Organizing Impulses: Reframing Adventure as Global Knowledge for Young Readers in Precolonial Germany (1841–1862)

“The role of the educator is to rhythmize the soul to [moral] virtue.”1 This conclusion to his 1841 faculty address to the Königliche Realschule zu Berlin captures the spirit of Theodor Dielitz’s educational philosophy. As a teacher, Dielitz advocated systematic instruction about the real world to prepare students for a harmonious, moral life within the Prussian state.2 Beyond his classroom activities, he produced both Realschule textbooks and commercial youth-literary publications, works that he saw as complementary parts of his unified pedagogical vision. The connection between these production spheres is easy to overlook when traveling the well-worn paths of his reception as a mass-production author. Dielitz’s history and geography textbooks have long since been forgotten, but his nineteen-volume series of adventure anthologies—Images of Land and Sea (1841–1862)—enjoyed immediate and sustained success throughout the nineteenth century. It was through the Images of Land and Sea that I first encountered Theodor Dielitz.

The stacks of the Heinz Neumann Collection of Adventure Literature at the German Literary Archive (DLA) in Marbach. Photo by author.

Exotic Expectations

At first, I saw Dielitz as a representative but insignificant author whose success derived from the breadth rather than the depth of his use of established literary sources. Biedermeier-era youth literature has a reputation for derivative content delivered with a heaping dose of heavy-handed moralizing, so my literary-aesthetic expectations were low. Guided by literary histories, I assumed that Dielitz was just another “mass production author” (Vielschreiber or Polyscribent) who wrote cheap books for young German readers during the mid-nineteenth century as a side hustle. The invitation from the editors Simone Lässig and Andreas Weiß to reframe my research for a collected volume on the dissemination of global knowledge to children in nineteenth-century Germany helped me overcome this cynical assumption and discover a symbiotic connection between Dielitz’s roles as author and educator. With their encouragement, my subsequent research revealed far-reaching implications about the structures and hierarchies of knowledge dissemination across Germanophone Europe in the nineteenth century.

This also helped me affirm and reframe my research interests. Initially, I was interested in how the tensions between Enlightenment educational aims and the publishing industry’s commercial imperatives impacted the development of youth literature in Germany. I was particularly drawn to the youth adventure novel, both because of my own formative reading experiences and the genre’s sustained prominence within the canon of German youth literature. In precolonial Germany, adventure novels are also among the richest sites for exploring German attitudes and aspirations towards the world beyond continental Europe, what Susanne Zantop calls “colonial fantasies.” In her book Colonial Fantasies, Zantop explores vicarious colonial experiences imagined by precolonial German authors and their implications for creating and sustaining perspectives on the world and Germany’s place in it. Zantop’s study is a brilliant exploration of literary texts but does little to address their formal presentation as books. To address this, I set out to explore how editors, illustrators, and publishers leveraged formal and material changes to prolong or revive the lives of stagnating travel and adventure narratives.3 I was particularly interested in how the narrative content and visual-material presentation of received colonial adventures shifted over time. The middle of the century struck me as particularly dynamic, as narratives adapted from French, Spanish, Dutch, and English colonial sources overlapped and vied with one another to capture public imagination. In short, I wanted to see if and how the presentation of received “colonial fantasies” in these stories evolved in the decades before Germany became a unified state and colonial power.

I had already selected representative works from the early to mid-nineteenth century for my project: Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Robinson the Younger (1779)—a heavily didacticized adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) that remained popular throughout most of the nineteenth century—and German adaptations of two English-language classics—Captain Frederick Marryat’s youth-literary Robinsonade Masterman Ready (1841) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales4 (first published as German youth literature in 1845). My case studies on these illustrated “long-sellers” aimed to illustrate the interdependencies of literary, publishing, and visual cultures. I chose Dielitz’s Images of Land and Sea as a foil to these novels.

A cartload of Dielitz editions at the DLA. Photo by author.

To capture the trajectory of multiple editions over time, I conducted the bulk of my research in 2017–18 at the German Literary Archive in Marbach am Neckar and the Berlin State Library’s Children’s and Young People’s Book Department. After many weeks spent sifting through stacks of archival editions, I had amassed a treasure trove of facts and had reached some preliminary conclusions. First, I observed that Theodor Dielitz’s Images of Land and Sea connect serial adventure narratives to moral virtue via multiple, layered visualizations of immediate, subjective experience. Then, with the assistance of visual illustrations and simple narrative frames, he aligns the experiences of youthful protagonists with the experiential horizons of his intended readers.5 Finally, in his system, every adventure becomes a challenge, an obstacle, a test. The vicarious experience of these challenges demonstrates the utility of certain desirable virtues (courage, resourcefulness, steadfastness, etc.) and co-initiates the young reader into male adulthood. In other words, nothing new.

The same was true of his treatment of source materials. Dielitz takes the authors of “eyewitness” reports at their word.6 He cites established travel writers by name and sometimes references chapters or sections of their works.7 However, he takes considerable editorial license with magazine and newspaper sources. In one instance, he claims that “a few sections are entirely my own work, the rest, on the other hand, are borrowed from the reports of English, French, and German travelers, and have only been altered by me with regard to the form dictated by the goal of this book.”8 All concerns for attribution also end there: “if a name is missing,” he notes, then “the tale was taken from some magazine or other.”9 Ultimately, rhetorical utility always supersedes factual verifiability—the “ends justify the scenes.”10

My early notes confirmed exactly what every literary history had prepared me for: an unremarkable set of adventure excerpts, rough-hewn and refitted with a foundation of heavy-handed, proto-nationalist virtue ethics and then re-coated with a thin veneer of excitement. Like his contemporaries, Dielitz, seemed to have created nineteen youth-literary Trojan horses—delightful and diverting vehicles designed to indoctrinate unsuspecting readers with parochial, Biedermeier sentiments. I had discovered a good deal about the “usual suspects” (author: Theodor Dielitz, illustrator: Theodor Hosemann, publisher: Winckelmann & Sons), but Dielitz’s underlying motivation remained a mystery to me. Why did he write these anthologies? What did he hope to gain, aside from a bit of extra cash? And how did he choose which stories to adapt? The answers kept eluding me, and I started to doubt that they existed at all. Was there anything more to Theodor Dielitz than what appeared on the page? I was stuck and I was panicking.

Extracurricular Education

It turns out that his pedagogical program was the key that my overdisciplined perspectives kept from view. My preoccupation with elements within the anthologies relegated Dielitz’s role as a teacher to the footnote section.11 With some timely input from editors Andreas Weiß, Simone Lässig, and Patricia C. Sutcliffe, I began to view Dielitz not through his discrete roles as author or educator but as an inter-institutional gatekeeper struggling to filter and refine the mass of global knowledge circulating throughout Western Europe. A brief excursion into Dielitz’s historical anthologies helped reframe the scope of his pedagogical mission and the role that extracurricular texts played in it. I returned to the Images of Land and Sea and discovered three links in the prefatory matter that implicitly connected adventure to education. First, by publishing the Images of Land and Sea, Dielitz sanctions adventure narratives as appropriate reading material for young readers (and more specifically as intentional children’s literature for a German audience). Second, he positions youth adventure reading as a supplement to the existing classroom curriculum.12 In this way, authorized adventure stories find a new home within the institutional knowledge hierarchy of the Prussian state school system. Third, Dielitz advances his abridgments as “teasers” to whet young readers’ reading appetites for the unabridged versions as adults. Dielitz was far more ambitious than I had given him credit for—he wasn’t out to make a quick buck on the side but to create a lifelong role for himself as an institutionally respected, indispensable mediator of information.

A typical Dielitz title page taken from Wanderings and Hunting Expeditions—Adapted for Young Readers. Image source: Google Books.

Dielitz acknowledges that two spheres of knowledge production—one curricular and one commercial—were vying for influence and that activity in both spheres was necessary to make his pedagogical dreams a reality. The Images of Land and Sea position themselves as a reservoir of authenticated global knowledge for young male readers, one that filters the excess of entertaining, extracurricular narratives circulating in the precolonial German knowledge economy. With the lure of adventure, they direct reader interest toward global knowledge in the private sphere while reasserting the ultimate, public authority of the Prussian state school curriculum.13 Rather than opposing forces in tension, fragmented adventure anecdotes and systematic geographical lessons were recast as symbionts within the global knowledge economy.

In a similar fashion, my project grew from a text-centric study on the visuality of youth-literary adventure to explore how genre-bound information about the wider world was and could be repurposed and recirculated on the publishing market for a new audience of young readers. During the mid-century period of commercial expansion and genre proliferation, Dielitz and other author-educators like him were constantly negotiating and renegotiating the hierarchical relationships between commercial and curricular spheres of knowledge production. Individually, his stories in the Images of Land and Sea are unremarkable. Seen as a whole, they become a fascinating window into the practices, politics, and pedagogy of trans-European knowledge networks. Taking a larger view of these phenomena allowed me to rediscover the rhythm and rhyme of Theodor Dielitz’s educational enterprise and to appreciate the larger significance of travel adventure as a vital contributor to wealth of global knowledge in the long nineteenth century.

If you would like to read my full analysis of Dielitz’s anthologies from this history of knowledge perspective or would like to explore similar topics related to nineteenth-century knowledge about the world, check out the edited collection The World of Children: Foreign Cultures in Nineteenth-Century German Education and Entertainment (2019) at Berghahn Books.

Matthew O. Anderson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of German at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. His research focuses on the intermedial and international processes of genre creation, adaptation, and consumption, illustration and identity in historical children’s and popular literature, and visual culture in Germany and Scandinavia.

  1. Jahresbericht über die hiesige Königliche Realschule (Berlin: A. W. Hayn, 1841), 11. All translations are my own. ↩︎
  2. Dielitz, “Ueber die erziehende Kraft der Schule,” 7. ↩︎
  3. Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770–1870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). ↩︎
  4. For more on my work on Cooper, see Matthew O. Anderson, “Adventure from Concentrate: Visual Interventions in German Youth Adaptations of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” in Before Photography: German Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Kirsten Belgum, Vance Byrd, and John Benjamin, 293–322 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2021). ↩︎
  5. Dielitz, “Ueber die erziehende Kraft der Schule,” 19. ↩︎
  6. While he was allegedly offered the chance to travel abroad in a state capacity, there is no evidence to suggest that Dielitz himself ever traveled to any of the places he references. ↩︎
  7. Dielitz often cites the works of anglophone writers Thomas Mayne Reid, William Gilmore Simms, James Fenimore Cooper, and Frederick Marryat; French author Gabriel Ferry; and German travel authors Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, and Ludwig Bechstein. ↩︎
  8. Theodor Dielitz, Lebensbilder. Der Jugend vorgeführt von Theodor Dielitz, Oberlehrer an der Königl. Realschule. Mit 8 illuminirten Bildern (Berlin: Winckelmann u. Söhne, 1840), “Preface.” ↩︎
  9. Theodor Dielitz, Ost und West. Neue Land- u. Seebilder für die Jugend bearbeitet von Th. Dielitz, Director der Königstädtischen Realschule in Berlin. Mit 8 illuminirten Bildern v. Th. Hosemann (Berlin: Winckelmann & Söhne, 1855), “Preface.” ↩︎
  10. Matthew O. Anderson, “Images of Land and Sea: Experiencing the World as Adventure through Theodor Dielitz’s Travel Anthologies for Young Readers, 1841–1862,” in The World of Children: Foreign Cultures in Nineteenth-Century German Education and Entertainment, ed. Simone Lässig and Andreas Weiß, 57-80 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019), 75. ↩︎
  11. For a professional biography of Dielitz, see Heinrichs, "Dielitz, Gabriel Maria Theodor," Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 5 (1877): 127–128 ↩︎
  12. The age demographic for his curricular works overlaps neatly with that of his intended readership of nine- to fifteen-year-old, middle-class male students. ↩︎
  13. For more on state-sanctioned, curricular knowledge in nineteenth-century Germany, see Andreas Weiß, “The World at War in German Textbooks: Knowledge of the World Conveyed in Representations of War,” in The World of Children, 93–112. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Matthew O. Anderson, “Organizing Impulses: Reframing Adventure as Global Knowledge for Young Readers in Precolonial Germany (1841–1862),” History of Knowledge, July 31, 2022,