Ricarda Huch is a paradox in the history of the essay. Few of her individual works can be called “essays.” Moreover, she was opposed to the prevailing attitude of “essayism” or “feuilletonism,” and tried to write in a manner and form that could not be confused with the dominant modes of essay writing. Her distaste for the essay genre derives mainly from the German/Austrian understanding of that term around the turn of the century rather than from an opposition against the essay as such. Yet her texts exhibit a significant number of characteristics of the essay. She wrote for a general educated audience, and cultivated a combination of narrative and reflexive elements, with a mixture of general and personal ideas, and an appeal to both reason and emotion. Above all, the individual chapters of her larger works tend to be independent, self-contained units.
Huch belonged to the first generation of educated and professionally independent women in German society. She fought hard for her independence: in order to qualify for university studies, she had to leave Germany for Switzerland, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in modern history from the University of Zurich in 1892. She declined careers as teacher and researcher and became a freelance writer, producing poetry, novels (historical novels among them), historical works, literary criticism, and books on religion and philosophy. She was a person of rare integrity and courage, following her own path despite the obstacles; in 1933, for example, she resigned from the prestigious membership of the Prussian Academy of the Arts rather than collaborate with the Nazis.
A pillar of the oppositional “Bekennende Kirche” (Confessional Church) within the Lutheran Church, she was treated in 1945 with reverence by the Soviet administration, the Allied military, and the German public.
There are four types of essay to be found within the context of her works: the biographical essay, the historical essay, the geographical essay, and the essay of ideas.
Whereas her earlier works consist mainly of poetry and very personal, if not autobiographical novels, later texts combine personal empathy with objective fact.
Huch’s foremost preoccupation was with people and their relationships. All her works contain numerous biographical sketches; she also wrote major factual or fictional biographies. Her intense interest in the Italian Risorgimento of the 19th century led to novels on Garibaldi (1906–07) and Federigo Confalioneri (1910). She wrote a biography of the Freiherr vom und zum Stein (1925). Rather surprising, given her conservative views, is her positive biography Michael Bakunin und die Anarchie (1923; Mikhail Bakunin and anarchy). What attracted her to Bakunin’s anarchism was his concept of a self-reliant “organic” community as opposed to artificial modern society. These works can be regarded as expansions of biographical essays.
Huch’s personalism is apparent in her extensive historical work. She diagnosed “Entpersönlichung” (depersonalization) as a major illness of the age, publishing a book with that title (1921). She was fascinated by creative personalities, as shown in her writings on literary figures, and especially in her early, successful book on Romanticism, Die Romantik (1899, 1902). Its individual chapters can be read as essays on the leading personalities, ideas, and developments of German Romanticism. Huch’s personalized view of history is also evident in Alte und neue Götter (1930; Old and new gods), her account of the 1848 Revolution in Germany.
The most essay-like writing can be seen in Huch’s geographical tableau of old German cities, Im alten Reich: Lebensbilder deutscher Städte (1927–34; In the old empire: images of the life of German cities). Her descriptions of the structure of these old cities, important buildings, and conspicuous events and personalities stress the individuality of urban organisms as well as the communal spirit they generated. Huch’s social ideal of the self-governing community based on personal involvement and solidarity is portrayed in
living pictures of many different individual entities. In the entry on her native city of Brunswick, understandably one of the most thorough articles, there is an easy transition from such portraits combining history and geography to Huch’s autobiographical sketches describing the people and the places most important to her. She had to feel part of the land, the history, and its people wherever she lived.
Huch combined a fervent Lutheran faith with a Goethean organic view of history and community. For all her belief in tradition, the importance of the home country, and family values, she accepted change as inevitable and valued individuality above all else.
Her religious and philosophical books try to convey this holistic view of the human being and of human life and history. The most essay-like sections can be found in her book on Martin Luther’s faith (Luthers Glaube, 1916), written during World War I. The book is presented in the form of letters to a skeptical friend, and step by step she tries to counter the arguments of modern skepticism, unfolding Luther’s stature as a great man of faith rather than his skills as a founder of a new church.
The last statement of her beliefs bears the Goethean title Urphänomene (1946; Archetypal phenomena), archetypes of the visible forms in nature. This refers to the belief in the organic order of the world, the benign dynamics of life, and the ultimate victory of living forces over annihilation. While nature can be grasped only in individual phenomena, the gaze should always be directed to the essence and the whole. Thus, each of Huch’s statements and writings is meant to convey one aspect of a larger world view.
She never tired of narrating and describing, always with an eye toward the meaning of life.
It may be this very integrity of her world view and her personal life that makes Huch a stranger in our world. Today she elicits polite and distant respect, and does not seem relevant to our problems. But it could be her essay-like features that will make some of her writings accessible again.
Ricarda Octavia Huch. Born 18 July 1864 in Brunswick. Studied at the University of Zurich, Ph.D. in history, 1892. Archivist, Zentralbibliothek, Zurich, 1891–94; teacher in Zurich, 1894–96. Married Ermanno Ceconi, 1898 (divorced, 1906): one daughter.
Married her cousin Richard Huch, 1907 (divorced, 1911). Lived at various times in Bremen, Vienna, Trieste, Munich, Berlin, Berne, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Jena.
Member, Prussian Academy of the Arts, 1927, resigned in protest at the Nazi regime’s expulsion of various writers, 1933.
Awards: Goethe Prize, 1931.
Died in Kronberg, 17 November 1947.
Essays and Related Prose
Die Romantik: Blütezeit der Romantik; Ausbreitung und Verfall der Romantik, 2 vols., 1899–1902
Das Risorgimento (treatise), 1908; as Menschen und Schicksale aus dem Risorgimento, 1925
Luthers Glaube: Briefe an einen Freund, 1916
Im alten Reich: Lebensbilder deutscher Städte, 3 vols., 1927–34
Gesammelte Schriften: Essays, Reden, autobiographische Aufzeichnungen (includes essays, speeches, and autobiography), 1964
Other writings: several novels (including Erinnerungen von Ludolf Ursleu dem Jüngeren [Eros Invincible], 1893; Aus der Triumphgasse, 1902; Vita somnium breve, 1903; Das Leben des Grafen Federigo Confalonieri, 1910; Der Fall Deruga [The Deruga Trial], 1917), short stories, poetry, plays, works on history and religion, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Gesammelte Werke, edited by Wilhelm Emrich, 11 vols., 1966–74.
Baum, Marie, Leuchtende Spur: Das Leben Ricarda Huchs, Tübingen: Wunderlich, 1950
Baumgarten, Helene, Ricarda Huch: Von ihrem Leben und Schaffen, Weimar: Böhlau, 1964
Flandreau, Audrey, Ricarda Huch’s Weltanschauung as Expressed in Her Philosophical Works and in Her Novels (dissertation), Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948
Gottlieb, Elfriede, Ricarda Huch: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Epik, Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1914
Hertling, Gunter H., Wandlung der Werte im dichterischen Werk der Ricarda Huch, Bonn: Bouvier, 1966
Hoppe, Else, Ricarda Huch, Stuttgart: Riederer, 1951 (original edition, 1936)
Mutzner, Paula, Die Schweiz im Werke Ricarda Huchs, Berne: Haupt, 1935
Walzel, Oskar, Ricarda Huch: Ein Wort über Kunst des Erzählens, Leipzig: Insel, 1916
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