SUU Professor Releases Authoritative Book On 19th Century German Personality

Published: April 17, 2006 | Read Time: 4 minutes

The first book by Dr. Larry L. Ping, Professor of History at Southern Utah University, titled “Gustav Freytag and the Prussian Gospel: Novels, Liberalism, and History,” has just been released.

Gustav Freytag—a highly-respected historian and novelist in Germany in the 19th century—was influential in shaping opinion for his generation of liberals. In his novels, Freytag represented the real, middle-class German and its debate over Jewish assimilation, political reform in Prussia and German unification.

Ping, who has been teaching on Modern European history, the Third Reich, and ancient Greece & Rome at SUU for the past 16 years, has been scrutinizing Freytag for a quarter of a century. While a graduate student at the University of Oregon, one of Ping’s professors and mentors--Robert Berdahl (now the president of the American Association of Universities)--suggested he write his thesis on Freytag. “Dr. Berdahl recognized in me, a talent to do biography in a way that gets into the heads of the people of the past. Indeed, I’ve spent last 20 years of my life wrestling with this character, Freytag.”

Twenty-five years later, Ping might very well be the best choice in the world to write this kind of introspective examination of Freytag’s mentality. “Although Ping addresses Freytag’s well-earned reputation for anti-Jewish prejudice, the primary focus of the work is to explore the mental world of a significant, but often overlooked, German historian.”

“Freytag spanned so many worlds and roles,” Ping states with enthusiasm about his scholarly obsession. He refers to Freytag as “Germany’s Charles Dickens,” a novelist who wrote about colorful characters--mostly in the middle class—and how they saw the world, how they lived their lives.

Freytag eventually became higher-class member from his middle-class upbringing. A politician, journalist and historian, he offers a different but very real cultural history of his home-country Germany, in his non-fiction work, “Pictures of German Life,” (English title) and his two-volume novel “Debit and Credit.” This latter title is about a man coming of age in business. It was the single bestselling novel in Germany in 19th century, a level of popularity much like Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” Ping suggests.
In “Debit and Credit,” Ping explains, Freytag created a famous villain Jew by the name of Vietel Itzig. Comparable to Dickens’ character Fagan, Itzig became an accepted term for Jew during the Third Reich.

Ping emphasizes that Freytag’s life was not reflective of the racist, stereotyped characters in his writings. Enigmatically, Freytag was actually a liberal supporter of Jewish emancipation and integration. Freytag married a Jewish woman. Presenting Freytag as a representative figure, this book explores the contribution of the German history profession to German liberalism and political culture.

With that, Ping does an excellent job of getting beyond the clichés of German culture, and into the real mentality and motivations of the people. “This is how I try to teach history, too,” Dr. Ping reveals. “I try to lead my students down an investigative path asking and answering question like ‘How is it possible that Germany could go so terribly wrong?’” Ping submits that the Germans are actually much like us Americans, and that we stand to learn one of the greatest moral lessons from the history of Germans—that is, the fragility of human civilization.

Ping sighs and admits about his book that it is “so good to reach a point, to finally get it completed.” It was in 1981 that he wrote and presented his first paper on Freytag. Ping was accomplished as a student; he received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1983 to study at the University of Berlin and the German State Archives. There, he studied Freytag and his letters, tediously working through the German language and Freytag’s handwriting. As the start of his Fulbright, he spent six weeks at the Goethe Institute immersing himself in the German language. “German is very hard to learn,” Ping states. “So much of it doesn’t even exist in the English language. For historians, language is one of the most difficult parts of our job.” Moreover, one must be flexible and versatile in addressing the language challenge; before, when Ping wrote about Freytag, he translated from German to English. With this latest feat in his book, he took two years and did just the opposite—translate all of his English notes back into German, as well as alternate back and forth throughout the manuscript between English and German.

Jeffrey Sammons, a Yale University professor, and editor of North American Studies in 19th –Century German Literature Vol. 37 (Peter Lang, publisher), , solicited Dr. Ping's manuscript when he saw the dissertation listed in a leading journal. Sammons says that Ping’s work held his attention because it took a different view of Freytag than has been customary. “Ping reexamined Freytag’s historical writings and found more critical facets in them than had previously been appreciated,” Sammons says.

Ping gives a book for historians and literature lovers, and pursuers of German/Germany information, possibly doing just what his subject, his versatile Freytag did—that is, bridge more than one world through written oration.

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