Katja Herges and Elisabeth Krimmer (eds.), Contested Selves: Life Writing and German Culture
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), a piece of life writing constitutes one of the founding documents of modern German literature. The tragic story of the young bohemian Werther and his beloved Charlotte is partly based on the life and suicide of Goethe's friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, but is also infused with passages from Goethe's own letters and inspired by his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Validating Paul De Man's assertion that autobiography is not necessarily a genre or a type of writing, but rather a way of approaching and interpreting literature, Goethe's Werther can equally be read as biography, autobiography or as a work of fiction. Despite the fact that the novel sets the scene for the intricate interplay of life and literature that became a distinguishing mark of European Romanticism, the particular significance of life writing for German literature and thought is obvious if one considers the role of biography for German Historism in the tradition of Leopold Ranke and Gustav Droysen, of autobiographical writing from Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1833) to Ruth Klüger's Weiter leben (1992), or of auto/biographical tropes in fictional genres like the Bildungsroman. This makes it all the more surprising that no comprehensive study has yet been devoted to the role of life writing within the German context. Even the term ‘life writing,’ bridging the gap between different genres and media, has only recently and somewhat reluctantly been adopted in German-language scholarship. A recent collection of essays, edited by Katja Herges and Elisabeth Krimmer, entitled Contested Selves: Life Writing and German Culture has set itself to remedy this shortcoming.
Copyright (c) 2022 Tobias Heinrich
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