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A Late-Romantic Reading Scene

In E. T. A. Hoffmann’s late story Des Vetters Eckfenster (My Cousin’s Corner Window), fundamental problems of late-Romantic literary communication are ingeniously condensed into a fictional ‘scene of reading’.[1] In the reading scene reprinted below, which is also one of the great scenes of authorial disappointment in late-Romantic German literature, an author happens to meet one of his readers on the Gendarmenmarkt square in Berlin around 1820:

I don’t like looking at the flowers there […]. The vendor who usually displays the most beautiful array of select carnations, roses, and other rarer blooms, is a very nice, pretty girl, striving to cultivate her mind; for whenever she is not occupied by trading, she diligently reads books whose uniform shows that they belong to Kralowski’s great literary army, which is victoriously spreading the light of intellectual culture into the remotest corners of our capital. A flower-girl who reads books is an irresistible sight for an author of fiction. It so happened that long ago, when my way took me past the flowers […], I noticed the flower-girl reading and stopped in surprise. She seemed to be seated in a thick bower of blooming geraniums, and had her book open on her lap, with her chin propped on her hand. The hero must have been in deadly danger, or some other crisis in the plot must have been reached, for the girl’s cheeks were flushed, her lips were quivering, and she seemed miles away from her surroundings. […] I was unable to leave the spot, where I shifted nervously from one foot to the other, wondering what the girl was reading. This thought absorbed my entire mind. The spirit of literary vanity awoke and tickled me with the notion that it might be one of my own works which had transported the girl into the fantastic world of my dreams. Finally I plucked up courage, walked over to her, and asked the price of a bunch of carnations standing in a distant row. While the girl was fetching the carnations, I said: ‘What are you reading, my pretty child?’ and picked up the book which she had hastily clapped shut. O ye gods! It was indeed one of my works, namely ****. The girl brought the flowers and told me their very reasonable price. Flowers? Carnations? At that moment the girl represented a far more estimable public than the entire elegant world of our capital. Excited and inflamed by the sweetest feelings an author can have, I asked with feigned indifference how the girl liked the book.

‘Well, sir,’ replied the girl, ‘it’s a very funny kind of book. At first it makes your head spin a bit; but then you feel as if you were right in the middle of it.’

To my considerable astonishment the girl recounted the plot of the little fairy-tale quite clearly and distinctly, so that I perceived that she must have read it several times; she repeated that it was a very funny kind of book, and said that at times it had made her laugh heartily, and at other times she had felt like crying; and she advised me, in case I had not yet read the book, to collect it from Mr Kralowski one afternoon, for it was in the afternoons that she changed her books. I now prepared to deliver my master-stroke. With downcast eyes, in a voice that rivalled the honey of Hybla for sweetness, I lisped: ‘Here, my angel, is the author of the book which has given you such pleasure, standing in front of you as large as life.’

The girl stared at me, speechless, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. I took this for the expression of extreme admiration, indeed of joyous terror that the sublime genius whose creative power had produced such a work should have appeared so suddenly among the geraniums. As the girl’s countenance remained unaltered, I thought: ‘Perhaps she simply can’t believe that a fortunate coincidence should have brought the celebrated author of **** so close to her.’ I tried every possible way of explaining that I was identical with that author, but she seemed petrified, and nothing escaped her lips except ‘Hm – oh – well – why…’. […] Apparently it had never entered the girl’s head that the books she read must first have been composed. She had no idea that such things as writers or authors existed, and I verily think that closer enquiry would have elicited from her the pious, child-like belief that God made books grow, like mushrooms.

In a subdued voice I asked once more how much the carnations cost. In the mean time, another obscure notion about the production of books must have formed in the girl’s mind; for as I was counting out the money, she asked quite frankly and naïvely whether I made all Mr Kralowski’s books? Seizing my carnations, I rushed off like lightning.[2]

The description of this scene as one of ‘deep humiliation’ (‘tiefe Schmach’; 388/481) is no exaggeration, for, after his encounter with his ‘public’ (‘Publikum’; 387/480), the unidentified writer who serves as the protagonist of My Cousin’s Corner Window decides not to write any more literature, not to publish any more works. We are confronted with the poignant anxieties of the late-Romantic writer who brings all his poetic activity to an end due to an unexpected encounter with his public. Why this withdrawal into poetic infirmity? An answer, I suggest, lies in reconstructing the defining factors of literary communication in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The idea of the author is characterized in My Cousin’s Corner Window as ‘the sublime genius whose creative power had produced […] a work’ (‘das sublime Genie, dessen schaffende Kraft […] ein Werk erzeugt’; 388/481). The idea of the audience, or public, on the other hand, consists of an audience that, in the form of the flower-girl, reads ‘diligently’ (‘emsig’; 387/479) and ‘several times’ (‘mehrmals’; 388/481), striving ‘to cultivate her mind’ (‘nach höherer Kultur des Geistes’; 387/479) and immersing herself in the reading process, in which she is ‘miles away from her surroundings’ (‘ihrer Umgebung ganz entrückt’; 387/480). Both ideas meet with disappointment during the conversation with the flower-girl. It becomes clear that this reader has no concept of authorship: it seems that ‘it had never entered the girl’s head that the books she read must first have been composed’ (‘das Mädchen niemals daran gedacht, daß die Bücher, welche sie lese, vorher gedichtet werden müßten’; 388/481). Her promiscuous usage of books – ‘it was in the afternoons that she changed her books’ (‘sie wechsele eben Nachmittags Bücher’; 388/481) – and her lack of aesthetic judgement – ‘a very funny kind of book’ (‘ein gar schnackisches Buch’; 388,480–481) – do not match those initially envisaged by the author; the flower-girl seems to exchange her books regularly and to read correspondingly often, rapidly, and superficially.

Why, though, is it the case that ‘she had no idea that such things as writers or authors existed’ (‘der Begriff eines Schriftstellers, eines Dichters war ihr gänzlich fremd’; 388/481)? Why does she take up the protagonist’s works, which must have borne a name, without attributing them to an author? The Romantic writer finds himself confronted with an anonymized situation of reception (Pontzen 2000, 197; see also Cook 1993, 159–172), or more precisely: with an anonymizing reading situation. How such a readerly practice could come to be has, I want to argue, much to do with the specific materiality of the Romantic book and one of the central institutions through which literature was accessed during the Romantic period: the lending library.

Lending Libraries as Romantic Institutions

In Theodore Ziolkowski’s study German Romanticism and Its Institutions, the mine, the law, the madhouse, the university, and the museum are reconstructed as central ‘institutions’ of Romanticism (Ziolkowski 1990); this list of relevant ‘institutions’ could be extended, not least with that of the lending library. That the Romantic lending library played a central role concerning the reception of fictional literature is apparent from the fact that the price of books was still so high in the early decades of the nineteenth century that, even in large parts of the educated middle classes, the private acquisition of fictional literature was possible only in exceptional cases (Schön 2001, 93, and 106–108).[3] Even among higher social strata in the second half of the nineteenth century, novels were purchased only very rarely (Martino 1990, 650).

The role of the lending library (alongside the reading society) as an institution that made possible and provided a foundation for the ‘reading revolution’ that transpired at the turn of the nineteenth century (Wittmann 1999) has been described in sociological terms by Alberto Martino in his exemplary study of the German lending library (Martino 1999, 52–57). Martino finds that the lending library, which became established during the Enlightenment, must also be considered the central institution through which literature was accessed in the period from 1815 to 1848 (Martino 1999, 155); for Martino, it is precisely the period in which Hoffmann wrote My Cousin’s Corner Window that presents itself as the lending library’s Blütezeit – its golden age. During this period, he believes, a veritable flood of new libraries appeared as a result of the rapid and pronounced increase in demand for reading material, a constantly expanding reading public, and the continued high price of books (Martino 1999, 174). In contrast to the knowledge-centered lending library of the late Enlightenment, though, the role of the ‘Romantic’ lending library was confined to enabling wide sections of the population to consume texts of fictional literature (Martino 1990, 157). In contrast to the opinion of the protagonist of My Cousin’s Corner Window, who still believes that the Romantic lending library – ‘Kralowski’s great literary army’ (‘großen Kralowskischen ästhetischen Hauptarmee’; 387/479) – embodies an institution that still ‘is victoriously spreading the light of intellectual culture into the remotest corners of our capital’ (‘bis in die entferntesten Winkel der Residenz siegend das Licht der Geistesbildung verbreitet’; 387/479–480), the ‘late-Romantic’ lending libraries had long since lost their original function of transmitting a wide range of knowledge and become confined to the role of providing a commercial centre from which current fictional literary production could be distributed (Martino 1990, 211–212).

Martino argues that the influence of the tightly packed web of lending libraries on literary life in the first half of the nineteenth century should not be underestimated, for the lending library absorbed almost the entire output of fiction in book form and, as a powerful source of proliferation, allowed it to circulate among readers. In this way, according to Martino, the lending libraries had a decisive influence on both literary production and literary taste (Martino 1990, 623). The question of how the institution of the lending library affected the reading habits of its users and how they dealt with texts thus raises a problem of central importance for the reconstruction of the literary system of Romanticism. This broad central problem, in turn, raises a series of further issues, including questions about the readers of the lending library (e.g. the specific forms of reception of lending-library literature), the models for structuring the lending library (e.g. the arrangement of books on the shelves), the models for cataloguing the lending library (e.g. alphabetical ordering by title), and the material presentation of media (e.g. the binding of lending-library books). For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the last of these points.

As Georg Jäger and Jörg Schönert have shown, the books of lending libraries had distinctive features even on a material level: they were products that exhibited a particular form of presentation that could be observed in, among other things, certain restrictions regarding length, paper quality, print quality, and binding (Jäger and Schönert 1980, 42). Despite intensive study of the lending library as a defining institution through which literature was accessed, scholars have until now failed to provide the necessary study of how fictional lending-library literature was presented as a product (Schwobe 2007, 60). I would like to rectify this neglect here by arguing for the significance of the materiality of the borrowed book.

Questions already posed in this context from the perspective of the history of the book include, for example: Was the publishers’ binding replaced by that of the lending library, or were books sold in (interim) paperboard before being bound by the lending library itself? Were the volumes of the lending library bound identically, or were holdings distinguished (e.g. according to genre) by different bindings? To what extent did the binding (e.g. the use of more resilient material) point to particular ways of dealing with borrowed books and particular ways of reading? These and other questions about the binding of the holdings of the ‘Romantic’ lending library are, from the perspective of contemporary media history, anything but insignificant where reconstruction of the literary system of the early decades of the nineteenth century is concerned. For contemporaries, though, the binding of lending-library books must have been such an obvious and trivial fact that they thought it superfluous to highlight the materiality of the lending-library book themselves or even preserve it for posterity. A rare exception here is My Cousin’s Corner Window by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was himself one of the successful authors in the lending libraries (Martino 1990, 275–288).

In fact, the lending library plays a defining role in the scene recounted above in which the author encounters the flower-girl, even though this has not been clearly enough acknowledged in the research to date (Kremer 1999, 188, and 198). The flower-girl obtains her fiction from ‘Kralowski’s’ lending library; she advises the writer to obtain the book ‘from Mr Kralowski one afternoon’ (‘Nachmittags von Herrn Kralowski’; 388/481); and she asks him, after he has revealed his authorship, whether he ‘made all Kralowski’s books’ (‘alle Bücher beim Herrn Kralowski mache’; 389/482). But ‘Kralowski’s’ lending library is well known to the writer as well, for, from some distance, before he has engaged the flower-girl in conversation and picked up her copy, he identifies without difficulty the volumes she is reading as books ‘whose uniform shows that they belong to Kralowski’s great literary army’ (‘deren Uniform zeigt, daß sie zur großen Kralowskischen ästhetischen Hauptarmee gehören’) and which had penetrated ‘into the remotest corners of our capital’ (‘bis in die entferntesten Winkel der Residenz’; 387/479–480).

If we consider the reading scene from the perspective of what has been said so far, it becomes clear from the anxiety-inducing ‘cancellation’ of the author – which takes place in the context of anonymizing reception by the flower-girl (cf. Stadler 1986, 511–512; Schirmer 1995, 82; Darby 2003, 293–294) – that ‘Romantic’ literary communication was seen as at least partially heteronomous in so far as powerful intermediate bodies such as the lending library helped to shape the way in which literature was received. Indeed, the flower-girl’s enquiry whether the writer ‘made all Mr Kralowski’s books’ (‘alle Bücher beim Herrn Kralowski mache’; 389/482) is not without a certain plausibility, for the lending-library volumes she reads, i.e. the books ‘whose uniform shows that they belong to Kralowski’s great literary army’ (‘deren Uniform zeigt, daß sie zur großen Kralowskischen ästhetischen Hauptarmee gehören’; 387/479) are all bound uniformly.[4]

Whether this was also true of the real literary army of Kralowsky, can no longer be ascertained. The real-world counterpart to the fictional lending library of ‘Kralowski’ from which the flower-girl obtains her fiction – the lending library run by Ferdinand Kralowsky in the Jägerstraße, one of the largest in Berlin around 1820 – can no longer be reconstructed. E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was himself involved in the establishment of a lending library in Bamberg, used Kralowsky’s Berlin lending library with some regularity (see Martino 1990, 656). However far the similarities between fictional and real lending library may extend in this case, the lending library, as portrayed in My Cousin’s Corner Window, is a central institution of the ‘Romantic’ literary system that supports, through the play of the uniform and uniformity in Hoffmann’s fiction, an anonymizing reception of literature. With publishers usually supplying novels without hard covers, that is, with only bastard titles, and thus leaving it to the lending libraries to bind fiction uniformly in cheap (often grey-brown) paperboard on which the shelfmark was displayed, the lending library contributes in a fundamental way to the material assimilation of all borrowed fictional books and generates a readerly space devoid of authorial ‘containment’.

Authorship, Anonymity, and Signature

In literary theory, anonymity is, drawing on Gérard Genette’s ideas, usually (a) described as the opposite of authorship and (b) defined as namelessness (Genette 1997, 37–54). The theoretical debate is thus guided by an underlying theory of anonymity that treats anonymity and authorship as a pair of contradictory opposites and identifies anonymity with namelessness. Each position is, I argue, implausible and both perpetuate the false opposition between authorship and anonymity and the erroneous identification of anonymity with namelessness.

The three central categories of authorship, anonymity, and namelessness function, I would stress, on completely different theoretical levels. The question of authorship relates primarily to the level of ontology and asks whether an object has an author in the sense of a maker who proceeds to a greater or lesser degree according to a plan or whether, in Hoffmann’s words, ‘books grow, like mushrooms’ (‘die Bücher wachsen […] wie die Pilze’; 388/481). The question of namelessness relates to the paratextual level and asks whether an artefact has a signature – in other words, whether it is accompanied by a name (cf. Kamuf 1988). The question of anonymity, finally, relates to the epistemic level and asks whether a particular authorial individual can be assigned to an artefact; ‘anonymity’ is thus an expression of knowledge – it means that the authorship of a particular artefact cannot be ascertained by a particular person against the background of a particular context.

This reconstruction of ‘anonymity’ as an expression of knowledge also makes clear that (a) authorship is not the opposite of anonymity and (b) namelessness is not the same as anonymity and that both are instead to be reconstructed as related qualities within this statement of knowledge. When reference is made to anonymity, the question is whether the authorship of an artefact can be ascertained – with namelessness being one of several determining factors that can frustrate ascertainment by a particular reader. With respect to the ascertainment of authorship, anonymity is thus an epistemic status that is characterized by the lack of particular information that would otherwise permit ascertainment of the author (anonymity is a state of epistemic deficiency). The signature is only one kind of paratextual information among many other kinds of textual, paratextual, and epitextual information that enable authorship to be ascertained. Thus, the lack of a signature does not necessarily mean that anonymity can be assumed: even where no signature is present, it can be possible to ascertain authorship without difficulty on the basis of other information.

So, we can distinguish between the lack of an author as an ontological dimension of an object without a maker, the lack of a signature as a paratextual dimension of an artefact, and anonymity as an epistemic dimension of an artefact whose maker is not known in a particular reading situation. It can, for example, be observed regarding the fictional world of My Cousin’s Corner Window that the work read by the flower-girl has an author and probably a signature, but that the author of the work is not known to its recipient due to various determining factors and that she receives it anonymously. The fictional reading scene from My Cousin’s Corner Window makes clear that in certain cases it is perfectly possible for the paratextual presence of a signature to be combined with an anonymizing mode of reception, which is here induced by material factors (e.g. bookbinding) and reinforced by institutional ones (e.g. the lending library).[5]

The Conscription of the Romantic Book

How do things stand with the anonymity represented in Hoffmann’s late-Romantic reading scene? In My Cousin’s Corner Window, it is not the lack of paratextual signals that is made problematic: it is not the absence of a signature that leads to anonymizing reception by the flower-girl. The anonymity is not an effect intended by the author but a consequence of the institution of the lending library and the forms of communication at whose centre it stands. My Cousin’s Corner Window is a rich literary representation of a late-Romantic reading scene featuring copies of fiction from a lending library, precisely because the role of the lending library as an institution through which literature was accessed is thematized and the institutional dimension of anonymous authorship is thereby brought to attention.

The authorship of the individual book is literally ‘covered up’ by the bindings that give a uniform appearance to the copies of fiction and, at least on a material level, conceal the specific authors of individual works. The volumes are anonymized by uniform covers and conscripted into the ‘army’ of the lending library. The individual author has no role left in the strategy of the lending library; the lending library turns to the all-encompassing strategy of a levée en masse where its holdings are concerned. In the scene where the flower-girl encounters the writer, the binding, the cover of the book from the lending library, is central. From the perspective of Hoffmann’s late story, anonymity around 1820 must be reconstructed to include concealed authorship: the author, who does not immediately reveal his authorship and initially looks undercover for clues about the reception of his works on the market, is forced, after revealing his identity and talking with his reader, to accept that his authorship has been concealed by the characteristic materiality of books from the lending library. Authorship stays hidden under the library binding, the cover of the book: in a system of distributing fictional books dominated by the lending library, anonymity turns out to be a case of undercover authorship. It is in the anonymizing lending library that, from the perspective of the flower-girl, books originate.

As an ‘intractable’ cultural artefact, the book made available by the lending library is part of a complex panorama of late-Romantic reading. Although Jean Paul was still able to describe the lending library enthusiastically as a guarantor for writers’ independence around 1800 (Jean Paul 1805, 9–12), late-Romantic appraisals are markedly more distanced and increasingly see – as Wilhelm Hauff did two decades later, for example (Hauff 1827, 727–743) – new forms of institutional control and new types of economic pressure emerging in the lending library. This distancing from the lending library is also a reaction to the fact that late-Romantic literary communication was increasingly forced to acknowledge its own dependence on the institutions through which literature was accessed. In a market where the larger part of the print run of a fictional book was purchased by the lending libraries, the course of Romantic literary communication passed, almost unavoidably, through the hands of the bookbinder, who prepared the binding of books for use in a lending library – as was underlined again by Ludwig Tieck in his novella Des Lebens Überfluss (Life’s Luxuries), fifteen years after Hoffmann’s My Cousin’s Corner Window (Tieck 1839, 248–249).

The cover of the lending-library book presents itself as the material correlate of a particular context of communication in which the Romantic book was conscripted – that is, ‘co-written’ and anonymized – by the powerful institution of the lending library. The grey-brown cover of the lending library conceals the name of the author. The lending library, which initially had the function of a distributing body that provided the author with a wider readership, is now stealthily advancing to prominence over them: both the author and the reader, both the ‘cousin’ and the novel-reading ‘flower-girl’ remain nameless in My Cousin’s Corner Window. It is most significant that the only person who is given a proper name in the story and called by his own name by both the ‘cousin’ and the ‘flower-girl’ is the very person whose name stands metonymically for the mighty late-Romantic institution of the lending library: ‘Mr Kralowski’.