The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte

PETER SCHLEMIHLS WUNDERSAME GESCHICHTE. “The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl” by Adalbert von Chamisso — first published in Germany in 1814, in the United States in English translation in 1825 — is one of the most famous fairy-tales of German Romanticism. The fundamental idea, that a man can lose his shadow, Chamisso probably took from folk-lore and he made it a fascinating means of putting the reader in an atmosphere hovering between the real and the fantastic. The meaning which Chamisso gave to the shadow seems to be social repute, which men imperatively demand of each other without testing it for its true value. Schlemihl, a Hebrew name, originally meaning friend of God, Theophilus, was also used euphemistically by the Jews for a man who is denied all success in the world. Our Peter Schlemihl exchanges his shadow for the gold sack of Fortunatus, but only to fall a victim to unhappiness very soon, since men withdraw from him on account of his defect and he himself becomes involved in guilt. Yet when the devil wants to return his shadow to him in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl, as the friend of God, rejects the proposal and throws away the magic gold sack besides. He seeks refuge in nature and travels about the world in seven-league boots. When overtaken with sickness he is reconciled with his fellow-men who take care of him and in his sickness do not look for his shadow. Finally, however, he returns to his studies of nature and finds his deepest satisfaction in communion with her and his own better self.

Undoubtedly ‘The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl’ contains features and experiences of Chamisso's own, but the poet himself protested against carrying the comparison between him and the hero of his story too far. Consult edition in ‘Deutsche National-Literatur’ (1882-98, Vol. 148, with excellent introduction and references); English translation in ‘German Classic’ (Vol. V).