Jean Paul: From Rags to Print

by Seán Williams (University of Sheffield)

Jean Paul Richter, by Heinrich Pfenninger (1798), Gleimhaus Museum der deutschen Aufklärung.

Jean Paul Friedrich Richter was unusual among German authors around 1800 in being able to make a living from literature. Other canonical names, including the likes of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, also worked as librarians, statesmen, or professors. They personify the story of German letters: a bourgeois bunch who became intellectually renowned and popular from the late eighteenth century, but who relied on the Old Regime and its institutions to pay their way. “Jean” Paul — a French translation of his native Johann, adopted in tribute to Rousseau — was a household name at the turn of the nineteenth century, and commanded some intellectual respect, too: he was awarded an honorary doctorate on Hegel’s recommendation. But Jean Paul remained a freelance scribbler in what is southern Germany today. He mainly relied on women, and certainly middle-class, readers; yet he made fun of them all the same. The self-styled “modern” professionals in these social groups came in for special criticism, as if they forgot the idea of humanity and lost their sense of humour. A typical example of Jean Paul taking the Bürgertum to task is from the opening chapter of his best-selling novel Hesperus (1795). In the words of a nineteenth-century English translation:

Quite as little does an official comprehend, or a cit, or a metropolitan, why Horion should so often make such a wretched choice of reading from among old prefaces, programmes, advertisements of travelling artists, all which he would peruse with indescribable gusto – merely because he made believe to himself that all this intellectual sack of fodder, which belonged properly only to the rag-picker, he had himself prepared and filled, with satirical design. In fact, as the Germans seldom appreciate irony and seldom write it, one is forced to foist fictitiously a malicious irony upon many serious books and reviews, in order to get any of it at all.

[Ebensowenig begriff ein Amtmann, ein Kleinstädter, ein Großstädter, warum Horion seine Leserei oft so jämmerlich wähle aus alten Vorreden, Programmen, Anschlagzetteln von Reisekünstlern, die er alle mit unbeschreiblichem Vergnügen durchlas – bloß weil er sich vordichtete, diesen geistigen Futtersack, der bloß unter den Lumpenhacker gehörte, hab’ er selber gefertigt und gefüllt aus satirischer Rücksicht. – In der Tat, da die Deutschen Ironie selten fassen und selten schreiben: so ist man gezwungen, vielen ernsthaften Büchern und Rezensionen boshafte Ironie anzudichten, um nur etwas zu haben.]

Here we encounter another way in which Jean Paul was unusual (in his own view, at any rate). The Germans of this golden age of “Dichter and Denker”, or poets and philosophers, were deadly serious — and all about abstraction. Jean Paul and his protagonist Horion, by contrast, embrace wit, plundering it from the works of others. Indeed, Jean Paul often re-uses the jokes of Swift and Sterne from English fiction; our Anglophile reinterprets them, and runs with them for page upon page. Within German literary history, Jean Paul is seen as a figure fitting uneasily between the decades of Sentimental fiction just passed on the one hand, and the contemporary, and highly philosophical, ironic inversions of early German Romanticism that were on the rise on the other. Jean Paul, and in the above passage Horion, hovered between these two poles using humour. Jean Paul adopted not just an ambivalently ironic, but also a comically ironic relationship to the German Geist — or spirit — of the times.

In this context, and in the passage above, rags appear as a useful metaphor. Before Friedrich Gottlieb Keller’s invention of making paper from wood pulp in 1844, paper was produced from old cloth in a laborious, artisanal, proto-industrial process. All paper, then, was a recycled product; and recall that for Jean Paul, writing is rewriting. So it is that in collecting scraps of print, the character of Horion is a readerly “rag-picker” — and these excerpts, explicitly appearing as already-existing literary material, are to be re-purposed to funny (and philosophically ironic) effect. For Jean Paul, the constitution of paper was conceptually useful; put differently, papermaking became a poetological metaphor, here and throughout his literary work.

Understanding “incidental” printed works such as prefaces, programmes, and advertisements as rags — as the stuff for recycling into satire — reveals not only a popular metaphor of print culture around 1800. It more obviously expresses the latter’s material conditions, of course. I have said already that Jean Paul was an in-between character in various respects. In terms of the materiality of literature, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an explosion in, and hypertrophy of, what we would today call “paratexts”, the form of which became particularly remarkable in German letters. For instance, there was an index of indexes. Jean Paul wrote prefaces to prefaces, and he appended an appendix of appendices. The period — and this author specifically — marks a significant threshold between the ideals and discursive supremacy of the book on the one hand, and the emergence of ever-more popular, ephemeral printed pieces on the other. Jean Paul embraced all these types of texts, but thereby sought to turn and self-consciously elevate them into the form of the book, or literary “work”. In other words, the era that began to destabilise the book as an enclosed form was the heyday for, say, its preface — but precisely because prefaces became playfully, disruptively bookish. (Jean Paul, we should note, published a preface as an entire book!)

As we move on through the nineteenth century, the preface’s high-point in the sense of its creative form subsided. That is in part since shorter and serialised texts are not only normal by the mid-nineteenth century, a shift that is in no small part thanks to changes in papermaking: paper made from wood pulp was cheaper, and was itself less permanent, so well suited to incidental text types. I also think that the “book”, or the idea of a “whole work” in one binding, lost the cultural, imaginative superiority it had enjoyed in the Enlightenment, for example. In contrast, journalism and its newspaper barons ruled the day by the 1840s; and when it came to bookshelves, an age of the anthology was ushered in. The successful and prolific writer Jean Paul occupied a creative space between these epochs, whether they are conceived materially, or in the traditional definitions of literary and intellectual history.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Seán Williams is Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield. His published works include Pretexts for Writing: German Romantic Prefaces, Literature, and Philosophy (Bucknell University Press, 2019) and a co-edited volume on German Anthologies 1750-1850 (2017).

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