So, who did write
that book about Abdera? In
January 1998 The Man from Abdera posed the question and declared the book immortalising the town and
the foibles of its inhabitants "one of the funniest . . . written in
the 19th century". That's some claim!
His question was
hardly a "trivia" one. For me, a long-time enthusiast of
literary sleuthing, it was a challenge and an invitation. Given those
tantalising clues as to period and geography — the 19th century,
Germany, Abdera itself — how could I resist the temptation to
I put on my
thinking cap and walking shoes, armed myself with pen and paper and headed
for the library: mine first, Lane Cove several times and the State once.
On those excursions
The Man from Highworth (Wiltshire, England), Nick Hidden, helped with my
enquiries. And another sleuth, Bikwil's own editor, conversed with me by
phone and also gave me a very helpful extract from J.G. Robertson's A
History of German Literature, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1953),
which confirmed the evidence I had been gradually accumulating.
That teamwork has
lead to a successful outcome, a solution to the case. Time now to file a
report. I'll try, though, to spare readers tedious detail about
methodology. But I would like to share the sequence of discovery and just
let the references unfold naturally as we go on this brief literary
To get myself
started, at home I consulted a very worthy book The Wordsworth
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (revised by Ivor H. Evans from Dr.
Brewer's original). Consider the entry on Abdera:
A maritime town of
Thrace, mythically founded by Hercules in memory of Abderus. The Abderites
or Abderitans were proverbial for stupidity, said to be caused by
the air, but among them were Democritus, the laughing philosopher (hence Abderitan
laughter = scoffing laughter, and Abderite = scoffer);
Protagoras, the sophist; Anexarchos, the philosopher friend of Alexander;
and Hecatæus, the historian.
Like breakfast that
was a good start. But I could find nothing more to digest in my own
collection. So next stop was Lane Cove Library's reference section. There,
William Rose Benet's entry on Abdera, Abderiten in The Reader's
Encyclopedia (1965) added nothing new to what I'd already read in the Wordsworth.
Surprisingly, too, a recently published encyclopedia on Satire had no
reference at all to Abdera.
German connection I looked up The Oxford Companion to German Literature
(1976) and discovered on the very first page of entries under A, one on Die
Abderiten: eine sehr warscheinliche Geschichte, a satire in five parts
written between 1773 and 1779. The author was C.M. Wieland (1733-1813).
The book was described as "a satire on the self-satisfied parochial
life of German small towns in Wieland's day . . . the setting and disguise
. . . the ancient Greek town of Abdera in Thrace, inhabitants of which
(with the exception of Democritus) were noted for their
Nine hundred odd
pages later in the Companion there was a lengthy entry on Wieland,
Christoph Martin, poet and novelist and much more besides, with critical
commentary on his works and his contribution to German literature at the
time of Goethe and Schiller. I'll return to this later. There was more
about Die Abderiten to the effect that it appeared in 1774 and was
reissued in 1961, but no reference to the 19th century.
At this point I
rechecked Benet's (Reader's Encyclopedia) briefer entry. It more or
less agreed with the Companion as regards date of publication of
the novel, 1774, but it didn't mention either the 19th century or the 1961
Despite this hitch
in the research I was thrilled to find there really is a book on Abdera
and I had now both author and title in one hit. But I was troubled about
this one thing, this reference to the 19th century. Was the original Bikwil
note a misprint or mistake? Or was I missing something? Was there some
further crucial detail yet to be found? Could it be tucked away in a book
with different focus and emphasis? (These are the kinds of questions the
sleuth must ask herself.)
So, what about
other encyclopedias, for example? I tackled several, including Britannica,
Collins and World Books — nothing more than I'd already
noted. I felt I'd run out of leads, come to a dead end, a bad moment for
the literary sleuth. Fortunately I hadn't run out of the steam, or
whatever it is that fires one to keep on searching.
I tried one more
volume: the Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. Editor Henry Garland
had written the entry on Wieland and here I found gold again in these few
words: "The Republic of Fools (1774; Eng. Trans. 1861)
satirising German provincialism". So there was a 19th century text
after all and in English! but no clue as to the translator. I needed to
know that; the case couldn't be closed without that last piece of the
All efforts to find
reference in the works I'd already checked to the title The Republic of
Fools were fruitless. Until that one visit to the State Library. For a
couple of hours Nick and I browsed among the reference shelves. It was he
who finally found the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 97: German
Writers from the Enlightenment to Sturm und Drang, 1720-1764 (1990),
with its very large, detailed entry in Wieland.
And there it was,
the nugget I was hoping for: a mention of one Henry Christmas as the
translator of Die Abderiten. With gratitude and great excitement I
delved further into the pages on Wieland and found in the bibliography the
novel's complete publication profile. I'll list the essentials of it
because it shows finally all the threads of the research brought together:
Abderiten . . . (Weimar: Hoffmann, 1774) revised as Geschichte der
Abderiten, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Weidmann & Reich); trans. By Henry
Christmas The Republic of Fools: Being the History of the State and
People of Abdera in Thrace, 2 vols. (Lond.: Allen, 1861); German
version republished, ed. By Emil Steiger (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer,
This is one of
those great moments in the life of the sleuth. Mystery solved, now the
case can be closed. Satisfied, one can relax, — and the sun being over
the yard-arm — open the bar, pour the wine and drink a glass or two or
three! to the success of the enquiry.
On that triumphant
note I could end, but I said earlier I had more to add about Wieland. As
well as a novelist he was a professor of Philosophy, translator and poet.
His verse romance, Oberon (1790), according to the Companion
is "regarded by some as his best work". In 1773 he launched Der
teusche Merkur, a leading periodical in German intellectual life for
37 years. He edited it from 1773 to 1789, Robertson wrote in his History,
adding that most of Wieland's own literary works appeared in the review's
pages. Die Abderiten did, in 1774.
As a translator
Wieland has some considerable importance in Germany. During the years
1762-1766 he translated 22 plays of Shakespeare, 21 in prose and one, A
Midsummer Night's Dream, into verse. This was the first collection of
Shakespeare's plays in German translation and this is how Wieland's
contemporaries, Goethe and Schiller, first met Shakespeare's work. (I
haven't found out which 21 of the Bard's plays Wieland translated yet, but
that's another case for later.)
A few words about
Wieland's own translator won't go amiss. Remember Henry Christmas? With a
name like that what could he be but Reverend? That and more, as it turned
out. In his 57 years — he lived from 1811 to 1868 — he was a scholar
and writer on many subjects from antiquities to capital punishment, and,
like Wieland, editor of journals, church and literary. He edited The
Literary Gazette (1859-60), and acted as editor of several works
including Pegge's Anecdotes of the English Language (1844). He was
also a numismatist of repute, coined many articles on the subject and
maintained his own extensive and valuable collection. He can be found in
name and fame in the Dictionary of National Biography (Vol. IV).
What a stimulating
exercise this has been! What fun! I must thank The Man from Abdera. The
book of Abdera in Wieland's original German and Christmas's English
translation may well be one of the funniest to have emerged to entertain
18th, 19th and 20th century readers. I have not seen either yet. I only
understand the story from the outline of its five parts that I read in the Companion.
I like even more
Robertson's description. Here’s a sample:
. . . entertaining episode is that of the ass’s shadow . . . A dentist
hires an ass to carry him to a neighbouring town. He has to cross a
treeless plain, and as the day is hot, he dismounts, to rest in the shadow
of the ass. The driver of the ass objects, on the ground that the ass and
not its shadow has been hired. A lawsuit ensues, and the whole town is
divided into two parties, the "asses" and the
"shadows" ; excitement runs high, and ultimately the affair is
brought to a conclusion by the slaughter of the unoffending ass.
think I could enjoy this book about Abdera. It may be as relevant to the
provincialism of our world today as it was for Wieland's time.
try and locate a copy of Henry Christmas's The Republic of Fools
before the next millennium.