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Stifter, Adalbert

STIFTER, Adalbert

Nationality: Austrian. Born: Oberplan, Bohemia (Horní Planá, Czechoslovakia), 23 October 1805. Education: Village school; Benedictine monastery school, Kremsmünster, 1818-26; studied law at University of Vienna, 1828-30. Family: Married Amalia Mohaupt in 1837. Career: Tutor and painter; editor, Der Wiener Bote, 1849-50; school inspector, Vienna, 1850, and in Linz, 1851-65; art critic, Linzer Zeitung, 1852-57; Curator of Monuments for Upper Austria, 1853; vice-president, Linzer Kunstverein. Order of Franz Joseph, 1854; Ritterkreuz des Weissen Falkenordens, 1867. Died: 28 January 1868 (suicide).

Publications

Collections

Sämtliche Werke, edited by August Sauer. 25 vols., 1904-79.

Werke, edited by Gustav Wilhelm. 5 vols., 1926.

Gesammelte Werke, edited by Max Stefl. 6 vols., 1939.

Werke, edited by Magda Gerken and Josef Thanner. 5 vols., 1949-61.

Werke, edited by Max Stefl. 9 vols., 1950-60.

Werke und Briefe, edited by Alfred Doppler and Wolfgang Frühwald.1978—.

Short Stories and Novellas

Studien. 6 vols., 1844-50; enlarged edition, 1855.

Rural Life in Austria and Hungary. 3 vols., 1850; Pictures of Rural Life, 1850.

Pictures of Life. 1852.

The Heather Village. 1868.

Der Hagelstolz. 1852; as The Recluse, 1968.

Bunte Steine: Ein Festgeschenk. 1853; translated in part as Mount Gars; or, Marie's Christmas Eve, 1857; as Rock Crystal, 1945; as "Limestone," in Brigitta, 1990.

Erzählungen, edited by Johannes Aprent. 2 vols., 1869.

Der Waldsteig (in English translation). 1942.

The Condor. 1946.

Erzählungen in der Urfassung, edited by Max Stefl. 3 vols., 1950-52.

Limestone and Other Stories. 1968.

Brigitta (includes "Abdias," "Limestone," and "The ForestPath"). 1990.

Novels

Der Nachsommer. 1857; as Indian Summer, 1985.

Witiko. 1865-67.

Die Mappe meines Urgrossvaters (Letzte Fassung). 1946.

Other

Briefe, edited by Johannes Aprent. 3 vols., 1869.

Stifter: Sein Leben in Selbstzeugnissen, Briefen, und Berichten, edited by Karl Privat. 1946.

Jugendbriefe (1822-1839), edited by Gustav Wilhelm. 1954.

Leben und Werk in Briefen und Dokumenten, edited by K. G. Fischer. 1962.

Briefwechsel, edited by Josef Buchowiecki. 1965.

Editor, with Johannes Aprent, Lesebuch zur Förderung humaner Bildung. 1854.

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Critical Studies:

Stifter: A Critical Study by E. A. Blackall, 1948; Natural Science in the Work of Stifter by W. E. Umbach, 1950; The Marble Statue as Idea: Collected Essays on Stifter's "Der Nachsommer" by Christine O. Sjögren, 1972; Stifter by Margaret Gump, 1974; Stifter Heute edited by Johann Lachinger, Alexander Stillmark, and Martin Swales, 1984; Stifter: A Critical Study by Martin and Erika Swales, 1984; Difficulty as an Aesthetic Principle: Realism and Unreadability in Stifter, Melville, and Flaubert by Marina Van Zuylen, 1994; Goethe as Cultural Icon: Intertextual Encounters with Stifter and Fontane by Nancy Birch Wagner, 1994; Albert Stifter's Bunte Steine: An Analysis of Theme, Style, and Structure in Three Novellas by Joseph Carroll Jeter, 1996.

* * *

Adalbert Stifter is one of the foremost writers of German fiction of the mid-nineteenth century and an early exponent of the refined or poetic realism quintessential to German prose writing during this period, characterized by a preference for shorter prose works such as the novelle, a strong sense of regionalism, and a predilection for rural settings. In the stories of his Studien (Studies) and the collection Bunte Steine (bright stones), Stifter expresses his love for the natural world of his native Bohemia in sensitive and often unashamedly lengthy descriptive passages. At the same time the serious tone of his dignified and elegant prose conveys a keen sense of moral values, as he explores the relationship between the human and natural spheres.

Stifter's principles are set out in the preface to Bunte Steine, in which he states that he is concerned essentially with the ordinary forces of nature that are recurrent but not startling (for example, the peacefully flowing river rather than the overflowing raging torrent that comes once but five years); unspectacular everyday weather rather than the occasional violent storm; the forces that preserve rather than the forces that destroy. The small and unremarkable manifestations of natural laws are matched in the human sphere by the unspectacular qualities of simplicity, moderation, and patience, which Stifter values more highly than violent destructive passions. Stifter finds greatness in those moral and unselfish actions that aim at the preservation of humankind. Nature can thus be an example to humans, and Stifter establishes a universal law called "the gentle law," which is most firmly rooted in self-effacing human virtues and which reflects the higher moral laws of nature. It is Stifter's aim to represent in his stories examples of the "gentle law" in both the human and natural spheres.

Of the Bunte Steine collection the story that best embodies Stifter's principles is "Limestone," which presents in the figure of a humble, unassuming, and selfless priest a perfect illustration of Stifter's conception of a great life. The Bunte Steine stories were written for children, and Stifter tried to cultivate a naive, primitive style. In "Limestone" he achieves the childlike quality and the simplicity of moral greatness and kindness, matching perfectly the unpretentious and initially unattractive landscape. The latter's hidden beauty is revealed only slowly, paralleling the gradual revelation of the moral beauty of the shabby and seemingly unremarkable priest.

Such a harmonious union of the natural and the human is rarely achieved, however, in the earlier Studien, in which the relationship between humans and nature is seen to be far more problematic. In "The Hochwald," for example, the virgin innocence of the Bohemian forest is contrasted with the violent disorder of human beings who can never hope to combine innocence with naturalness. If they attempt to retreat into the natural peace and order of the forest, they do not "live." If they surrender to their own "natural" inclinations, the result is violent passion, resulting in war, destruction, and ensuing sorrow. In "Abdias" the forces of nature seem to be in violent conflict with the world of human affairs. Here the hero falls victim to the cruelty of inscrutable and inconsistent natural laws that deal him a series of incomprehensible and seemingly unavoidable body-blows: the death of his wife in child-birth is compensated by the survival of the child, Ditha, whom he loves and protects, only for him to discover that she had been born blind; a freak storm miraculously restores her sight, only for a second storm to take away her life. Abdias is stunned into madness by the whole experience. The sole ray of sunlight in a harsh and disturbing story is when Abdias literally opens the seeing eyes of Ditha to the beauties of the natural world in the Bohemian valley.

A number of the studies do illustrate the possibilities of harmony and the kinds of behavior and qualities that Stifter admired. In "My Great-Grandfather's Notebook" a brawler and gambler repents the errors of his ways and becomes a "gentler" person and a happily married man. When he loses his wife after she falls into a ravine, he has to draw on his reserves of character to survive this cruel blow of fate, accepting it with resignation and devoting himself to useful agricultural pursuits as compensation. He serves as an example to a young doctor who is rejected in love and is devastated as a result. But instead of committing suicide he sublimates his grief in an even greater dedication to his patients. In these cases extreme despair gives way to a selfless patience, and good has resulted from apparent evil. These processes find their reflection in the natural world when an extremely cold and destructive winter is followed by a spring that seems all the more beautiful in comparison. The study that represents most perfectly both the harmony between the natural and human spheres and the reconciliation in the latter of passion and moral values is Brigitta. In this supreme anticipation of the principles set out in the preface to Bunte Steine, Stifter presents a married couple whose marriage is inspired initially by a violent passion; they consequently separate, but they later live as neighbors, devoting themselves to farming the land on their respective farms. In middle age they become aware of each others' moral worth, and their marriage is resumed in a moment of intense passion but also on a higher spiritual level. Here the fruitful cultivation of the seemingly barren land of the Hungarian puszta leads to the discovery of the inner beauty of the physically unattractive Brigitta. Stifter's work reached its culmination in the great novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer), in some ways a much expanded version of Brigitta, in which the cultivation of nature accompanies the maturing of a peaceful and harmonious friendship of a man and woman in the autumn of their lives.

It must be stressed that references to the plots and events of Stifter's works do scant justice to the quality of his prose—the long flowing sentences and meticulous descriptive passages. For Stifter the naked events of his stories are less important than the rich, highly poetic descriptions of the qualities of his characters and the natural surroundings of which they form a part. For Stifter our individual griefs, transgressions, and extravagances are unimportant in comparison with nature's eternal cycle, to which humans can contribute with a life devoted to simple, fruitful, and virtuous pursuits.

—Bruce Thompson

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