The Politics of Celebrating the City

In his autobiography Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig (From Twenty to Thirty) Theodor Fontane explains his inability to make friends with the author Theodor Storm by chalking the difference between them up to a clash between his own cosmopolitanism vs. Storm’s fealty to his North Friesland home:

He was for the Husum Dike, I was for the London Bridge; his ideal was the Schleswig Heath with its red erica bushes, my ideal was the Heath of Culloden with the graves of the Camerons and Mackintosh. (HFA III/4 : 372, translation mine)

Spitzweg "Newspaper Reader in the Garden"

Carl Spitzweg “Newspaper Reader in the Garden”

Storm had been some ten years in his grave by the time Fontane published this comparison. While it is unflattering and in no small measure self-serving, Fontane’s characterization of Storm as an author bound to his small corner of the planet is reflective of the judgment that German realism is a provincial realism. Perhaps the best example of this judgment is to be found in Erich Auerbach landmark study Mimesis of 1946. For Auerbach, German literature of the late nineteenth century, in this view, falls short of the French model in representing an emerging European cosmopolitan modernity. Despite the fact that Fontane claimed for himself a certain cosmopolitanism, he does not entirely escape Auerbach’s charge of provincialism, because his novels, while in some measure provincial, are a “transition to a freer, less secluded, more cosmopolitan realism” (Auerbach 516-519, quote 517).[1].

I don’t cite this in order to “disprove” Auerbach. First because the book was written in exile and Auerbach’s judgment is made against the backdrop of the catastrophe of National Socialism and thus deserves its historical due, second because we now have decades of scholarship to show that the literature of the area was sensitive to European and global realities.

The charge of “provincialism” is certainly an understandable one, especially if one thinks about literary history from a socio-historical perspective, and more especially if one considers the political climate in Germany after 1848. Auerbach bases this judgment on the political fragmentation after the revolution, an account that is pretty basic to most histories of German literature in the nineteenth century. But the allegation of “provincialism” has a curious flip-side, and carries with it some more dubious implications.

The first curious thing about the charge of “provincialism” is that it is grounded in aspects of the novel that one might just as easily celebrate in the context of a different national literature. Storm’s attachment to the Husum Dike might make him a “provincial,” but plenty of American ecocriticism might just as easily see in him a sensitivity to “place.” The reason is that having a “sense of place” implies a connection to one’s immediate environment, which supposedly leads one to ecological right thinking. Of course”place” can also take one down some politically problematic roads, and not just because its connotations resonate with certain aspects of National Socialist ideology. [2].

The second reason is that the charge of provincialism carries with it a normative concept of literature. It privileges a “modernity” as the end point of literature, a privileging that necessarily comes at the expense of prior modes of expression. Ironically, it is not unlike the normative view of realism that sees the 19th century realist novel as the ultimate flowering of the novel form. What’s odd about the charge that German realism is “provincial” is that it is in realism where the provinces come into view, as Lilian Furst argues in her study of European realism All is True (99). If this is the case, then the argument might go that Dickens’ London or Flaubert’s Paris makes room for the representation of the provinces, somehow, but it’s a strange argument to make (and radically reduces the canon of realism).

Finally, the charge also posits a normative view of the reality that realism denotes (to speak with Roland Barthes). The assumption is that reality in “modernity” exists in the city. It’s ironic that if someone from Upstate New York had never ventured east of the Catskills or below the Pennsylvania state line he would be hopelessly provincial, but New York City’s microgeographies are something of a cultural joke, and part of the city’s charm (e.g. Kramer’s “long-distance” relationship with a woman living downtown in an episode of Seinfeld, or Saul Steinberg’s take on Manhattan parochialism in his famous New Yorker cover). This itself is a kind of provincialism particular to the supposedly “cosmopolitan,” one that makes it harder to recognize how a place like upstate New York has historically been shaped by the vicissitudes of uneven development (which, as I have written, is why I include texts about “rural” spaces in a course called Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture). But where this metropolitan provincialism really loses its charm is when it translates into matters of policy. So the New York Times can editorialize in favor of fracking upstate, because we just don’t have the economic opportunities available in such wealthy urban centers as New York City. Just do it with caution, and for God’s sake, not in the city’s watershed!

It’s time to put the provincialism charge to rest, because it has been thoroughly debunked, and because making it puts us in a bad corner politically. But when it comes to the study of literary texts, the biggest reason may be simply that sheer reading pleasure starts at the same place as any critique in a robust sense: from a sensitivity to the qualities and characteristics of a literary work in all its particularity.

1.Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.Trans. William Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

2. For a useful critique of place, see Ursula Heise.Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. A useful recent study on place in German realism is John B. Lyon. Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement, and Modernity.New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

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