Quicksands Background

Quicksands Background

Adolf Streckfuss (whose first name is often spelled "Adolph" depending on the translator) was born in Berlin in 1823. His father, Carl Streckfuss, was an educated man and a solid member of the professional class that dominated commerce and education in 19th-century Europe.

By the time Streckfuss was born, Europe had experienced the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of Humanism and the French Revolution. Napoleon was dead and the network of encumbering alliances that produced World War I had not yet created a stranglehold on European politics. Germany as we know it today did not yet exist: although German-speaking people lived throughout what is now Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, there was no contiguous German nation but a series of principalities and kingdoms ruled by various aristocratic families. These families, who mostly enjoyed great hereditary wealth and social privilege, were at the top of a rigid socioeconomic class hierarchy that was based on heredity. People generally inherited their parents' social class, which influenced most aspects of a human being's life. The education, work, and marriage opportunities available to people depended chiefly on their social class. Yet class was not the same as merit: as Streckfuss's writing shows, there are "good" and "bad" members of every class.

Streckfuss himself belonged to the professional class. He had some inherited wealth from his father, but was educated as an agricultural administrator. His love for farming, and his appreciation of the science behind it, is evident in the rural settings he selects for his books. Although he flirted in radical politics in his youth-- Streckfuss did not become a novelist until later in life-- he eventually recognized that his literary talents were more suited to novels than to polemic. His later works, particularly "The Star Tavern", are recognized as being among the earliest and most influential contributions to the German mystery novel tradition that later inspired English mystery authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Most of Streckfuss's novels have a few components of mystery, such as a secret or information about a crime that are known to some of the characters but not others.

Streckfuss's novels were popular partly because, like his contemporary Victor Hugo, he wrote in what is known as a "Romantic" style. His characters were not perfect or ideal by any means, and many of them had flaws, but there was always a clear hero or heroine and clear antagonists. He did not attempt to portray people, places, or events in a realistic way and tended to exaggerate both positive and negative traits of his characters. "Quicksands", a romance featuring some components of adventure, offers a peek into the upper-class society that was familiar to Streckfuss socially and professionally.

Many of Streckfuss's characters live in a stylized, slightly sanitized world filled with pathos. Today his novels would be regarded as escapism, but they were extremely successful because they provided a necessary contrast to what, to many, was a frightening and unstable reality. The world was changing at a breakneck pace, and during his lifetime Streckfuss witnessed the rise of the steam engine, the telegraph, and the development of democracy. Economic power was shifting inexorably from the titled nobility to the business-owning and professional class despite significant reactionary pressure from the elite. Literacy was increasing even in the lower working classes, and thanks to the development and spread of printing presses there was a lot of demand for escapist literature.

"Quicksands" was published in 1884 and immediately translated into multiple languages including English. It found an eager audience on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States, having just survived the Civil War and Reconstruction, was in the middle of its "robber baron" era. The old-money elite, many of whom could trace their ancestry back to some of the original founders of the nation, were losing ground to a fashionable new group of people whose wealth, earned through banking, mining, and speculation, was creating both opportunity and social upheaval. Meanwhile, the expanding middle class was hungry for a stylized and romanticized depiction of a hereditary aristocracy.

Some of the attitudes and perspectives depicted in Streckfuss's writing were due to widespread biases and prejudices that, while offensive to a modern reader, were very common in his day. The occasional derogatory statement passed unchallenged by his contemporary readers, but would be controversial today particularly after the tragedies of World War I and World War II. The fact that Streckfuss's views as expressed in his novels were common at the time does not make them correct: in fact his use of stereotypes occasionally weakens his work.

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