Leerssen, Joep

Research Project
Scholarly Networks and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Jacob Grimm

In the European rise of romantic nationalism (1800-1850), a crucial role was played by “men of letters”, especially philologists. They rediscovered medieval manuscripts and texts which came to enjoy the status of “national epics” (e.g. Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Nibelungenlied); they developed a new appreciation of the vernacular languages of Europe as parts of an Indo-European “family tree” of language families, languages and dialects; they studied oral literature (fairy tales and oral epics) as the collective-demotic expression of the nation’s imagination, and in some cases linked this back to a primordial mythology. In doing so, they redefined “culture” in national and proto-nationalist terms, and created the intellectual ambience within which historians and creative artists (novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, composers and ultimately even architects) could start cultivating a national culture. This intellectual-cultural “romantic nationalism” provided the run-up, the inspiration and the justification for all social and political nationalist movements in Europe in the nineteenth century.
The intellectual networks of the “men of letters” were dense and tight, and linked Europe in an intense communicative community reaching from Reykjavík to Bucharest and from Lisbon to St. Petersburg. This network helps to explain the unusual synchronicity of cultural-nationalist practices in many different genres and countries, but it is only recently that a supranational, comparatist approach is beginning to retrieve this fact from the tunnel vision of “methodological nationalism”. I aim to do an in-depth pilot study of these networks by addressing the epistolary and intellectual-institutional contacts and ideological position of one of the most prolific, multitalented and highly-regarded philologists of all time: Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), who taught as a professor in Göttingen from 1830 until his notorious political dismissal in 1837.

Selected Publications

Leerssen, J. 2004. Literary historicism: Romanticism, philologists, and the presence of the past. Modern language quarterly 65(2), pp. 221-43.

Leerssen, J. 2006. Nationalism and the cultivation of culture. Nations and nationalism 12(4), pp. 559-78.

Leerssen, J. 2008. «Philology and the European construction of national literatures» in D. Van Hulle and J. Leerssen (eds.): Editing the Nation’s Memory: Textual scholarship and nation-building in 19th-century Europe. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 13-27.

Leerssen, J. 2009. «From Bökendorf to Berlin: Private Careers, Public Sphere, and how the Past Changed in Jacob Grimm’s Lifetime» in L. Jensen, J. Leerssen, & M. Mathijsen (eds.): Free Access to the Past: Romanticism, Cultural Heritage and the Nation. Leiden: Brill.

Leerssen, J. 2010. Viral Nationalism: Romantic intellectuals on the move in 19th-century Europe. Nations and nationalism 17(2), pp. 257-71.