Birgit Tautz. German Studies Review. Volume 36, Issue 3. October 2013.
One period in German literary history stands out among all others: Weimar Classicism, both because of its legacy—the period gave birth to the concept of a Kidtumation—and because it departed from the literatures of neighboring nations that collectively form European Romanticism. This uniqueness extends to the period’s peculiar relationship to rumor and gossip, which have been neglected, if not suppressed, by scholarship on Weimar Classicism but which lurked everywhere in late eighteenth-century Weimar. This essay reconsiders their impact on the making of an iconic period in German cultural history.
Framed by important events in the lives of its two main protagonists—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s journey to Italy in 1786 and Friedrich Schiller’s death in 1805—the uniqueness of Weimar Classicism hinges on central tenets of the biographical approach to literary historiography, which is inevitably tied to rumor and gossip. To assume a reflexive relationship between authors’ lives and their works always risks slipping into gossip as minute, often private details take on public significance. However, by engaging Classical Antiquity and measuring their own against the older period’s ideals, Goethe (1749-1832) and Schiller (1759-1805) participated in self-stylization. They thus established what Eva Geulen describes as the rhetoric of rumor: the Classical nature of their own period, in all its exceptionality, exists only as long as it is postulated and becomes visible in ideas and literary works. In other words, the status of Weimar Classicism must be continually affirmed throughout history in order to retain its relevance. The period’s legacy hinges, formally, on a rumor.
Conversely, this legacy is connected to small-town Weimar. As the seat of the Duchy Saxe-Weimar (and, from 1809, the Grand Duchy Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach), Weimar harbored institutions that projected the town’s significance beyond the lives of two men, such as those tied to the ducal court, which attracted visitors and court and state administrators. The court had acquired a reputation as a Musenhof (Court of the Muses), where politics seemingly aligned with aesthetics, thus serving as a model of the Kulturnation perpetuated by much of nineteenth-century German historiography. Here Classical Weimar appears as the cradle of national literature, as Germany’s Kulturstadt (culture capital) and yet it is Weimar’s smallness, cramped architecture, and life beyond the court that are at the core of this essay and, as we shall see, of the narrative that propelled Classical Weimar to prominence.
Most accounts of eighteenth-century Weimar mask a historical reality that was far more complex. By 1799 the city had 6041 inhabitants living in cramped quarters in a few hundred houses of different sizes, often with low ceilings, and stretched along torn-up streets with poor lighting. Fields spilled into town, as did sewage, dirt, water, and crime. Visitors and recent arrivals from abroad told stories that competed with what would soon become the dominant narrative of “a literary capital.” They sarcastically commented on farm animals roaming the streets, noting the discrepancy between such a smelly reality and the town’s high-flying aspirations. “You cannot even imagine what Weimar is like: it looks like a dump and pretends to be a capital,” wrote Siegmund von Seckendorff in 1776, a few months after taking up a position as chamberlain at the court of Weimar. Carl August Böttiger echoed these comments in 1791, “I had hoped to find an elegant residence but what I found were shabby quarters, an antique.” Such aspirations and expectations were met with high prices-not just for luxury items but also for bare necessities—that pushed the cost of living as high as in Paris. Nevertheless, writers and aristocrats, scholars, merchants, and other travellers kept coming to Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach for decades, only to record their disappointment: “If there is any city that fools the imagination, it is Weimar … a small, dead, poorly constructed, quite repulsive town, nothing extraordinary is there, with the exception of the castle, perhaps.” What was going on?
Böttiger’s opinion represents only one among many, but in expressing it he com- mands attention for exposing the idiosyncrasies of Weimar’s most famous inhabitants. A headmaster and classicist, he quickly became a literary and theater critic and a much-maligned gossipmonger, whose papers were published as Literarische Zustände und Zeitgenossen (Literary Life and Contemporaries, 1838) and are very helpful in formulating Classical Weimar’s alternate history of rumor, hyperbole, and gossip. Later significant collections include Wilhelm Bode’s Goethe in vertraulichen Briefen seiner Zeitgenossen (Goethe in Confidential Letters of his Contemporaries, 1913) and Konrad Kratzsch’s Klatschnest Weimar (Gossip Pit Weimar, 2002). Read in the context of letters, diaries, newspapers, and journals, which for a long time remained marginal in the study of Weimar Classicism, these compilations convey a remarkably unified image: contemporaries mocked individual inhabitants’ overblown self-image. They complained about high rents and prices, poorly constructed houses and streets, and the generally unremarkable small-town architecture, not to mention a local obsession with street lighting. Many accounts describe unmet expectations, emphasizing the confining nature of Weimar. In portraying the inhabitants, they document a lively literary life there and a communicative culture marked by both orality and literacy, but they also expose the ways in which an icon—be it a person or a literary period—is styled, kept alive, and marketed via gossip, often with other than the intended effects. In short, they illustrate how gossip goes viral.
Treating gossip and rumor as substrates rather than as adversaries of the traditional image of Classical Weimar reveals how it emerged as an ideal Kidturstadt not in spite of but, in fact, because of the local limitations in architecture, municipal institutions, and communication. Patricia Meyer Spacks discusses formal considerations of rumor as genre and gossip as a foundation for storytelling; in addition to adapting her insights, I seek to recast the discursive role of rumor and gossip in small-town Weimar and even within the larger cultural story in which literature intersects with urban life. Like Meyer Spacks I read epistolary accounts and diaries as literary genres preserving oral discourse, but I am less interested in treating gossip as an indication of personal intimacy and subjectivity than as a substitute for news in the absence of facts, thus simultaneously constituting and representing the public life of Weimar. While court members were easy targets of gossip, the narrowness of Weimar—a town on which the ducal court relied for its sustenance, no less—enabled and sustained a culture of gossip. Blurring the boundaries between public and private affairs, the circulation of gossip gave rise to persistent rumors-self-styling efforts, to be sure—that helped to manage adversities, opportunities, and differences engulfing the municipality. There were social, economic, and political differences among aristocratic court society, newcomers, and aspiring bourgeois citizens. They needed to be negotiated as much as the discrepancy between Weimar’s cultural aspirations and its economic, social, and political limitations, all of which manifested themselves in the conditions of buildings and roads as well as in dreadful city planning. Rumors thus quickly surpassed the limits of well-defined social circles, becoming instead proclamations of facts about the town. Weimar represented itself for outside consumption, but how it managed its town affairs undermined the image it sold to visitors. Often, this image did not line up with the one inhabitants had of Weimar, an image that also conflicted, oddly enough, with reality.
Accordingly, this essay adopts a three-part structure. The first discusses the role of rumor and gossip at the court, especially in the making of Goethe as the proponent of Weimar Classicism. The second looks at the circulation of gossip in the town of Weimar itself, examining the interaction between court, aristocrats, and town on the one hand and various acts of imaginary and actual border crossings on the other. Here I demonstrate how the physical limitations of Weimar defined the emerging ideal of Classical Weimar. The third part shows that Weimar’s residents embraced rumor and gossip in an effort to exploit the image of shabby Weimar when it served their municipal interests, shielding their budding economic and political power from the court’s imposition. Ultimately, though, this contributed to solidifying Weimar’s reputation as a secluded cultural center that, despite its exclusion from the postal routes for most of the eighteenth century, ascended to international fame.
Some of Weimar’s inhabitants were aware of the impact of gossip-as letters, diaries, and notes written by affiliates and correspondents of the Weimar court show. They preserve traces of immediacy and instantaneousness, attesting to a rather nuanced and sometimes reflective, but always long-winded written conversation depicting the inner workings of Weimar’s large social circles. While hinting at “a greater or lesser degree of individual intellectual control” in the prior act of speaking, these letters imply the uncertainty and unreliability—as well as the fear of wider dissemination-associated with gossip. Gossip in any form means to pass on and alter a story, making new stories in the process and allowing the private to pass into the public. As Weimar’s inhabitants gossiped, complex images emerged, not least of those who were the target of gossip, for example Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Karoline Herder, wife of pastor and writer Johann Gottfried Herder, bemoaned Goethe’s unapproachability, whereas Sophie von Schardt, wife of a privy councilor, ridiculed Goethe’s devotion to the duke. Böttiger, mentioned above, seemed bemused by Goethe’s working habits as well as his efforts to balance involvement in politics with grand journeys and spa visits. Numerous letters speak of his difficult relationships with other people, and others have more general complaints: a status-conscious, noble Seckendorff rants about Goethe’s sudden rise into the aristocracy, and Karoline Herder, an active participant in Weimar’s conversational circles, details his failures as a theater director. Fellow writer Friedrich Schiller, constantly facing economic hardship, grudgingly accepts Goethe’s material privilege and frugality towards others. But inadvertently, by parsing out fact and fiction, many letters fabricate the image that eventually became Goethe: They illuminate his personal relationships with women, especially with his friend Charlotte von Stein and his then-lover Christiane Vulpius, greatly inflating the latter’s role during the French lootings in 1806, all in order to socially legitimize her as Goethe’s life partner. After 1800, many writers comment on Goethe’s aging, among them explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and Romantic writer Achim von Arnim. Others point out Goethe’s increasing solipsism. Some anticipate his death: in a tone that blends admiration with sarcasm, they recount acts of imagining Goethe’s death in order to be emotionally ready for his actual passing.
Writers move from sharing personal, at times mildly scandalous or embarrassing details from Goethe’s everyday life towards a distanced depiction of Goethe that separates the aging man from the allure of the poet and writer. Stylistically, though, they hold on to epistolary gossip as a suitable form of communication. By claiming that they have no time or desire for personal conversation while assuring the letters’ recipients that they will, eventually, confirm the truth of their missives in person, the writers insist on the factual accuracy of their letters. Enthralled with their own words, the writers remain blissfully unaware of their share in crafting the image of Goethe. They detail the town’s attitude towards Goethe, laboring to reconcile impressions of the man with reaction to his work. While the lower classes respected Goethe and considered him to be friendly and good natured, the middle classes declared him to be the genius of town. In the process, Goethe became both a resident and the center of a meandering, self-styling public discourse that cast him as a silent, absent-minded, and almost objectified figure. Reinforcing this image, Sophie von Schardt complains about a reading public inclined to attribute to Goethe everything they dislike. She concludes that Goethe’s only flaw is his silence amidst the accusations, thus conjuring up a mythical person whom she herself hardly ever experienced. And yet the writers qualify their insistence on accuracy when pondering whether their letters create any wrong impressions.
Goethe himself embraced the allure that urban discourse had produced of him: a secluded, cerebral figure around which the local conversation revolved. He saw himself not so much as a product or victim of gossip but emerged as its stern adversary. Not only did he berate Böttiger, he also erected proverbial walls between himself and the public. When at the verge of being pulled into the middle of a controversy, he categorically rejected any overtures: “Besides, I’m firmly determined to hear nothing more about this matter. Nor will I speak about it.” Thus validating the rumor of being a silent bystander, Goethe added to the perception of him being a larger-than-life man. He elevated his importance even more through calculated interventions in the literary life of Weimar. Goethe suppressed or commissioned the publication of reviews, he orchestrated publishing and performance options, and he insisted on being the executor of the literary will of fellow writers, especially after he had lost political influence at the court. Clearly, he manipulated, even fabricated, news and relevance, thus enlisting in his self-styling efforts the communicative flow of rumors, including their insistence on factuality. And Goethe’s emerging fame was aided, paradoxically, by the cramped architecture of Weimar.
Like other members of the court, Goethe lived in town where they inhabited palaces, court-purchased homes, and rented houses while remaining non-citizens, even foreigners, in any social and legal sense. Not only did they lack property as the minimal, though not only, requirement for citizenship; like anybody else coming from outside the duchy, they were also considered foreigners. Nevertheless, they schemed to have their accommodation reflect their position at the court. In at least one instance, this housing shortage led to bizarre, serial moves which Böttiger ridicules in his own peculiar prose:
The house where he [Goethe] lives was purchased for him. The court treasurer paid 6000 rtl. to Dr. Helmershausen for it, and spent an equal amount on renovations … But he [Goethe] has to make room for the duke’s love affair. But three houses down the street, there was Wieland, renting a house. Goethe declares: “I want to live there and Wieland loses the lease.” … Wieland had to go then! [It was] a ridiculous scene “migration gentium” (96).
Amidst verifiable facts and the entertaining, sensationalizing tone, Böttiger depicts—and thus anticipatorily affirms—Goethe as a ruthless self-promoter pushing aside Christoph Martin Wieland, the then-famous writer who had joined the court as princely educator in 1772. In style and substance, the description resembles a whisper down the lane; it depicts the spread of gossip. Increasingly maligned because of his indiscretion, Böttiger was guilty as charged-though less so for invasions of privacy than for revealing Weimar’s self-styling efforts. Even worse, he had exposed the shaky foundations of these efforts by zeroing in on what had become a latent problem: Weimar’s spatial limitations and its inadequacy to serve as the capital of the duchy.
Unlike in other eighteenth-century ducal capitals, the court did not take respon- sibility for the town’s residential infrastructure or use its treasury to wield influence over its policies or provide for its protection. After a devastating fire in 1774, there was no longer a central castle; only its outer walls were still standing. The court expected the town to accommodate its members, but none of them had adequate housing-neither those accustomed to a certain standard of living because of their station (e.g., Seckendorff) nor those brought to Weimar because of their recent fame (e.g., Wieland and Goethe). So neither the court’s old social relevance nor its modern aspirations were reflected in the town’s architecture. To any newcomer the real Weimar must have defied any understanding of what a capital should look like.
Böttiger articulated this tension between ideal and experience and laid bare the confining nature of Weimar by gossiping about events, protagonists, and communicative relations in a way that undermined any appealing public image. He told stories of social and spatial transgression, highlighting that Weimar’s ideals were rooted elsewhere and aspired to reach beyond the confines of town. The style of his narration mimics its content as spatial borders are transgressed and reerected. Limits defined by property and possessions prove to be unstable; frequently and deliberately, Böttiger obscures the identity of speakers, throwing into doubt whether he (or one of his contemporaries) speaks.
Intervening in other people’s space defined the daily life of those affiliated with the court. Böttiger reveals that writers borrowed clothes, sent for food, invited themselves to dinner and roamed freely-occasionally in neglect of their appearance—within the aristocratic circles and town elites (73). For some court members, to enter the various houses and palaces was as close as they would ever come to rising in society. Even Böttiger concedes that they were never made to believe that they were part of the social elite. The flexible etiquette resembles the workings of gossip in at least two ways. It breaks with convention by using and exchanging other people’s possessions and by intervening in private spaces. Through these small transgressions, a web of relations and exchange—of words, goods, places—unfolds, softening the social fabric and making hierarchies at the court appear more penetrable.
Recalling Goethe’s arrival in 1775, Böttiger writes: “Goethe, this genius, could not lock up his cosmopolitan spirit [a term en vogue at the time] in this smelly pond [common term for city]. Thus, Bertuch-the merchant-had to lease to Goethe his garden, near the park, and that’s where Goethe established himself, where he held court” (72). Böttiger’s account alludes to Goethe’s rumored reputation by mocking Goethe’s efforts to live accordingly in a place that left much to be desired and that indeed lacked sanitation, proper demarcation of farmland, and a true courtly infra- structure. But Böttiger also suggests that idealized, cosmopolitan images (of both Goethe and his art) are not sustainable: neither court nor town provides a space where creativity can flourish. For that, one has to leave town, at least metaphorically, by turning to the garden and relying on the garden’s owner, a pragmatic, globally trading merchant. Universally imagined creativity and a cosmopolitan lifestyle could not exist without projecting to the world. As if to underscore Weimar’s stifling effect on its inhabitants, Böttiger (channeling Wieland) declares: “I have to flee town, go to the countryside. Here in Weimar, the court kills my intellect, and the fatal climate kills my body” (214). The confines of Weimar must be left behind, both physically and metaphorically.
Gossip not only divulged the physical and aspirational limits of Weimar, but also served to keep its (self-) seclusion intact. One episode from 1785 illustrates how rumor and gossip worked. Masquerading as news and affirming the social values and ideals of Weimar’s court society, a story about Emilie von Werthern and August von Einsiedel simultaneously bears traces of ridicule and proclaimed factuality, social acceptance and courtly sanctions, while drawing on the desire to flee town.
Von Werthern and von Einsiedel made for a curious pair. Minor aristocrats living in Weimar, they were mocked for their obsessions: When their liaison began, von Werthern wanted a young lover, while von Einsiedel wanted to go on a scientific expedition to Africa. Therefore, when they suddenly disappeared in 1785 rumor had it that they were en route to Africa. With the pair’s disappearance a social nuisance ended, because their affair had embarrassed von Werthern’s husband and von Einsiedel’s friends at the court. Fellow aristocrats disagreed on details of the abrupt departure but by and large they applauded the adventure, looking forward to exciting travelogues, fantastic tales, and fictions about what promised to be an exotic journey. The reaction revealed much about the court society’s fascination with an outside world kept at safe distance; it also inadvertently exposed hypocrisy when it came to gossip. At first, society accepted the pair’s truth, but acceptance gave way to suspicion when news reached Weimar that von Werthern had died. An exhumation discovered an empty grave, and public furor ensued-over the lies, but even more so over the prospect of the lovers’ return. Indeed, when they did return, von Werthern and von Einsiedel experienced continued social scorn, despite their repeated apologies and subsequent marriage. To reinforce the social sanctions, contemporary commentators denied having known about the affair before the pair’s disappearance.
While the episode could have played out elsewhere, Weimar’s condensed and penetrable space amplified its relevance. More than merely illustrating the regulatory impact of gossip, the reactions-recorded in letters and diaries-show gossip’s contradictory impulses and diffusing effects. Rumors and gossip appear socially acceptable if their outcome can be relegated to the realm of fiction, here taking the form of adventurous tales about distant regions of the world. Yet if a community doubts a rumor’s factual probability—and gossip threatens to undermine social values-society picks up on threatening effects. Consequently, once they were sensitized by the suspected falsehood of a rumor (e.g., the alleged death), Weimar’s aristocrats vigorously restored the truth in order to affirm the social code which they had shored up by coopting the rumor of the African journey. That Wieland later insisted on not having known about the affair—and that Böttiger denied any inkling in his notes (213)—underscores Weimar’s ambivalent attitude towards gossip and rumor and foretells their fate in cultural historiography.
Exemplifying gossip as a genre, Böttiger’s notes glimpse at an image in the making, at the idea that would become Classical Weimar. His text entwines gossip that could have spun multiple plots and inspired alternate stories, all of them playing out within and against the limits of town, its location and infrastructure, its architecture and social dependencies. Böttiger’s image of literary Weimar suggests that cultural historiography could have taken multiple directions. The image has traits still present in today’s notion of Classical Weimar: social mobility achieved through artistic or philosophical community, freedom of spirit, and expansiveness of intellect. But the easy spread of gossip also challenged the spatial-geographical limits in town and diffused social limitations. Therefore, gossip had to be contained or redirected for it not to impact Weimar’s efforts at self-stylization that began to revolve around the court. Goethe’s fierce rejection of gossip suggests as much, as does the circulation of news about von Werthern and von Einsiedel. Classical Weimar’s culture of self-elevation could only succeed if damages inflicted by gossip were turned around and used to elevate the protagonists of Weimar’s success story, thus lifting gossip from moralist condemnation to public prominence, all the while separating society into gossiping and nongossiping folk. To turn Goethe into a distant, cerebral figure—which essentially meant memorializing him during his lifetime—was but one way to control gossip; it was a gesture that, like a rumor, set up a narrative that could not be proved other than by repeating and affirming it.
Another way to grapple with gossip was to transcend Weimar’s spatial confines, thus depriving gossip of its foundation. But how could one get away from the town’s dilapidated smallness and from material conditions that were at odds with its inhabitants’ farflung aspirations? How could the court separate itself from a town on which it depended? For Classical Weimar to ascend, an alternate vision of a capital city was needed, one that left the symbols of courtly society behind. A new idea emerged: the capital as metropolis—an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural center capable of exporting its ideas and values at will, regardless of buildings, architectural space, and geographical limits. This idea, too, capitalized on the town’s limitations. For, as voices asserting a nascent cultural cosmopolitanism were all but drowned out by rants against a deteriorating town, the notion of a cultural capital turned Weimar into a “symbol of Idealism abstracted from the reality of the city.”
To understand this development further, I turn to Hunstock’s study of Weimar’s local history. Die (Groß-)herzogliche Residenzstadt (The Grand Duchy’s Seat of Power) examines basic social, political, and economic patterns of Weimar’s urban development in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Building on the book’s many insights, I revisit contemporary views of Weimar’s architecture and decay vis-à-vis the town’s self-styling efforts. In considering the overlap between aristocratic, state, and communal administration, various views on the town’s interaction with the outside world, and the complex socioeconomic situation, a picture emerges that shows rumor and gossip working outside the court. Weimar’s urban conditions produced stories—not to say: rumors—that fueled, and to a lesser degree challenged, the lasting image of Classical Weimar.
Certainly, Weimar was overpopulated and expensive. By 1830, Weimar’s population had increased to 10,112 (from roughly 6000 in 1799), with a steady growth recorded from 1810 on. Population density changed from an average of eight inhabitants per house in 1770 to twelve in 1830. Rents were unbelievably high; the combination of available housing, costs, and population growth made for a difficult market. First and foremost, the result of a deteriorating housing base exaggerated by poor city planning, the living conditions brought into sharp focus another aspect of city life: the economics of class, citizenship, and social entitlement. The actual financial situation of many homeowners, taxation, and the social station of the majority of homeowners were at odds with the social expectations of aristocrats.
In terms of architecture and infrastructure, the seemingly desperate situation in 1830 dated back even further, notably to the Entfestigung (de-walling) which had begun in 1757. Never progressing at a satisfying pace, it magnified the housing crunch and hindered construction of new quarters commissioned by and for the benefit of Weimar’s municipality. To make things worse, where the city wall was demolished, boundaries between town and farmland no longer existed, leaving the vacated space in disarray and livestock roaming within the city limits. This was particularly evident in the area of the hog market, today’s Goetheplatz (Goethe Square), where the town had begun to tear down the city wall in 1770. But (waste-) water trenches were only filled in 1795, and it took a massive fire in the same area-nearly 40 barns burned down in 1797—to embark on redevelopment. Only then was farming prohibited within city limits. Newly constructed houses tended to have multiple floors, and to add a floor to an existing house became popular in order to maximize any rental income.
Conflicting trends accounted for the population growth in Weimar. British educational reformers and refugees from the French Revolution settled there. Tides of visitors and migrants from neighboring German lands as well as the English and French created the impression that Weimar was overrun by people from abroad, and the townspeople blamed these foreigners for the housing shortage and high rents. Citizens such as Christian August Vulpius had long complained about the foreigners whose influx had increased and made everything more expensive. Official statistics seem to have given credibility to such rumors. In 1836, for example, the Weimar Magistrat (municipal council) recorded, “the stream of foreigners into our town was disproportionally higher than townspeople emigrating abroad.” However, the actual vital statistics contradicted this: the root cause of high prices and demographic turmoil, though heightened by inaccurate perception of immigrants, was the famine of 1771-72. The lack of a comprehensive municipal response had profound and immediate effects on the town’s health, both literally and figuratively. In the immediate aftermath of the famine, disease became rampant. Combined with the generally poor municipal hygiene, this situation increased the number of postpartum deaths and led to an overall higher mortality rate, which in turn eventually resulted in fewer marriages, pregnancies, and births for decades to come. In other words, there was no longer a stable population base that could support the variety of communal needs. It was virtually impossible to sustain a healthy economy, and trade was curtailed to protect the town’s interests. When the Wars of Liberation reached Weimar in the first decade of the nineteenth century, a typhus epidemic intensified the negative demographic trend, affecting all inhabitants irrespective of origin, or social or legal standing.
The subsequent stabilization-and-growth decade (1810-1819) resulted from administrative and legal acts that altered the understanding of citizenship. In 1810, a newly installed Stadtordnung (municipal law) codified the standing of many of Weimar’s inhabitants by stipulating, for example, a certain level of income and wealth as prerequisites for residency and citizenship. Therefore, as the century turned, Weimar’s municipal government embraced demographic change and sought to correct the rumor of a steady influx of foreigners by defining the place of longstanding residents within the city, and the repercussions were manifold. As town officials continued to insist on a legal language that carefully distinguished between citizens and foreigners, they projected an awareness of the world—and the town’s relations in the world—while shoring up a sense of local identity and exclusiveness. The legislation both complicated and simplified the court’s attitude towards the town: by negating the attraction of foreignness, which some court members had flaunted to avoid paying municipal taxes, these measures allowed the court to cultivate the image of Classical Weimar. A clear definition of foreigners made it easier to coopt the seclusion of town and make it part of a destination narrative that was attractive for a visit, thus adding a new layer to the court’s public relations. The court considered visitors vital to having an impact beyond city and state, emphasizing the limited nature of their stay and valuing them as mediators of Weimar’s evolving self-image.
Contemporary commentators linked visitors’ interest to more famous individuals who had moved to Weimar, suggesting that visitors were best able to appreciate local fame. Conversely, Wieland, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller had come from other German-speaking areas which back then meant “from abroad.” Foreign roots thus predestined an individual to be famous in Weimar. These ideas about visitors easily correlated with the emerging idea of the city as a cultural capital overseeing an empire of ideas. Foreigners—that is, nonlocals—could partake in the spread of such ideas. As foreign origins were exhibited, they became part of the foundation on which Weimar’s literary and cultural legacy would rest.
The tale that foreigners flocked to Weimar to be close to Wieland and Goethe, Schiller and Herder, later referred to as the great four, was at least in part a rumor. More mundane attractions lured a small but powerful number of residents to town, mostly older, wealthy aristocrats who retired to Weimar because of the theater, the masquerades, the Redouten (dances), the journals, and the Tischgesellschaften (salons). Contrary to popular opinion, which considered them habitual tax evaders, these pensioners shouldered the biggest share of special tax assessments through occasional voluntary payments, which was pleasing to a financially strapped court whose lower members freely interacted with the aristocratic newcomers and on occasion rented from them. This in turn endowed the erstwhile visitors with importance and led to another false claim, namely the alleged dominance of court over town. In contrast, the townspeople themselves noted a profound disconnect between the two. Vulpius, despite being Goethe’s brother-in-law, reportedly despised the court’s leisure activities because of their disregard for urban hardships. In a shoemaker’s diary—an illustrative account of life in Weimar from 1806 to 1839—Goethe is barely mentioned.48 In 1816 a visitor was disgusted by the widespread disrespect towards the court evident in pub conversations. These observations illustrate the discrepancy between attitudes found in town and the idealized image of Weimar existing outside. But just like the courtly dominance was a rumor based on nothing but an increasing number of aristocrats (not an actual strength of political or economic power), the tale of a happy symbiosis of urban reality and ideal society fueled the legacy of Classical Weimar.
Weimar’s late eighteenth-century housing market was where rumor, gossip, and the town’s architecture and infrastructure come into sharp focus; consistent efforts to capitalize on the rental market expose Weimar’s unusual profile in homeownership. Neither the valuation of houses nor the distribution of wealth across the entire spectrum of Weimar’s population was generally reflected in homeownership. Skilled craftsmen, whose families had lived in town for generations, owned approximately 50% of all the houses, setting Weimar apart from other towns and larger cities where this class owned only 30% of all residential property. However, there were so many of them in Weimar that the value of their real estate was in fact lower than that of the property owned by merchants, which was in turn worth less than the property owned by foreign aristocrats, while court and state administrator property comprised the highest value. Then again, while some aristocrats and government administrators possessed houses of high value, others—especially those who had come to the court from other regions—possessed no real estate at all, and they were the ones who harbored expectations and, soon enough, resentments like Seckendorffs, expressing their views about the discrepancy between social rank and economic affluence. They resented not only the rising bourgeoisie, but also the wealthy aristocratic pensioners living in town who mingled freely with the court but did not have to serve it. Resentments grew particularly after the castle fire, which had cemented the court’s dependency on the town’s residential infrastructure and literally erased the architectural foundations of an old residential capital. In turn, Weimar’s citizens exercised considerable power over the court because they were the landlords, and having property as equity gave them additional financial flexibility. The intrusion of the socially privileged into a space largely controlled by craftsmen, bourgeois officials, and even servants aggravated the social and political effects of the unusual ownership situation.
However, the peculiarities of home ownership were not the only aspect fueling a negative, highly emotional verdict about the material condition of Weimar. Self- interest led homeowners to perpetuate the persistent tale of a run-down town while disregarding the actual housing substance. Weimar had municipal regulations that allowed property owners to do their own real estate assessments, and homeowners took advantage of this ordinance in order to obtain fire insurance (not to sell their houses). This resulted in deliberately undervalued houses, and the average recorded value stood at 917 rl., fueling the rumor of a shabby town. But there was some truth to the latter, and particular complaints triggered the same comments about unacceptable urban conditions in Weimar. Not surprisingly, these comments also reveal the competing interests at stake.
For example, poor street lighting drew the ire of commentators over and over again. But to light the streets and equip inhabitants and houses with lanterns meant much more than improving the town’s infrastructure; inadvertently, the persistent tale of poor street lighting exposed an interest in sustaining the image of a pitiful town, even if it took the shape of rumor. Street lighting had been subject to special taxation since the early eighteenth century, and the municipality conducted its own assessments to determine each homeowner’s contribution. And here, a very different picture emerged: the documents list an average house value of 1500 rl. Metaphorically speaking, the residents had a vested interest in keeping Weimar in the dark in order to conceal the true substance and value of their houses. Conversely, poor street lighting became a (increasingly wrong and thus empty) metaphor for the overall condition of the housing substance. Therefore, while special interests affected both assessments, by the early nineteenth century, the image of a shabby, impoverished Weimar could no longer be reconciled with the actual housing situation in town. Ultimately, that Weimar’s building substance was better than its reputation helped sustain the image of Classical Weimar as a cultural capital because it proffered that the town’s limitations—its confining nature, its inward-directed and rumor-filled municipal conversation—could become one of its strongest assets.
As an eighteenth-century town aspiring to be urban, Weimar struggled with conflicting influences that challenged the emergence of an identity firmly rooted in local-that is material, social, and economic-conditions: On the one hand, as Weimar inched closer to becoming the true administrative center of the grand duchy between 1810 and 1819, the traditional, architectural signs of the early modern capital vanished. On the other hand, administrative steps put Weimar on more solid financial footing. Proper municipal representation was reflected in legislation resembling a modern constitution (1810), in new governing bodies, and eventually even in the architecture representing the modern administration and its hierarchies. This process entailed a clearer demarcation of socioeconomic power (though not always of housing spaces). Administrative responsibilities were more clearly divided among ducal government and municipal institutions; the duchy contributed its fair share to costs. Indeed, the governmental institutions of duchy and municipality—and their representation in the urban landscape—resembled those of other German lands. And yet, with rumors working to keep Weimar closed off from architectural and migratory innovation, while travelers came looking for a powerful, ever-present court and left carrying this elusive ideal abroad, Weimar constituted something unique in the minds of distant readers who had never visited the town.
Since Weimar was probably not as dilapidated as various constituents wanted readers to believe, it is not surprising that shortly after 1800, visitors caved in to an image that transcended reality. The material conditions of town gave way to its ideal, relying on rumor and self-styling efforts to tell the story that would become Classical Weimar. Travelers like Joseph Rückert likened the town to an island while depicting conflicting impressions. Rückert acknowledged the reality of Weimar’s modest architecture while proclaiming the ideal of “the poetic Weimar,” which had impressed itself upon the visitor’s mind. He describes Weimar as a town “like its geniuses, who do not care about outward appearances,” only to note, somewhat contradictorily, “cleanliness and order everywhere.” He claims that the strict isolation from everything foreign, combined with a rather impenetrable class structure, allowed for a disciplining of art in Weimar. A cloistering of the select few around the court, the social and aesthetic, but also the architectural-spatial structures elevated Weimar “to a true museum of the intellect.” Unlike a creativity-inspiring Musenhof, a museum appears fossilized and archaic; like urban discourse, Classical Weimar’s image had turned inward and become self-secluded.
But where does this nuanced view of Weimar around 1800 leave literary and cultural historians who attempt to keep Weimar Classicism alive, while including the gossiping adversaries and rumors that too secured its significance? Classical Weimar’s reputation seems intact, in part, because gossip and rumor did not undermine the town’s self-stylization. They created a multitude of stories that visitors could carry into the world. Weimar aristocrats sustained a culture of gossip, nurtured by the conversational structures—and houses—in which exchange flourished. Their letters, dinner conversations, and diaries show an awareness of the world while carefully keeping the world at bay. As the conversational culture reaching the outside world gravitated towards Goethe and, to a lesser degree, Schiller, Wieland, and Herder, Weimar’s reputation came to rest on names and personae; they eventually defined and centered Classical Weimar’s discourse and cemented its place in literary and cultural history.
Conrad Wiedemann states that “the geniuses put Weimar on the map, not vice versa,” but I believe that the reverse is also true. The urban discourse of Weimar around 1800 resonated with self-seclusion; visitors, no matter how long they stayed, remained foreigners. At the same time property owners capitalized on the housing shortage, both solidifying their leverage over the court and disguising the actual value of their possessions, so the court depended on the town for its residential sustenance. Having relinquished its representational edge in the Ansicht (view) of Weimar in the fire of 1774, its power was as hollow as the burned-out castle and the town asserted its precedence in local history. Beginning in 1810 and extending over the next three decades, the distribution of economic, political, and social power would manifest itself more transparently in both architecture and city planning.
Ultimately, amidst the complexities of small-town life and ducal seat, rumor and gossip took on a formative role. As genres of communication, they traveled with ease and were aided by the compact infrastructure, thus operating according to the logic of Weimar’s particular city space. At the same time, rumor and gossip fabricated both the stories that established the monumental status of Weimar’s famous inhabitants and those that threatened to undermine this newly articulated fame. Though largely absent from scholarly accounts of Classical Weimar until recently, rumor and gossip shaped literary history by helping to elevate Weimar above its material limitations and into the realm of national and international significance.