Gunter Reus: Der andere Claudius. Anmerkungen zu einem oft verkannten Publizisten. [The Other Claudius. Notes on an Oft-Misunderstood Publicist.]

Reviewed by Horst Pöttker

»Der Mond ist aufgegangen, die goldnen Sternlein prangen…« [The moon has risen, the golden stars are shining…] – Matthias Claudius’ lullaby has become such a staple that it has spawned numerous parodies, among others by Dieter Höss and Dieter Hildebrandt. Peter Rühmkorf’s spoof begins like this: »The moon has risen, / I, between hope and dangling, / don’t touch the sky.«

Even such rather odd echoes of the song point to the part of Claudius’ work that paints him as a sensitive, occasionally sanctimonious, God-fearing poet, and as such, he certainly fit into the literary and cultural historical era of his time (1740-1815).

Gunter Reus, journalist, scientist, and historically inclined author (of which there are not too many in Germany), shows us a »different« and »oft-misunderstood« Claudius, as we learn from the subtitle. This is true biographically, as Reus paints a vivid portrait of a man who outwardly seems confidently faithful and lofty-minded, but who is really ridden by deep doubt and despair as well as struggling with daily life during an era – the Enlightenment – which we often idealize. But it is especially true because, as the word »publicist« in the subtitle merely alludes, Reus portrays Matthias Claudius as one of the first Germans who not only practiced the journalistic profession in its early phase during the 18th century, but also developed professional creativity to match. Along with Lessing, Kleist, and Heine, he represents the long development phase of this profession, which Dieter Paul Baumert called »literary journalism« in 1928. It is worth recalling this phase today that the profession is in need of fundamental change, because it shows that journalism was not always the assembly-line job driven by factuality, speed, and brevity that it has become since the last third of the 19th century, and still is today.

Headed by the quote »I’m not just jotting down the news,« chapter 4 (the longest one in the book) talks about Claudius as a representative of journalism in its infancy (p. 67) (pp. 67-98). In this era, creative minds invented and tested forms of presentation and research techniques that would later develop into teachable and learnable professional standards, such as the news item, the commentary, a reportage, or a (research) interview. Reus reminds us that Claudius was not only an author of Sentimental genres, but also wrote for the Wandsbecker Bothe, which appeared four times a week. He spent a few years serving as editor of the newspaper and in this role, relied on sources that were all but Sentimental, if only because of his geographical proximity to Hamburg, which was already a buzzing trading port and media hub at the time. The largest and most important daily newspaper in Europe at the time was the Hamburgische unpartheyische Correspondent.»When he compiled his news for the Wandsbecker Bothe, Matthias Claudius probably also made ample use of the reports in this paper with its widely ramified network of correspondents.« (p. 74)

Today, information media rely on news agencies, which emerged from the mid-19th century, but Claudius pioneered this method of news gathering as well as journalistic genres in Germany, such as social reportage.

»Matthias Claudius is not a social reporter. But he does have a knack for the genre. The Hessen-Darmstädtische privilegirte Land-Zeitung, for example, heralds the beginnings of a precise depiction of social reality […]. On 15 January 1777, Claudius submitted a report (probably sent to him) from a spinning facility Giessen: ›A spinning facility has recently been established in our town to provide for poor children. It works as follows: The children come to the spinning room at daybreak and stay there until 10 o’clock in the evening; at 11 o’clock in the morning, each child gets 1 pound of bread and may go home for an hour, as well as one hour in the evening. […] In the spinning room, there is a box available to visitors to deposit donations at their discretion […] So far, 39 children have been employed, partly boys and partly girls, 12 of whom are already able to spin wool, and the remaining 18 are still being taught; and several more join every day.‹« (p. 75f.)

Reus vividly shows how creatively Claudius applied the journalistic qualities of clarity and entertainment, always geared towards the audience, and his way of creating forms of presentation. Reus points out, contrary to professional prejudice, the value of the primary journalistic quality of professional independence for Claudius, even though he was also occasionally willing to compromise in his later years. This is not only evident from an instance of self-praise: I »›usually add something of my own, an exclamation, or I call someone out for falsehoods, or I add something satirical,‹« which is evident in annotated news such as this: »›On the morning of 29 December, Sir Francis Gosling Knt. died, who was a great banker in Fleet Street. Hmm, a great banker!‹« (p. 83)

It is also evident from the fact that the supposed aesthete got into scraps with publishers and financial backers on several occasions throughout his professional life because he took some journalistic liberties, and even ended up walking away from comfortable jobs. After only nine weeks as editor at the Hessen-Darmstädtische privilegirte Land-Zeitung, where he takes »the liberty of making pointed remarks against the ruling princes,« his employer Friedrich Carl von Moser

»fiercely berated him, yet did not fire him from his position as editor, but instead even expressly offered Claudius the opportunity to continue to run the newspaper. Moser was going to cut his salary, though Claudius would still have earned a lot more than what he made in Hamburg and Wandsbek. But Claudius refused the offer and threw in the towel, preferring not to earn any money over submitting to journalistic dependence and be a civil servant for public relations. In his reply to Moser, he indicated that he could no longer consider it his job to peddle Darmstadt court politics via journalism. The break with his editor affected him, leaving him seriously ill, but he had no regrets. After a year in Darmstadt, he returned to his Wandsbek home in the spring of 1777 and remained a freelance publicist until the end of his life.« (p. 85f.)

Reus researched his sources thoroughly and extensively, as evidenced by 405 references and notes. In addition to its academic diligence, the book also showcases impressive journalistic qualities such as readability and vividness, owed to the author’s smooth style, and even more so, his interspersed fictional scenes from Claudius’s life, which are quite unusual for a non-fiction volume. The author lets the reader eavesdrop as Claudius gets scolded by his employer at the Hamburgische Addreß=Comtoir=Nachrichten, where he had been an editor since 1768. Reus adeptly leverages his sources to write a plausible dialog:

»Claudius, come here. You’re brimming with imagination, and that makes me brim with bile. Are you aware that we’re making a newspaper for merchants and citizens? You write well, I can see that. And you possess wit. But those flights of fancy of yours… You have to adapt a bit, do you hear? Our readers have influence, and they have money, no matter how you feel about them. And I know how you feel about them. I understand that. But we need the moneybags, we need their advertisements. This is how publisher Leisching makes his living, and therefore, it’s also how you, Claudius, and I make our living. Consider that when you write. And clean up the office, look at this jumble of old invoices, drafts, galley proofs … Where is your mind?« (p. 79)

Fictionality is inevitable in journalism; every metaphor is fictional, and journalistic writing relies on metaphors, especially in genres like commentary or reportage. Journalists also rely heavily on the fictional genre of satire. But when fictionality in journalism masquerades as factual, it becomes a lie, as we have seen with Relotius at Der Spiegel, as well as many others, including Theodor Fontane, who brazenly engaged in it during the 19th century while writing for Prussian newspapers. Fictionality in journalism is only legitimate when it is clearly evident. Reading the many quotes from Claudius in Reus’ book, I gather that this often misunderstood publicist from Wandbek more or less consciously adhered to this rule. At any rate, the author of this book very consciously adhered to it, clearly separating the fictional parts from the factual parts and making them clearly distinguishable by using distinct indentation and italics.

This, too, makes the book valuable, not only as a detailed research work on a development phase of the journalistic profession, but also as a journalistic monography – not least because of the touching biographical accounts of Matthias Claudius’ tragic private life, especially in the first chapter entitled »Life, Death, and Doubt« (p. 11), which is a rare thing in scholarly literature. I, for one, devoured the book in a few days.

However, from an editorial view, I must make a minor critical remark about the very end of the book: Interested readers will find it bothersome to read with their pinkie finger stuck between the rear pages of the book so they can refer to the notes, which are all the way in the back. It would have perfected the readability of this fine book if it used good old-fashioned footnotes instead of a closed block of endnotes.

About the reviewer

Horst Pöttker (*1944) is a retired Professor of the Theory and Practice of Journalism at TU Dortmund University and editor of Journalism Research.

Translation: Kerstin Trimble

About this book

Gunter Reus (2022): Der andere Claudius. Anmerkungen zu einem oft verkannten Publizisten. [The Other Claudius. Notes on an Oft-Misunderstood Publicist.] Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 142 pages, 32.- EUR.