Fathoming one’s father

Anne Baillot, Sophia Zeil (Hrsg.): Brief von Dorothea Tieck an Friedrich von Uechtritz (Fragment) (ohne Ort, ohne Datum). Bearb. v. Sophia Zeil. In: Anne Baillot (Hrsg.), „Briefe und Texte aus dem intellektuellen Berlin um 1800“. Berlin: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. http://tei.ibi.hu-berlin.de/berliner-intellektuelle/manuscript?Brief05DorotheaTieckanUechtritz. Stand: 4. September 2014.

Image rights: Oberlausitzische Bibliothek der Wissenschaften in Görlitz

In the letters by Dorothea Tieck recently edited by Sophia Zeil in Letters and texts, there is one that illustrates to the perfection the censorship phenomena typical of letter editions in the 19th century. What is today considered as the first page of the letter begins in the middle of a sentence and was obviously originally not the first page of the letter. Also, it is crossed over in pencil. If you look for it in the existing print edition  (all the bibliographical references are to be found in our edition, see the footnotes), you will see that this passage is left unmentioned.

Taking a closer a look at the text, it becomes obvious that its content not only does not fit the heroical image of Tieck as a genius, but also contradicts the representation of him as a decent manager of his own literary enterprise. And even by very low standards in terms of expectations towards fatherhood, what his daughter has to say is pretty depressing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Dorothea Tieck was the poet’s favorite daughter. Well, she probably was his only daughter, since his second one seemed to not really have been his. Dorothea inherited (and/or was taught) some of her father’s characteristic streaks. She had a talent for modern languages, a passion for theater, a relationship to religion that I would consider extreme. Like her father, she tended to depression. And she devoted to his glory most of her adult life, translating and copying  texts for him, some of which would make a considerable contribution to his reputation. In accordance with the time’s standards, she refused to be publicly known as literary active (even though it was actually a known fact).

So, there she is, in the 1830s, working like a monk to get her translations delivered in time to the publisher (under her father’s name of course). She is writing to one of her few friends, the only one, as it will turn out, who would preserve her letters – and who may well have considered the first page as a candidate for a “burn after reading”.

Burning should in fact have been the destiny of the page we have there, to judge by what Dorothea writes about her father:

“Also, you would believe that he loves us, his children, but he never worried about what would happen of us. It has been 9 years now since I have begun to translate Shakespeare’s sonnets, the publisher wanted to have them in the fall by then, and I spent all summer working very hard . See: they are still lying around here, and in all that time, I have never managed to get Father to have them read aloud by me.”

In the next sentence, she adds that she “does not resent him” – a sentence in which I sense her catholic values re-emerging in her discourse. But the tone of the two sentences I just quoted is discordant.

One can certainly argue that Ludwig Tieck was an egomaniac, as were many authors. But Dorothea points not to his well-known bad character as a poet (forgetting to answer letters, ignoring friends, being interested solely in his own problems, etc., which is her point in the passages before and after this one), but rather to his absolute lack of a sense of family (I would like to write: genealogy). She writes two things: Her father does not relate to his children as children (first sentence). He does not love them for what they will become. Moreover (second sentence), he despises the proofs of absolute love which she herself gave to him, by trying to cover for his lack of punctuality (if not even for his talent as a translator).

With these two sentences, she reduces her own life to shreds, since her life precisely consisted in being her father’s daughter in all occasions. Religious zeal was probably not a bad thing after all, since it could help her cope with such an unbearable existential paradox.

Although they seldom come to words, these wasted talents filled the past centuries. I think it is worth framing these word big when they are being said out loud. Come to think of it, maybe striking them through (instead of burning them) was a way of letting them speak for themselves when the time would have come. All in all, these 19th century editors did not do such a bad job after all.

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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