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Biography 25.4 (2002) 693-696



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Katharina Gerstenberger. Truth to Tell: German Women's Autobiographies and Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. 208 pp. ISBN 0-472-11183-3, $52.50.

Katharina Gerstenberger's investigation of German women's autobiographies is a welcome addition to the growing critical discussion concerning the intersections of gender, writing, and subjectivity. Its examination of four autobiographies written around the turn of the century offers a lucidly written and informative account of the four texts and the historical contexts that surround them. Gerstenberger's selection of texts seems intentionally broad. She examines autobiographies by Austrian as well as German women, and she includes authors from a variety of identity categories: Nahida Ruth Lazarus, a Protestant woman who converted to Judaism; Margarethe von Eckenbrecher, a colonist and housewife in the German territory of Southwest Africa; Adelheid Popp, a working-class woman who was pivotal in the development of the German socialist movement; and Wanda von Sacher-Masoch, whose autobiography is remembered primarily for its account of [End Page 693] her marriage to Leopold Sacher-Masoch, to whose sexual practices we owe the term "masochism." Although non-German (and no doubt many German) readers will have little, if any, knowledge of these four women, Gerstenberger's study includes enough contextualizing material to make the reading of her study useful and comprehensible even to non-specialists. The additional discussion of non-autobiographical texts by three of the authors (Popp, Lazarus, and Sacher-Masoch) expands the general analysis, although it tends also to detract from the focus on autobiography.

Some interesting and useful insights emerge in the course of the volume. What I found of particular interest are the chapters concerning Popp and Sacher-Masoch, in which Gerstenberger moves away somewhat from her primarily historical focus, and delves into more form-based literary analysis. Seeing Popp's Autobiography of a Working Woman as imitative of a sensationalistnovel startled me at first—this somewhat more widely known autobiography, translated in 1913 into English, is earnestly polemic and highly literal in its efforts to encourage the participation of women in the socialist movement—but Gerstenberger argues convincingly that Popp's account of her miserable childhood, the considerable space she allots to personal details such as her problematic relationship to her mother, and, in particular, her indirect, yet suggestive references to the role that sexuality played in her life lend the autobiography a popular tone that could indeed be appealing on a broader level.

Gerstenberger's book succeeds perhaps best of all in her discussion of Sacher-Masoch's confessional account of her relationship with her husband. Echoing observations that she has made in her other chapters, she offers compelling evidence that Sacher-Masoch was, like the other authors she discusses, apt to advance traditional gender roles despite the sexual scandal that her life had represented: that is, to show that, despite modernity and the changes that it brought about in terms of gender discussions, traditional social expectations continued to dominate even in someone like Sacher-Masoch, whose very name elicits thoughts of sexual transgression. Gerstenberger's depiction of the complexity of a woman who managed to see even in her nontraditional circumstances a reason to put forth traditional thinking in her self-representation is most intriguing.

Gerstenberger's feminist analysis is complicated by the categories of identity that she highlights. Her textual analyses of Margarethe von Eckenbrecher, and to a considerably less degree Nahida Lazarus, represent two takes on issues of gender, race, and difference. In the case of Lazarus, the nineteenth-century inclination to view Jewish difference as racial difference is complicated in her autobiography, since she was a convert to Judaism. But her disapproval of this inclination causes her to concentrate on other differences, [End Page 694] primarily those of gender and religion. For her, the Jewish woman is meant to uphold Jewish culture. In an echo of Lazarus's designation of a special cultural role for women, von Eckenbrecher's autobiography emphasizes the German woman as the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 693-696
Launched on MUSE
2003-01-06
Open Access
No
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