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Reviewed by:
  • E. T. A. Hoffmann and Alcohol: Biography, Reception and Art
  • Hilda Meldrum Brown (bio)
Victoria Dutchman-Smith. E. T. A. Hoffmann and Alcohol: Biography, Reception and Art. MHRA Texts and Dissertations. London: Maney/Modern Humanities Research Association, 2010. 186 pp. ISBN 978-1906540234, £25.

The title of this study may invoke images of Offenbachian frivolity or, at the other end of the spectrum, of prudish disapproval—an impression which is instantly dispelled on closer scrutiny. This is a scholarly, well-researched analysis [End Page 844] of a somewhat slippery theme that has hitherto attracted little serious attention. While noting the extraordinary range of beverages to which Hoffmann alludes both in his letters, diaries, and fictional works (from punch to Gevrey Chambertin), the author is able to demonstrate not just the sophistication of Hoffmann’s palate but also the subtle ways in which alcohol functions as a metaphor in the Tales: for instance as a structural device (Der goldene Topf ) or as a means of characterization (Der Magnitiseur, Meister Martin der Küfner ).

The first part is devoted to the complex reception of the alcohol theme and Hoffmann in the writer’s own day and well into the nineteenth century in Germany, England, and France. This was largely negative, the only exception being in France. From here we move, in polarized fashion, to the Modernist and Postmodernist worlds of the twentieth century, where it was enthusiastically positive. Using an approach which is historically and contextually anchored, the author attempts to explain the amazing U-turn in the reception process, whereby Hoffmann seemed for long to be singled out for critical opprobrium, only to emerge in recent times as a paragon. The far-reaching effects of Walter Scott’s famous review, whose tentacles spread to Weimar and beyond to the anti-Romantic establishment, are shown to have played a large part in codifying the negative image, while in more recent times the rehabilitation and appropriation of Romanticism, of which figures like Hoffmann and Kleist are nowadays (rightly) regarded as among its leading players, appears in the case of Hoffmann reception to have led the move towards a reorientation and reappraisal of the theme of alcohol in its more anarchic aspects. Victoria Dutchman-Smith shows how Hoffmann himself may have even contributed to the negative image through his notorious self-stylization as a drunken alcoholic. She also shows how prone Hoffmann was to exaggeration and fictionalization of his own experiences: her analysis of his diary entries regarding his observations of the bombardment of Dresden is especially telling. She also demonstrates how modern “Nachdichtungen” and biographically-based fictional accounts of his life by other writers (e.g., Franz Fühmann, Peter Härtling)—a form that has always been especially popular with German readers—together with the coining of the term “hoffmannesk” may have helped to nail down caricatured behavioral features in his image, suggesting constant inebriation and excess.

The second part of the study focuses on a selection of the Tales, some of which are lesser-known examples that well repay the new attention they receive through analysis of the alcohol motif: Meister Martin, for example, acquires added depth through the exposition of Hoffmann’s subtle symbolism in his contrasted presentation of the Master’s crudely fashioned wine-vat and the exquisitely fashioned goblet of his apprentice, Reinhold, reinforcing the theme of old and new approaches to art that runs through the Tale. [End Page 845] In the case of Der goldene Topf, the major themes of art and inspiration are analyzed, together with their obverse: philistine behavior and alcoholic overindulgence, both of which afflict the hero Anselmus in the course of his initiation and erratic progress towards the fully fledged status of Artist and his translation to the realm of Atlantis. These themes, the author suggests, need not be read—as they so often are—in terms of a simple opposition or clear-cut choice between two mutually exclusive, “binary” extremes between which the hero has to choose (108). The distinction which Dutchman-Smith carefully draws (81) between “Trunkenheit,” which is associated with higher artistic aspirations (cf. Hölderlin), and mere “Betrunkenheit” or over-indulgence and loss of control, is...