Texts without a genre, automatized translations and a diplomat called Varnhagen von Ense

There are novelties all over the place in our digital edition and I had no idea about it! Yes, I have finally reached the blessed state in which I can’t seem to keep up with the rhythm of new features or texts implemented online. Sabine gets hold of me once in a week or so and sums up all the 15 e-mails that have been exchanged in the mean time, everyone politely still putting me in CC although I have long ceased to be the one to provide for answers. She then sums up the progress and asks for my blessing regarding the 2-3 things only the boss can finalize. Solomon-like, I choose and decide, feeling very much empowered and hoping to be back at the right level some day – the level that would allow me to get the point, really.

So, what have we got today? A nice feature that allows some metadata entries made in German to be automatically translated into English and French for the corresponding interfaces, the possibility to attribute several genres to one single text without having it appear as many times as you have attributed genres to it, and new texts, even some from Krakow (I mentioned the Krakow situation in this blog post).

The manuscripts coming from Krakow are part of the Varnhagen Collection and they appear in two corpora which one could have supposed would not overlap or interface at all in our edition: Helmina von Chézy and August Boeckh.

The first new text we have online is an unpublished fictional text by Helmina von Chézy adressed to Bettina von Arnim, with the title “This book belongs to Bettina”, an unveiled allusion to Bettina von Arnim’s “This book belongs to the King”. Helmina von Chézy’s text has an intricate history, so we publish two versions of it, which are aimed at being collationated at some point in a future that I hope will be close enough: this one and that one. As editor Selma Jahnke notes in her introductory statement, this text shows the deployment of a series of literary strategies aiming at constituting a kind of alliance of women writers in mid-19th century Prussia. Both Helmina von Chézy and Bettina von Arnim were  strongly engaged in social fights, which adds a socio-political dimension to the purely literary aspects. Helmina von Chézy never reached the fame of Bettina von Arnim, although she managed to live from her books and journal productions. She certainly saw herself as a literary persona in 19th century Germany, and conserved her papers accordingly, with a rare meticulousness for a woman of that time. When Varnhagen, who had started collecting papers from intellectuals of the Prussian scenery, inherited her archive, he picked the best pieces and burned the rest. Among these pieces, there was the text addressed to Bettina von Arnim – addressed even as a letter, that turned out never to have reached its addressee in its time, as said addressee mentioned while finding the text lying on a table at Varnhagen’s years later. Intricate transmission, a concurrence situation possibly even harsher than among men, men who intervene and want to be the ones who tell the real story of the text – when reading texts of women writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of the text matters just as much as its literary texture per se.

So really it is not a wonder that it is the women’s texts that seem conceived only to blow up our textual categories (“genres“). Because it is one of the originality of our edition to offer different genres of text under the same roof, it seemed one of the first necessities, when we reconfigured the possible doors leading to the corpora, that we put some order in those different type of texts. “Letters” seemed the less problematical of all, and turns out to be the heart of the problem. Helmina von Chézy, just as Adelheid Reinbold in her “Letter addressed to Ludwig Tieck“, uses some formal aspects of correspondence rhetoric to give her text a certain shape, and, more importantly, an addressee that justifies its existence against all odds.

Frontseite von Adelheid Reinbolds "Literaturbrief" an Ludwig Tieck
Frontseite von Adelheid Reinbolds “Literaturbrief” an Ludwig Tieck
Weiterverwendungsrechte bei der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK

These texts are no “real” letters in the sense in which actual letters were sometimes re-used, re-written for a later publication. No, they are their own publication end, and they are called letters because they take advantage of the comfort of using a genre that was considered “feminine”. In the case of Adelheid Reinbold, choosing the genre “letter” also has to do with hiding behind a protector, in this case the writer Ludwig Tieck, by then at the climax of his glory. Also, these pseudo-letters live in and of the myth of the one singular addressee good enough to replace the whole public, this topos of a pseudo denial of success and wider recognition that Rousseau had already pushed to its more extreme limits (this is probably the most interesting part of my argument in my paper on “Communication” in the Rousseau Encyclopedia that was published this summer).

The composition of fictional letters is certainly a particularly delicate exercise, since they need to inforce the gullibility of both their main quality as letters – namely, authenticity – and their fictional character.

A problem which our second set of texts from Krakow does not present with. Back to the males, things are amazingly simple. August Boeckh writes to Varnhagen in 1830. They exchange books and book reviews before publication, and Boeckh recommends to suppress some delicate passages of the review. Sometimes, literary life can be so easy to bring to a point: intellectuals exchange books and opinions on books, and with that, they get material to write new books. What I originally thought would be the ultimate refinement of our digital edition, the combination of genesis and reception phenomena, of books as material goods and intellectual inspiration, turns out to be its most obvious feature. Go figure…