Matt Erlin

Matt Erlin

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
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    • Wednesdays, 12:00 to 2:00 pm
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    • 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.

    Fall 2019 Course

    Seminar in Cultural Theory: Dialectic of Enlightenment and The Frankfurt School Moment (German 529)

    The goal of this seminar will be to introduce students to some of the main themes of Frankfurt School critical theory via a careful reading of Horkheimer and Adorno's influential and experimental text, Dialectic of Enlightenment. The seminar will consist of two main parts. In the first part (roughly two-thirds of the semester), we will consider the preoccupations of text itself, and especially the author's interpretations of the European Enlightenment, bourgeois subjectivity, mass culture, and antisemitism. In order to enhance our understanding of their approach to these topics, we will read additional essays by the authors, as well as texts by some of the thinkers to whom they were indebted and a selection of relevant secondary literature. The second part of the course will be devoted to the reception history of Dialectic of Enlightenment, from its first publication in 1944 to its circulation as an underground bestseller in Germany in the 1960s and its powerful influence on the disciplinary self-understanding of North American German Studies in the 1970s and beyond. We will conclude with a consideration of some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the authors in the past few decades (e.g. left-wing elitism) as well as some of the claims that have been made for the continuing relevance of their analyses.

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

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

      In 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.

      German Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Reception, Adaptation, Transformation

      German Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Reception, Adaptation, Transformation

      Building on recent trends in the humanities and especially on scholarship done under the rubric of cultural transfer, this volume emphasizes the processes by which Americans took up, responded to, and transformed German cultural material for their own purposes. The fourteen essays by scholars from the US and Germany treat such topics as translation, the reading of German literature in America, the adaptation of German ideas and educational ideals, the reception and transformation of European genres of writing, and the status of the "German" and the "European" in celebrations of American culture and criticisms of American racism. The volume contributes to the ongoing re-conception of American culture as significantly informed by non-English-speaking European cultures. It also participates in the efforts of historians and literary scholars to re-theorize the construction of national cultures. Questions regarding hybridity, cultural agency, and strategies of acculturation have long been at the center of postcolonial studies, but as this volume demonstrates, these phenomena are not merely operative in encounters between colonizers and colonized: they are also fundamental to the early American reception and appropriation of German cultural materials.