Wilhelm Raabe (RAHB-uh) is a major representative of German realism, along with such writers as Gottfried Keller and Theodor Storm. Born in the small town of Eschershausen in the duchy of Braunschweig, Raabe was raised in Holzminden, where his grandfather, August Heinrich Raabe, a postmaster and local historian, had a great influence on him. His father worked for the judiciary and maintained a large personal library, from which Raabe read.
When his father was transferred to Stadtoldendorf in 1842, the lack of a Gymnasium (high school) meant that Raabe had to take private instruction. The experience developed in him a resistance to all formal schooling. In 1845, after the death of his father, Raabe’s mother moved the family to Wolfenbuttel, where she had relatives. Raabe withdrew from school in 1849 and was sent to Magdeburg as an apprentice to a bookseller. His work gave him ample opportunity to read, but his attempt to pass the university entrance examination (Abitur) failed. In 1854 he attended the University of Berlin as a nonmatriculated student and began writing Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse (the chronicle of Sparrow Alley), which was completed in 1855 and published the next year to some favorable reviews.
Raabe returned to Wolfenbuttel in 1856, met editor Adolf Glaser, traveled some, and attended the theater. In 1862 he married Bertha Leiste and moved to Stuttgart, where he enjoyed the more stimulating cultural environment and was able to publish several novels in installments. Because of their favoring of a united Germany under Prussia, Raabe and his wife felt somewhat alienated from his pro-Austria friends. Thus, in 1870, in spite of the war mobilization, Raabe moved his family to Braunschweig.
Raabe’s time in Braunschweig, from 1870 to 1898, was extremely productive. He wrote some of his most important works during that period, including Horacker, Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s mill), The Odin Field, and Tubby Schaumann. His income from writing was sufficient to support his family. He completed Die Akten des Vogelsangs (documents of the birdsong) in 1895 and then wrote Hastenbeck, a historical novel. On his seventieth birthday he was honored by the city of Braunschweig and by the Universities of Tübingen and Göttingen. He died on November 15, 1910.
During his lifetime, Raabe was disappointed that his use of experimental style with multiple perspectives was not understood and that the satire inherent in his work was missed. He was praised for his humor, his themes showing traditional values, and his descriptions of everyday life, but critics often failed to notice his social criticism.
Tubby Schaumann, arguably Raabe’s finest novel, is representative of his writing. Focused on the story of an outsider, Heinrich Schaumann, cruelly called “Tubby” (Stopfkuchen literally means “stuff cake”) by his schoolmates, the novel shows a young man who, like Raabe, was a failure in school. Tubby, however, develops his talents and goes on to achieve his dream, ownership of a farm (which serves as his fortress). The narration is slow and rambling, but the characters and society are revealed one step at a time until the idealization of the rural town (and its postman) are shown to be an illusion. Criticism of society is embodied in Raabe’s theme of the isolation of the individual and unjust accusations. His use of first-person narrative and reminiscences gave rise to the interrelated perspectives that are characteristic of his mature work.
Raabe’s characters must find a way to survive in a world formed by the Industrial Revolution, a world where materialism seems to dominate and displace humane action. Some cannot survive, such as Antonie in Die Leute aus dem Walde (people from the forest), but others, such as Schonow in Villa Schönow and Tubby in Tubby Schaumann, demonstrate human dignity and are able to live according to their own values of love, friendship, honesty, and genuine kindness. Raabe’s reality is only superficially idyllic: Rustic environments may look pastoral, but they invariably hide human weakness, such as the meanness evidenced in Tubby Schaumann and the gossip and rumor of Horacker. Human suffering, rather than history, is viewed as the enduring, progressive force.
Raabe’s position as a major nineteenth century novelist of the period of German realism (1850-1890) has not always been recognized. Furthermore, a lack of translations has made him less known, or perhaps even unknown, to the English-speaking public. However, some critics have begun a reevaluation of his works, recognizing a more complex view of the world, which goes beyond a mere capturing of German regionalism. The modern reader, accustomed to the techniques of twentieth century narrative, will find Raabe’s multiple perspective accessible and will especially respond to his themes of isolation and disillusionment.