Poe as Comparatist: Hawthorne and "The German Tieck" (Once More)

By Crisman, William | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), March 2002 | Go to article overview

Poe as Comparatist: Hawthorne and "The German Tieck" (Once More)


Crisman, William, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Well-known in histories of American Romanticism is Edgar Allan Poe's 1847 charge that Hawthorne is unoriginal because of an extremely close resemblance of his tales to Ludwig Tieck's (1773-1853), "whose manner, in some of his works, is absolutely identical with that habitual in Hawthorne" (577). This charge has received critical attention since Anton Schonbach in 1884 and Henry M. Belden in 1901 and at this point seems to produce an article, anthologized essay, or part of a chapter roughly once a decade; yet by the time of Thomas S. Hansen's 1995 book on German references in Poe, readers are left up in the air about how to take this celebrated accusation. (1) Characteristic of this long but sporadic commentary is that each subsequent contribution to it, including Hansen's, seems forgetful of the contributions that have come before. The time seems right for a consolidation and elaboration on what America's first scientific literary critic had in mind with his charge.

One matter on which critics seem to have approached agreement over these hundred years is that the question of Poe's and Hawthorne's German language skills is irrelevant to Poe's charge. Hansen reduces to nil any chance that Poe could read German, a task already largely accomplished by Eberhard Alsen (344) and Edwin H. Zeydel, who says "that at no point where he is concerned with German literature does Poe reveal the slightest knowledge of German" ([1970] 52). Hawthorne's sad accounts of spending four days with a phrase book trying to read the "bewildering" Tieck make Hawthorne's German language skills as nearly absent as Poe's ([1939] 176-79). (2) Very little doubt about the two Americans' German-language incompetence remains. The passages Henry Pochmann most confidently feels Poe must have translated himself, from Novalis and Alexander von Humboldt (390-92), Hansen exposes as "word substitution" plagiarism (49-51). Arnd Bohm's intriguing suggestion that Poe could not have written "The Raven" without a good command of German also has to fall (Hansen 95). If readers want to get closer to Poe's charge than G. R. Thompson's thorough but very general explication of an international "Romantic Ironist" context in which Poe, Hawthorne, and Tieck (and many others) all fit (21-22 and 35-36), they have to approach the charge through Poe's awareness of English-language Tieck reviews, paraphrases, and translations to 1847.

Catalogues of such English-language sources exist in Belden (390-99), Percy Matenko (38-43), Alsen (44-50), Zeydel ([1970] 49 and 53; [1931] 182-86), and throughout Gerhard Hoffmann. Since these lists include reviews, which are usually unspecific appreciations, critical responses take one of two turns that end up in essentially the same place: a perceptible relation between Tieck and Hawthorne is both everywhere and nowhere. For Alfred H. Marks (11-13), Tieck's "`The Fair-Haired Eckbert' has parallels in ... `The Hollow of the Three Hills,' `Roger Malvin's Burial,' and `Alice Doane's Appeal'"; for Linde Katritzky (61-63) or H. Arlin Turner (559), "Eckbert" can be seen in The Scarlet Letter, and Tieck's "Der Runenberg" recalls "Rappucini's Daughter." Turner sees a clear parallel between "Runenberg" and "Ethan Brand," as does Jack D. Zipes (80-81).

Such scattered approaches make three tendencies apparent. First, the choice of Tieck text Poe has mostly in mind gets left up in the air. Throughout the four studies just mentioned, automatic privilege accrues to the fairy tales that Thomas Carlyle translated for his German Romance (1827), but this privileging probably carries with it a bias for the Tieck texts considered the best in the twentieth century. Tellingly, Kathryn Hanson's review of the 1991 reprint of German Romance primarily stresses the reprint's pedagogical usefulness; these are the essential texts for teaching Tieck to undergraduates now. Perhaps such privileging also represents a current bias for a book by the famous Carlyle over an unsigned translation or paraphrase in a fugitive journal, a bias that would not make sense in "magazinist" nineteenth-century America (Pattee's expression, 96). …

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