I often use the word “interdisciplinarity” when I talk about my PhD. It sounds exciting and it makes me feel important, but the interdisciplinary nature of my project is also something I strongly believe in – no matter how often I struggle to bridge the gap between history and literature.
Looking back through the mists of time to October 2011, my original proposal was simple: I would research the historical context of Heinrich Heine’s poem Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen in order to determine how he engaged with ideas of nation and nationalism in 1840s Germany. I was unsatisfied with the brief historical context given to Heine’s work by literary scholars, and I was frustrated by historians’ tendency to quote Heine in support of their arguments without considering the layers of meaning in his œuvre. I wanted to analyse historical sources – primarily German newspaper articles from the early 1840s – for style and allusions in the same way I would analyse a poem, and I wanted to place the Wintermärchen in the context of the discourse on nationalism in 1840s Germany. Heine’s poem is widely seen as a judgement on German nationalism at this time, and it seemed sensible to find out how Heine was reacting to what his contemporaries actually wrote about the German nation.
As a novice historian, I’ve encountered several challenges over the past few years. Firstly, I have found that reading 1840s newspapers can be extraordinarily dull. I knew that the widespread censorship of the press would not encourage lively reading, but even so, I felt myself become steadily disheartened by the endless reports on royal engagements and steamboat schedules. Even the articles that helpfully focussed on important events in the development of German nationalism – the Rhine Crisis, the continuation of Cologne Cathedral, debates on the German Customs Union – can appear impenetrable. There are countless allusions to writers or events that are no longer well known: the work of deciphering these references is much like walking uphill through thick snow, or swimming through treacle. Some of the writers of these articles have been allotted a place in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, while others have not, and they remain frustratingly elusive.
Secondly, it is proving difficult to directly link Heine to these articles, and so bridge the gap between historical sources and literary text. Heine’s letters seem to show that he was far more interested in maintaining feuds and chasing employers for payment than acquainting himself with the details of German political and cultural life in the 1840s (which, to this poor beleaguered PhD student, seems rather selfish). Interdisciplinarity can often feel like a dangerously vague concept, and sometimes I think it would be easier to choose between the two disciplines instead of combining them in one research project.
Ultimately, however, I’m enjoying my foray into the life of an historian. I’m learning more every day about the minute detail of cultural and political life in 1840s Germany, and how a small section of the German middle class thought and wrote about the German nation. There are still connections I need to make and conclusions I need to reach but I’m confident that I will get there in the end, and that interdisciplinarity will prove to be more than just a buzzword.
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