Hamburg in Literature

The Elbe in the vicinity of Hamburgh is so divided, and spread out, that the country looks more like a plain overflowed by heavy rain than the bed of a great river- Dorothy Wordsworth- Alfoxden Journal 1798

Lately, I find myself surprisingly excited whenever I come across “Hamburg” in the works I have to read for my MA exam. Of course, the city comes up more frequently in the German texts. For example, Thomas Mann’s main character in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) comes from Hamburg, Part of this is because Hamburg is industrially a successful city. Lying (almost) at the mouth of the Elbe, the fourth largest river in Europe, which flows all the way through the Czech Republic, the city was obviously home to many traders for a long time. It’s a major import and export destination for which one can see its roots in the Speisekammern. At any rate, Hans Castorp comes from Hamburg because he is a dignified Burgher (one of Mann’s favorite types of characters), and Hamburg is a city full of them.

However, while I expected to come across Germany in my German texts, I was a little thrown aback when I read that Dorothy Wordsworth and her husband were there. I shouldn’t have been though, considering that all the Romantics made it their duty to visit continental Europe and the “old world.” Dorothy writes about their trip in her Alfoxden journal. Not everything she describes is flattering… for example, according to her the bakers and shopkeepers take pride in how they can cheat their customers– especially if they are foreign. Dorothy clearly prefers England to Germany (and I don’t blame her, necessarily), but it’s really fun to read about the parts of the city she describes and imagine her there. Some of my favorite passages:

We drank tea upon deck by the light of the moon. I enjoyed solitude and quietness, and many a recollected pleasure, hearing still the unintelligible jargon of the many tongues that gabbled in the cabin.

She describes the diversity of sounds and people she sees. To her they are strange; to me, they are like a waft of familiarity:

Hanoverians with round borders, showing all the face, and standing upright, a profusion of riband.. . . Fruit-women, with large straw hats in the shape of an inverted bowl, or white handkerchiefs tied round the head like a bishop’s mitre. Jackets the most common, often the petticoat and jacket of different colours.