Herman Friedrich Grimm was the second son of Wilhelm, the younger of the famous Grimm Brothers. He grew up in a world of profuse learning, which comprised both the traditional “philological” disciplines and the sciences of the naturalist, and which valued exacting rigor as much as the inventiveness of the poetic imagination. He was introduced early in life to prominent public figures whose patriotism expressed itself in a commitment to civic welfare and to the ideals of constitutional liberalism. Grimm’s education under the guidance of a private tutor, Leopold von Ranke, was free of coercion. Subsequent studies at the reform Universities of Berlin and Bonn seem to have destined him for a career in law and diplomacy. He chose literature instead, but became increasingly frustrated when his poems and plays (conventional historical dramas and social comedies) and a three volume “conversational novel” Unüberwindliche Mächte (1867; Unvanquishable powers) proved to be less than successful. His solution to this dilemma was an extended trip in 1857 to the venues of Italian classical and Renaissance culture, from which he returned with an abiding interest in art history. He also brought back enough material for a biography of Michelangelo, the factual and intuitive description of how a great genius lived as a dominating force “in the history and culture of his time, the efflorescence of art in Florence and Rome.” It both exemplified a new vision of the artist as a heroic creator of his age, and developed a new style of making that artist comprehensible to an appreciative posterity—that of the artistic essay.
It is not quite accurate historically to credit Grimm with introducing the term “essay” into the German literary vocabulary and to single him out as the first major practitioner of this new “short” form of nonfictional prose. In this respect Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel had preceded him by some 60 years. But he created a new style of essay writing, and he was the person most instrumental in gaining popular acceptance for a genre that, in contrast to the erudite study, the academic disquisition, or the empirical analysis, could capture a different spirit of inquiry and incorporate a changing attitude toward learning, insight, and information. Acknowledging his debt to the inspirational example of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom he had dedicated his first collection of II Essays (1859) “with cordial admiration,” he states retrospectively in 1890 that “the real essay nowadays has to deal with something generally understandable and do so quickly, fluently, and as a sequence of individually focused insights,” which have emerged from many-sided investigations “as suggestive samplings rather than in their all-inclusive completeness.”
Each particular essay, as one chapter in the accumulating variety of the ideal book, is also like “a summarizing preface to an unwritten book.” Grimm’s style of controlled improvisation—open, associative, digressing, and without firm conclusions—made him an influential mediator in the cultural sphere of his generation. It is a way of writing that is altogether consonant with the aestheticism that dominated the world view of Germany’s upper bourgeoisie in the era of Bismarck. This philosophy of culture, and indeed this perception of life as culture, cherished the great art of the past as representative of a higher realm of timeless values—separate from everyday existence, grandiosely independent of sociopolitical pressures, immune from forces outside their own compass. The freedom this art exemplifies is freedom from pragmatic obligations, especially from those of party politics. Against the partiality of arguments advanced in favor of special interests, the retreat into art led to an almost abstract idealism. An aesthetic orientation of this kind complemented an optimistic faith in progress with stability, in the preservation of privileges and hierarchies, in the benevolent but firm execution of power. It did not encourage the development of a modern political will or create opportunities for the exercise of civil rights. Instead, it reserved the realm of liberating enterprise to the free play of artistic creativity and its congenial contemplation.
Thus the masterworks of the visual arts and literature incorporate the eternal verities tha a secularized consciousness no longer found in religious truth. Such works are valuable in their own right and exist for no other but their own sake, devoid of alien purpose and ultimately inexplicable. The “new” essay is their perfect messenger: as literary art it is there for the sake of literature and art. It is a product of the empathic inspiration.
For Grimm all of this meant an obligation to preserve the cultural heritage of classicist humanism that he found personified, so far as the German people’s “national creative imagination” is concerned, in Goethe. More even than his three other “ideal figures”— Homer, Raphael, and Michelangelo—he used the Weimar Olympian to illustrate how genius works as a historical force. He returned to Goethe at all stages of his life, in a large variety of essays and most notably in the 25 lectures he gave in 1874–75 (published as Goethe in 1876–77) as the first professor of aesthetics and modern art history at a German university, that of Berlin. It is both the rich life of the exceptional individual and his widely productive impact on his age and on posterity that inspired Grimm’s admiring, even worshipful, and indeed mythicizing attitude. His style of presentation, committed though it is to making complicated vital processes understandable, does not sacrifice subtlety. On the contrary, his lectures are crafted so carefully as to be spoken essays.
Grimm assimilated the characteristic features of Goethe’s own language as an expression of continuity through legitimate stewardship. His emphatic concern is with an everdeveloping life and with the time upon which it has left its imprint; therefore he pays scant attention to the analysis of specific works or characters or to the creative transformation by which life is changed into art.
Rather, Grimm seeks to re-create the ambience of openminded sociability and cosmopolitan liberality that he knows to be an ideal construct, even as he imbues it with a discreet personal flavor. In other words, it is his own experiences and insights that bridge historical distances and societal differences. They also stimulate an interchange between the things to be apprehended and the reader’s own subjectivity through which they are being refracted. This approach runs counter to the spirit of the Critical and Historical Essays (1843) of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Grimm expressed admiration for them, to be sure, but he criticized their author for letting his material (rather than his opinions of it) direct and dominate the discussion. Thus Grimm’s affinity is more with Matthew Arnold and Emerson. The latter especially he praised as a contemplative observer who “sees in every thing the direct line that connects it with the center of life” (1861, in the essay on Emerson that is included in Neue Essays of 1865).
Grimm published his essays discriminately in the leading conservative periodicals— Menzel’s Literaturblatt (Literary page), Vossische Zeitung (Voss’ newspaper), Haym’s Preussische Jahrbücher (Prussian yearbooks), Julius Rodenberg’s Deutsche Rundschau (German review)—or as introductions to books he liked. He then collected his work with
almost predictable regularity and, from 1874, in an unchanging format. That year his Neue Essays über Kunst und Literatur (1865; New essays on art and literature) appeared in an augmented edition of some 500 pages under the title of Fünfzehn Essays (Fifteen essays). Three more collections (1875, 1882, 1890) of 15 essays followed, and finally three volumes of Fragmente (1900 and 1902). Each single book is so arranged as to form a variegated entity of complementary segments and is in turn expanded in the manner of concentric circles by its subsequent companion pieces. When taken all together, they form what Klaus Günther Just (in Von der Gründerzeit biz zur Gegenwart, 1973) has called an “essayistic cosmos in miniature.”
The collection of 1874 can serve as a typical example of how one part of this harmonious order was put together. Its table of contents lists essays on Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Macaulay, Goethe in Italy, Schiller and Goethe, Goethe and his Elective Affinities, Goethe and Suleika (i.e. his beloved Marianne von Willemer, who had befriended Grimm late in life), Goethe and Luise Seidler, Heinrich von Kleist’s burial place, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, Alexander von Humboldt, Schleiermacher (a review of Dilthey’s unfinished book), Herr von Varnhagen’s diaries, (the literary historian) Georg Gervinus, Dante and the latest struggles in Italy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Grimm presents these personages as topics in the manner of a Socratic conversation in which he himself slips into many roles and tries out any number of perspectives feigning objections, comparing, introducing private recollections, quoting with approval and reserve, embellishing his thoughts with metaphorical flourishes and imagined confessions, shifting from sensual immediacy to theoretical reasoning and interpretive summary. Always, however, he comes back to his personal opinions, sometimes casually, later on more sententiously and with the phrases of conventional wisdom.
Grimm abhorred the pedantry of historicist positivism which defined the professional ethic of his academic colleagues. But his own epigonic conservatism and his lack of interest in the living arts of his time had become a serious liability by the 1880s. More and more he wrote necrologies and commemorative appreciations (including reflections on statues and tombs), conceding that he had run out of worthy subjects and finding it difficult to enter into any current debate with his earlier enthusiastic devotion. Time had overtaken him—but not forever. During the 1940s he was rediscovered by those educated burghers who sought refuge from barbarism once again in the refined consolations of their classicist heritage.
Born 6 January 1828 in Kassel. Tutored privately by Leopold von Ranke; studied law and philology at the Universities of Berlin and Bonn. Married Gisela von Arnim, 1870.
Professor of the history of modern art, University of Berlin, from 1873. Awards: honorary degree from Harvard University. Died in Berlin, 16 June 1901.
Essays and Related Prose
Die Venus von Milo; Rafael und Michel Angelo, 1864; first essay as The Venus of Milo, translated by Alice M.Hawes, 1868
Neue Essays über Kunst und Literatur, 1865; enlarged edition, as Fünfzehn Essays: Erste Folge, 1874
Zehn ausgewählte Essays zur Einführung in das Studium der neueren Kunst, 1871; revised edition, 1883
Fünfzehn Essays: Neue Folge, 1875
Goethe, 2 vols., 1876–77; edited by Wilhelm Hansen, 1948; as Das Leben Goethes, edited by Reinhard Buchwald, 1939; as The Life and Times of Goethe, translated by Sarah Holland Adams, 1880
Fünfzehn Essays: Dritte Folge, 1882
Essays on Literature, translated by Sarah Holland Adams, 1885; as Literature, 1886
Fünfzehn Essays: Vierte Folge: Aus den letzten fünf Jahren, 1890
Beiträge zur deutschen Culturgeschichte, 1897
Fragmente, 3 vols., 1900–02
Aufsätze zur Kunst, edited by Reinhold Steig, 1915
Aufsätze zur Literatur, edited by Reinhold Steig, 1915
Deutsche Künstler: Sieben Essais, edited by Reinhold Buchwald, 1942
Essays, edited by Rolf Welz, 1964
Other writings: plays, poetry, a novel, biographies of Michelangelo (1860–63) and Raphael (1886), and correspondence (including with Ralph Waldo Emerson).
Berger, Bruno, Der Essay: Form und Geschichte, Berne: Francke, 1964
Haas, Gerhard, Essay, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1969
Hiebel, Friedrich, “Ralph Waldo Emerson und Herman Grimm,” in his Biographik und Essayistik: Zur Geschichte der schönen Wissenschaften, Berne and Munich: Francke, 1970:97–120
Jenkel, Gertrud, Herman Grimm als Essayist (dissertation), Hamburg: University of Hamburg, 1948
Rohner, Ludwig, Der deutsche Essay: Materialien zur Geschichte und Ästhetik einer literarischen Gattung, Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1966
Strasser, René, Herman Grimm: Zum Problem des Klassizismus, Zurich: Atlantis, 1972
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