Matt Erlin

Chair and 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

contact info:

office hours:

  • ​Monday 12:00 - 2:00 pm
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mailing address:

  • CB 1104
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899

​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 and currently serves as chair of the German department.

recent courses

Seminar in Cultural Theory: The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (German 529)

Have we ever been modern? In this survey of the intellectual history of the German-speaking world from early nineteenth century to the present, we will read works by some of the most influential figures in the German tradition, including Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Habermas, Arendt, and Hartmut Rosa. Our discussions will address a range of topics but will focus on the ways in which these thinkers conceive of "modernity" -- its promise and its perils, its origins and its others. We will consider the arguments of these thinkers both on their own terms and against the backdrop of the historical contexts in which they were written.

    German Literature & Culture: Constructing a German National Identity, 1789-1918 (German 4102)

    This course studies cultural expressions of German nationalism and the formation and cultivation of a German national identity from the collapse of Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire in the wake of Napoleon's armies (1805-06) to shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In our examination of imaginative literature, opera, national anthems, painting, public monumental art, essays, propaganda, and popular culture from this period we will seek to identify how each work is both a product and a producer of the moment in which it was created and will consider the differences in vision of the nation and national culture across the political spectrum. Of particular importance to our investigation will be the roles of men, women, and the family; language and other ethnic markers; heroism; the Prussian monarchy; the historical past; legends; geography; and armed conflict, foreign occupation, and the experience of defeat in cementing national identity. The course will focus on German-French relations insofar as these profoundly shaped conceptions of German national identity in the period.

      Advanced Vocabulary and Usage (German 403D)

      This twice-a-week workshop is designed for advanced undergraduate students wishing to improve their grasp of German vocabulary and usage. Through targeted exercises and discussion that address specific areas of difficulty for non-native speakers, students will learn to speak and write more elegantly and idiomatically. A rotating weekly focus will cover idiomatic expressions related to particular themes.

        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.