Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Author’s Portrait: Adalbert Stifter

Literature is an art bound to culture and language. Thus it often happens that an author who is famous in his own cultural and linguistic environment remains unknown in other parts of the world. I have made it my mission to present some of them, notably writers from before 1900. Among important Austrian authors who don’t get much attention outside Austria or German-speaking countries (anymore), I already portrayed Bertha von Suttner (who is better known as a peace activist) and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. Today I want to spotlight Adalbert Stifter, a leading figure of Austrian Biedermeier literature. Despite his lasting fame in the German-speaking world, it seems that most of his work is still waiting to be discovered abroad.

Adalbert Stifter was born Albert Stifter in Oberplan, Bohemia, Austria (today: Horní Planá, Czech Republic), on 23 October 1805. He was the eldest son of a linen-weaver, flax-merchant and small farmer who found a premature death in a work accident with a flax waggon when Adalbert was twelve years old. From then on the boy had to support his mother and four siblings on the farm to make at least a meagre living. It was his maternal grandfather, the butcher Franz Friepes, who recognised Adalbert’s potential and who insisted on sending him to boarding school at the Benedictine grammar-school of Kremsmünster in Upper Austria. Those eight years stamped his character as well as his interests and strongly influenced his artistic work.

In 1826 Adalbert Stifter went to Vienna, Austria, to study law. He had a promising start at university, but the law didn’t correspond with his inclinations and so he changed to mathematics and natural sciences after two years. To finance his studies and living in the big city he worked as a private tutor (as he had before in Kremsmünster), as time passed he devoted himself more and more to painting and poetry, though. His early verses were clearly inspired by the great German classical writers Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Jean Paul (1763-1825). Several of them appeared under the pseudonym Ostade in a local journal in Linz as from 1828. Adalbert Stifter’s first known prose work is the fragment of a story titled Julius from 1829/30.

The student days of Adalbert Stifter were marked by growing emotional turmoil, self doubt and indecision. In summer 1827 he met Fanny Greipl, the daughter of a wealthy linen merchant, and what began as a friendship soon turned into passionate love. However, he couldn’t make up his mind about a career to pursue as a livelihood and eventually the young woman broke up with him supported by her parents who forbade him to further court her. Due to the grief about his lost love, which he tried to drown in alcohol, his performance at university deteriorated and by 1830 he abandoned his studies for good. After trying in vain to find a place as an apprentice civil servant, he continued as a private tutor and teacher in changing schools. 

The year after his beloved Fanny’s wedding with a revenue officer, in November 1837, Adalbert Stifter married the milliner Amalia Mohaupt whom he had known and courted for four years. The financial situation of the couple remained difficult although he had gained an excellent reputation as a private tutor and – later on – he taught the children of important Austrian aristocrats like Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Austrian Foreign Minister at the time of the 1815 Congress of Vienna and later Austrian Chancellor under Emperor Francis I. and Ferdinand I. Many of his pupils became lasting friends and he kept up a lively correspondence with them. In September 1840 Fanny died in childbirth, but continued to live forever in Adalbert Stifter’s work.

During the 1830s Adalbert Stifter produced and sold his most notable landscape paintings, but turned his attention increasingly to writing. Already his first published story, Der Condor, which came out in a Viennese magazine in 1840, was an immediate success. From then on his stories appeared regularly in magazines, journals and almanacs, among them Das Haidedorf (1840; The Village on the Heath), Feldblumen (1841; Field Flowers), and Der Hochwald (1841; The High Forest). His definite literary breakthrough came with the publication of Abdias in 1842 followed by Das alte Siegel (1844; The Old Seal), Die Narrenburg (1844; Castle Crazy), Brigitta (1844), Der Hagestolz (1845; The Bachelors), and Der Waldsteig (1845; The Forest Path) to mention just a few.

The revenues from his stories gave Adalbert Stifter increasing financial independence and writing became his main livelihood. In 1844 the first two volumes of collected and revised stories came out under the title Studien (Studies). Another two volumes followed in 1847, the remaining two in 1850, but while the first volumes were acclaimed for the skilled portrayal of natural and moral beauty, the last were criticised for their lack of action and true characters as well as for their exceedingly precise and verbose style. Nonetheless, Adalbert Stifter’s rising fame in Austria and abroad established him as a leading artist in Vienna and opened him the doors to important literary salons.

The following years saw the publication of some of Adalbert Stifter’s most notable stories, namely Der Heilige Abend (1845; Christmas Eve – later revised and published as Bergkristall [Rock Crystal]), Der Waldgänger (1847; The Wanderer in the Forest), Der arme Wohltäter (1848; The Poor Benefactor – later revised and published as Kalkstein [Limestone]), Prokopus (1848), Die Schwestern (1850; The Sisters), and Der Pförtner im Herrenhause (1851; The Gate-Keeper in the Mansion – later revised and published as Turmalin [Tourmaline]). In 1853 the collection Bunte Steine (Colourful Stones) came out which comprised not just the just mentioned stories Bergkristall, Kalkstein and Turmalin, but also the new stories Granit (Granite), Katzensilber (Muscovite) and Bergmilch (Moonmilk).

The revolutionary year 1848 had an impact also on Adalbert Stifter who had openly supported calls for reform. After the March Fights he left Vienna for good and settled down in Linz where he first became editor of the local Linzer Zeitung and was later appointed supervisor of elementary schools in Upper Austria which brought him financial security, but meant at the same time that he was obliged to cut back on his literary production. In 1853 he was also appointed the Upper Austrian curator of the Imperial Commission for Research and Preservation of Architectural Monuments.

The private life of Adalbert Stifter was somewhat unhappy, not least because his wife Amalia was unable to conceive. In 1847 they adopted Juliane, the six-year-old niece of Amalia, but the girl ran away repeatedly. Before Christmas 1859 she ran away once more and was found drowned in the river Danube four weeks later. It remained unclear if it was an accident or suicide. Josefine, a niece of Adalbert Stifter, had joined the family as a foster daughter in 1857. The following year she fell ill, though, and had to return to her original family in Klagenfurt. In 1859 another niece of Amalia, Katharina, was taken into the household as a servant. By that time Adalbert Stifter, who had all his life indulged in excessive eating and drinking, and also his wife became increasingly ailing.

Despite his ill health Adalbert Stifter continued to write as much as was still in his power. Apart from his last revision of the story Die Mappe meines Urgrossvaters (1864; The Folder of My Great-Grandfather) and the late stories Nachkommenschaften (1865; Descendants) and Der Kuß von Sentze (1866; The Kiss of Sentze), he even managed to finish his only two novels, the Bildungsroman titled Der Nachsommer (1857; Indian Summer) and the historical novel Witiko (1865-1867).

As from 1864 Adalbert Stifter was no longer able to do his duty as a school supervisor and curator. After an extended sick leave he was retired with all honours, since none of the repeated cures in the spa of Karlsbad and in Kirchschlag could restore his health. Weakened not just by what is believed to have been cirrhosis of the liver but also by the flu, he could bear the suffering no longer and opened his carotid artery with a razor. Two days later, on 28 January 1868, Adalbert Stifter died in Linz, Austria-Hungary. A collection of Erzählungen (Tales) was published posthumously in 1869.

Of course all German versions of Adalbert Stifter’s extensive work have been free of copyright for many decades. Several stories and his two novels are available for free on Project Gutenberg, on, on, or on German-language Wikisource just for example. As for English translations, Castle Crazy and the Christmas story Rock Crystal (in The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, Volume 8) can be downloaded for free.

Some of Adalbert Stifter’s most notable works have also been newly translated into English or re-issued in print in the past twenty years, namely Brigitta and Other Tales, Indian Summer, Witiko, The Bachelors, and most importantly Rock Crystal.

For further information see the following websites:

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