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.