In 1813, Adelbert von Chamisso published a novel that became a major literary success. It was the story of Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow. He wrote the text during a stay in Kunersdorf, a hamlet 80 km east of Berlin. This is the place where the Chamisso Society held its yearly meeting yesterday within the facilities of the Kunersdorfer Musenhof, a house hosting a permanent exhibition dedicated to Chamisso.
I realized then how many different ways of looking at Chamisso’s life and work there can be, how many different ways there are to keep the memory of his achievements vivid.
Let me tell you why he became a major protagonist within my project. You could ask the same question to each and every member of the Chamisso Society – or, for that matter, each and every scholar who has dealt with the Chamisso corpus – and get a different answer. It is the beauty of such rich corpora that they allow to bring together different perspectives and hence to shed several kinds of light on it.
I had no idea that there exists no major edition of Chamisso’s work and manuscripts until I hired Anna Busch and Selma Jahnke. Anna had been working for years on the manuscripts of one of Chamisso’s best friends, Julius Eduard Hitzig, and she knew the early editions and the situation on the manuscripts’ side very good. Her plan when she started working in my group was (and still is, even if the digital edition has postponed the realization of that part to next year) to prepare a (book) edition of Hitzig’s correspondence with his poet friends, among which Chamisso plays a central role. Selma Jahnke came to the group with a dissertation project on Helmina von Chézy (gosh, I have to improve that wikipedia bio!), Chamisso’s lover in the 1810s. As for Helmina, we both knew that her printed work and manuscripts had never been considered as a “work” and treated as such in terms of scholarly edition. Both Helmina and Chamisso were literary active at the crossroads between France and Prussia, interacting with literary and scholarly networks, with publishers on both sides of the Rhine. Their brief love affair is also the story of a literary cooperation.
Both perspectives – the Hitzig one and the Helmina one – lead us to look more closely into the Chamisso manuscripts. There was one additional aspect – not a completely different one as they all are connected, but still another perspective – that seemed interesting to me in the context of my project. I had been working on the French-Prussian intellectual relationships in the late 18th century and was wondering how it would be possible to analyze the evolution with a counterpart in the early 19th century. Chamisso is for sure a representative candidate for that kind of analysis.
The different team member’s work lead to publications: Anna and Selma gave papers at the Chamisso Conference that took place in Paris in June 2011 and will have them published in the corresponding book. Selma’s paper analyzes the common literary work of Chamisso and Helmina in the 1810s; Anna’s paper deals with the Chamisso biography published by Hitzig after his friend’s death. Anna also constituted a corpus for our digital edition composed of 3 literary texts that were kept together in Hitzig’s papers. One of them is a publisher’s copy of Peter Schlemihl, which she has been encoding lately and we hope to have online at the end of Summer.
At some point, I realized that we had to do with a corpus that was likely to enrich greatly our digital approach, our questions and our method on that level. In fact, the Chamisso papers could possibly allow to see how letters can shed light on genesis and reception of literary works. At that point, we had to choose which letters to use and which tools to develop. The corpus we are working on now are the letters to Louis de La Foye (no wikipedia bio to this day, I promise to write it soon!), a childhood friend who, contrarily to Chamisso, returned and finally stayed in France. The letters extend to the 30 first years of the 19th century. They deal with politics, literature, natural sciences, French-Prussian intellectual relationships… We are editing this corpus together with a master’s class. My hope is that this corpus will allow us to develop our encoding on the level of linking together literary/scholarly works and letters.
In that project, we are working in close cooperation with the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK, the Deutsches Textarchiv, and René-Marc Pille, a French Chamisso specialist, who will be visiting this week (his conference has been announced on the Chamisso-Forum). And with all these different light spots, Chamisso will certainly have to come into the light – and then we will see whether it is with a shadow or not.