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Jessica Plummer, University of Texas at Austin, German Literature

Popular Influence: The German Kolportageroman 1871-1914


My dissertation investigates late nineteenth-century German Kolportageromane (colportage novels), serial novels sold door-to-door as subscriptions. These publications constituted an important nexus of influence in nineteenth-century print culture, but their connection to other genres such as journalism and classical drama has been overlooked. My project explores the broader cultural significance of these novels as key in the development of early mass media and culture in Germany. I suggest that their development and demise can be seen as precursors to the media cycles of obsolescence and reinvigoration that mark modernity.

I draw on theories from media and literary scholarship to broaden our understanding of the cultural importance of “cheap literature” and modern serialization. Better understanding of the colportage novels’ serialization and their interconnection with the larger media and literary landscape offers a perspective that contrasts with that of traditional literary scholarship, which has been unable to abandon critical standpoints that isolate inexpensive, mass-produced popular literature as simplistic, detrimental to its readers, and symptomatic of social inequality.

During a short research stay in summer 2012, I visited the unrivaled Kosch collection of colportage novels housed at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach, Germany. Preliminary investigations revealed three fascinating elements in the novels that form my project’s core: (1) the close relationship between colportage novels and contemporary events and news reports, (2) their connection to works of canonical “high” literature, and (3) their serialization, which links them to the larger media landscape and to innovative publishing and distribution technologies. Reflection on the contradictory convergences between news and fiction, high and low, whole and fragment in these novels will shed light on their importance as an effective force at work in transforming the late nineteenth-century media environment.

First, I examine fictionalization of current events as an intersection between reportage and colportage. Colportage novels almost kept pace with newspapers, presenting fictional accounts of events like the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) already in 1870. Examining colportage novels within the context of the broader media landscape can show us how popular fiction and news reporting motivated each other in setting the public agenda and creating an appetite for periodicals and serial fiction.

Second, I study the unexpected overlap between the traditional canon and colportage novels in adaptations of classical dramas by Goethe and Schiller. Adaptations show that this print form employed notions of canon and quality in its narrative and publication strategies, while flouting inherited notions of authorship and writing. Studying colportage appropriation of the canon as an institutional structure yields insight into how its producers balanced entertainment and folk tradition against notions of social prestige associated with “the classics.”

Finally, I examine the narrative and institutional characteristics of the serial form. Serialization entails the fragmentation of narrative into independent units but also requires the author to imbue these with unity. In contrast to earlier studies, which do not explicitly address the role of the serial form, I contend that colportage novels were “native” to the era of periodicals, and that their appearance (and eventual disappearance) hinged on the cultural dominance of the periodical press in the late nineteenth century.