Selected Criticism

German-speaking Countries, Whitman in the
Grünzweig, Walter
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's reception in the German-speaking countries is substantial, both statistically and in cultural significance. It is important for an understanding of Central European cultural development, as an intercultural phenomenon linking German and American cultures, and, by furnishing alternative readings and interpretations of Whitman, for Whitman scholarship in general. This entry deals with the critical and creative reception in the German-speaking cultures rather than academic studies at German-speaking universities (which tend to lack cultural specificity and fit into the main trends of Whitman scholarship in the United States).

Whereas Whitman's German reception has been the focus of several specialized studies since the 1930s (Harry Law-Robertson first investigates the phenomenon, but with a Nazi bias; Edward Allan McCormick and Monika Schaper analyze the translations from a new critical and a historical-contextual point of view respectively), a comprehensive study was undertaken only in the 1980s. A detailed comparative analysis of Whitman translations into German using the critical instruments of modern translation criticism is still lacking.

Since 1889 fifteen different book-length translations of Whitman's works have appeared, eight of which include major and representative selections from his oeuvre. Most of these appeared as widely distributed mass-market editions, making Whitman's works available to large audiences. In most cases the translators are significant personalities of literary and public standing (albeit mostly on the countercultural side) whose commitment proved favorable for Whitman's reception.

This intense interest in Whitman can be attributed to the popular German fascination with the New World. More specifically, Whitman's messianic image, as designed by W.D. O'Connor, and, later, Horace Traubel, seems to have held out a special promise to various groups in German, Austrian, and Swiss literary, cultural, and political worlds.

Whitman was first introduced into German in 1868 by Ferdinand Freiligrath, a revolutionary poet in exile in England. He read William M. Rossetti's Whitman edition and immediately understood the revolutionary potential of Whitman's aesthetics. Given the stifling authoritarianism in German and Austrian politics at that time, it is not surprising that the initial impetus for Whitman's German reception came from abroad.

This situation had hardly improved by the time the first book-length translation appeared in 1889, a collaborative product by the democratically inclined German-American researcher and educator Karl Knortz and the Irish-nationalist philologist Thomas William Rolleston. The book could only appear in Switzerland with a progressive publisher, J. Schabelitz, specializing in works by young German reformers and exiles. Knortz's involvement also points to a special market for Whitman editions in German: German-American readers, who, according to Knortz, were in dire need of the type of democratic education Whitman supposedly imparted. Whitman was personally acquainted with both translators and also wrote a dedication for his German readers in which he stressed that he would be "glad, very glad, to be accepted by the Germanic peoples" (trans. from Grashalme xii). The early German interest in Whitman was closely monitored and encouraged by Whitman and the Whitman community and thus established a pattern of interactive and intercultural reception which frequently makes it difficult to differentiate between source and target culture.

Whereas the early translations were mostly literal, thereby shocking German readers on account of Whitman's "formlessness," later translations became more stylized. The most popular translation, which has remained in print for ninety years and has always been available in inexpensive "pocket book" editions, is Johannes Schlaf's of 1907. Schlaf, a German writer with naturalist beginnings, is the single most significant personality in Whitman's German reception. With Horace Traubel as his correspondent and mentor, it is not surprising that it was he who introduced a cultist dimension into Whitman's German reception by focusing on the Good Gray Poet. Schlaf's translation further intensified the already strong aura and emotional (to some degree didactic) rhetoric of Whitman's poetry, creating a characteristic Pathos on which creative writers could draw.

If there is a "classic" translation of Whitman's poetry and prose, it is by Hans Reisiger, a first-rate translator and a friend of Thomas Mann. Mann, a Whitman devotee himself, endorsed the translation, calling it a "great, important, indeed holy gift . . . [for which] the German public . . . can not be grateful enough" (Allen and Folsom 201). Although the two-volume edition with gold-lettered spines forms the most comprehensive selection from Whitman's prose and poetry to date, it also has a specific focus. Reisiger's selection highlights the (homo)erotic tendencies in Whitman's poetry, for the first time including the "Children of Adam" and "Calamus" poems almost in their entirety. Its "classicity" is expressed more through its diction, which is less subdued and musical, stylistically reminiscent of such German authors as Goethe and Rilke.

Of the post-World War II translations, the largest and most ambitious is that of Erich Arendt, published in the German Democratic Republic in 1966. Emphasizing Whitman's social(ist) and in this sense revolutionary dimension, Arendt is faced with the twin task of escaping a Pathos which had become discredited by the rhetoric of German national-socialist propaganda and of presenting Whitman as a positive force in the construction of socialism. In this endeavor, he makes successful use of his experience in Latin America as an exile during the Nazi regime, where he was introduced to Whitman by friends, including Pablo Neruda.

Whitman always served as a special cultural bridge between the German Democratic Republic and the United States, and various Whitman translations were always available, even in a book market characterized by paper shortage and censorship. The first complete German edition of Specimen Days was published in the GDR in a translation by Götz Burghardt in 1985. The liberal and open-minded commentary by the editor, Eva Manske, foreshadows the ideological changes that occurred a few years after with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Even though new translations are still being published and older ones reprinted, the period of Whitman's greatest impact was between 1889 and 1933. Prior to 1889, there was no textual basis for Whitman's reception; after Hitler's takeover in Germany in 1933, Nazi rhetoric corrupted the potential of Pathos in German culture and thus also limited the impact of Whitman's poetry. The special situation of the German Democratic Republic excepted, Whitman's poetry, or rather its Pathos-laden German rendering, never really recovered from the fatal blow it was undeservedly dealt by Nazi propagandists and song writers, some of whom had been Whitmanites in their youth.

Whitman's impact on the modernization of German literature, and especially poetry, is enormous. In the 1890s, a first wave of writers, mostly belonging to the naturalist group, started to assimilate Whitman's poetic technique (rhymelessness, "free" rhythms, long lines, dynamic and protean lyrical personae) and themes (eroticism, urbanism, global vision) into their poetry and lyrical prose. Again, Johannes Schlaf, who claims that he managed to "overcome" the deterministic limitations of naturalism through his experience of Whitman, stands out. Schlaf, one of the most innovative and creative German writers (although often bypassed by German literary historians), used Whitman's techniques in long poems reminiscent of "Song of Myself" ("Frühling," 1894) and his themes in a series of novels exploring a "new humanity" based on "new developments in the human nervous system" (Das dritte Reich, 1900; Die Suchenden, 1902; Peter Boies Freite, 1903). These novels are the only significant examples of aestheticist literature in Germany and also point to an aestheticist dimension of Whitman's work frequently underestimated by American criticism. Two other significant German naturalists, Gerhart Hauptmann and Arno Holz, also expressed their fascination with Whitman, but only Holz creatively reworked Whitman's lyrical impulse into his poetry.

For a second group of writers in the subsequent generation, Whitman emerged as a lyrical and personal example. Without an understanding of the detailed cultural context of the period between 1910 and 1925, it is difficult to estimate Whitman's significant impact on this group. An artistic consequence of a profound crisis in the life and thinking of German-speaking Europeans around the turn of the century, expressionism was a direct reaction to the political and social effects of a rapid industrialization and urbanization. This crisis of sensibility led to the literary experimentation for which expressionist literature and art in Germany has become justly famous. With the achievements of expressionism, Germans joined world-wide modernist developments, and Whitman was a guiding figure.

German expressionism can be divided into two complementary groups. The "abstract" expressionists thematize the crisis, the "dissociation," and disintegration of the self. Among writers, this group includes Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Gottfried Benn, and also Franz Kafka. While abstract expressionists were also interested in Whitman, especially for analytic reasons, a second group, referred to as "messianic" expressionists, more directly assimilated Whitman into their poetry. This groups includes Johannes R. Becher, Ivan and Claire Goll, Ludwig Rubiner, Ernst Stadler, Ernst Toller, Armin T. Wegner, and Franz Werfel.

While expressionist poetry profited from Whitman's example, most German-speaking authors, while intent on following Whitman's grand example, found it difficult to deal with the lyrical and thematic consequences of Whitman's radical egalitarian vision. Frequently, a programmatic "farewell" to Whitman points to the antagonism between American egalitarian and Central European elitist cultures.

In the expressionist period, the tendency toward an intercultural, intra-European reception of Whitman that had started with Schlaf intensified. Immediately prior to World War I, the European Whitman movement assumed an international character strongly intertwined with the international development of the European avant-garde and its shared political (usually leftist and pacifist) assumptions.

As a testimony to the integrative force of expressionism as a cultural movement, Whitman's creative reception also spread to music. Swiss expressionist Othmar Schoeck's musical rendering of Drum-Taps (1915) is a formidable musical expression of the shock caused by the World War. Important German-speaking composers who set Whitman texts to music include Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Franz Schreker, Ernst Toch, Ernst Hermann Meyer, Hans Werner Henze, and Gerd Kuhr. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "The Mystic Trumpeter" are among the texts that most frequently inspired German composers.

Whereas Whitman's presence was most strongly felt in literature and the arts, there were also responses on other levels, frequently intertwined with poetic responses. Horace Traubel's leftist politics and the leftist political orientation of many expressionist poets have inspired a general leftist enthusiasm for Whitman. Typically, the various factions differ in their political construction of Whitman, even though they uniformly view him as the prophet of a new world order. Whereas Social Democrats recruit Whitman for their frequently opportunistic politics, wavering between revolutionary rhetoric and political compromise, communist and anarchist groups synthesize the radical consistency of the early Whitman and the messianic rhetoric of the later Whitman.

Their attitudes toward World War I are a characteristic example: Social Democrats, using Whitman's highly popularized Civil War image of the "wound dresser," stressed the necessity of getting involved in the war if only to minimize its fatal consequences. In this way, Whitman's example was used in order to justify the Social Democratic sellout of traditional pacifist policies by projecting a fantastic possibility of a beneficial participation in war. Leftist Social Democrats (the later communists) and anarchists, on the other hand, constructed a principled pacifist position by interpreting Whitman's war poetry and Civil War prose as antiwar documents.

Most factions agreed on Whitman's utopian vision, which they interpreted as socialist. This adoption led to the social-democratic Whitman editions by Max Hayek, which can still be found in many German trade union and party libraries, as well as the Whitman translation by the German-Jewish pacifist and anarchist Gustav Landauer; both were published shortly after the close of World War I. These versions of Whitman explain the strong interest in the poet on the part of German communists (fueled also by the intensive Soviet reception of the poet) and a limited resurgence of interest in the sixties (alongside a stronger interest in such poets as Allen Ginsberg).

On the other side of the political spectrum, rightist Whitman devotees are naturally scarce. It is interesting, however, that some of the propagandist poets of the Nazi regime started out as Whitmanites. The history of Nazi poetry and rhetoric shows a limited usefulness of Whitman's style, diction, and "aura."

The most interesting German assimilation of Whitman was in the area of sexual politics. In 1905 a wide-ranging public debate regarding Whitman's sexuality, involving Johannes Schlaf, Eduard Bertz (a novelist, philologist and self-declared sexual researcher), and others, split German Whitman devotees into two highly antagonistic factions. Bertz, in a 1905 article for a German journal for sexual research, attempted to prove Whitman was a non-active homosexual. Bertz tried to enlist Whitman for what amounted to the first German homosexual movement, because it was important to point out famous and respected personalities who were homosexuals in order to convince the public of the social usefulness of homosexuals. (The political background was the 1899 petition to the German parliament to eliminate discriminatory legislation against homosexuals.) Schlaf, supported by Traubel, Ernest Crosby, H.B. Binns, and Léon Bazalgette, strongly denied Whitman's homosexuality. They estimated (probably correctly) that Whitman's significance in the German-speaking countries would drastically diminish if this pronouncement went unchallenged. Whereas Schlaf was successful in battling Bertz's claim—the discussion resurfaced some eight years later in France with Bertz, Bazalgette, and others as active participants—Whitman continued to play a role in German homosexuals' search for identity. Most prominently, this view can be traced in the essays and speeches of Thomas Mann, who links the development of German democracy to Whitman's homoeroticism.

Although the contemporary German gay movement may provide a focal point for Whitman's future German reception, a new, less Pathos-laden, more playful translation of Leaves will be needed. If such a translation were available, Whitman's poetry might once again become a significant force in German-speaking Europe as this region internationalizes as a result of European and Central European integration. There may also emerge an ecological reading of Whitman, although it would first have to undo the well-developed image of the poet of technology and progress. How such a post-modern German Whitman might look and sound remains to be seen.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Bertz, Eduard. "Adulation and Paranoia: Eduard Bertz's Whitman Correspondence (1889–1914)." Gissing Journal 27.3 (1991): 1–20 and 27.4 (1991): 16–35.

____. "Walt Whitman: Ein Charakterbild." Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen 7 (1905): 153–287.

Grünzweig, Walter. Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

____. Walt Whitmann: Die deutschsprachige Rezeption als interkulturelles Phänomen. Munich: Fink, 1991.

Lang, Hans-Joachim. "Eduard Bertz vs. Johannes Schlaf: The Debate on Whitman's Homosexuality in Germany." A Conversation in the Life of Leland R. Phelps. America and Germany: Literature, Art and Music. Ed. Frank L. Borchardt and Marion C. Salinger. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1987. 49–86.

Law-Robertson, Harry. Walt Whitman in Deutschland. Gießen: Munchow, 1935.

McCormick, Edward Allan. Die sprachliche Eigenart von Walt Whitmans "Leaves of Grass" in deutscher Übertragung: Ein Beitrag zur Übersetzungskunst. Bern: Haupt, 1953.

Martin, Robert K. "Walt Whitman and Thomas Mann." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4.1 (1986): 1–6.

Schaper, Monika. Walt Whitmans "Leaves of Grass" in deutschen Übersetzungen: Eine rezeptionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Bern: Lang, 1976.

Whitman, Walt. Grashalme: Gedichte. Trans. Karl Knortz and T.W. Rolleston. Zürich: Schabelitz, 1889.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.