- German Writing, American Reading: Women and the Import of Fiction, 1866–1917 by Lynne Tatlock
Long before German companies drew on the phrase “made in Germany” to highlight the quality of their export products, nineteenth-century publishers in the United States used the same idea to sell popular novels translated from the German to an avid American reading public.
In German Writing, American Reading, Lynne Tatlock introduces us to this phenomenon, drawing extensively on library circulation records, reviews, and publication data to underscore the popularity of domestic fiction by German women among American readers in the second half of the nineteenth century. Central to this phenomenon was the lack of copyright protection for foreign works, a situation which allowed American publishers to print and reprint translations of pirated German novels. Tatlock’s groundbreaking study of this little-known subset of nineteenth-century Americans’ reading—popular novels written by German women and translated by American women—fills a gap in American literary history and opens up a new, cross-cultural field within German Studies.
The large numbers of translated German books circulating in the United States in the nineteenth century has been consistently overlooked by American literary and cultural historians. One reason for this, Tatlock argues, lies in this literature’s “multiple marginalization”: the books were popular, foreign, read in translation, authored and consumed by women (11). Tatlock takes a rich, multi-dimensional approach to her analysis of this body of literature, addressing the works in terms of their plots, their translators and translations, their readership, and their reception. In so doing, she draws on approaches from book history, women’s and gender studies, reception theory, and literary criticism, examining the works both as material objects (including cover art and inscriptions) and texts requiring interpretation.
In part one, “German Writing, American Reading,” Tatlock expands upon the book’s introduction by providing an overview of several of the nineteenth-century German women authors whose translated works enjoyed such popularity in the United [End Page 185] States. Foremost among them were four authors serialized in Die Gartenlaube—E. Werner, E. Marlitt, W. Heimburg, and Wilhelmine von Hillern—along with Luise Mühlbach, author of historical romances. Born between 1810 and 1855, these women were able to establish careers as authors thanks to the expansion of the book market in the late nineteenth century. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the tremendous commercial success their novels enjoyed—Mühlbach, for example, was the single most popular German writer of either gender in the second half of the nineteenth century—these authors have occupied a minor place in histories of German literature, wedged between women authors of the Romantic era, such as Dorothea Schlegel and Bettina von Arnim, and (proto)feminists like Gabriele Reuter and Helene Böhlau. In this sense, Tatlock’s study stands as a valuable contribution not only to the history of American print culture, but to German literary history as well.
In “German Texts as American Books,” the second and longest part of the study, Tatlock examines thirty translated novels by eighteen authors. Similarities between these books, Tatlock notes, point to “the emergence of a German genre in America” (30), and in the four chapters in this section she traces the thematic contours of this genre. The first chapter focuses on the highly popular novels of E. Marlitt (Tatlock’s own database includes 250 American editions of Marlitt’s ten novels); in Marlitt’s works, American translators and publishers found a formula for commercial success that came to characterize the “good read” that was “made in Germany.” Each of the remaining three chapters addresses a key aspect or subgenre within this set of texts: the happy ending, the novel of remarriage, and the portrayal of masculinity. In her discussion of the plots and themes of these novels, Tatlock draws connections to works of canonical literature (by authors such as Storm, Freytag, Raabe, and Thomas Mann, as well as Charlotte Brontë), thereby locating popular literature within established...