Thomas Mann was a prolific essayist, but hardly a great one. Given the prominence which discursive characters and narrators enjoy in his fiction, it is not surprising that throughout his long creative life he published essays in propria persona, sometimes on his own initiative, more often in response to invitations and commissions. These writings have never won the degree of recognition achieved by his imaginative works, for two main reasons.
The first is the prodigious self-centeredness of his imagination and intellect. Mann had an astonishingly limited set of basic preoccupations, rooted in his personal experience as a pathologically insecure, crypto-homosexual artist, hopelessly enamored of the professional solidity, social forms, and material comforts of the haute bourgeoisie. In his novels and stories, historical and social materials that had initially attracted him as allegorical vehicles for his idiosyncratic interests gained a density and momentum of their own as he wove them into narrative. The movement of his creative imagination was expansive: though the initial impetus always came from that narrow range of intimate concerns, the finished fictions engaged him, and have continued to engage readers across the globe, in worlds much broader and richer than his private preoccupations. When Mann took up the pen as an essayist, however, the movement tended to be in the opposite direction. He might indeed start with a subject at some remove from his private concerns; but inexorably, and sometimes with almost embarrassing swiftness, he managed to ignore or slough off all aspects of his theme which were not amenable to being used, or misused, as vehicles for his egregious lifelong fascination with his own problematic identity.
The second impediment to achievement as an essayist is embedded in the German cultural tradition itself. As a result of complex social and political pressures, German intellectual discourse since the Enlightenment has been marked by a cult of earnestness, which starved it of two of the chief nutrients on which the essay form thrived elsewhere: urbane wit and evenly matched polemic. Perhaps the most revealing of all Mann’s essays is one he labored at during the first decade of the century, but never managed to finish, for which his working title was Geist und Kunst. Kunst, of course, means “art”; but the first word (meant here to be the antithesis of Kunst) revealingly resists simple translation.
In English, Geist means “spirit” or “mind” or “wit”; in French it is, apparently more straightforwardly, esprit. But where for a French essayist, displaying esprit unproblematically involves showing both penetration and agility of mind, a German writer with too light a touch has scant chance of being taken seriously. Mann’s working notes for the Geist und Kunst project show him wrestling uncomfortably and, as always, self-consciously, with the notion that any intellectual dimension in a writer, whether visible in wit, analysis, or simple discursiveness, jeopardizes true artistic achievement.
The writer who is in thrall to Geist, according to one strand in Mann’s tangled drafts, is condemned to be a mere Schriftsteller, a scribbler who is doubtless entertaining to the trivial-minded, but who is debarred from the depths of intuitive insight and heights of national acclaim which belong to the Kunstler unviolated by Geist. Mann was unusual in his time and place, not for entertaining this line of thought, but for being uneasy enough about it to be unable to carry his essay through to completion. For most of Mann’s
German contemporaries, writing that even gestured toward the ambience of French cultural urbanity belonged in a compartment signaled as suspiciously alien by the adoption of the word feuilleton to label it; and when Hermann Hesse, in Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game), sought for a term to epitomize the alleged intellectual and moral triviality of zoth-century European culture, he chose “das feulletonistische Zeitalter,” the Age of the Feuilleton or, as we might not too audaciously gloss it, the Era of the Essay.
The other distinctive dimension of the essay in other European countries and in America, its role in shaping opinion and policy through polemical exchange, was also impeded by distinctively German factors. There have been essay writers of great polemical gusto and talent in the German tradition: among others, Lessing, Heine, Nietzsche, and (in Austria) Karl Kraus; but they were unable to foster a genuine polemical tradition, partly because they lacked opponents able to engage with them on their own level, but more seriously because there was no real culture of public argument to give such exchanges a significant context. Until after World War II, the notion that open debate on issues of central importance between opposing parties united in a common wish to advance the public good is a sign of political health was alien to most Germans. What passed for polemic was more often malicious denunciation designed to have the opponent silenced by the powers that be; and responses to polemical attacks frequently took the form, not of telling counter-arguments, but of effusive and selfpitying indignation. Such writings justly perish with their immediate occasions.
A preponderance of indignation over argument is unfortunately all too visible in the complex of essays which Mann wrote in response to World War I, above all in the rambling Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918; Reflections of a Nonpolitical Mari), where he belabors the contrast between Germanic “culture” and the decadent, commercial, technocratic “civilization” of the Western Allies. Even after Mann’s dramatic renunciation of reactionary politics, first proclaimed in “Von deutscher Republik” (1922; “The German Republic”), his political writings in defense of democracy and what he calls “humanity” are generally heavily laden with bien pensant rhetoric and rather short on clarity of analysis or subtlety of argument (which is not to belittle the singular importance of his public stand against Hitler as a political phenomenon in its own right, quite independent of the literary quality of the writings that expressed it). He wrote lengthy pieces on his intellectual and artistic mentors: Schopenhauer—“Schopenhauer” (1938); Wagner—”Leiden und Grosse Richard Wagners” (1933; “Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner”); and above all Nietzsche—“Nietzsches Philosophie im Lichte unserer Erfahrung” (1947; “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Recent History”); and in his later years he liked to bring a simplified version of the ideas of Freud to bear upon his main concerns—“Die Stellung Freuds in der modernen Geistesgeschichte” (1929; “Freud’s Position in the History of
Modern Thought”), “Freud und die Zukunft” (1936; “Freud and the Future”). His sustained attempts to live out what he called an imitatio Goethe were also partly conducted through a series of essays reinterpreting Goethe’s life in Mann’s own image— “Goethe und Tolstoi” (1925; “Goethe and Tolstoy”), “Goethes Laufbahn als Schriftsteller” (1932; “Goethe’s Career as a Man of Letters”), “Goethe und die Demokratie” (1949; “Goethe and Democracy”). Sadly, there is little in these writings that could be unreservedly recommended to someone seeking enlightenment about their ostensible subject matter. They provide ample insights into how Mann’s imagination worked, but they do so largely because they fail to meet broader expectations about what essays with titles like these should offer.
Paul Thomas Mann. Brother of the writer Heinrich Mann. Born 6 June 1875 in Liibeck.
Studied at a gymnasium in Liibeck, 1899–94. Worked for an insurance company, Munich, 1894–95; military service, 1898–99. Married Katja Pringsheim, 1905: three daughters and three sons. Forced into exile by the Nazi regime, 1933, living in Switzerland, 1933–38; deprived of German citizenship, 1936; lived in Princeton, New Jersey, 1938–40, Santa Monica, California, 1940–51, and Kilchberg, Switzerland, 1952– 55; became an American citizen, 1944.
Awards: Bauernfeld Prize, 1904; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1929; Goethe Prize, 1949; Feltrinelli Prize, 1952; honorary degrees from many American and European universities. Died in Zurich, 12 August 1955.
Essays and Related Prose
Friedrich und die grosse Koalition, 1915
Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, 1918; as Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, translated by Walter D.Morris, 1983
Rede und Antwort: Gesammelte Abhandlungen und kleine Aufsätze, 1922
Bemühungen: Neue Folge der Gesammelten Abhandlungen und kleinen Aufsätze, 1925
Three Essays, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, 1929
Die Forderung des Tages: Reden und Aufsätze aus den Jahren, 1925–1929, 1930
Past Masters and Other Papers, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, 1933
Leiden und Grösse der Meister: Neue Aufsdtze, 1935
Freud, Goethe, Wagner, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter and Rita Matthias-Reil, 1937
Achtung, Europa! Aufsätze zur Zeit, 1938
Dieser Friede, 1938; as This Peace, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, 1938
Dieser Krieg, 1940; as This War, translated by Eric Sutton, 1940
Deutsche Horer! 25 Radiosendungen nach Deutschland (radio broadcasts), 1942; as Listen, Germany! 25 Radio Messages to the German People over the BBC, 1943;
enlarged edition, as Deutsche Horer! 55 Radiosendungen nach Deutschland, 1945
Order of the Day: Political Essays and Speeches of Two Decades, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, Agnes E.Meyer, and Eric Sutton, 1942
Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der Humanität, 1945; enlarged edition, 1956
Essays of Three Decades, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, 1947
Neue Studien, 1948
The Thomas Mann Reader, edited by Joseph Warner Angell, 1950
Altes und Neues: Kleine Prosa aus fünf Jahrzehnten, 1953; revised edition, 1956
Versuch iiber Schiller, 1955
Nachlese: Prosa 1951–1955, 1956
Last Essays, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Tania and James Stern, and H.T.Lowe-Porter, 1959
Addresses Delivered at the Library of Congress, 1942–1949, 1963
Wagner und unsere Zeit: Aufsdtze, Betrachtungen, Briefe (collected writings on Wagner), edited by Erika Mann, 1963; as Pro and Contra Wagner, translated by Allan Blunden, 1985
Das essayistische Werk, edited by Hans Biirgin, 8 vols., 1968
Über deutsche Literatur: Ausgewdhlte Essays, Reden und Briefe, edited by Gerhard Steiner, 1968
Goethes Laufbahn als Schriftsteller: Zwölf Essays und Reden zu Goethe, 1982
Essays (in German), edited by Hermann Kurzke and Stefan Stachorski, 5 vols., 1993–(in progress)
Other writings: many novels (including Buddenbrooks, 1900; Der Zauberberg [The Magic Mountain], 1924; the Joseph tetralogy, 1933–43; Doktor Faustus, 1947;
Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull [Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man], 1954), novellas (including Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice], 1912), diaries, and many volumes of correspondence.
Collected works editions: Gesammelte Werke, 14 vols., 1974; Gesammelte Werke, edited by Peter de Mendelssohn, 13 vols., 1980–90.
Bürgin, Hans, Das Werk Thomas Manns: Eine Bibliographie, Frankfurt-on-Main: Fischer, 1959
Jonas, Klaus Werner, Fifty Years of Thomas Mann Studies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955
Jonas, Klaus Werner, and Ilsedore B.Jonas, Thomas Mann Studies, vol. 2, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967
Matter, Harry, Die Literatur iiber Thomas Mann: Eine Bibliographie 1898–1969, 2 vols., Berlin: Aufbau, 1972
Wenzel, Georg, Thomas Manns Briefwerk: Bibliographie gedruckter Briefe aus den Jahren, 1889–1955, Berlin: Akademie, 1969
Exner, Richard, “Zur Essayistik Thomas Manns,” GermanischRomanische Monatsschrift 43 (1962):51–78
Koelb, Clayton, editor, Thomas Mann’s “Goethe und Tolstoi”: Notes and Sources, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984
Lehnert, Herbert, Nihilismus der Menschenfreundlichkeit: Thomas Manns “Wandlung” und sein Essay “Goethe und Tolstoi”, Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1991
Prater, Donald, Thomas Mann: A Life, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Pütz, Peter, editor, Thomas Mann und die Tradition, Frankfurt-onMain: Athenäum, 1971
Siefken, Hinrich, Thomas Mann: Goethe—“Ideal der Deutschheit”: Wiederholte Spiegelungen 1983–1949, Munich: Fink, 1981
Siefken, Hinrich, “Der Essayist Thomas Mann,” in Text+Kritik: Sonderband Thomas Mann, Munich: Edition Text+Kritik, 1982: 132-47
Reed, Terence J., Thomas Mann: The Use of Tradition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974
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