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Authors: Jrgen Osterhammel Patrick Camiller

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3 Observation, Description, Realism

Another obvious survival from the nineteenth century is the descriptions and analyses written by people living at the time. It is no privilege or peculiarity of the nineteenth century to have observed itself. Since Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle, and since Confucius, Xunzi, and the old Indian state counselor Kautilya, thinkers in various civilizations have repeatedly attempted to understand their epoch in inner-worldly categories. The novelty in nineteenth-century Europe was that, over and above a normative political and social theory, branches of knowledge arose with the aim of
the contemporary world and grasping the patterns and regularities beneath the surface of phenomena. Since Machiavelli, there had been no lack of attempts to investigate the true functioning of political and social life, and the best travel writers of the seventeenth century had already gained deep insights into non-European societies. In Europe itself, Montesquieu, Turgot, and the French physiocrats, as well as the eighteenth-century English, Scottish, and Italian economists and the German and Austrian cameralists and statisticians (“statistics” then included the compilation of nonnumerical facts), presented important accounts of real social conditions. They investigated state and society as they
(in their eyes), not as they thought they
ought to have been

“Factual investigation”—which Joseph A. Schumpeter contrasted to “theory” in his great history of economic thought—acquired new scope and significance
in the nineteenth century,
when Europeans produced incomparably more self-observational and self-descriptive material than they had in previous centuries. New genres of social reportage and empirical inquiry came into being, as attention was directed at the living conditions of the lower classes. Both conservative and radical authors placed the bourgeoisie, from which they themselves often hailed, under a critical magnifying glass. For the most important analysts of political and social reality—one thinks of Thomas Robert Malthus, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, and the chief figures in the German “Historical School” of economics, including the early Max Weber—factual investigation was closely bound up with the theoretical quest for connections and correlations. The positivist bent typical of the philosophy of the period made a program out of just such a link.

Social Panorama and Social Reportage

A distinctive form in which precise observation found literary expression was the social panorama. On the eve of the French Revolution, Sébastien Mercier set the standard for this type of work with his
Tableau de Paris
(1782–88), a vast twelve-volume canvass of life in the metropolis. He does not philosophize about the city but, as he says, conducts
in and about it, looking behind the facades and self-conceptions. Mercier became “one of the greatest discoverers of a new field of attention.”
Mercier's labor of differentiation brought the city to life as a gigantic social cosmos. Rétif de la Bretonne then took up Mercier's literary procedure in his
Nuits de Paris ou le spectateur nocturne
(1788), presenting the nocturnal counterworld of the capital in a narrative, fictional form.

In the following decades, social reportage shed many of its literary ambitions. Alexander von Humboldt's report on the slave island of Cuba, based on his trips there in 1800–1801 and 1804 and first published (in French) in 1831, was written in the detached tone of an academic researcher. He avoided any drama or sentimentality in his uncompromising critique of slavery, allowing the facts to speak all the more effectively for themselves.
In 1807 the medical doctor Francis Buchanan published an extremely detailed account of everyday life in the agrarian society of southern India, having been commissioned to do so by the East India Company, which ruled large parts of the Subcontinent at the time.
The first “modern” works of social reportage thus developed in the colonies, by combining the Enlightenment's sober “political report” (a genre with which Humboldt had been familiar as a student) with the ethnographer's gaze.

In 1845 the young manufacturer's son Friedrich Engels published his
The Condition of the Working-Class in England: From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources
, which, as he put it in the preface, described “proletarian conditions in their classical form.”
For this he combined the features of a travel book about a distant land with those of the parliamentary “blue books,” which are still today among the standard sources for nineteenth-century British social history. In particular, individual life stories add a graphic dimension to Engels's
case for the prosecution. The writer and journalist Henry Mayhew followed this example for his four-volume encyclopedia of London life, based on twelve years of investigations and regular interviews,
London Labour and the London Poor
(1861–62). It “stood alone,” the author proudly claimed, “as a photograph of life as actually spent by the lower classes of the Metropolis,” a good part of it “from their own lips.”
Frédéric Le Play, a mining engineer by training, began in the 1830s to study workers' living conditions in several European countries and vividly depicted a number of social groups ranging from Ural nomads to Sheffield cutlers to Austrian charcoal burners.
The wealthy Liverpool merchant and shipowner Charles Booth, driven by religious-philanthropic motives and a desire for political reforms, tried to achieve greater analytical clarity in his detailed descriptions of the London poor, which he published in 1889–91 after seventeen years of research. The third edition of his magnum opus,
Life and Labour of the People in London
(1902–3), stretched to seventeen volumes. Booth overwhelmed his readers with an abundance of precise data, abstaining from horror stories and sentimental effusion in his panorama of late-Victorian London. Unlike the impressionistic Mayhew, he employed statistical methods and a sophisticated model of social classes, distinguishing between types of poverty and coining the term “line of poverty” that is still current today. His work marked a step from social reportage toward empirical social survey.

Literary Realism

A close relative of reportage is the realist novel, one of the characteristic art forms of the nineteenth century. In its ambition to capture “real life,” it does not simply reproduce it figuratively but probes for the social and psychological energies active within it.
Honoré de Balzac's
La Comédie humaine
, published between 1829 and 1854, undertook a sweeping dissection and diagnosis of French society at that time. Wolf Lepenies, in his great book on nineteenth-century sociology, saw “a little self-irony and a great deal of social awareness” in Balzac's description of himself as a “docteur ès sciences sociales”; and in the ninety-one novels and stories that make up the cycle, he found “a social system” and “an exact counterpart to that which Comte, the founder of the discipline, strove to achieve with his sociology.”
Before there was a science of sociology (Comte coined the term in 1838) writers were the real specialists in the study of society, and later, too, they engaged in productive competition with sociologists. In the century from Jane Austen's
Sense and Sensibility
(1811) to Thomas Mann's
(1901) and Maxim Gorki's
(Mother, 1906–7), a chain of “social novels” tells us as much about moral standards, behavior, status distinctions, and material conditions as we know from the works of social scientists. James Fenimore Cooper and Henry James; Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope; Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola; and Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Theodor Fontane are among the most important witnesses to the history of nineteenth-century society, mores, and attitudes.

To what extent did the “realist” novel spread beyond its three main literatures—French, English, and Russian?
In some cultures it gained a foothold in the nineteenth century, in others only later or not at all. In the United States, after the end of the Civil War in 1865, it became the focus of opposition both to cultural conformism and to the destruction of social values by rampant individualism. In Europe there are significant national literatures—the Italian or Hungarian, for example—in which social-realist narrative, as distinct from the historical or psychological novel, occupied a marginal position in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, lesser-known traditions contain novels in which the social problems of the time were given profound consideration. Directly influenced by Balzac, the Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiros set out to offer a panorama of all layers of his society in the
Cenas de vida portuguesa
(Scenes from Portuguese life) cycle, but he completed only a little before his death, most notably a novel on salon life in Lisbon in the 1870s,
Os Maias
(The Maias, 1888). In Poland, Bołeslaw Prus's
(The doll, 1887–89) drew an artistic portrait of social problems that was especially sharp on relations between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Comparable for its place in Norwegian literature is Alexander Kielland's
Garmann og Worse
(1880)—a novel about a merchant family, laced with satirical touches, which influenced the young Thomas Mann when he was preparing to write
. Alberto Blest Ganas's
Martín Rivas
(1862), the first Spanish American realist novel, followed the transformation of Chile from a patriarchal-agrarian order into a society shaped by capitalism. The novel
Max Havelaar
, a masterpiece in form and style, which Edouard Douwes Dekker published in 1860 under the pen name Multatuli, is considered the leading Dutch prose work of the nineteenth century. It is also of genuine importance for its unflinching exposure of Dutch colonial policy in the East Indies, today's Indonesia. It had a great impact on the public and in Parliament, as a result of which some of the worst practices in the colony were discontinued.

In the dominions of the British Empire, a settler literature began to develop, but it was not until the twentieth century that the native population gained a hearing. The first description of South African conditions from within was Olive Schreiner's
Story of an African Farm
(1883). In Australia, nineteenth-century novels portrayed the lives of convicts: Marcus Clarke's
For the Term of His Natural Life
(1870–72), based on actual events, is regarded as the classic work of social criticism in this field. Sara Jeanette Duncan took up the formation of a Canadian national consciousness in
The Imperialist

Turning to China, we may say that the great Ming and early Qing tradition of the novel reached a climax in
Honglou meng
(Dream of the red chamber), a family saga that circulated only in manuscript during the lifetime of its author, Cao Xueqin (1715–64). Since it first appeared in print in 1792, it has been one of China's most popular novels. The nineteenth century added little to it. The changes that came with the invasion by the West crystallized only later in novelistic forms. The great Chinese novel of the Taiping Revolution, or the one
dealing with the Christian missionary challenge, was never written. The first one to face up to the new conditions was Han Bangqing's
Haishang hua liezhuan
(Exemplary biographies of flowers in Shanghai, 1894), set in the milieu of courtesans and their clients in the mixed Sino-Western society of Shanghai. Shortly after the turn of the century and the watershed of the Boxer Rebellion, novels began to appear that painted contemporary life in the darkest colors. The best-known of these, by Wu Woyao, the most productive novelist of the period, bears the eloquent title
(Sea of woe, 1905).
On the whole, the Chinese novel of social criticism was not an import from the West but built on a prose tradition that had arisen independently of European influence in the sixteenth century. But it did not play a leading role among literary genres comparable to that of the realist novel in Europe until the thirties of the twentieth century.

The hierarchy of literary genres was different in Japan. Here, the prose novel reached an extraordinary perfection as far back as the eleventh century, in the works of court ladies, most notably, Murasaki Shikibu's
Genji monogatari
(Tale of Genji). During the Tokugawa period, however, lyrical verse and drama were more highly regarded. And with the opening to the West—especially after 1868, which is seen as the birth year of modern Japanese literature—national genres of narrative gave way to Western forms much more quickly than in China. The first modern Japanese novel, written in a colloquial style and thus also accessible to less-educated readers, was Futabatei Shimei's
(Floating clouds, 1885–86). Despite, or because of, Japan's victory in its war of 1894–95 with China, the inner contradictions of modernization came increasingly to the fore. Many writers tackled socially critical themes but, for the most part, restricted themselves to the sphere of the family and private life. The panoramic vision of a Balzac, Zola, or Dickens was not in evidence among Japanese writers during the late Meiji period.

Travel Writing

Alongside the realist novel, travel literature was an indispensable source of knowledge about the world for the nineteenth century, as it is today for historians of the period. Yet its importance was less than in the early modern age, when there had often been no other possibility of informing oneself about remote corners of the earth. In the nineteenth century, too, some travelogues achieved high status both in world literature and as factual sources. Outstanding examples are: Madame de Staël's hugely influential book on Germany (
De l'Allemagne
, 1810); Alexander von Humboldt's account of his travels in South America from 1799 to 1804; the journals of the expedition that President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to make across North America between May 1804 and September 1806; the report by the young French jurist Alexis de Tocqueville on his travels in the United States in 1831–32; Charles Darwin's book on his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1831–36; Heinrich Barth's impressions from North and Central Africa during his period in British service from 1849 to 1855; Sir Richard Burton's narrative of his visit to Mecca and Medina in 1853; Franz
Junghuhn's encyclopedic account of the island of Java in the 1850s; the report by the Westphalian baron August von Haxthausen of a 10,000-kilometer trip he made through Russia on horseback, a book that, when published in 1847–52, opened the eyes of the country's urban intellectuals
for the first time to their peasant fellow-citizens; and Ferdinand Baron von Richthofen's five-volume work on China (1877–1912), based on his travels there in 1862–72, when few Europeans had yet seen the inland provinces.
What these texts have in common is the excitement of discovery, which would disappear in the next generation of travelers. All the authors (with the exception of the rather shady adventurer Burton) were united in their strong sense of duty to the cause of science. Not a few of their great journeys were youthful projects laying the basis for an academic or public career. More than ever before or since, in the century after Humboldt's emblematic trip to America, firsthand travels conferred an aura of scientific authority.

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