Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

Writer, Poet
(1875 – 1955)

Considered one of the foremost twentieth-century German novelists, Thomas Mann gained fame for ironic and philosophical works that reflected the doubts and fears of his era. Mann’s epic novels and short stories highlighted the struggles and psychology of intellectuals and artists, exploring philosophical issues as he investigated German national identity. Praised as the peer of writers like James Joyce, Mann won the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature and achieved international acclaim during his lifetime.

Shared Interest in the Arts. 

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lu¨beck, Germany. (Germany had only recently been unified by Otto von Bismarck in 1871.) Mann’s father, Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, was a well-to-do merchant. His mother, Ju´ lia da Silva Bruhns, was born in Brazil and was the daughter of a German planter and a woman of Portuguese-Creole descent. Faced with Lu¨beck’s failing economy, Mann’s father wished that two of his sons, Thomas and Heinrich, would take over positions at the helm of the family business.

However, their father’s death in 1891, when Mann was sixteen years old, freed up the brothers to pursue their growing interest in the arts, though Mann would retain a suspicion of artists and nonbusiness pursuits for the rest of his life. Heinrich Mann went on to become an outstanding novelist and essayist, and even Mann’s younger brother, Viktor, made a name for himself with a 1948 family chronicle. Though Mann was bright, he hated school. He worked briefly in an insurance company, but, increasingly influenced by music and literature, he soon tried his hand at writing. He found inspiration in culture, philosophy, and opera. Mann was infatuated with the Romantic music of Richard Wagner as a teen, but became skeptical of Wagner’s power as he grew older. Thomas Mann also read the work of German philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, exploring the idea of free will and the individual’s relationship to society. These diverse influences would lead to a flexibility of style that would become Mann’s literary trademark.

After writing a short story when he should have been working, Mann found himself a published author. The story, which gained Mann a letter of appreciation from prominent poet Richard Dehmel, encouraged Mann so much that he quit his job and began auditing courses at the University of Munich. By the time his first book, Little Herr Friedemann, was published in 1895, Mann had gone to Italy with his brother Heinrich.

Thomas Mann Fruitful Excursion to Italy

Though Heinrich was enthusiastic about the Italian language and culture, Mann was alienated from Italian society and spent most of his three-year stay discovering Russian, Scandinavian, and French literature and writing a book inspired by his ancestors. Buddenbrooks: Decline of a Family (1901) was unlike most German literature of the time. Drawing from Scandinavian and western European naturalistic novels, Buddenbrooks told the story of a German merchant family through lavish detail, poorly concealing the fact that it was based on Mann’s own family and his hometown of Lu¨beck. Stunted by writer’s block after a series of literary failures.

Mann went to Venice with his wife, Katia Pringsheim, whom he had married in 1905. There, he met a cast of exotic and strange characters who would appear in his short story, ‘‘Death in Venice’’ (1912). The story, which deals with a writer’s obsession with a younger boy, has received international acclaim as an example of a major short work of fiction, exploring atmosphere, characterization, and motifs of death and repression in vivid detail. The work also created controversy with its depiction of homosexual love.

The advent of World War I drove a wedge between Mann and his brother Heinrich. By the early 1910s, Germany had become the strongest military, industrial, and economic power on the European continent and was involved, as many countries of the time were, in an elaborate system of alliances. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Bosnian terrorist in Serbia in 1914, all these alliances came into play, and World War I broke out. Under the leadership of Emperor Wilhelm II, Germany had initial success in the war, allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey against the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and, later, the United States. Ultimately, Germany was defeated, and 1.6 million Germans died in the conflict. Though Mann’s brother Heinrich took a stand against the atrocities of World War I, Mann himself encouraged the war effort, adopting a nationalistic position.

The brothers’ conflict reflected German society’s debate about its place in history. Around this time, Mann published his controversial Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), a nationalistic book celebrating Germany’s unique heritage. The book was later embraced by ultraconservative Germans for its anti-European stance. Though Mann would later change his views on German society’s benefits, he would keep arguing for the remainder of his life that Germany was different from the rest of Europe. Criticized as fascistic and out of touch with reality, the book remains Mann’s most controversial work.

Postwar Nobel Prize

Thomas Mann - The Magic MountainThough Mann had embraced conservatism in print, he was converted to the new democratic principles adopted in Germany after World War I. Germany became a republic, governed under the liberal Weimar Constitution. However, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany nearly totally disarm, lose all its colonies and territories gained in the Franco-Prussian War, and accept stringent reparations requirements. Thus, Germany suffered a series of economic and social dislocations in the postwar period. Mann’s waffling between two political ideals was reflected in German society as it moved from imperialism to democracy to fascism.

Around this time, Mann began working on The Magic Mountain (1924), the novel that is now considered a landmark in world literature. Set in the years leading up to World War I, the book takes place in a sanatorium on a mountaintop in Switzerland and depicts a young man’s struggles to find meaning in life against a backdrop of death, illness, and extremism. The book appeared to a tidal wave of favorable criticism, gaining comparisons to Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927), winning Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature, and solidifying his position as one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

Thomas Mann’s life once again intersected with politics when he was discouraged from returning to now-Nazi Germany from a vacation in the early 1930s because his wife was Jewish. By this time, Adolf Hitler had taken power in Germany, and he converted the republic into a dictatorship. UnderHitler’s leadership, Germany greatly expanded its military and adopted a tone of extreme nationalism. As part of the Nazi agenda, Jews had their civil rights taken away and were later interned and killed en masse as part of the government’s policy. Mann decided to tread lightly, avoiding open criticism of the Nazis, but these actions earned him the scorn of antifascist groups. Tired of being cautious, Mann issued a set of strong statements against the regime.

The consequences were quick and brutal: his German citizenship was revoked in 1936 and his honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn was taken away. Unswayed, Mann responded with an open letter that gained worldwide attention. ‘‘Woe to the people which . . . seeks its way out through the abomination of war, hatred of God and man!’’ warned Mann. ‘‘Such a people will be lost.’’ Though he had initially feared speaking out against the Nazis, Mann’s actions and his Nobel Prize status turned him into a leading representative of German progressive thought.

Became American Citizen

Now an exile, Mann moved to the United States in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1944. He began to tackle the Nazis through his fiction, writing a series of books about ancient Jewish history and eventually moving on to an outspoken critique of German culture and its contribution to the oppressive Nazi regime. While Germany had early success in World War II, the Nazi regime was ultimately defeated by the Allies (Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States). After Hitler’s suicide in 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered. As Germany was occupied by the winners of the war and strove to rebuild in the postwar period, Mann’s own struggle with the German culture with which he so closely identified was reflected in his 1947 book Doctor Faustus. This complex novel met with mixed critical reviews. Though the book was not popular, it is considered to be a summary of Thomas Mann’s artistic vision. Mann continued to be a controversial figure in the postwar period. Though he won many prestigious awards in Europe, he was blasted by German writers who had been compromised by Nazism.

Thomas Mann finally returned to now-divided Germany, touring both sides in an attempt to gain reconciliation, but was immediately denounced in the United States for his supposed Communist sympathies. (The democratic West Germany was under the influence of Western powers like the United States, while the Communist East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union, who had joined the Allies late in World War II.) Upset by his adopted homeland’s intolerance, he moved to Switzerland, returning to a once-abandoned novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, a humorous picaresque novel that depicts the artist as a criminal. He died on August 12, 1955, just two months after his much-celebrated eightieth birthday.

Works in Literary Context

Thomas Mann - Lotte in WeimarMann is known for his lengthy, complex style and his exploration of German language, literature, and culture. Vivid in detail and description, his novels explore artistic figures in great depth and reflect influences of German culture, music, and philosophy. Germany’s tumultuous history in the first half of the twentieth century also greatly affected Mann’s output. In addition, Russian,  Scandinavian, and French literature also proved inspirational to Mann.

As a child, Mann was influenced by his Brazilian mother’s love of culture and art and his German father’s love of business and order. Raised in a literary family, Mann was immersed in German language and literature. He tackled his German literary heritage in works like Lotte in Weimar (1939) and Doctor Faustus. These books directly questioned and reimagined works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Germany’s most esteemed writers. In his quest to describe and define German culture, Mann managed to alienate an entire generation of Germans who were turned off by his conservative and nationalistic message. However, his ideas and philosophies changed as World War II affected his personal life, and he was later known for speaking out against German nationalism. He is famed for his emphasis on humanism (a philosophy that focuses on the inherent worth of all people) and his celebration of Western culture.

One of the central themes in most of Thomas Mann’s stories is the place of the artist in modern society. Many of his main or supporting characters are artists of some sort, such as the author Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. In Doctor Faustus, the composer Leverku¨hn sells his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty four years of musical success. While he is depicted as existing outside the norms of society, the book also suggests that such artists are actually the heart and soul of a culture. After his successful career, Leverku ¨hn spends a decade in an increasingly deteriorating mental state, unable to function in any normal way. This parallels the decade during which Nazism rose to prominence in Germany a time of cultural deterioration during which artists fled the country, were imprisoned, or were killed.

The Magic Mountain

When it was published in 1924, critics praised The Magic Mountain as marking ‘‘a return to his rightful standing [as] the master novelist of his age.’’ Upon its publication, a reviewer for Time proclaimed, ‘‘The author displays an intellect profound, searching, inclusive, an artistry profound and subtle in all his works.’’ Henry Hatfield, in Thomas Mann (1951), states of the novel: ‘‘Employing a microscopic closeness of observation, it adds a new dimension to the realistic novel, while at the same time it marks Mann’s major shift to the use of mythical patterns.’’ Hatfield also calls the book ‘‘one of the most imposing structures erected by the modern mind.’’

Responses to Literature

  1. Mann was condemned for his nationalistic political writings. Do you think that Mann’s political views should shape criticism of his literary work? Why or why not? Write an essay that outlines your conclusions.
  2. Mann’s work is known for its length and complexity, features he drew from influences like Russian and Scandinavian novels of the nineteenth century. Using the Internet and your library, write an essay on the distinguishing features of nineteenth-century Russian fiction.
  3. Mann was born into a literary family. Using the Internet and your library, write a paper on another famous literary family and their accomplishments.
  4. During his career, Mann turned from supporting German nationalism to speaking publicly against fascism. Using the Internet and your library, create a presentation on the rise of fascism in Germany and its implications for German political and cultural stability.
  5. One of Mann’s primary interests was the relationship of artists to society. What place do you think an artist should hold in society? Are artists obligated to support or to question cultural values? What about artists whose aim is primarily to entertain? Write a paper that outlines your views.

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