The German Image of Goethe

By Wolfgang Leppmann | Go to book overview
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V
THE GOETHE SOCIETY

IN considering the last phase of our subject, from the Goethe renascence to the present, we must depart from the chronological sequence of narration and, at the risk of occasionally getting ahead of our story, turn to various factors which have simultaneously acted upon the German view of Goethe. Foremost among these stands an organization which dates from the 1880's and is unique in the history of literature: the Goethe Society. Most of the modern German work done on Goethe has been undertaken by men connected with this body, which in turn has been the channel through which their opinions have reached an audience of special interest to us: Goethe's modern and contemporary public.

The public is important because literature, seen as organic process, 'occurs' whenever a writer communicates his thoughts and impressions to his readers. Like most of their brethren in literary criticism, the Goethe scholars have primarily busied themselves with the originator of the communication and with its content and form: with the poet and his works. In tending to take the public for granted, they have forgotten Whitman's observation that 'to have great poets, there must be great audiences, too'. Yet the days are long past, in Germany as elsewhere, when the interest or even the existence of 'great audiences' for classical literature could be taken for granted. It is time, then, that we paid some attention also to the recipient of the literary communication, to the reader, without whose reaction even the greatest book is but a number of bound sheets covered with printer's symbols. So much has been written about Goethe himself that his public has been largely ignored--as if the fact that Goethe is still read were not partly due to the efforts of previous generations in publishing, explaining, and recommending his works, and handing them down to us intact and accessible. Until the Gallup Poll in the fullness of time takes an interest in German literature, any answer to the question 'Who reads

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