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A Happy Accident: Tales from a UC Fulbright Fellow

When Michael Hutchins visited Germany as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow, his journey off the beaten path helped bring life to his subject matter.

Date: 8/2/2010
By: Michael Hutchins
Other Contact: Kim Burdett
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Michael Hutchins
Michael Hutchins is a PhD student in the Department of German Studies who has just returned to University of Cincinnati after spending a year as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow in Marbach am Neckar, Germany.

Marbach am Neckar, Germany.
Hutchins visited Marbach am Neckar, Germany as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow.

My favorite moments in research are the purely accidental discoveries. A similar phenomenon—inexplicable coincidence—permeates the literature of W. G. Sebald, the late German author whose work is at the center of my dissertation project, and such happy accidents seemed to occur with some regularity during the 10 months I spent as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow sifting through Sebald’s literary estate in the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar, Germany. But perhaps the most delightful of these serendipitous revelations came about not amid manuscripts and archival boxes, but rather in a cozy living room in rural Bavaria.

It began on one of the last Sundays I was to spend in Germany. A friend and I were making a last-minute excursion to the Allgäu, the southwestern corner of Bavaria where Sebald had spent his youth. I had not planned on taking the trip, but it seemed, after all, such a waste to be in Germany for so long without once having gone sightseeing in Sebald’s childhood haunts.

It was also quite beautiful; the sweeping green plateaus reached out to me from ever steepening, spruce-darkened foothills, behind which sheer cliff faces and summer snow stretched up to crystalline blue skies. And yet, while rambling along the Alpsteigtobel—a narrow, wooded ravine along which Sebald also hiked and which appears in his 1990 prose volume “Vertigo”—I was struck by how starkly different this idyllic landscape is from Sebald’s depiction which is so very dark and somehow deeply tainted. Then, quite by accident, we began to meet townsfolk who had known Sebald and were eager to talk about him, though with varying degrees of affection. Sebald’s portrayal of his birthplace continues to ruffle local feathers.

Michael Hutchins, a PhD student in the Department of German Studies, is studying the literature of late German author W.G. Sebald.
Michael Hutchins, a PhD student in the Department of German Studies, is studying the literature of late German author W.G. Sebald.

But the most surprising discoveries came the next day when, on the advice of one of these new acquaintances in Wertach, we looked up Dr. K., one of Sebald’s closest school friends, who still lived in the little town of Sonthofen some 20 minutes away. Dr. K. was happy to share with us a number of revealing biographical details about Sebald—you will have to read the dissertation to find out what they are, of course—as well as the long correspondence he had maintained with Sebald following the latter’s emigration to England in the 1960s. These letters reveal a terribly funny side of Sebald that contrasts sharply with the common perception of him as a brooding melancholic.

What I came to more fully understand is that the melancholia and unease with the homeland in Sebald’s texts was far more literary than constitutional. I was now able to balance these depictions with, for example, a lengthy, witty treatise he wrote to Dr. K. on the virtues of sauerkraut (which he found not to the taste of his English neighbors).

Encountering something new is one of the best reasons to study abroad. It is better yet when it leads to something productive. I count myself fortunate to have had such an accident in Germany.

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