Jeffrey L. Sammons

Jeffrey L. Sammons

Fellow: Awarded 1971

Field of Study: German and Scandinavian Literature

Competition: US & Canada


I was born in 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio; I received a B.A. from Yale College in 1958 and a Ph.D. in 1962, both in German literature. I began my teaching career as instructor and assistant professor at Brown University in 1961, and returned to Yale in 1964, where I became professor in 1969, was chairman of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1988 to 1991, as well as director of the Yale Summer Language Institute from 1980 to 1984. I retired as Leavenworth Professor Emeritus of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the end of 2001.

I began my scholarly career by publishing my dissertation on a Romantic topic and a basic book on a seventeenth-century poet, but I soon launched on what turned out to be a lengthy involvement with Heinrich Heine, including, besides thirty-one years of annual critical bibliography and numerous articles and book reviews, an interpretive study, Heinrich Heine: The Elusive Poet (Yale UP, 1969); the first American biography in more than forty years, Heinrich Heine: A Modern Biography (Princeton UP, 1979); a handbook for German students, Heinrich Heine (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1991); and what I trust will be my final book-length effort, Heinrich Heine: Alternative Perspectives 1985-2005 (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006). This last title indicates that, as much I would like to have been an insider in the immense Heine revival of the last fifty years, I found myself uncomfortably at odds with some of the conventions that began to form. Heine led me to the younger writers of his time who also opposed the Metternichian regime: Six Essays on the Young German Novel (U of North Carolina P, 1975).

In the meantime the Guggenheim Fellowship enabled me to try something else. It made possible a year of living in Vienna, which was an educational experience in itself; there I composed the drafts of my only venture into theoretical matters, Literary Sociology and Practical Criticism: An Inquiry (Indiana UP, 1977).

After that, my studies proceeded mainly on two tracks. One, motivated by the United States Bicentennial of 1976, pursued the topic of German-American literary relations. Along with a number of specialized studies, the results were, from the German side, Ideology, Mimesis, Fantasy: Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, Karl May, and Other German Novelists of America (U of North Carolina P, 1998) and, from the American side, Kuno Francke’s Edition of The German Classics (1913-1915): A Historical and Critical Overview (Peter Lang, 2009). The other track was a consequence of my discovery that much of the received opinion about the peculiarity of the German Bildungsroman was mythical. I turned my attention to novelists who had become distorted or marginalized by a conservative, nationalistic literary historiography. I began with two of the better remembered of them: Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community (Princeton UP, 1987) and Friedrich Spielhagen: Novelist of Germany’s False Dawn (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004). Since then I have been investigating other critical realists whose names are hardly known today but that had a significant readership in their own time. The pursuit of this topic will not lead to high standing in my field or among my departmental colleagues, but I believe it has some value in that it brings to light things that are not known and expands the purview of literary history.

My academic profession has not brought me wealth or fame but has enriched me in other ways. I come out of modest circumstances among people who had little opportunity to see the world. I have been given the opportunity of lectures and public appearances at universities and meetings in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Israel, China, England, and Italy. I have had some other acknowledgments and honors in my career, but the most prestigious of them remains the Guggenheim Fellowship, to which I continue to be grateful for the advantage it has given me.