A conference as we like it: “Fontanes Briefe ediert”

A guest post by Selma Jahnke and Sabine Seifert –

The Theodor Fontane Archive hosts most of Theodor Fontane’s letters – a real treasure not only for research on the author himself but for a variety of research approaches. Several attempts and efforts were made to edit parts of his correspondence but a complete edition is – even today – still a desideratum. And where could this project be realized more suitably than at the Fontane Archive itself? To think about possible projects, methods and medias of editing, specialists of different disciplines were invited to share their point of views and expertise.

In the first section of the conference, an inventory of realized correspondence editions was presented. Helmuth Nürnberger (Flensburg), the most experienced editor of Fontane letters and chief editor of the letter section of the Hanser Edition “Werke, Schriften, Briefe”, as well as Eda Sagarra (Dublin), esteemed senior researcher at Trinity College Dublin, were among the speakers, reminding of the merits of bygone studies we should keep in mind and which are still thought-provoking. The colourful evening presentation by Lothar Müller (Berlin) focused on the materiality of letters and the character of objects – aspects that always pose a challenge to preparing an edition.

Materiality of manuscripts and letters, poeticity and historical impacts were the most prominent keywords during the second section that dealt with Fontane’s letters as source material for and object of research. Thorsten Gabler (Berlin) presented Fontane’s habit of writing and then again overwriting his own texts to produce dense textures of ambiguity. This generates objects with several layers of ink as well as meaning which cannot be edited appropriately in a traditional edition without facsimiles. Michael Ewert (Munich) focused on the intersection of letters and essays as genres both in Fontane’s writings and in 19th-century literature. In their respective talks, Rudolf Muhs (London) and Christine Hehle (Vienna) approached Fontane’s letters from a historical point of view. Muhs emphasized the importance of incorporating lost letters using the example of the correspondence between Fontane and Rudolf Metzel, Fontane’s supervisor at the Prussian Press Office. Hehle discussed the difficulty to reconstruct relationships between people with the help of their letters by means of Fontane’s correspondences with Karl Emil Franzos and with Moritz Necker, that also allow for new aspects of the author’s exposure to anti-Judaism. All these presentations clearly showed the variety of facets of working with letters and how preferences differ for what an edition should accomplish.

For the last and longest section, experts of current editing projects and on today’s editing possibilities in general were invited: Yvonne Pietsch (Weimar) from the Goethe Letter Edition, Claudia Bamberg (Marburg) and Thomas Burch (Trier) from the August Schlegel Letter Edition, Peter Stadler (Detmold/Paderborn) from the Carl Maria von Weber Edition, and Daniel Hochstrasser (Zurich) from the Alfred Escher Letter Edition. Two of these editions are digital ones (Schlegel, Weber), one is printed (Goethe), one is published both digitally as well as printed (Escher), and all four of them have to deal with large amounts of letters. Patrick Sahle (Cologne, presentation online here) and Hochstrasser have been following the improvements and the professionalization of digital editions and Digital Humanities for years now. Looking at several editions in detail, both discussed the aspects that are the most important for preparing a good digital edition. Stadler emphasised the key role of standards and authority files and envisioned a linked data standard for digital letter editions in general. Wolfgang Bunzel (Frankfurt/Main) as well as Marianne Beese, Roland Berbig and Tobias Witt (Berlin) pointed to the fact how instructive visualising the networks of correspondences could be. We think this section – and the following round table – remarkable: Concerning the possibilities of digital editing, too many projects still start from scratch just imagining the advantages a digital solution might bring. Instead, they should have a look at other projects and how these dealt with the problems they encountered. Communication and exchange between projects were the general keywords. This discussion was resumed at the round table that again addressed the conditions and the potential of digital editions in general. Hanna Delf von Wolzogen, head of the Fontane Archive, plans to build a network around the archive that goes beyond this year’s conference and the one planned for 2014.

At this conference, one could see the two sides still present in textual scholarship: The one side, without any technical experience, became bored or nervous when for instance Hochstrasser illustrated his 115 criteria for digital editions. And there is the other side, familiar with XML/TEI, digital editing and web presentation, who sometimes react impatiently to the non-technical talks of ‘analogue’ philologists. But here in Potsdam, the slow progress of finding a joint way of using new possibilities without denying the old merits of tradition was pleasant to join.


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