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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    • 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.

    Fall 2020 Courses

    Basic German: Core Course II (German 102D)

    Continuation of German 100D or 101D. In preparation for more advanced academic study in German, this second course will further introduce students to fundamental German grammar, culture and history. It is comprised of a combination of situational lessons and tasks which will challenge their critical thinking abilities. Students in 102 will familiarize themselves with the language necessary to understand and give directions, apply for a job and speak with a doctor; students will also read more advanced content such as Grimm's fairy tales and a text by Franz Kafka. Prerequisite: German 100D, 101D, the equivalent, or placement by examination. Students who complete this course successfully should enter German 210D.

      Advanced Grammar and Style Lab (German 402)

      Take your German skills to the next level! This 1-unit lab is designed for advanced students seeking to master the finer points of German grammar and style through targeted exercises and discussion. Students will learn to construct sophisticated, elegant, and accurate sentences, with the goal of improving their effectiveness as writers and speakers of German. A rotating weekly focus will cover such topics as: complex sentence structures; advanced passive and subjunctive forms; idiomatic prepositional and verb phrases; and infinitive constructions. Prerequisite: German 302 or the equivalent.

        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. 

        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.

        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.