"Revolution of a classics edition"

Interview questions by Nicole Alexander

From 14 to 16 January 2016, the German Literature Archive in Marbach will host a public workshop titled “The Presentation of Canonical Works around 1900” as part of the MWW research project “Text and Frame”. In a conversation with conference director Philip Ajouri, he discussed the significance of German classics for the book market around 1900, the new type of publisher who entered the scene at the turn of the century, and his personal favourite edition from that time.



The "Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst"edition of 1904, edited by art patron Harry Graf Kessler, was a new type of book which one immediately recognises today as a classics edition. © DLA Marbach

Interview questions by Nicole Alexander

 Mr. Ajouri, the workshop “The Presentation of Canonical Works around 1900. Semantics – Practices – Materiality” aims to present a new view of the literary canon at the turn of the century. What does that mean in concrete terms?

Questions about canon were and still are frequently discussed in literary studies as value-based questions. One tries to assess which values are supposedly being conveyed by the canon, or what characteristics of a work, or in the society which reads it, is responsible for making it canonical. We, on the other hand, are more interested in how canonical works are presented, how the books were designed and how they were marketed. We also investigate how writers’ profiles could be created to meet the expectations of canonicity – and that in view of the “real” classics as well as those by young, modern writers who were striving to achieve their own canonicity around 1900.

What function did the “real” classics have for publishers and society at large at the turn of the century?

As of 1867, the German classics by the likes of Goethe or Schiller were no longer protected by copyrights, which meant they could be printed by anyone. This created a large market that was financially lucrative for the publishers. What’s more, the German classics, especially Goethe and Schiller, were celebrated as “national” authors – poets who culturally anticipated German unification in 1871 and stood for the values of the German people after the founding of the empire. They were cast as guarantors of German identity, also as distinctly different from the great writers of other nations like France, England or Italy.

How did these developments affect the way literary classics were published around 1900?

The classics market became more diverse. In addition to the traditional Cotta Verlag and affordable popular editions, young publishers entered the market with a more modern view of the classics. At the same time, the role of the publisher was changing – a process which had much to do with the institutionalisation of German Studies at universities. Whereas in earlier times it would have been enough to simply reprint an old edition, many were now demanding a critically reviewed text. But these are just two out of many new trends which makes the time around 1900 so interesting.

One of these new publishing houses you just mentioned, founded in 1899, was the Insel-Verlag, whose archive you’re studying at the DLA.

Yes, the Insel-Verlag not only had modern writers like Rainer Maria Rilke and Ricarda Huch in their programme, but they also placed strong emphasis on classics by Goethe. The publisher Anton Kippenberg didn’t produce multi-volume academic editions, nor did he simply reprint Goethe’s texts. What he did was produce meticulously crafted, modern editions of single or selected works. He made books which were meant to be read – not put on display as status symbols in the study of a middle-class home.

Your workshop examines the premise that the way literary classics are presented in a printed edition clearly influences their reception and impact. Could you elucidate on that with a concrete example?

Many factors can influence the reception of an author – be it canonical or not – at any particular time: text selection, text composition, accompanying texts by the editors, design, sales channels and naturally the price of the edition. Take the so-called “Volksgoethe” (People’s Goethe) for instance, a very successful, six-volume edition from 1909. The selection of poems gives preferential treatment to the young Goethe and especially favours his experiential and romantic poetry over his reflective poetry. The biographical introduction also emphasises the significance of romantic experiences for Goethe so that the introduction and the selection of poetry mutually support each other. In this way, the editor created a certain image of the writer which didn’t necessarily have very much to do with Goethe as a historic figure or his documented works.

You will be holding a presentation yourself at the workshop titled “Antiqua and Gothic in Typesetting the Classics around 1900. The Insel Verlag’s ‘Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst’ edition”. What makes this edition of the German classics, edited by Harry Graf Kessler in cooperation with the Insel Verlag in 1904, so special?

This edition revolutionised the way the classics could be published in Germany. While earlier classics editions were frequently decorated with lavish Jugendstil ornamentation, the “Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst” edition dispensed with ornamentation altogether. It used light-weight paper for the first time in a small format with a thin, flexible leather binding. In effect, Kessler created a type of book which many today – and not only in Germany – will immediately recognise as a classics edition. For this project Kessler enlisted the best book artists and typographers of his time, and because they were all English, people in London were discussing the look of Goethe, Schiller, Kant and Schopenhauer editions.

Why did Kessler decide to typeset the “Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst” edition in Antiqua and not Gothic, the predominant typeface in Germany at the time? After all Gothic was the typeface which populist and Old German circles most notably propagated as the “true German script”?

The idea to print in Antiqua likely originated in England where many artists in the Arts and Crafts movement were rediscovering the typefaces of the Renaissance. In Germany, young poets like Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan George had already used Antiqua typefaces. For the “Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst” edition, the classics were not targeted at a nationalistically-minded audience, but were to be presented as works whose writers possessed relevance with respect to problems of the modern day. The Antiqua typeface gave this classics edition its modern and cosmopolitan character.

And what was the reaction?

Mixed. The exquisite artistic design of this edition received widespread acclaim, but in addition to some justified criticism of its shortcomings, conservative critics claimed that it was impossible to read Goethe or Schiller in Antiqua without something being lost.

And now one last personal question: Which classics edition from around 1900 is your favourite?

It just happens to be the leather-bound volumes of the "Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst" edition. The volumes are thinner than today’s light-weight paper editions. This makes them very light and wonderful to hold in your hand, and they stay open when you lay them on the table.

Dr. Philip Ajouri is a research associate in the MWW research project "Text and Frame" and director of the public workshop "The Presentation of Canonical Works around 1900. Semantics – Practices – Materiality” which will be held from 14 to16 January 2016 at the German Literature Archive in Marbach. 

For more information about the workshop, visit the MWW event calendar.


To register for the workshop, please contact: philip.ajouri@dla-marbach.de.