[This page by Dagmar Paulus]
Wilhelm Raabe (1831-1910)
Die Wirklichkeit kratzte längst schon wie ein verhungernder Hund an der Tür.
(Raabe, Der Schüdderump, Chapter 8)
Reality had already been scratching on the door for a long time, like a starving dog.
Amongst the authors of German Realism, Raabe is less well-known compared to more prominent ‘colleagues’ like Theodor Fontane or Theodor Storm. His works deserve to be read, however, as he is a great writer in the tradition of Laurence Sterne, Jean Paul and Charles Dickens. His mature works display a remarkably modern sensibility.
Raabe was born in 1831 in the small town of Eschershausen in Lower Saxony. After his father’s death in 1845, the family moved to Wolfenbüttel. Raabe left school without a diploma and also dropped out of an apprenticeship in Magdeburg. In 1853, he moved to Berlin where he attended some university lectures and also wrote his first novel. After his marriage to Bertha Leiste, Raabe moved to Stuttgart and, in 1870, to Braunschweig where he died in 1910. The couple had four daughters. All in all, Raabe wrote over 60 novels and novellas, many of which take place in his native Lower Saxony. This remarkable productivity was not least due to financial needs as Raabe was one of the first German authors entirely dependent on their writing in order to make a living. During National Socialism, Raabe’s works were undeservedly promoted as particularly ‘German’ but since the end of the war, scholarship has vindicated him from this dubious reception.
His first novel Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse; The Chronicle of Sparrow Alley (1856) was a huge success with the reading public. In later years, Raabe tried (only partly successful, as time has shown) to get rid of his reputation as the author of this novel, to which he would then refer, disdainfully, as ‘Jugendquark’. The works of his later period tend to be more experimental in form, more pessimistic in their content, and generally also less successful. Only in the last few years of his life Raabe did begin to get recognised as a writer.
One of the recurring themes in Raabe’s prose is the motif of a struggling individual failing to come to terms with a rapidly changing world. Finding themselves on the verge of modernity, many of Raabe’s characters have lost their sense of belonging and encounter difficulties in finding their places in society. Very often, Raabe gives a voice to those that are otherwise likely to be overheard. His main characters frequently are outsiders, quirky oddballs devoted to their hobbies, leading an isolated life in secluded environments.
In Raabe’s historical novels and novellas, his rather pessimistic attitude becomes quite obvious. For Raabe, history is nothing short of catastrophe. His characters find themselves uprooted in a world defined by violence and destruction. Generally, Raabe denies the possibility for man to ‘make’ history. He also isn’t too interested in famous historical personalities but rather in how history affects the lives of ordinary people. Raabe also questions the Hegelian idea of history being guided by reason. Instead, events happen randomly, driven by mere chance, wilfully destroying the individual’s world – as for example in the novella Else von der Tanne [Else of the Forest]: ‘Weh, es ist keine Rettung in der Welt vor der Welt!’ (Alas, within the world there is no escape from the world!)
Raabe’s texts include:
Drei Federn; Three Quills (1865)
Else von der Tanne; Else of the Forest (1865)
Sankt Thomas; St Thomas (1866)
Abu Telfan (1867)
Pfister’s Mühle; Pfister’s Mill (1884)
Das Odfeld; The Odin Field (1888)
Please click on the above links for further information.
Further Reading in English
Barker Fairley, Wilhelm Raabe: An Introduction to his Novels (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961)
Horst S. Daemmrich, Wilhelm Raabe (Boston: Hall & Co, 1981)
Horst S. Daemmrich, ‘Raabe’s View of Historical Processes’, in Wilhelm Raabe. Studien zu seinem Leben und Werk, ed. by Leo A. Lensing and Hans-Werner Peter (Braunschweig: pp-Verlag, 1981), pp. 99-114
Irene Stocksieker Di Maio, The Multiple Perspective: Wilhelm Raabe’s Third-Person Narratives of the Braunschweig Period (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1981)
Dirk Göttsche and Florian Krobb (eds.), Wilhelm Raabe: Global Themes – International Perspectives (Oxford: Legenda, 2009)
William Hanson, ‘Raabe’s Poems’, Modern Language Review 80:4 (1985), 858-70
H. R. Klieneberger, 'Charles Dickens and Wilhelm Raabe', Oxford German Studies 4 (1969), 90-117
Georg Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast (London: Libris, 1993), Chapter on Wilhelm Raabe
Roy Pascal, The German Novel (London: Methuen, 1965), Chapter on Wilhelm Raabe
J. H. Reid, ‘Wilhelm Raabe’, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan, vol. 5 (London: Wolff, 1969), pp. 251-71
Jeffrey L. Sammons, Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987)
Jeffrey L. Sammons, The Shifting Fortunes of Wilhelm Raabe: A History of Criticism as a Cautionary Tale (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1992)
Further Reading in German
Oliver Fischer, Ins Leben geschrieben. Poetik privater Geschichte bei Adalbert Stifter und Wilhelm Raabe (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1999)
Werner Fuld, Wilhelm Raabe. Eine Biographie (Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1993)
Dirk Göttsche, Zeitreflexion und Zeitkritik im Werk Wilhelm Raabes (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2000)
Dirk Göttsche, Florian Krobb and Rolf Parr (eds.), Raabe-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2016)
Katharina Grätz, Musealer Historismus: Die Gegenwart des Vergangenen bei Stifter, Keller und Raabe (Heidelberg: Winter, 2006)
Uwe Heldt, Isolation und Identität. Die Bedeutung des Idyllischen in der Epik Wilhelm Raabes (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1980)
Dagmar Paulus, Abgesang auf den Helden: Geschichte und Gedächtnispolitik in Wilhelm Raabes historischem Erzählen (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2014)
Hans-Jürgen Schrader, ‘Zur Vergegenwärtigung und Interpretation der Geschichte bei Raabe’, Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1973), pp. 12-53
Christian Stadler, Darwinistische Konkurrenz und ökonomisches Kalkül. Wilhelm Raabes Auseinandersetzung mit der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2012)
Wilhelm Raabe Society (in German)