About the project
Bourgeoisie (Gert Vonhoff)
After the political arena was closed, when the revolution of 1848/49 had failed, much of the cultural and ideologically liberal consensus-building and positioning derived from the literary field, first and foremost from narrative prose writing. Yet literary research in this area has, to this day, mainly been confined to a notion of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism, a reduction that does not do justice to the diversification of knowledge in the fields of social and cultural historiography. What is not understood is the impact modernisation in its many different facets had both on the diversification of realist writing and on the emergence of new modes of narrative writing based on the new social 'players' and their ideological needs.
The analytical framework developed in my latest monograph on German prose from 1750 to 1845 (Gert Vonhoff, Erzählgeschichte, Münster 2007) will help to describe processes of narrative evolution, not in a traditional linear pattern of progress, but rather as a spiral model of evolutionary processes based both on aesthetic and social developments.
My research questions include: Is the concept of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism too narrow and static for an exploration of the different modes of bourgeois-based narrative prose between the 1850s to the 1890s? For the development of bourgeois realism in its programmatic phase of the 1850s and early 1860s, is the emergence and evolution of the Dorfgeschichte (rural tale, tale of the village) a crucial influence, proving more multi-faceted than previously realised? Can the impact of technological progress and the sciences be studied in different modes of realist literature, rather than just in naturalistic prose?
When Angestellte emerged as a new social class with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, their collective identity had yet to be defined, both in political and sociological terms. Emerging into a strongly hierarchised society inevitably meant dealing with shifting notions of status, not only concerning conscious attempts at self-modelling, but also resulting from fluctuating economic pressures. My search for nineteenth century prose samples that in some way typify or delineate Angestellte traces these ‒ often colliding – processes, which led twentieth century researchers to speak of Angestellte as a heterogeneous “non-class”.
From the beginning, attempts at self-modelling by Angestellte proceeded not only from positive values to emulated and claimed, but significantly also from perceptions of its 'other', from negative values to be excluded. The latter was perceived as being located in the working classes, the former in the bourgeoisie. Partly because this two-fold process of identity-formation seems in prose fiction (and literary non-fiction) to occur more at an affective than a cognitive level, and partly due to economic pressures, an often conflictual and unresolved sense of collective self resulted, one which must at all times defend its inner values in order to confirm its uncertain social standing. Inner conflicts were exploited by politicians who feared any potential solidarisation of the employed workforce and who helped forge the sense of separatism from the working classes, as well as inherent predispositions towards internal hierarchisation.
Whereas by the Weimar Republic these inner tensions had become external pressures, nineteenth century texts rather evidence unconsciousness of the Angestellten-position in social terms. The research question 'what constitutes Angestellten prose fiction' itself is a paradigm leading not only to enquiries about authorial origin and narratorial positions, but to philosophical, thematic, structural and stylistic preoccupations. The heterogeneity of this social class is one of the challenges taken up in this strand of the project, to ask who its spokesmen and women were, what positions they took up and what attitudes they fostered.
My research focuses on early working class narrative prose from 1840 to 1900 (1920), during which period prose writing no longer addressed only the bourgeois literate, but increasingly also a newly emerging group of working class readers. The aim is to distinguish different modes of writing beneath the dominant paradigm of 'bourgeois' or 'poetic' realism: How should working class prose be defined? Is it enough to relate it to the author’s or readers’ social background? Is working class prose written by workers or written for workers? Should established literary criteria be applied? As most of the authors related to working class (e.g. Georg Weerth, Ernst Dronke, August Otto-Walster, Robert Schweichel or Carl Lübeck) are marginalised in our cultural memory, analysis of their prose fiction will need to take account of these research questions.
Starting point of the survey is the 1840s, before the failed 1848/49 revolution, drawing a line from the Vormärz to the Nachmärz demonstrating that even in pre-industrialised times an interest in the social question existed. As the 1850s were a reactionary decade, with political organisations and trade unions of journeymen and workers being repressed by the state, working class prose appeared to vanish. When two foundations of socialist parties in the 1860s testified the strengthening of the socialist movement, both parties edited their own journals which became the preferred medium of prose publication. Social democrats began to utilise the daily press – initially dominated by bourgeois agents – to reach a broader public and party calendars became a medium of Aufklärung in order to create political and self-awareness. Because the socialist movement had to face extraordinary intervention by the German government from 1878 to 1890 (the Socialist Laws), it will be of specific interest to find out whether or how literary production changed under state repression. The survey reaches out to the first autobiographies written by blue collar workers around the turn of the century.
Part of the work is searching for authors unknown today and making samples of their prose fiction available on this website. Further research questions will include: What does it mean when elements of eighteenth-century bourgeois prose such as the optimistic strong narrator or the mono-perspectival narrative re-emerge in nineteenth-century working class prose? To what extent can similar stylistic devices have different effects in different social contexts?