Attributed to Jacob Xaver Schmutzer, “Methods of Threshing and Flailing Grain”
Hand-colored engravings, 3 ¾ x 6 ½ inches
Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm, Unterhaltungen aus der Naturgeschichte (Augsburg, 1810)
Rural themes in Continental literature further developed into the nineteenth century Volksliteratur (folk literature) and Dorfgeschichte (village tales) of Swiss writer Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854), Germans Fritz Reuter (1810-1874) and Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882), and Austrian novelist and poet, Peter Rosegger (1843-1918). Writing in the Low German dialects of country people, these popular writers composed colloquial verse, humorous short stories, and adventuresome Bauernroman novels of local flavor that idealized some aspects of peasant life while presenting frank depictions of the rural poor. Julian Schmidt, a literary critic of the time, observed that these writers keenly conveyed their characters’ personal enjoyments alongside internal dissensions common to village life through the hearty openness of peasant conversation.
Gotthelf’s Uli der Knecht (Ulrich the Farm Servant, 1841), translated into English by John Ruskin, is the story of a poor farmer who struggles to learn newer methods of cultivation to transform his meagre holdings into a thriving enterprise. He seasonally hires out to more prosperous Bernese neighbors to sharpen scythes and tend livestock. He partakes of harvest feasting where, “Even the most callous [landowners] feel some sentiment of thankfulness towards God, and understand that they owe Him some offering as an expression of their gratitude. …Should not habitual thanksgiving be the result of so much bounty?” Reuter, who was jailed as a young man for political activism, wrote the three-volume novel Ut mine Stromid (1862-1864), published in English as Seedtime and Harvest (1872) and From My Farming Days (1878), which describes with hints of Dickens-like caricature the peasant farmers and villagers of his native Mecklenburg.
One of the most influential Dorfgeschichte writers was the German-Jewish poet and Swabian novelist Berthold Auerbach, author of the immensely popular Schwartzwälder Dorfgeschichten (Black Forest Village Tales, 1843), published in English in 1869 as Black Forest Village Stories. In the eponymous tale “Lauterbach,” Auerbach tells of the young country schoolmaster who finds work patiently tending the youth of Nordstettin. As a result of Lauterbach’s after-school countryside ramblings, readers are shown his “Wisdom of the Fields” notebook that records personal reflections and relates coarse-grained peasant harvest lore and provincial expressions to lessons for life:
—In cutting grain, the reaper must lay the swath behind him, so as to have nothing before him but the blades still standing. So with the deeds that we have done. They must be out of sight, so that all our attention may be turned to what yet remains to do.
—When in the distance I see mowers bowing and rising so regularly, it seems as if they were going through some ceremonious ritual of prayer.
—The weeds in the grain-fields are no man’s property until the poor take them away and convert them into nutritious food. Do you ask, of what use are weeds? Perhaps many other things should be judged by the same rule.
—Every patch of ground has its history. Could anyone unravel the mutations which transferred it from hand to hand, and the fortunes and sentiments of those who tilled it, he would understand the history of the human race….
One of the Austria’s most beloved authors, Heimatdichter (homeland poet) Peter Rosegger fashioned lively novels, short stories, and poetry deeply influenced by his experiences as a farm youth and devout country schoolteacher in the rural southeastern Tyrolian highlands. Critics praised such works as Volklieben in Steiermark (Folklife in Styria, 1871), his semi-autobiographical Waldheimat (The Forest Farm, 1877), and epistolary novel Erdsegen (Earth’s Blessing, 1900) for their lyrical yet unsentimental representations of land-folk that combined humor and ill-fortune. Rosegger’s country characters live between worlds ancient and modern and confront challenges of the day in stories rich with rural proverbs, folksongs, traditional remedies, and culinary lore. Europeans who perceived growing urban pretentiousness found in Rosegger’s works meaningful expression of Die Gute Gesellschaft (The Good Society) where dignity and respect for others and nature were informed by tradition and religious belief. Personal autonomy celebrated by avant popular culture offered a choice of risk divorced from the stabilizing, meaningful Volksgeist humus of locale, community, and obligation. By 1905 Rosegger’s books had been translated into twenty-two languages; in 1913 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and became the most widely read German author of his day. Details of agronomy and nature woven into Rosegger’s prose reflect intimate knowledge of farm life, as evident in the observations of Waldheimat farmer “Jakob der Letzte:”
Before him the brown fields stretch away, the larks blow their trumpets, and in tender, reddish blades the dead arise and look up to heaven. Then gradually everything begins to grown green, the tiny leaves curl and bend earthwards again as if they are listening for any counsels about life that the Mother may give to them. Then they aspire upwards, rolling themselves into sheaths, out of which, little by little, emerges the stalk and the inmost being of the grain. …And the single blade is now in its full glory. The four-sided ear, in which the still tender grains lie scale-like over each other, hangs its blossom out like tiny flags wherever a grainlet lies in its cradle, which flutter and tremble without ceasing, while the high stalk rocks thoughtfully to and fro.
…Strong and slender the stalks grow up from joint to joint. The lance-shaped, dark green leaves that lorded it at first, have nearly vanished, the stalks droop their heavy heads, which give back the sown grain thirty or forty-fold, one stalk laying its golden head on the shoulder of another. In the sun’s heat by day, at night in the light of the moon and the stars and the glimmer of glow-worms, they are ripening towards harvest. …When Jacob, always first and last in the heat and burden of the day, rests in late evening beneath a grain-stook in the harvest field, his dreaming begins again. The breath of grass and flowers makes him drowsy: he watches the antics of a jolly grasshopper, hears the chirp of a cricket—then it all fades away. He is looking out over a country where there is no blue forest, no green meadows, no mountain crags, and no clear streams. So far as ever the eye can reach is one great golden sea, an immeasurable field of grain.
Anthologies of nineteenth century German poetry included works by such authors as Wilhelm von Merckel (1803-1861) and Martin Greif (1839-1911) whose verse attests to their intimacy with rural life. While von Merckel pursued a career in law in Berlin and Greif chiefly resided in Munich, these cities were surrounded by productive farmlands where city dwellers often visited friends and relatives on holiday. Von Merckel’s long poem Ruhe (Rest, 1855) expresses affection for country life and is filled with sensory descriptions of experience well-known to field workers such as the sight of quail weaving down rows of grain, and elders forecasting the weather and estimating crop yields. Grief’s short Hochsommernacht (High Summer Night), featured in Hausbuch Deutscher Lyric (1906) with a woodcut by Munich artist Fritz Schmidt (1876-1935), expresses the fragile serenity of a field of grain under the harvest moon: