The German novelist and essayist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was perhaps the most influential and representative German author of his time.
Born in the free Hanseatic city of Lübeck on the Baltic Sea, the second son of a north German patrician merchant and senator in the city government, Thomas Mann often stressed his twofold heritage: his South American mother, from Rio de Janeiro, was the daughter of a German planter who had emigrated to Brazil and married a woman of Portuguese-Creole origin.
Mann's family can be compared to that of the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, leading poet-critics in German romanticism: his elder brother Heinrich was an outstanding novelist and essayist. A younger brother, Viktor, a civil servant in Germany, made a name for himself as author of an important family chronicle, Wir waren fünf (1948). Two of Mann's six children, Erika and Klaus, were talented writers in their own right, and his son Golo was a noted historian.
As a pupil of the "Katherineum" in Lübeck, Mann hated school. Devoted to music and above all to writing, at the age of 17 he edited a school periodical, Frühlingssturm (Spring Storm), in which his first prose and poetry appeared under the pseudonym Paul Thomas.
After the death of her husband and the liquidation of the family's grain business, Senator Mann's widow moved to Munich. Thomas, however, remained at school in Lübeck until he passed the qualifying exam for the 1-year military service certificate. When he finally joined his mother, two sisters, and younger brother in Munich in 1894, he worked briefly as a clerk in an insurance company. There he wrote his first story, Gefallen (Fallen), published in the avant-garde naturalistic monthly Die Gesellschaft. Soon the young author gave up his job and, under the pretense of becoming a journalist, attended lectures at the university without formally enrolling as a student. For a while he was a member of the editorial staff of the satiric magazine Simplicissimus, in which his next story, Der Wille zum Glück (The Will to Happiness), appeared.
In 1895 Mann joined his brother Heinrich in Italy, and together they spent most of the next 3 years in Rome and Palestrina. Isolated from Italian society, he read voluminously, mostly Scandinavian, French, and Russian literature. It was here that he began writing the novel which climaxed this first phase of his literary career, Buddenbrooks. While he was living in Rome, Mann's first book, Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1898), a collection of naturalistic short stories, was published by S. Fischer in Berlin. These sharply drawn, youthful narratives are variations of a single theme; they deal, for the most part, with the "marked" man, the isolated individual, the artist and his relationship to life. These stories foreshadow many characteristics of Mann's later works: dualism, or the divided mind; the opposition of spirit to life; and the resulting antithesis of artist and bourgeois. Also evident here is his frequent and effective use of the leitmotiv, which calls to mind his admired masters, Theodor Fontane and Richard Wagner. In these stories of his youth the leitmotiv is handled in a more obvious, mechanical way than in his later work, where it is applied with far greater subtlety.
Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice
Most representative of the work from Mann's first stage as a writer (1896-1906) was his first novel, Buddenbrooks. Originally envisioned as a brief novel of some 250 pages, to be written jointly with his brother Heinrich, it was executed by Thomas alone and assumed massive proportions. It appeared in 1901 and became a best seller both at home and abroad. Again, the technique of the linguistic leitmotiv is present, but this time it is lifted from the external, mechanical basis into the musical sphere.
Written in the tradition of the Scandinavian genealogical novel, Buddenbrooks gives a broad account of the rise and fall, through several generations, of a fictitious Hanseatic family, patterned after that of the author, and immediately calls to mind John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, with which it has much in common. The first two generations, who created the family wealth, are sturdy and aggressive burghers, and for their bourgeois code, their rigorous ethical standards, Mann shows profound respect. Only the last two generations are marked by decadence, both physical and mental, but they, at the same time, show increased intellectual gifts and greater artistic sensibility. The fourth generation is represented by little Hanno, a pathetic, sickly, neurotic boy whose only love is his music. With his death at the age of 16, the once distinguished family comes to an end.
After Buddenbrooks came Tristan (1902), a parody of Wagner's opera, set in an Alpine sanatorium. Mann's next work, his most lyrical artist's story, Tonio Kröger, (1903), exceeded even Buddenbrooks in popularity. It deals with a gifted writer, Tonio Kröger, from north Germany, again a marked man isolated from his environment, and his unrequited love for Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm, who represent the blond and the beautiful, the normal and bourgeois world.
In February 1905 Mann married Katharina (Katja) Pringsheim, the daughter of a famous Munich mathematician. The first fruit of his marriage was a fairy tale, or light comedy, in the form of a novel, Königliche Hoheit (1909; Royal Highness). Marking the beginning of his second stage as a writer, this book reveals an optimism thus far unknown in Thomas Mann's work. Decadence, Mann now believed, could be overcome, and a synthesis of life and art could be attained.
A visit to the Lido in May 1911 provided the raw material for Mann's most complex novella, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice). A series of sinister circumstances and strange impressions almost immediately suggested to him the basis for this story, which truly reflects Mann's preoccupation with the irrationalism of Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Its hero, Gustav von Aschenbach (resembling, in some ways, the composer Gustav Mahler), is a fictitious German writer in his early 50s whose self-discipline makes him what Mann calls a Leistungsethiker, a man who has sacrificed everything for the sake of achievement. Having suppressed his emotions for too long, he goes on a trip to Venice, ignoring all warnings not to visit the cholera-infected city. It is not cholera, however, but Italy itself which disintegrates his carefully calculated self-control. He is obsessed by a homoerotic love for 14-year-old Tadzio, who represents both death and Apollonian beauty, but he excuses his passion on the grounds of classical precedent and Nietzche's conception of Dionysian Greece. Death comes to him, finally, as he sits in a deck chair on the beach, looking out to the sea and longing for the boy.
The Magic Mountain
A 3-week stay in a Davos sanatorium during the summer of 1912 gave Mann the impetus for his next book, Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain), the highlight of the second phase of his career (1912-1933). His first major novel since Buddenbrooks, this work attempts to overcome the dualism that had marked Mann's youthful stories and to reconcile the enmity of life and spirit that dominated those works. It deals with the intellectual development of an ordinary young man who spends 7 years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland, against a broad panorama of European society in the 7 years preceding World War I.
Hans Castorp, the simpleminded hero, stands between two men engaged in an ideological battle: an Italian humanist and liberal, Settembrini, a champion of reason and life who believes in progress, and Naphta, a Polish Jew turned Jesuit, representing the nonrational forces, who combines a fervent belief in Catholicism with Marxist doctrines. A third "educator," introduced toward the end of the book, is a Dutch planter from Indonesia, Mynheer Peeperkorn, who, anything but an intellectual, impresses Hans through the power of his personality, which is patterned after dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann.
Der Zauberberg is largely a romantic book, a book about the "sympathy with death," and in the author's own words, Hans Castorp's dream, his vision of the good life, could not have appeared in any of his previous works. While lost in the mountains (in the chapter "Snow"), Hans dreams that "for the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts." Surely, this is an impossible dream, either in the alpine sanatorium with its eccentric patients or down in the flatland of bourgeois triviality from which Hans has come. In the end he accepts life and, when the war breaks out, returns to his homeland, leaving the sheltered atmosphere of the magic mountain for military service, only to meet his death on a battlefield in Flanders.
Until World War I Mann's tastes and cultural tradition had been those of a nationalist and a German patriot, and he was convinced of the superiority of its authoritarian constitution over the democratic institutions of France and England. During the years 1914-1918 he interrupted his work on the novel Der Zauberberg to embark upon "war service with the weapon of thought." In a series of highly introspective essays, examining the very foundations of his own philosophy, he presented a vigorous defense of the German Reich (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, 1918; Reflections of an Unpolitical Man). But when this book appeared, Mann was already evolving from a romantic conservative to a believer in democracy who was to become a champion of the Weimar Republic. With his speech honoring Hauptmann on his sixtieth birthday, on Nov. 15, 1922, Von deutscher Republik, the process of his transformation was complete, and for the next 10 years, the decisive period of his second, or middle, phase, he was the spokesman of the Weimar Republic.
Mann's first works published after the 1918 armistice are largely autobiographical: Gesang vom Kindchen (The Song of a Child), written in hexameter and dealing with the birth and baptism of his youngest daughter, and Herr und Hund (Bashan and I), an account of his life in Munich with his dog, Bashan (both published in 1919). Two of his finest novellas were written in that decade: Unordnung und frühes Leid (1925; Disorder and Early Sorrow), an affectionately ironic, melancholic treatment of the relations between the generations in a middleclass German family in Munich in the 1920s and the moral and social confusion which resulted from the chaotic inflation of values in postwar Germany, and Mario und der Zauberer (1930; Mario and the Magician), a "tragedy of travel with moral and political implications," as Mann himself called it. Again largely autobiographical, Mario presents a terrifying picture of the rise of fascism in Italy and clearly warns against its dangers. Cipolla, the hypnotist who is shot to death by Mario, the goodnatured waiter whose human dignity he has outraged, stands symbolically for Mussolini, and his end foreshadows that of the dictator in 1945.
In 1929 Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. As early as 1930 he warned publicly against the dangers of Hitler and his followers in his courageous philippic against the Nazis, Appell an die Vernunft (An Appeal to Reason).
On Feb. 10, 1933, Mann delivered a lecture in Munich on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner (Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners; The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner), and the next day he left Germany with his wife to repeat his lecture in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, a trip from which he was not to return for 16 years. Finding himself a voluntary exile from Nazi Germany, Mann spent the summer in southern France and settled in Küsnacht, near Zurich, where he remained until 1938. He attacked the Nazi regime in an open letter published by the Neue Züriche Zeitung on Feb. 3, 1936. Soon the Nazis deprived him of his German citizenship and banned his books, and the University of Bonn withdrew the honorary doctorate awarded him shortly after World War I.
Mann's reply became his best-known political tract, the famous Letter to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of Bonn, published early in 1937. As a further manifestation of his political engagement, he founded in 1937 a literary magazine devoted to the ideals of the "Third Humanism": Mass und Wert (Measure and Value), edited in cooperation with Konrad Falke and published in Zurich until 1940. In 1938 Mann and his family emigrated to the United States. For 2 1/2 years they lived in Princeton, N.J., where he served as a lecturer in the humanities at the university. In 1941 he moved to southern California, built a home in Pacific Palisades outside Los Angeles, and became one of a colony of German and Austrian exiles which included, in addition to his brother Heinrich, Lion Feuchtwanger, Bruno Frank, Lotte Lehmann, Erich Maria Remarque, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, and Franz Werfel. In 1944 he became an American citizen.
During the war years Mann's life was filled with numerous activities: he was actively engaged in helping refugees from Europe through the Emergency Rescue Committee; he served as a consultant in Germanic literature for the Library of Congress; he lectured in many American cities and appealed to the German people over the British Broadcasting Corporation. Whatever time was left, he devoted to his literary work. At Princeton, he completed a "Goethe novel," Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns), relating the historic visit of Charlotte Kestner to Weimar in 1816, 44 years after the love affair which had become common knowledge through the European success of Goethe's Werther.
During the first 2 California years Mann completed his gigantic Joseph cycle, on which he had been working, with interruptions, since 1926. At that time he had found in the story of Joseph a theme embracing, as he called it, "the typical, the eternally human, eternally recurring, timeless—in short, the mythical." Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers), his version of the biblical story, was to become his greatest critical success in the United States, ending on an optimistic note with its fourth volume, Joseph der Ernährer (Joseph, the Provider).
In California between 1943 and 1946 Mann wrote what is usually considered his most difficult and complex book, Doktor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (1947). In contrast to the optimistic tone of the Joseph tetralogy, this is a deeply pessimistic, somber book, a bitter accusation against his former country, which, like Doktor Faustus, has made a pact with the devil. But it is also a self-accusation, for Mann does not distinguish between a good and a bad Germany. He finds some negative characteristics manifest in every German of all times. In this fictional biography Mann writes about an artist, a musician—since music, in Mann's thinking, is closely linked with decay, decadence, disease, danger, and death and since it is the one art he considers most characteristically German. In describing the life of an artist (closely patterned after that of Nietzsche), Mann shows himself as a master of the technique of montage by succeeding in combining several time levels. Of the third phase of Mann's writing career (1933-1955), this book represents the highlight, the climax.
In 1952 Mann returned to Europe to spend his remaining years in Switzerland, taking up the life he had lived there from 1933 to 1938. Mann's last major work, Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man), was published in 1954 as Der Memoiren Erster Teil. Having begun the book in 1911, the author had published additional fragments in 1922 and 1937. The projected second part, however, was never written. Following the tradition of the picaresque, or rogue, novel, Mann presents a humorous portrait of the artist as mountebank, or criminal, a thought that had always caught his imagination. Felix Krull is among his most vivid and effective books and attracted huge audiences in many countries. With its publication Thomas Mann achieved an immediate popular and critical success. His last completed work was his brilliant essay on Friedrich von Schiller.
Mann's eightieth birthday, on June 6, 1955, brought him honors from all sides, both East and West. Respected throughout the world as Germany's greatest man of letters since Goethe, Mann died 2 months later, on August 12, in Kilchberg near Zurich.
Further Reading on Thomas Mann
The most comprehensive biography of Mann in English, well documented and illustrated, is Hans Bürgin and Hans-Otto Mayer, Thomas Mann: A Chronicle of His Life (trans. 1969). Of the large number of books about Mann, the best introductions in English for the nonspecialist are Henry C. Hatfield, Thomas Mann (1951; rev. ed. 1962), and Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann (1968).
The more advanced student will find a selection of the best critical opinion on Mann in Henry Hatfield, ed., Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964). Also recommended is the excellent critical analysis of Erich Heller, The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (1958). Erich Kahler, The Orbit of Thomas Mann (1969), is a collection of five excellent essays by a close friend of Mann. A critical essay on Mann's major novels is J. P. Stern, Thomas Mann (1967). Gunilla Bergsten, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Sources and Structures of the Novel, translated by Krishna Winston (1969), deals with one of Mann's best-known works. Two studies that discuss Mann in the context of philosophy are Joseph Gerard Brennan, Three Philosophical Novelists: James Joyce, André Gide, Thomas Mann (1963), and Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (1966).
For a treatment of the German literary background see Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature, 1871-1945 (1965). A guide to the worldwide literature on Mann is in a two-volume bibliography of criticism by Klaus W. Jonas, Fifty Years of Thomas Mann Studies (1955), which covers the years 1901-1954, and its supplement, Klaus W. Jonas and Ilsedore B. Jonas, Thomas Mann Studies: A Bibliography of Criticism (1967), which continues the bibliographical record to 1966.
Additional Biography Sources
Hamilton, Nigel, The brothers Mann: the lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1871-1950 and 1875-1955, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, 1978.