Write your own legend: Siegfried Unseld at work

Today, I had the pleasure to host a guest lecture by Anna Kinder in my class. She has been coordinating the Suhrkamp-Forschungskolleg for several years. No one could better than her give an overview of the development of Suhrkamp (a major publishing house when it comes to literary texts), as well as of the relationships of its director with well-knonw post-WW2 writers. I took a particular pleasure in seeing all the little pieces of the puzzle I have been putting together tediously for the late 18th to early 20th century since the beginning of this term come to achieve such a complete picture. The completeness of the corpus is, as Anna Kinder pointed out herself, a wonder one cannot stop to consider with awe.

I have already mentioned my irritation, not to say my distress, when it comes to considering the extent of 20th century archival resources. Authors kept so much material to document their literary activity that it is not possible for one single scholar to get to know everything, let alone everything in detail. Ironically, burning material and keeping huge amounts of documentation comes down to a similar effect: it is not really possible to seize “everything”. Not that it would intrinsically be possible to get perfectly into the skin of an author. But these preservation methods both invite us to not even try to imagine we could. Excess and lack both remind us of our own limitations.

In the case of Siegfried Unseld (here an obituary in the NY Times from 2002), who directed the publishing house for decades, this flood of information was also a very controlled one. Anna Kinder presented all the archival documents that were sold to the German Literature Archive by the publishing house after Unseld’s death. It ranges from correspondences with authors and editors to a complete archive of administrative paperwork, copyright management, advertising department, etc. 20 000 folders of (I suppose mostly) typoscripts: this mountain of material lead to conceive the research project “Suhrkamp-Forschungskolleg” as a two-sided bulldozer, one part moving on the front of archival records and material description, the other part on the front of research.

But it is not just the archival material. Publications, too, were explicitly dedicated to recording the publishing house’s story – the publishing house itself had a whole book series devoted to its history. Unseld’s business diary, the Suhrkamp Chronicles, are exemplary in that regard. The publisher recorded his day-to-day activities on the same kind of  paper and typewriter he used for his correspondence with authors – the archival records Anna Kinder showed all had this late 1960s to 1980s flavor about them, you know, this type of paper that was used with duplication paper underneath in order to keep one (or more?) copies and that turns yellowish after a little while…

Only the years 1970 and 1971 of the Suhrkamp Chronicles have been published. And for these two years, it was not the whole typoscript that was published, only extracts. If you add the copy-editing for this edition to the filtering of information Unseld himself could operate while writing down his daily business, there is some latitude for information control and space to build one’s own legend. The contrast between the passion noticeable in Unseld’s letters to his authors on the one hand and the strategic way of conceiving the public image of the publishing house on the other is striking – and Unseld knew how to take advantage of both.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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