Theses Doctoral

Das Volk bilden: The Pursuit of Volkstümlichkeit by Berthold Auerbach, Heinrich Heine and Johann Gottfried Herder

Vaughn, Chloe

Das Volk bilden: The Pursuit of Volkstümlichkeit by Berthold Auerbach, Heinrich Heine and Johann Gottfried Herder examines the theorization of the concept of the Volk and Volkstümlichkeit by three authors from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Berthold Auerbach, Heinrich Heine and Johann Gottfried Herder.

The term “volkstümlich” has no exact equivalent in English, although it has been rendered as “popular” “folkish” or even the slightly pejorative “folksy.” In German, it expresses both the quality of something proper to a given people or Volk, and the notion of popularity or commonness at which the English terms gesture. I analyze how these authors aim to expand the contemporaneous reading public by shaping the reading practices of audiences otherwise ignored by traditional belletristic literature. It also interrogates how they conceive of the Volk as a co-producer of literature and culture.

Each author uses the terms “Volk” and “Volkstümlichkeit” in programmatic texts to refer to shared characteristics among a given people and as a distinction between high and low culture. All three also pursue the goal of creating a widespread reading public through their own literary practices: Herder in his collections of song and poetry, Heine in his poetry, criticism and journalism, and Auerbach through a thematic focus on the village in his fiction and the serial form of the Volkskalender in his role as editor. Each of them pursues a program that is both national and cosmopolitan, writing as they did during a period when invocation of the Volk was not yet primarily the province of conservative nationalists.

Chapter one shows how Berthold Auerbach used his dual role as author of the immensely popular Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten and as editor of and contributor to various Volkskalender to elevate the way of life he portrays. In doing so, he aimed at uniting the disparate audiences of the common people and the educated, as well as urban and rural populations into a single Volk. Chapter two focuses on several key texts of Heinrich Heine’s to show that he conceived of the Volk as an ideal addressee capable of resolving the contradictions that plague civilization.

Contrary to much of the scholarship that sees a pessimistic turn in Heine’s later work, I use his many remarks on the common people throughout his work to draw out a utopian, trans-historical element in his thinking. Two early texts by Johann Gottfried Herder, Über die neuere deutsche Literatur: Fragmente and the Volkslieder project, make up the focus of the third chapter. By importing genres associated with oral traditions and performance into his collections, together with texts by Shakespeare, Herder effaces existing distinctions between popular forms and high literature. The chapter shows that Herder conceives of the Volk not just as a public, but as active participants in literary world-making. My dissertation intervenes in existing scholarship on the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by centering Volk as one of the defining concepts of the era and demonstrating how different literary media has been used to imagine and establish relations to it.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Muecke, Dorothea von
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 13, 2024