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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 126-132
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Dating the Eighteenth Century in German Literary History
Across European national histories and literatures, dating the eighteenth century is as notoriously tricky as it is politically fraught. A long eighteenth century seems to have occurred in England, stretching by some accounts from 1680 to 1820, by others from 1660 to 1837. In France, the eighteenth century has been viewed as much shorter, condensed between 1715 and 1789. When did the eighteenth century happen in Germany? Did it happen earlier or later than in England and France? Germany, of course, did not exist as a state, rendering a discussion of its national literature difficult; attempts at demarcating German-language eighteenth-century literature produce as many questions as answers. When did the eighteenth century begin? Was it as "belated" as the formation of the German nation, to use an adjective formerly common among historians?
The origins of the century's various tendencies and movements are, obviously, plural and hybrid. One might advance the thesis that the eighteenth century began in German with "the father of the German Enlightenment," Christian Thomasius, active in Leipzig and Halle from the late 1680s. Or, one could claim the popular anthology of gallant poetry edited by Benjamin Neukirch in 1695 as a sure sign that the century's much-touted literary sociability (Geselligkeit) was already established. Then again, one might point to Gottsched's journal The Sensible Scolds (Die vernünftigen Tadlerinnen) from 1725/26 with its imitation of Addison and Steele's reforming ambitions as a likely starting point. Whatever origin is chosen has obvious consequences: an earlier date can blur any specificity about the century, rendering it useless as a heuristic tool; a later date can radically truncate, it, obscuring vital connections to older traditions. The three volumes reviewed here locate the eighteenth century differently. Reading the literary history edited by Becker-Cantarino together with Simons's monograph and the anthology edited and introduced by Carrdus helps us to see what is at stake when we date the eighteenth century.
The publication of the planned ten-volume Camden House History of German Literature finally allows readers of English to pick a new multi-volume German literary history from the shelf. Anglo-American students of literature should be pleased. While several recent single-volume histories of German literature in English are readily available, only two outdated multi-volume histories exist: W. Scherer's A History of German Literature (first published in English in 1887) and August Closs's Introductions to German Literature (1967–1970). It is a student audience of all ages that Barbara Becker-Cantarino addresses in the introduction to German Literature of the Eighteenth Century: The Enlightenment and Sensibility. There, she ably situates the accompanying eleven essays, each by a different author, between two key movements of the German eighteenth century: the Enlightenment and Sensibility of the volume's subtitle. (The series' sixth and seventh volumes are devoted to later movements of German eighteenth-century literature: Storm and Stress and Weimar Classicism.) Distinguishing this volume is the attention paid to female writers and especially to the growing population of female readers. As Becker-Cantarino emphasizes, "The new literary sociability was due to a large extent to the spread of literacy among women, especially in the middle-class, that took place from about the 1730s on" (17).
The volume's essays begin in the 1720s with a fine piece by Katherine R...