” that unfolded during this period involved a [End Page 280] questioning and revision of these values that was already internal to the “dialectic” of the Enlightenment itself (2) but whose contours—thus the claim of this project—will emerge clearly only when scholars adopt a comparative approach that cuts across national boundaries. The volume’s aim, Oergel argues, is to do what other scholarship has so far neglected to do consistently: to “investigate the Revolution’s intellectual and aesthetic impact and influence on different countries in conjunction,” to “focus on the reciprocity of cultural and political transfers” (3).

The contributors to this discussion—both the volume’s authors and the sources they cite—provide lively and often fascinating examples of such transfer. Among the essays that most explicitly apply themselves to the topic identified in the volume’s title and introduction, several show how the reception of foreign texts enables both the translation and the importation of ideas and new possibilities of engaging with homegrown concerns. Susanne Kord finds in English Werther-literature of the 1790s “ideal test cases” to examine Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument—expressed in the same decade—that sentimental novels encouraged women readers to adopt and internalize gender roles that exacerbated their exclusion from public political discourse (28). As she argues, English adaptations of the story recurrently stripped it of “any kind of social or political content” (33) and, in so doing, reframed it to highlight women’s sentimentality in particular as a matter of “individual failure” (42) without consequence for the social world. If these adaptations domesticated and depoliticized Goethe’s novel, Barry Murnane’s essay shows how German Gothic writings were invested, in England, with politically tinged horrors that marked German culture itself as “the radical Other to British reason and order” (45): “it was relatively easy to bundle these works together to create an image of a ‘German School’ of horror reveling in the violence of the French Revolution” (48). As Murnane also argues through an analysis of the 1797 mock-German play The Rovers published in the Anti-Jacobin Review, German culture came to serve as a “field onto which internal British conflicts can be projected” (55). More generally, what inspired fascination and dread were the signs of modernization itself: “consumerism, mass-readership, cosmopolitanism” (53). Commenting on a similar logic whereby British anti-Jacobins labeled as “absurd” or “unnatural” German literary themes and texts deemed to be subversive, Imke Heuer examines Harriet and Sophia Lee’s 1801 novella Kruitzner, or The German’s Tale to show “how women writers used historical fiction to comment on current events and participate in contemporary debates” (24).

Nowhere were the concerns raised by a rapidly changing world more explicitly reflected than in the growth, circulation, thematic choices, and market successes (and failures) of periodicals—the one medium that, according to Johann Adam Bergk (who is cited in this volume by Renata Schellenberg), most clearly revealed at the very end of the eighteenth century “das Streben und die Meinungen” of his contemporaries (89). Schellenberg examines the changing print culture by surveying the fate and concerns of several periodicals, including Wieland’s Der Teutsche Merkur, several of Schiller’s journals (e.g., Rheinische Thalia...