Georg Forster was born near Danzig and was the oldest of seven children. His father, Johann Reinhold Forster, was a village pastor and played a pivotal role in the younger Forster’s life. In 1765 Forster’s father received from the St. Petersburg Academy of Science the coveted assignment to travel 4000 kilometers to the German colony along the Volga River, where he was to study the geography, geology, and natural conditions of the region. For the young Forster, who accompanied his father, this experience represented an incomparable early opportunity to observe the relations existing among science, nature, and history. Unfortunately, rightful recognition and compensation for this journey remained mired in the feudal bureaucracy of St. Petersburg. Forster Sr. moved his family to London in 1766, where in the following 12, years the young Forster helped his father with translation work amid economic misery and squalor.
It was at this stage in Forster’s development that a momentous adventure once again presented itself in the form of the famous second circumnavigation of the globe by Captain James Cook. England’s burgeoning capitalism required new sources of raw materials and production and new markets, along with the knowledge to find and develop them. Such a voyage of discovery was undertaken once again in 1772 by Cook in his ship Resolution and Forster’s father received a commission as ship’s scientist. He was also granted permission to bring along his son Georg.
The three-year voyage, the longest in history, included visits to Antarctica, the Pacific, and Tahiti. Upon his return to England, the 23-year-old Forster immediately combined the experiences of the voyage with personal interpretations. The resulting essay A Voyage Round the World (1777) proved to be an intellectual deepening of the literary form of the travel essay, taking on board the philosophy of the 18th century.
As a travel essay, Voyage continues the search for new human existence beyond the scientific findings it reports. Rather than a series of conclusive findings, it functions as an open-ended search for and understanding of these conclusions. While facts make up the surface, human questions underlie the text. Moreover, Forster does not fall victim to sentimental Romanticism or Rousseauism; rather he seeks to explain individual qualities and traits and to integrate them into an historical framework.
Upon returning to Germany in 1778, Forster found that his long absence had rendered him a virtual foreigner in his native land. Yet it was precisely his lengthy stays in Russia and England and his sea voyage that gave him a broad perspective and an open mind.
Forster continued to expand his circle of friends and acquaintances. Perhaps most productive of these was his friendship and collaboration with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, with whom he coedited the literary magazine Göttingisches Magazin (1780– 85), where Forster published a dozen or so essays. Essays such as “O-Tahiti” (1783) and “Cook, der Entdecker” (1787; Cook, the discoverer) demonstrate the continuing influence of the Cook voyage. These travel and science essays again emphasize the meaning of science, the search for truth, and the philosophy of life in a synthesizing treatment of nature, science, and history. It was the human face of science and the possibility of social perfectibility in an historical process that characterized Forster’s contribution to the Göttingisches Magazin.
After a disappointing teaching stint in Vilnius, Lithuania, Forster returned to Germany in 1787 and in 1788 accepted a position as bibliographer in Mainz. It was here that he wrote the famous “Über Leckereyen” (1788; On sweets) in which he explored issues of nature and culture from the perspective of taste, both palatal and aesthetic. Eschewing both the moralidealist and the physical-materialist traditions, this essay postulates the central theme of human perfectibility through culture, as well as an enlightenedprogressive organization of society. At this time Forster also penned his “History of English Literature” (1789), an inquiry written in English into the relationship between a nation’s literature and its politics and economics.
In 1789, on the eve of the momentous events in France, Forster, accompanied by the 21-year-old Alexander von Humboldt, undertook another epic journey, producing his best-known travel essay, Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich (1791–94; Views of the Lower Rhine, of Brabant, Flanders, Holland, England, and France). The title Ansichten (Views) is deliberately ambiguous, referring both to objects and to reflection or opinion. By traveling outside of Germany— particularly through Holland, site of the first successful bourgeois revolution—Forster began to understand the connections between the rise of the bourgeoisie and the rise of industry and trade. As a travel essay, the Ansichten remains sketchy, open, associative, and digressive, combining literary forms such as letter, report, treatise, polemic, and meditation, all in a personal, conversational tone.
The final phase of Forster’s life was engulfed by the French Revolution and marked his abandonment of bourgeois-humanistic enlightenment in favor of revolutionary-bourgeois democracy. Following the events of 1789 with interest and, later, the rise of the Jacobins with sympathy, Forster was drawn into the midst of the revolutionary debate, not least because he resided in Mainz, which was conquered in 1792 by the French forces.
Demonstrating ever more strongly his willingness and enthusiasm for moving from theoretical enlightenment to revolutionary practice, Forster joined the “Society of Friends for Freedom and Equality” and called for political allegiance to France and the Revolution.
After the Parisian National Commune declared Mainz an independent republic in 1793, Forster felt that its survival was possible only if Mainz joined France. He was accordingly one of three representatives who traveled to Paris to petition for admittance to the French state. The petition was successful but irrelevant, for the very day Forster delivered his speech before the National Commune, the counterrevolutionary army of Prussia reconquered the Rhineland. After four months the Republic of Mainz ceased to be.
As a traitor, Forster had a price of 100 ducats placed on his head. His actions were radically unique for German history, in that he completed the transition from revolutionary writing to revolutionary action.
Johann Georg Adam Forster. Born 27 November 1754 in Nassenhuben, near Danzig (now Gdańsk). As a child traveled to Russia, 1765, and later lived in London.
Accompanied his father on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas, 1772–75.
Professor of natural history, Collegium Carolinum, Kassel, 1778–84, and University of Vilnius, 1784–86. Coeditor, Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Literatur, 1780–85; contributor to Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen, Der Teutsche Merkur (The German Mercury), and other periodicals. Married Therese Heyne, 1785 (she deserted him, 1792): two daughters (two others died in infancy). Librarian at the University of Mainz, 1788. Supported the French Revolution; representative of the Mainz Republicans, Paris, 1793, and outlawed in Germany. Died (of complications arising from scurvy; possibly of a stroke) in Paris, 10 January 1794.
Essays and Related Prose
A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty’s Sloop, Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, During the Years 1772, 3, 4, and 5, 2 vols., 1777
Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich im April, Mai und Junius, 3 vols., 1791–94
Ausgewählte kleine Schriften, edited by Albert Leitzmann, 1894
Tagebücher, edited by Paul Zincke and Albert Leitzmann, 1914
Ausgewählte Schriften, edited by Rudolf Leonhard, 1928
Kleine Schriften und Briefe, edited by Claus Träger, 1964
Über die Beziehung der Staatskunst auf das Glück der Menschheit und andere Schriften, edited by Wolfgang Rödel, 1966
Schriften zu Natur, Kunst, Politik, edited by Karl Otto Conrady, 1971
Other writings: books on botany, and correspondence. Also translated Kalidasa’s Sakontala from Sanskrit.
Collected works editions: Sämtliche Schriften, edited by G.G. Gervinus, 9 vols., 1843;
Werke (Germany Academy of Science Edition), 18 vols., 1958–82; Werke, edited by Gerhard Steiner, 4 vols., 1967–70.
Fiedler, Horst, Georg-Forster-Bibliographie, 1767–1970, Berlin: Akademischer-Verlag, 1971
Bodi, Leslie, “Georg Forster: The ‘Pacific Expert’ of EighteenthCentury Germany,” Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand 32 (1959):345–63
Döppe, Friedrich, Forster in Mainz, Berlin: Aufbau, 1987 (original edition, 1956)
Gordon, Joseph Stuart, Reinhold and Georg Forster in England (dissertation), Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, 1975
Kersten, Kurt, Der Weltumsegler: Johann Georg Adam Forster, 1754–1794, Frankfurton- Main: Europäische, 1957
Rödel, Wolfgang, Forster und Lichtenberg, Berlin: Rütten & Loenig, 1960
Steiner, Gerhard, Georg Forster, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1977
Thoma, Friedrich M., Georg Forster: Weltreisender, Forscher, Revolutionär, Berlin: Neues Leben, 1954
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