When half a century ago now, I was taught German literature at school and university, Hebel was never on any syllabus. Though appreciated and praised by generations of writers who were, from Goethe onwards and downwards, Hebel was relegated to the status of a ‘popular’ writer, not part of the ‘high’ literary culture that had begun to be institutionalized and monumentalized even before Germany became a nation state. If, as it seems, no book of Hebel’s work was published in England before John Hibberd’s present selection and translation from the Schatzkästlein, which first appeared in 1811, it must be for related reasons, though the book reached readers well beyond not only its Alemannic region, which includes Alsace and parts of Switzerland, but any subsequent borders of the German-speaking countries. Tolstoy was among its admirers.footnote

Hebel, the son of a weaver, orphaned at the age of thirteen, but given a thorough education thanks to the patronage and subsidies available to potential clergymen or civil servants, was born in 1760 in the Black Forest. He died in 1826, on his way from Mannheim to Heidelberg, just as his mother had died while commuting from Basel to her home village, Hausen. Under the enlightened rule of Karl Friedrich—Margrave, then Grand Duke of Baden—Hebel became a Lutheran pastor, headmaster of his former school and, for a time, Professor of Theology and Hebrew. As an ecumenical churchman and educationalist, he became an influential figure, active in the policies that led to the merging of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Baden—his parents’ marriage had prefigured that union—and, earlier, to the abolition of serfdom there in 1783, the emancipation of the Jews in 1809.

As an author Hebel emerged in 1803 with his Alemannische Gedichte, poems in the Alemannic dialect that became no less popular in his linguistic region, and beyond it, than his later prose, and as widely ranging in kind, form and affinity. (Ancient and mediaeval poets were among his models.) With no ambition to be a professional writer, let alone a ‘great’ one, Hebel added little to later editions of the poems; and the prose pieces collected for the Schatzkästlein were written for an almanac edited at his school, mainly for readers who owned no books other than the Bible and perhaps an edifying tract or two. The first edition of the poems appeared anonymously.

Before Hebel, Matthias Claudius had performed a comparable function as a popular writer at once imaginative and didactic. Though he was older by a generation than Hebel, his periodical, the Wandsbeker Bote, continuedlong enough to be contemporary with Hebel’s editing of his almanac. In Hebel’s own linguistic region the Swiss manual worker and writer Ulrich Bräker, ‘the poor man of Tockenburg’, was active until 1798. Walter Benjamin, who admired both Hebel and Bräker, helped to rehabilitate them in this century.

Unlike Hebel’s poems, his prose pieces—stories, anecdotes, news items, jokes, conundrums or mere bits of clever repartee—were not written in dialect, so that they bridged the educational and class divisions of his time, as well as the regional ones. Yet it is to the vernacular that they owe their directness, conciseness and earthiness. Hebel did not need to write down to his readers or cultivate the specious folksiness of so much writing in the German Romantic period. Even where the moral of a piece is unambiguous or tagged on to make it explicit, his pieces seem to come from his own heart, head and experience, to have been written out of his own curiosity rather than out of a compulsion to persuade, edify or instruct. More often than not, though, the moral is far from unambiguous, because Hebel was a tough realist, above all, with few illusions about human nature, whose contradictions and absurdities were his constant theme. Among the recurrent characters in his tales are the three thieves and tricksters of one of whom, called Freddy Tinder in John Hibberd’s version, he wrote: ‘For Freddy Tinder doesn’t steal because he has to, nor for the sake of profit or from sheer wickedness, but for love of his craft and to sharpen his wits.’ Not sanctity or piety are the virtues most consistently affirmed in the collection as a whole, but magnanimity, resourcefulness and an unpretentiousness that may or may not amount to Christian humility, but certainly accords with Hebel’s sense of the human condition—and is attributed to the Jewish writer Moses Mendelssohn in one anecdote. In another, ‘Well Spoken, Badly Behaved’, Hebel tells of a quarrel between a village schoolmaster who believes in turning the other cheek and a farmer, who ‘boxed his ears, both of them’; and the moral drawn is this: ‘Remember; You must not try to argue about Holy Scripture if you don’t understand it, least of all the way they did.’ Behind that moral, implicit in it, lies Hebel’s pervasive distrust of social, moral or intellectual pretentiousness.

‘What a Strange Creature is Man’ is the title of the opening piece in this selection. The whole ragbag of its contents is held together by that recognition, though the characters can be emperors, kings, princes, sultans—‘There is justice in Turkey’, one piece begins—noblemen, merchants, labourers, social outcasts or criminals. There are two pieces devoted to the Russian Prince and Field-Marshal Suvorov, who not only obeyed his own orders, to the point of absurdity, but refused to regard himself as any different from the humblest of his subordinates, behaving and dressing accordingly. If, with a single exception, Hebel’s pieces were not considered subversive by his employers, that was due to a happy convergence of his views with their aims. Baden’s alliance with Napoleon has a great deal to do with that. Though Hebel’s tales were drawn from all over Europe—several are set in London—the Napoleonic wars, alliances and upheavals are inseparable from their political and social implications.As John Hibberd points out, Hebel’s stance was not revolutionary but ‘cautiously liberal’. Yet he was deeply subversive in hating not only war but the new divisive nationalisms that were arising in reaction to Napoleon’s conquests. The journalism of Heinrich von Kleist’s last years, coeval with Hebel’s, is an extreme instance of that reaction in a writer who had begun as a liberal humanist.

John Hibberd’s selection includes all the pieces that stand out as gems, not rags, in The Treasure Chest. Only sheer literary excellence could have won these the admiration of twentieth-century writers as diverse as Kafka and Brecht, Heidegger and Benjamin, Hesse and Canetti. Even Paul Celan, a poet wrongly labelled ‘hermetic’ and considered as remote as can be from any popular mode, alluded to the story ‘Kannitverstan’ in a poem—perhaps only because this piece has become as proverbial in German as Luther’s Bible. A comparison of Hebel’s masterpiece ‘Unexpected Reunion’ with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s treatment of the same material in his Die Serapions-Brüder or with Hofmannsthal’s dramatization of it, based more on Hoffmann than on Hebel, points to the advantages of Hebel’s ‘delicate empiricism’, as Goethe called it, over the supernatural and symbolic accretions. Yet Hebel’s good sense was something other and rarer than common sense. Brief as it is, compared with Hoffmann’s elaboration, Hebel’s version of the story of this young Swedish miner killed on his wedding day and found again in the mine fifty years later, his corpse and features preserved but identifiable only by his surviving bride to be, who buries him in the silk muffler she had made for the wedding, manages to incorporate the political history of those fifty years—and not to sentimentalize the love and constancy that are the gist of the events, or only to draw a moral.