Category Archives: Dissertation

The Literary History of Braunschweig’s Water Supply

Wilhelm Raabe’s 1884 novel Pfisters Mühle was famously inspired by an actual court case in the city of Braunschweig in the 1880s.  Raabe’s novel is often hailed as German literature’s first “Öko-Roman,” although as I have indicated in a prior post, that is by no means Braunschweig_Brunswick_Marienbrunnen_von_Süden_(2007)uncontested.  Be that as it may, the novel is responding to a significant moment in German environmental history.  Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of trash and untreated human waste dumped into rivers and streams was the most pressing pollution problem, particularly in the cities.  With the rapid industrialization of Germany, the byproducts of industrial production predictably eclipsed urban sewage as a source of woe.  The degradation of the water, in turn, meant that mills, baths, and other commercial establishments that depended on the water downstream were effectively put out of business.  The result was a series of so called “Wasserprozesse,” or “water trials” at the end of the 19th century.  Most of these trials were suits brought by commercial enterprises seeking to recoup profits lost from industrial pollution.  Pfisters Mühle dramatizes (or more accurately, under-dramatizes) the trial of the real mills in the villages of Bienrode and Wenden against the beet sugar factory Rautheim, all of which are now located within the Braunschweig city limits.

Here’s a bit of interesting history.1

  •  Braunschweig was a major center of beet sugar production in 19th century Germany.  The first factories began operation in the 1830s, and by the 1860s the industry was a cornerstone of the city’s economy.  The production season began in September, after the harvest, and lasted until late January or February.
  • Beet sugar production produces an incredible amount of waste water.  The processing of a single beet for sugar produces 30 to 40 cubic meters of waste water.  In the 1880s Rautheim would have processed about 25,000 tons of beets during the campaign, pumping out around a million cubic meters of waste water.  And Rautheim was just one of many in the Braunschweig area.  Some factories tried to dilute the byproducts of sugar production, but this only increased the consumption of water and put further pressure on the overall supply.
  • German cities began building filtration facilities in the 1860s, but the technology was often regarded as too expensive to be worth the allocation of city resources, and so they remained uncommon for decades after the technology was developed.  Braunschweig maintained filtration facilities to protect the water quality in the Oker river, which runs directly through town and provided the city with most of its drinking water, but these were ill equipped to handle the growing volume of waste from the beet sugar factories.  Rautheim maintained a small sewage farm on its premises, but this was not nearly enough to absorb all of the waste, and so most of it went into the Wabe stream, which drains into the Schunter, all of which are part of the Oker river basin.
  • The denizens of Braunschweig began noticing the decline in drinking water quality around 1880.  During the campaign of 1884-1885, shortly after Pfisters Mühle hit bookshelves (where, unfortunately for Raabe, most of the copies stayed), pollution from the beet sugar factories overwhelmed the city’s filtration facilities, and the drinking water supply collapsed.  This became a regular occurence until 1895, when the city finally expanded its purification system.
  • In January of 1891 the factory at Broitzem attempted to clear its waste water by releasing iron salt into its waste water.  This apparently cleared the water of the byproducts of beet sugar production, but gave Braunschweig’s water a red-brown color, meaning that nobody could do their laundry without staining all of their clothes.
  • In Pfisters Mühle, it is the smell of the water that drives away most of the mill’s guests and employees.  The waste water from beet sugar production contains a considerable amount of hydrogen sulfide.  The bacteria beggiatoa feeds off of the hydrogen sulfide.  Hydrogen sulfide is also the gas often responsible for the offensive odor of human flatus.

In Raabe’s most famous novel Stuffcake (1889) we learn that Heinrich Schaumann is financing his amateur archaeology by renting out some of his arable land to the local beet sugar factory.  When I taught that novel, I made sure to draw the students’ attention to this.  Later that semester I was as surprised as they were when W.G. Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn falls into a conversation with a beet sugar farmer who pointed out “the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and th history of art” (194).2  Sebald’s novel links this to the global networks of exploitation that evolved out of European colonialism, a problem that also lurks in the background of Raabe’s 1889 novel.

1.  See Behrens, Christian. Die Wassergesetzgebung im Herzogtum Braunschweig nach Bauernbefreiung und industrieller Revolution: Zur Genese des Wasserrechts im bürgerlichen Rechtsstaat. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2009 Hamburg.; Blasius, Rudolf, and Heinrich Beckurts. “Verunreinigung und Reinigung der Flüsse nach Untersuchungen des Wassers der Oker.” Deutsche Viertelsjahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27.2 (1895): 337-60.;  Kluge, Thomas, and Engelbert Schramm. Wassernöte: Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers. Aachen: Alano, 1986.; Uekötter, Frank. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg, 2007.

2. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1998.

Literature and Limnology

There’s an interesting history of studies of German realist texts coming from the natural sciences.  The earliest critical essays on Wilhelm Raabe’s Pfisters Mühle that are worth citing today are a pair of essays that appeared in 1925 by noted German limnologist August Thienemann.  Thienemann’s studies of dams in the first half of the 20th century make him an important figure in the history of ecology in Germany.  While Thienemann discusses the issue of industrial pollution, his interest is more a disciplinary one, that is, how Raabe borrowed from the natural scientists, specifically studies by his acquaintance and fellow member of the Kleiderseller Heinrich Beckurts.1  Still, Thienemann’s discoveries are of no small significance for Raabe scholarship.  Much of the philological background that was included in the notes in the current critical edition, the Braunschweig edition, are from Thienemann.  Bacteriologist Ludwig Popp’s 1959 essay on Pfisters Mühle situates the novel within an environmental history of Braunschweig.  Popp includes some of his own findings on the water quality in the area, taken after the factory that inspired the story had been shut down.2 These were some of the essays Horst Denkler criticized as not being wrong, but as magnifying aspects of the texts without connecting them to the larger narrative structure(85-86).3

Turning to the scholarship on Fontane, I have just finished reading Heinz-Dieter Krausch’s 1968 essay “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.” 4  Krausch was working at the research station on Lake Stechlin, the eponymous body of water in Theodor Fontane’s last finished novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin).  Krausch’s essay is all about the physical characteristics of the actual lake and its surroundings.  As interesting as his account is, the result is an essay that falls more on the side of “Wirklichkeit” (reality) and less on the side of “Dichtung” (poetry).  In other words, the essay spends most of its time outside of the text.  For instance, the novel cites the myth of the red hen, which supposedly rises out of the lake’s water when there’s some major seismic event somewhere on the planet.  Krausch suggests that this may be traced back to fishermen on the lake at night whose nets released methane produced by decaying organic matter on the seafloor, which their torches then ignited (345).  A discussion of the symbolic importance of this myth within Fontane’s novel, however, is not supplied.

None of this is to cast aspersions on Thienemann, Popp, Krausch, or any other natural scientist who feels moved to write about literature of engaging in bad critical practice.  I mean to suggest instead that when we in literary studies ask how we might cross disciplinary boundaries to explore our objects of study (i.e. people and places that may have physical equivalents but are, in the final analysis, mediated through language), it is important not to lose sight of the important questions that literary studies exists to explore in the first place.

1. Thienemann, August. “»Pfisters Mühle«. Ein Kapitel Aus Der Geschichte Der Biologischen Wasseranalyse.” Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins der preußischen Rheinlande und Westfalens 82 (1925): 315-29.

—. “Wilhelm Raabe und die Abwasserbiologie.” Mitteilungen für die Gesellschaft der Freunde Wilhelm Raabes 15 (1925): 124-31.

2. Popp, Ludwig. “»Pfisters Mühle«.  Schlüsselroman zu einem Abwasserprozeß.” Städtehygiene.2 (1959): 21-25.

3. Denkler, Horst. “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle.” Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1988. 81-102.

4.  Krausch, Heinz-Dieter. “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.”  Fontane-Blätter 1.7 (1968): 345-353.

Maps: Illustrating the Economic and Material Background of German Realism

The theoretical problems that underpin both the critical discourse and the literary production in the era of German realism can be very surprising for an audience schooled on the Victorian novel.  When I first encountered German realism myself, it seemed to me to be not realism at all.  How can literature be “realistic” while at the same time be committed to a process of transfiguration (Verklärung)?  Doesn’t the German verb itself, verklären, imply a moving away from realistic representation?  These questions might be naive, but they were my basic point of departure.  Since I had mostly dealt with the Anglophone canon in school, when I thought of “realism” I thought of Dickens’ London.  I associated the term with the kind of misere that Theodor Fontane specifically rejects in his essay “Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848” (147-148).1 This is not to say that the authors of this period simply ignored the changing reality of German in this period.  Early in Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), for instance, Heinrich Drendorf visits a valley filled with factories and carefully studies the production processes there.  But this scene occupies all of a paragraph, and in the next he’s off studying plants.  My initial question might have been summed up as: “where have all the street urchins gone?”

This and other questions evolved into the basic problem that my dissertation seeks to address. The problem boils down to a basic aporia that has puzzled me about German realism since the start, namely the contradiction between the programmatic realist imperative to portray the world in a way that is objective and poetically transfigured (verklärt) and the increasingly prosaic character of that world.  After several years of formulating and re-formulating a question that might be sufficient to drive a dissertation, what I really want to know is this: what happens to a realist program of aesthetic transfiguration when an industrial mode of production has transformed the environment to such an extent that it no longer lends itself to poetic representation?

In the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize!,” we might actually look at what was going on in the physical world at the time that the literature was written.  Here are three maps of Cologne that make visible the material basis of the theoretical questions my project raises.

Cologne 1807 2This first map is a representation of Cologne in the year 1807.  The city has been under French control since 1794, the year prior Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and issued Prussia a stinging defeat at Jena-Auerstadt.  There is no bridge over the Rhine.  The surrounding areas show little development, and the city walls clearly delineate the boundary between city and country.

Here is another map of Cologne, this time from 1845.  Cologne has since fallen under Prussian control, and the Catholic/Protestant divide within the expanded Prussia has caused no small amount of tension. There Cologne 1845are a few distinct changes in the landscape.  We now have a bridge over the Rhine, and railroads extend at least up to the city walls.  Nevertheless, the city’s physical makeup hasn’t change all that much.  The wetlands on each bank of the Rhine to the south of the city still appear to be in place.

Compare this to the Cologne 1893following map of Cologne from 1893.  Within one human lifetime, the city has radically changed.  The railroad network is much more extensive, and settlements like Nippes have been transformed into dense areas of industrial development.  The wetlands on the left bank of the Rhine have also vanished, and “nature” can now be found in the lovely “Stadtwald,” adjacent to Braunsfeld and Lindenthal.

These maps speak volumes about the historical processes underway in Germany after 1848 and especially after 1871.  These processes are there even in the texts that are truest to the tenets of programmatic realism.  Taken together, there is an interesting story to be told here, one that, I believe, may not be so alien to an English language readership after all.

1.  Reprinted in Plumpe, Gerhard (ed.). Theorie des bürgerlichen Realismus: Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1997. 140-148

An Introduction to Wilhelm Raabe

At this point it is probably important to say a little bit about who exactly Wilhelm Raabe is.  He is, of course, a German realist author, and he is the author who inspired Wilhelm_Raabe_1910my dissertation project.  Unlike the other authors I am covering, Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Fontane, Wilhelm Raabe is unfortunately less familiar to audiences beyond the German speaking countries.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are a historic dearth of translations, a rocky reception history in his own lifetime, and the appropriation of his legacy by a conservative and frequently anti-semitic circle of readers after Raabe’s death in 1910, who in turn paved the way for the author’s integration into National Socialist cultural politics in the 1930s.1  Beyond that, Raabe can be a pretty hard author to read.  By “hard,” of course, I mean that he demands of his reader a certain level of intellectual labor and a willingness to accept that there are certain things that we won’t “get.”  His stories are narrated in a rather idiosyncratic idiom, he reduces plot in some cases down to nothing (the “climax” of Stopfkuchen is the word “yes”), and he sprinkles his texts with numerous allusions that even people steeped in 19th century philology might not get right away.  Of course, to my mind his singular language and his subversion of narrative conventions and genre typologies is the pleasure of reading him in the first place!

For the curious beginner, I would recommend Stopfkuchen (translated under the rather awful title of Tubby Schaumann, but the title means Stuffcake) which is available in print in English in the collection Wilhelm Raabe: Novels. I can also recommend the novella At the Sign of the Wild Man available in new translation in the collection German Moonlight; Höxter and Corvey; At the Sign of the Wild Man.

Here is a little bit of information from a handout I give to students and others forced to listen to me talk about this guy.

Biographic Details

  • Wilhelm Raabe: German Realist Author, born 1831 in Escherhausen, active 1856 – 1900 in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Braunschweig, died 1910 in Braunschweig.
  • Major Works: Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse (Chronicle of Sparrow Alley, 1856), Der Hungerpastor (The Hunger Pastor, 1864), Abu Telfan, Oder die Heimkehr vom Mondgebirge (Abu Telfan, or the Return from the Mountains of the Moon, 1867), Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill, 1884), Die Akten des Vogelsangs (The Documents of the Birdsong, 1896).

Notable Works Available in English

1. On this point see Jeffrey Sammons’ history of Raabe reception in the 20th century The Shifting Fortunes of Wilhelm Raabe: A History of Criticism as a Cautionary Tale.

Literature and the Environment: A Few (Eco)Critical Positions

As I began trying to articulate my dissertation project, I knew what phenomena were present in the texts that I wanted to talk about: urban and industrial sprawl, pollution of the air and water, the cultivation of nature, etc.  The challenge for this, as for any project, was to find both the right language and the right framework for bringing these phenomena together into a cohesive critical project.  They are, broadly speaking, environmental issues, or at least we would categorize them as such today.  But how could I talk about them in a way that was coherent and true to the texts, while achieving what all of us at a research university are supposed to be doing, that is, generating “new knowledge?”  Exploring possible answers to this question, of course, is more or less what ecocritics have been up to for the last couple of decades.  The questions here become, how does one read a text in an ecologically mindful fashion?  How does one sustain a critical project based on such a mode of reading?  Ultimately what these questions boil down to, though, is one that drives literary studies: how does one read?

It turns out that a discussion unfolded in Raabe scholarship in the 1980s and early 1990s over just these issues, with Wilhelm Raabe’s novel Pfisters Mühle as the object of contention.  This was ecocriticism’s most protean stage, when texts on the environment and literature were appearing, but before we began to get volumes, journals, and associations.  A quick gloss of the debate:  In 1980 Horst Denkler published an essay entitled “Wilhelm Raabe: Pfisters Mühle (1884).  Zur Aktualität eines alten Themas und vom Nutzen offener Strukturen” in the volume Romane und Erzählungen des bürgerlichen Realismus: Neue Interpretation.  The essay appeared again under the title “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle” in Wilhelm Raabe: Studien zu seinem Leben und Werk, which appeared at the time of the author’s 150th birthday in 1981.  The essay is published elsewhere, including as the afterword to the Reclam edition of Pfisters Mühle.1  The goal in the essay is to bring together the subjects of industrialization, environmental depredation, historical change, etc. together in a way that would more properly account for the polyperspective nature of the novel (Denkler 86-87).  But Denkler also argued that the subject of pollution in the novel makes it particularly relevant today (87).  Jeffrey Sammons critiqued this relevance argument in a piece that eventually became a chapter in his seminal book on Raabe Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community.2  In a nutshell, Sammons felt that asking about contemporary relevance might be interesting, but as a critical practice runs the danger of bringing the text to us in our time, rather than encountering the text on its own terms (269, 282).  The discussion continued in 1992 with Heinrich Detering’s article on Raabe’s texts Pfisters Mühle and Meister Autor3.  Detering points to the concreteness of the environmental thematic, and very helpfully situates it within the larger poetic context.  Denkler is continuing a line of argumentation that Hermann Helmers developed in his 1987 article “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung,”4 and together these two essays are useful models for how one can read the real-existing environmental thematic within the text’s overall poetological framework.

This discussion is tremendously important for my dissertation, both because I write about Pfisters Mühle, but more importantly because it gets at the most basic issues of critical stance and disciplinary convention that anyone interested in literature and the environment inevitably bumps into.  None of what I am about to say is new or revolutionary, but it is worth saying out loud as a means of achieving some sort of critical orientation.  All of these points are ultimately related, and I’ll have more to say about them later, but for now, here we go.

1.  Respect the historicity of the texts.

Discourses, concepts, and political positions all change with time.  “Environment” and “ecology” do not mean today what they did in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth centuries.  “Environmentalism” already in 2013 designates a broad spectrum of sometimes antagonistic camps.  In the American popular imagination it is often (and often unfairly) affiliated with the left, but historically has cut across political camps.  For that matter, some ways of thinking that seem to be the province of some leftism and left liberalism were out-and-out conservative in the 19th century.  At the same time, authors will be products of their respective ages, whose thinking is either within or in some way related to the particular paradigms of their own historical moments.  In this context, too, no matter how scientifically well-informed an author is, his or her knowledge will not go beyond that of his or her own time.

2.  Politicized readings are important, but that doesn’t cancel out the first point.

This has to do with my first thesis, and has to do, too, with the question of relevance.  In the case of mid- to late 19th century German realism, there are lots of continuities between what the authors are depicting and what we are dealing with now in 2013.  In that sense, I contend that the literature can help us think about contemporary environmental questions.  BUT that alone doesn’t make them authors that we should all read and encourage others to read as a way of promoting good ecological consciousness, whatever that would be.  It is also worth saying again that environmental thinking cuts both ways politically.  In the case of Raabe, his critique of “progress,” which comes at the expense of the natural environment, in his novels, was a point that his National Socialist readers latched on to in order to integrate the author into the regime’s cultural politics.

Instead I see my task as being one of understanding the contours of the environmental thematic and working out the formal and aesthetic stakes thereof.  This might be an abandonment of the activist stance that many ecocritics assert.  That’s a theory versus practice problem, about which I’ll have more to say later.  For the moment I tend to feel that whether a text has a given contemporary use-value is a question best left up to the reader.

3.  The stakes of the argument must come from the text itself.

Supposedly Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It prompted a rejection note from a publisher who quipped “these stories have trees in them.”  When this story pops up in ecocritical scholarship, it is usually presented as evidence of the disconnect between the literary establishment and the material world.5  But we can also invert the moral that this anecdote supposedly has.  “These stories have trees in them.”  So what?  We might expand that and say that “these stories have oak, birch, and linden trees in them.”  So what?  One of the basic assumptions in writing about literature and the environment is that “environment” is more than “setting,” a term that Lawrence Buell (whom I recently had the distinct pleasure of meeting) has pointed out “deprecates what it denotes” (84-85).6  Enough intent goes into the construction of a text that there isn’t much that is harmless or incidental.  But if these details can’t be integrated into the larger poetological framework, then all you have is something that is interesting, but not particularly compelling.  “Oak, birch, and linden” really are just trees, and all we have are notes on settings, and maybe motifs.  But we don’t have a work of criticism.

4.  Like the production of energy, the critical project also needs to be sustainable.

“Sustainable” means here that your approach should be able to have enough purchase on enough texts that we are not simply building a critical movement around one genre, one national literature, one analytic, or one conclusion.  In ecocriticism one need not look far to find “place” held up as a favored category, “realism” as a mode of writing that best promotes some sort of ecological consciousness, or “nature writing” as a genre that is intrinsically environmentally “good.”  So-called second wave ecocriticism, of course, has taken this point to heart, and produced some very exciting work on urbanism, science fiction, electronic music, etc.  I don’t necessarily think that every work of art needs to be able to be subject to ecocritical inquiry in order to justify journals and professional associations, but we also should be thinking about ways that we can have a large enough gene pool that we don’t limit our critical scope.

1. My citations from Denkler are from the 1988 volume Denkler, Horst.  Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller.

2. Sammons, Jeffrey. Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

3. Detering, Heinrich. “Ökologische Krise und ästhetische Innovation im Werk Wilhelm Raabes.” Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1992): 1-27.

4. Helmers, Hermann. “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung. Das Gedicht »Einst Kommt die Stunde« in der Novelle »Pfisters Mühle«.” Literatur für Leser (1987): 199-211.

5.  See the section “Representing Nature” in Michael Cohen’s essay “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique,” available here:

6. Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Thinking in 140 Characters

Early in Theodor Fontane’s last completed novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin), there is an amusing conversation at telegraphy that reminded me of contemporary anxieties about speech in the digital age.  Dubslav von Stechlin observes:

Es ist das mit dem Telegraphieren solche Sache, mances wird besser, aber manches wird auch schlechter, und die feinere Sitte leidet nun schon ganz gewiß.  Schon die Form, die Abfassung.  Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen, heißt meistens uach, sich grob fassen.  . . .  So läßt sich jetzt beinahe sagen, >das gröbste Telegramm ist das feinste<.  Wenigstens das in seiner Art vollendetste.  Jeder, der wieder eine Fünfpfennigersparnis herausdoktert, ist ein Genie. (1998 : 26).

That’s how it is with this telegraphing business, some things are improved but some are made worse too, and more elegant manners suffer absolutely for sure.  Just the form, th style.  Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying anything briefly usually means saying them coarsely.  . . .  So nowadays you could almost say, the coarsest telegram is the most elegant.  At least the most perfect of its kind.  Anybody who comes up with another five-pfennig saving is a genius. (1995 : 17).

Interestingly, the lake itself, we are told, stands in a telegraphic relationship with the rest of the world.

Literary Ecology

As so often happens, much of my writing of late has been poured into the dissertation.  But looking at this blog again has inspired me to retool this site.

The new site, literary ecology, will be an outlet for some of the work I am currently doing for my dissertation.  I will be sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting tidbits from the research and the writing as it progresses.