Matt Erlin

Matt Erlin

Chair and Professor of German
PhD, University of California, Berkeley
research interests:
  • 18th and 19th-Century German Literature and Culture
  • Aesthetic Theory
  • Economics and Literature
  • Philosophies of History
  • Urban Culture
  • Digital Humanities

contact info:

office hours:

  • Tuesday 1:00 - 3:00 pm
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mailing address:

  • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • CB 1104
  • ONE BROOKINGS DRIVE
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
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​Professor Erlin's research focuses on the literary, cultural, and intellectual history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany.

In addition to essays on topics ranging from Moses Mendelssohn's philosophy of history to the eighteenth-century novel, Matt Erlin has published two books: Berlin’s Forgotten Future: City, History, and Enlightenment In Eighteenth-Century Germany (2004) and Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815 (2014). He has also co-edited, together with Lynne Tatlock, two essay anthologies: German Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Reception, Adaptation, Transformation appeared in 2005, and Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century was published in 2014.

Erlin is a member of the steering committee of Washington University's Humanities Digital Workshop (HDW). Together with student and staff collaborators, he is currently working on several digital humanities projects that use computational tools to challenge traditional notions of genre and period as they apply to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German literature. He is also a co-investigator on the multi-university partnership grant “Text Mining the Novel,” which aims to produce the first large-scale cross-cultural study of the novel according to quantitative methods.

Professor Erlin’s course offerings range widely but generally reflect his fascination with the interface between aesthetic theories and practices and the sociopolitical contexts in which they emerge. He also has a strong interest in pedagogy. In addition to general courses in German language and culture, he has taught seminars on German poetry, consumer culture and the eighteenth-century novel, Marxist cultural theory, cultural representations of nationalism, and the sociology of literature. He also teaches in the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and currently serves as chair of the German department.

Spring 2019 Course

Seminar in Literature of the Late 18th-Century: Goethe's Faust (German 524)

This seminar is designed to provide students with an in-depth introduction to the complete text of Goethe's Faust. Our reading and discussion of the drama will unfold against the backdrop of three distinct but interrelated contexts. 1) We will consider Faust from a literary-historical perspective, situating the work within Goethe's own literary oeuvre as well within the frameworks of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German literature more generally and of the long history of literary Faust adaptations. 2) We will also approach Faust from an intellectual-historical perspective, attempting to understand how it engages with the key philosophical discussions and debates of the period during which it was written: theodicy, the dialectic of enlightenment, and the legitimacy of the modern age. 3) Finally, we will read a selection of scholarly essays that demonstrate how Faust sheds light on various theoretical and scholarly pre-occupations, from the relationship between literature and economics to questions of gender and sexuality. One of the aims of the seminar is to expose students, on the basis of an exemplary case study, to a wide range of models of scholarly inquiry. Readings of the primary text will be supplemented with video of performances as well as adaptations of the Faust material to other media.

    Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century

    Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century

    n nineteenth-century Germany, breakthroughs in printing technology and an increasingly literate populace led to an unprecedented print production boom that has long presented scholars with a challenge: how to read it all? This anthology seeks new answers to the scholarly quandary of the abundance of text. Responding to Franco Moretti's call for "distant reading" and modeling a range of innovative approaches to literary-historical analysis informed by the burgeoning field of digital humanities, it asks what happens when we shift our focus from the one to the many, from the work to the network.


    The thirteen essays in this volume explore the evolving concept of "distant reading" and its application to the analysis of German literature and culture in the long nineteenth century. The contributors consider how new digital technologies enable both the testing of hypotheses and the discovery of patterns and trends, as well as how "distant" and traditional "close" reading can complement each another in hybrid models of analysis that maintain careful attention to detail, but also make calculation, enumeration, and empirical description critical elements of interpretation.

    Berlin's Forgotten Future: City, History, and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Germany

    Berlin's Forgotten Future: City, History, and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Germany

    Through an analysis of the works of the Berlin Aufklärer Friedrich Gedike, Friedrich Nicolai, G. E. Lessing, and Moses Mendelssohn, Matt Erlin shows how the rapid changes occurring in Prussia's newly minted metropolis challenged these intellectuals to engage in precisely the kind of nuanced thinking about history that has come to be seen as characteristic of the German Enlightenment. The author's demonstration of Berlin's historical-theoretical significance also provides a fresh perspective on the larger question of the city's impact on eighteenth-century German culture. Challenging the widespread idea that German intellectuals were antiurban, the study reveals the extent to which urban sociability came to be seen by some as a problematic but crucial factor in the realization of their Enlightenment aims.

    Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815

    Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815

    The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century brought new and exotic commodities to Europe from abroad—coffee, tea, spices, and new textiles to name a few. Yet one of the most widely distributed luxury commodities in the period was not new at all, and was produced locally: the book. In Necessary Luxuries, Matt Erlin considers books and the culture around books during this period, focusing specifically on Germany where literature, and the fine arts in general, were the subject of soul-searching debates over the legitimacy of luxury in the modern world.

    Building on recent work done in the fields of consumption studies as well as the New Economic Criticism, Erlin combines intellectual-historical chapters (on luxury as a concept, luxury editions, and concerns about addictive reading) with contextualized close readings of novels by Campe, Wieland, Moritz, Novalis, and Goethe. As he demonstrates, artists in this period were deeply concerned with their status as luxury producers. The rhetorical strategies they developed to justify their activities evolved in dialogue with more general discussions regarding new forms of discretionary consumption. By emphasizing the fragile legitimacy of the fine arts in the period, Necessary Luxuries offers a fresh perspective on the broader trajectory of German literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, recasting the entire period in terms of a dynamic unity, rather than simply as a series of literary trends and countertrends.