Academic journal article German Quarterly

Der Offene Brief. Geschichte und Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Gunter Grass

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Der Offene Brief. Geschichte und Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Gunter Grass

Article excerpt

Essig, Rolf-Bernhard. Der Offene Brief Geschichte and Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Gunter Grass. Wurzburg Konigshausen & Neumann, 2000.407 pp. DM 98.00 hardcover.

Apart from some essays that were published during the 1990s and lexical entries (usually under "Brief"), little research on the open letter as a literary form was available before the publication of the present study. In fact, the open letter had long been excluded from being considered a legitimate part of modern writers' oeuvre on the grounds of its topicality. Only after World War I did it become common practice to include open letters in various collected works and make them easily accessible.

In view of the generally accepted notion within Germanistik/German Studies that the boundaries of conventional literary studies are no longer valid, the lack of attention to this genre may seem surprising. After all, by its very definition, the open letter, although relying on literary devices and strategies for its efficacy, is destined for and operative in a public sphere that transcends that of the purely literary, and it generates and/or participates in discourses that encompass extraliterary concerns. Hence, research on the open letter cannot ignore analyses of its function, the societal systems and their respective public spheres ("Offentlichkeitsstrukturen") that sustain or repress the publication of open letters, their reception, and the specific causes of their origins.

Rolf-Bernhard Essig's Der Offene Brief will undoubtedly contribute significantly to reducing the "Forschungsdefizit" that the author notes (13, n. 6). In a broad historical sweep that ranges from Greek antiquity to the last decade of the twentieth century, Essig makes a sound case for the ubiquity (in varying degrees of frequency) of open letters throughout different historical periods and demonstrates their significance as an important tool of public discourse. Rather than attempting to present a thorough, systematic coverage that would have exceeded manageable proportions, the author confines himself to detailed discussions of noteworthy open letters and deals in summary fashion with less representative or conspicuous samples of the form in eight chronologically arranged chapters. Not surprisingly, the two chapters devoted to the twentieth century (the 1948 currency reform in the Western occupation zones provides the demarcation line) are the most substantial owing to the formation and coming into full bloom of the "massenmediale Offentlichkeit" with its vastly increased possibilities for circulation and proliferation.

Yet it is noteworthy that the prototype ofthe open letter, Isocrates's Philippos (ca. 346 B.C.), displays many of the characteristics of its modem successors. By addressing a powerful political figure in a widely publicized letter, the influential rhetorician Isocrates ignored the social hierarchy on account of his distinguished, life-long pursuit of intellectual issues and offered advice to Philip II of Macedonia as an equal in the interest of Greek unity. Hence, apart from the official recipient, Isocrates sought to address the Athenian public, that is, the comparatively limited number of educated, well-to-do, influential readers and convince them of the merits of his cause. With minor variations, subsequent open letters tended to follow this prototype: they espouse a cause, address individuals (or, less frequently, groups) who are presumably in a position to further that cause, rectify injustices, and the like. …

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