Sunday, August 14, 2011

Peter Penzoldt

Peter Penzoldt (b. Munich, Germany, 18 January 1925; d. Geneva, Switzerland, 21 August 1969)

Peter Penzoldt was the son of Fritz Penzoldt (1888-1959) and the famous Wagnerian contralto Sigrid Onégin (1889-1943), whose first husband had been the great Russian impressario Eugen Borisowitsch Onégin (1888-1919). Fritz Penzoldt was a medical doctor who also wrote novels and who published, in 1939, a biography of his wife. His brother was Ernst Penzoldt (1892-1955), an artist, sculptor and writer, well-known in Germany. As a young boy Peter often stayed with his uncle while his mother was on tour. His family settled in Switzerland in the early 1930s.
The dust-wrapper of the 1952 first edition.
Peter Penzoldt’s doctoral thesis at the University of Geneva, The Supernatural in Fiction was written when he was twenty-four and published three years later; it was the major professional publication of his life. After receiving his degree, he taught for a year in Geneva, and married Rachel Vallette, with whom he had one daughter, Silviana.  He came to America in 1950, and taught for two years at San Francisco State College. In 1951 he became a naturalized American citizen.  The following year his thesis appeared in book form, and he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Classics and German at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.  In 1954 he moved to the Modern Language Department at Sweet Briar, where he remained for the rest of his life. After his father’s death, he donated a large collection of his mother’s songs, recordings, scores and books to the Sweet Briar College Library.  He became a full professor in 1962, and in 1965 The Supernatural in Fiction was reprinted by the Humanities Press of New York. Penzoldt died while visiting his wife’s family in Geneva in August 1969.
The Supernatural in Fiction was published by Peter Nevill of London on the recommendation of Algernon Blackwood, who had recently issued two books with Nevill, the omnibus Tales of the Uncanny and the Supernatural (in October 1949), and a new edition (adding photographs) of Blackwood’s autobiography, Episodes before Thirty (published March 1950).  The Supernatural in Fiction was dedicated to Blackwood, who had come to know Penzoldt in Switzerland in 1949, some months after they had begun corresponding. Sadly, Blackwood died in December 1951 before he could see the finished book, which appeared the following year.  A number of Blackwood’s letters to Penzoldt are quoted in the book, giving a valuable perspective and authority to the coverage of Blackwood’s writings. Penzoldt also gives credit for assistance to August Derleth, Edward Wagenknecht, and other noted anthologists, so he seems to have been particularly enterprising in his research, and the end-result is the better for his diligence. 
            Penzoldt’s approach to the genre was, for its time, unusually thorough, concentrating on English and American short stories.  His book is divided into two parts—the first covering the structure and motifs of supernatural stories, and the second devoted to specific practitioners, like Le Fanu, Kipling, M. R. James, and Walter de la Mare.  One chapter is devoted to Blackwood, whom Penzoldt called “the greatest of them all.” Machen and Lovecraft, among others, are covered in a chapter devoted to “The Pure Tale of Horror.”
Penzoldt’s book followed two other pioneering studies, The Supernatural in Modern Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough, and The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead.  All three books have flaws, but each contains material of value for the modern reader and critic of supernatural fiction.  Penzoldt has his own idiosyncrasies. He seems at times too technically analytic (though these details remain valuable), and seems at other times too Freudian, while his high-handed dismissal of stories containing descriptions of sadism, like Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast,” seems puritanical to the modern reader:  “How such tales can be constantly republished in the face of the laws against pornography is an unsolved mystery.”  Fortunately such critical lapses are not common, and Penzoldt closes with a more sensible affirmation:  “I wish most of all that this book should do something to affirm the dignity of the weird tale, that it should show that some of the best modern literature has appeared in this form” (p. 256).  These are sentiments with which most of Penzoldt’s readers will agree. 


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