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A Different (German) Village: Writing Place through Migration


A presentation of village life has long stood in the foreground for projects of nationalism in the German-speaking world. From the noble, agrarian barbarians of Tacitus’ Germania to the Blut und Boden rhetoric of Nazi propaganda, the aesthetic of an ethnically homogenous and culturally conservative rural idyll has been evoked by generations of nationalist thinkers. This practice remains paradigmatic for claims of homeland [Heimat] and belonging today. My research examines literary representations of village life through the lens of so-called “village stories” in their various manifestations from the mid-nineteenth century through the post-Reunification period, with specific, comparative case studies from the mid-19th- and late-20th/early-21st centuries. Concentrating primarily on short literary forms, I place these village stories in conversation with pastoral tropes in nationalist discourses, paying particular attention to the role of the ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider.’

Following an initial theoretical and methodological chapter in which I conceptualize migration and the literary village as the layering of representational place through engagement with critiques of space and spatiality derived from the disciplines of sociology and human geography, my research comprises two contextualized case studies. The first examines the literary and critical work of Berthold Auerbach, a prolific popular writer of the mid-19th century whose bestselling Black Forest Village Stories [Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten] chronicle the rapid demographic and technological transformations of the time through an imagined series of migrations between the fictionalized town of the author’s birth and a Swabian frontier town on the Ohio River. Engaging with Auerbach’s ample critical writings including his work on both dialect and Jewish-German literature, as well as his correspondences with contemporary writers including Gottfried Keller, I read these migration narratives as thinly veiled attempts to negotiate the role of a diverse population in the formation of nascent discourse on the nature of Germanness.

The second case study is built around the corpus of work by contemporary translingual author José F. A. Oliver, and the development of what he calls his “Andalusian Black Forest village” [Mein andalusisches Schwarzwalddorf]. Beginning with the tropes and techniques developed more than a century before by Auerbach to negotiate layerings of belonging through engagement with concrete social space—techniques derided by some Auerbach critics as “false reconciliation” (Horch 2013)—I investigate Oliver’s idiosyncratic use of German, Andalusian-Spanish, and Alemannic dialect to suggest the evolution of a poetics of layered place. Using translation theory to supplement my critique of social spaces, I read both the narrative and aesthetic qualities of Oliver’s work, particularly his essays and early poetry, as refining a language of concurrent belonging: eschewing models of in-betweenness in favor of layering multiple affinities through the development of a representational place capable of encapsulating the diversity of the contemporary village experience.

In both case studies, I highlight the use (or non-use) of dialect and foreign language in juxtaposition to both authors’ attempts to preserve and document localized traditions—the omnipresence of Swabian folk song in Auerbach’s migration narratives or the privileging of Southern German Carnival [Fastnacht] in Oliver’s negotiation of village community. This research represents one push back against the cultural imaginary of rural homogeneity—demonstrating a longstanding pluralist tradition in the literary presentation of village life and expanding the scope of the debate on contemporary German multiculturalism. In doing so, I present the village as a microcosm for larger questions of arrival and belonging in the German-speaking world, arguing for its reevaluation as a place of shared experience: inherently complex and multivalent. My research posits the village story as a representational place of interconnectivity, and the literary village as a porous borderland. In contrast to the prevailing nationalist imaginaries, through examining both the process and practice of migration or displacement in its intersection with representations of ‘everyday’ village life, I posit the literary village as a place of profound intersectionality.

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