Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture

Article excerpt

Martha B. Helfer, The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2011.233 pp.

Martha Heifer's bold new book, The Word Unheard, offers rigorous close readings of canonical works of eighteenthand nineteenth-century German literature with an eye to the complex workings of latent anti-Semitism in these texts. The last two decades have seen an explosion of scholarship in GermanJewish Studies, and in this context, the legacy of anti-Semitism has hardly been ignored. But Heifer undertakes something new in her book. Rather than looking for anti-Jewish sentiments in the obvious places-Grattenauer's anti-Semitic rants, the pamphleteers who incited the Hep-Hep riots in 1819, Karl Sessa's antiSemitic farce Unser Verkehr (1819), Gustav Freytag's Soll und Haben (1855), anti-Semitic caricatures in popular culture, etc.-Heifer examines canonical works by authors whom German Jews themselves often revered. The book is divided into six chapters, each of which focuses on a major figure: Lessing (Die Juden,Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, Nathan derWeisé), Schiller (Die Sendung Moses), von Arnim (Isabella von Ägypten), Droste-Hülshoff (Die Judenbuche), Stifter (Abdias), and Grillparzer (Die Jüdin von Toledo). In each of these chapters, Heifer proves her talent for producing elegant, dynamic, and persuasive close readings, and she uses these skills to zone in on the specifically literary workings of anti-Semitism, often reconstructing complex anti-Jewish sentiments in ways that will surprise readers familiar with the material under study.

No study of this nature can be comprehensive, of course, but Heifer chooses a representative and diverse cast of characters, and in each chapter she demonstrates an unusually deep grasp of the vast scholarship that has been produced on these writers. In this way, she does not merely offer up compelling close readings. She also puts herself in a position to reflect critically on the various ways that the discipline of German Studies has failed to address the issues she wants to put on our radar. …

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