Alfred Neumann 1895-1952
German novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and biographer.
Neumann is notable for his historical novels that focus on the abuses and danger of ambition and power. Critics maintain that he contributed to the revival of the genre by using past events to symbolize the political situations of his day, such as the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s. Although well-respected during his lifetime, he is now often overshadowed by his contemporaries, particularly Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Franz Werfel.
On October 15, 1895, Neumann was born into a wealthy, Jewish family in Lautenburg, West Prussia, which is now part of Poland. A few years later his family moved to Berlin. Neumann attended schools in Berlin and Rostock before traveling to Munich to study art history and German history. Wounded in 1915 while serving in World War I, he began to write poetry while recuperating from his injuries. He returned to Munich in 1917, publishing his collection of his poems, Die Lieder vom Lächeln und der Not, that same year. He resumed his studies in 1920, receiving a degree in romance languages and literature. In 1926, he published a few collections of short fiction and his first historical novel, Der Teufel,for which he received the Kleist Prize. Neumann left Munich for Italy in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime in Germany. When Europe became untenable, he moved to the United States in 1941. Settling in Los Angeles, he worked as a screenwriter for Warner Bros. Pictures and became an American citizen in 1946. He died in Lugano, Switzerland, on October 3, 1952.
Neumann's major themes are the dynamics of power and guilt, in particular the abuse and corruption that can result from absolute power, and the effects of guilt on the individual. In Der Teufel, a barber named Oliver Necker rises to become a trusted advisor and confidant to King Louis XI. Wheb Louis seduces Oliver's wife, Anne, Oliver plots against the monarch, isolating him from his staff and his friends. Eventually, Oliver becomes head of state but is executed after Louis's death. Der Patriot, is also rooted in historical fact. A group of Russian nobles, including the honorable Count Peter von der Pahlen, conspire to overthrow the despotic rule of Tsar Paul. Paul's son, Alexander, agrees to assume the throne as long as his father's life is spared. Yet when Paul is killed, Pahlen kills himself, as he had pledged his life to Alexander that no harm would come to the Russian ruler.
Most critics agree that Neumann's work has been surpassed by that of his better-known contemporaries. Stylistically, reviewers have found his novels wordy and dull; they have also derided his poor attention to detail and historical fact. Yet most commentators have praised his insightful and perceptive observations of the human condition, particularly his depiction of unscrupulous and ambitious individuals who eventually are corrupted by greed and insecurity.
Lieder vom Lächeln und der Not (poetry) 1917
Die heiligen: Legendäre Geschichten (short stories) 1919
Neue Gedichte (short stories) 1920
Der Patriot [The Patriot] (novella) 1925
König Haber: Erzählung [King Haber and Other Stories] (short stories) 1926
Der Teufel [The Devil] (novel) 1926
Der Patriot: Drama in fünf Akten [The Patriot: A Play in Three Acts;also as Such Men Are Dangerous] (drama) 1927
Rebellen [The Rebels] (novel) 1927
Königsmaske (drama) 1928
Frauenschuh [Lady's Shoe] (drama) 1929
Guerra (novel) 1929
Der Held: Roman eines politischen Mordes [The Hero: The Tale of a Political Murder] (novel) 1930
Narrenspiegel [The Mirror of Fools] (novel) 1932
Neuer Caesar [The New Caesar] (novel) 1934
Königin Christine von Schweden [The Life of Christina of Sweden] (biography) 1935
Kaiserreich [The Gaudy Empire] (novel) 1937
Die Volksfreunde [The Friends of the People] (novel) 1940
War and Peace [With Erwin Piscator and Guntram...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Patriot: A Play in Three Acts, by Alfred Neumann, Boni & Liveright, 1928, pp. v-xiv.
[In the following essay, Gabriel provides an overview of Neumann's drama The Patriot.]
Neumann's drama [The Patriot] is of intrigue and assassination at the Russian Court, St. Petersburg, in the turbulent year of 1801. It is the tragedy of poor Tsar Paul I. and of his Judas, his minister and military governor, Count Pahlen.
These two are the chief tilting posts of The Patriot. Against them—especially against the enigmatic, ironclad, character of Peter Pahlen—the whole of Neumann's drama jousts. A very fiend this Pahlen is depicted, a spider of most intricate cunning, weaving coldly and expertly his plot of betrayal, sedition and regicide, dragging into its strands all admirals and officers, courtiers and whole garrisons, baiting for the emperor with the body of his own mistress, binding the agonized young Tsarievitch into the unyielding center of the web. A very fiend … and yet—the Neumann touch—a hero of heroes.
For, in the end, his bitter task done, the foolish, ineffectual Tsar a strangled corpse, young Alexander ascended safely to the throne, Count Pahlen waits only for the tolling of the dawn before he, too, grimly contrives his own death, uncovers his chest to the bullet of an impassive soldier. A terrible,...
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SOURCE: “Pseudo-Historical Fiction,” in The Nation, Vol. 129, No. 3349, September 11, 1929, p. 276.
[In the following mixed review of The Rebels, Fadiman deems the novel “a study of the conspiratorial temperament.”]
One of the reasons for Alfred Neumann's failure to gain an American audience commensurate with his merits is that he is touted as an historical novelist when he is not one at all. By turns he is mystery-story writer and metaphysician, a sorcerer whose effects vary from the awe-inspiring to the parlor-tricky. To read his works as historical novels is simply confusing. He is never really interested in creating a background or making vivid some historical complex. The treatment in The Rebels of the Carbonari uprising in central Italy from 1820 to 1830 is purposely oblique and fragmentary. Actually, the reader is not supposed to know what it is all about, to have any systematic understanding of the social and economic forces which presumably lie behind the movements of the personages. A clear understanding would be murderous to the shadowy Gothic effect for which Neumann is striving. The intrigue is enveloped in a dark cloud of innuendo; tortured souls express their agonies in gnomic sentences; no one is frank or explicit; Checca, Madda, Caminer, and even Guerra himself are sinister, humorless, melodramatic. The tale is labyrinthine, a maze of dark, narrow streets in which...
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SOURCE: “History as Fiction,” in The Nation, Vol. 130, No. 3388, June 11, 1930, p. 684.
[In the following brief review, Loving discusses Neumann's The Rebels as historical fiction.]
In The Devil, King Haber, and The Rebels Alfred Neumann showed with what success psychological values can be applied to historical characters and events. In each one of these books we note that the author has proceeded on the assumption—an anathema, I imagine, to most professional historians—that the arcanum of facts must not be too reverently searched or worshiped. To put it another way: history-writing and fiction meet at that focal point where both the historian and the novelist begin to revise and color the available data, which has been, of course, already tainted by the dust of time. Both go in quest, not of “ultimate truth,” but of sound values. In modern philosophy these values are called percepta; nor need we think that they are themselves apprehensions of pure reality; for there are, it is conceded, many veils between our ordinary perceptions and the thing we are seeking, commonly called the truth.
Alfred Neumann in the present book takes up the revolution of the Carbonari, as in The Rebels, and rewrites it for us from the viewpoint of Guerra, the leader. The story begins with Guerra's release from the island of Elba. It is both effective and...
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SOURCE: “All Too Historical,” in The Nation, Vol. 140, No. 3630, 1935, p. 133.
[In the following review, Van Doren offers a negative assessment of Another Caesar.]
Much of this novel [Another Caesar] sounds like the novels of Captain Mayne Reid, who never let any information escape his reader if he could help it. When Herr Neumann, for instance, has got Louis Napoleon to that point in his career at which Miss Howard, his English mistress, is about to enter it, he lets us have the following facts full in the face:
Howard is one of the great names of England. The head of the Howard family, the Duke of Norfolk, is the first of the dukes and the hereditary Earl Marshal of England; while the Earls of Suffolk, Carlisle, Nottingham, and the Lord Howard of Glossop represent in the peerage the younger line. In this connection we think also of John Howard, the famous eighteenth-century philanthropist and reformer of prisons. Another Howard whose name is famous was Frederick Howard, major of hussars, killed at Waterloo, immortalized by Byron (himself a relative of the Howards) in the third canto of Childe Harold.
Now it may seem strange, but I was not thinking also of John Howard as I approached that priceless third sentence. If I was thinking about anything it was the name Glossop. Yet I do not remember thinking about...
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SOURCE: “The Second Empire,” in The Nation, Vol. 144, No. 23, June 5, 1937, pp. 655-56.
[In the following review, Radziwill offers a negative appraisal of The Gaudy Empire.]
First of all, this [The Gaudy Empire] is, I must hasten to say, a typical German book, with all the pathetic features which accompany every German attempt to understand foreign psychology. Once this essential fact has been grasped, it becomes easier to judge of the value of Herr Neumann's description of the brilliant days of the Second French Empire. In many points this description is an excellent one. But the book is too long; it is boring in its endless explanations of things which can only be explained by intuition; and it gets completely off the track when it launches into imaginative stories of imagined things. In order to form a just idea of such conversations as took pace at Biarritz between Napoleon III and Bismarck, one must have moved among the surroundings in which they were carried on. We live in an age when statesmen and great writers arise out of nothing, like mushrooms after a summer rain, but even writers blessed with genius cannot know all the ins and outs of the political affairs of a period like the Second Empire, when such events were kept secret and never were thrown to the man of the street for him to make his breakfast of. One who has closely followed the variations in the thought of Napoleon...
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SOURCE: “Alfred Neumann's and Erwin Piscator's Dramatization of Tolstoy's War and Peace and the Role of Theater as a Contribution to America's War Efforts,” in Exile and Enlightenment, Uwe Faulhaber, Jerry Glenn, Edward P. Harris, Hans-Georg Richert eds., Wayne State University Press, 1987, pp. 265-272.
[In the following essay, Probst chronicles the collaboration of Neumann and Piscator on the dramatization of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace.]
It is generally known that Erwin Piscator came to the United States upon the invitation of Broadway producer Gilbert Miller to direct his and Alfred Neumann's dramatization of Tolstoy's War and Peace. When Miller, who had taken an option on the play after reading only a rough English translation of the original, threatened to drop the project because he did not like the finished script, particularly the second and third acts, Piscator began to look for help. One of the men he thought could be of assistance, was Harold Clurman, one of the founders and directors of the Group Theatre.
If Piscator thought that in Clurman he had a fellow-combatant for the cause of political theater who, as he himself had so often done, would produce a play on the strength of its ideas and intended effect, not so much as an esthetic object, i.e., a play that would be good theater, he was sadly disappointed. Piscator must have developed very early doubts...
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Porter, Alan. A review of The Hero. The Nation 133, No. 3462 (1931): 524.
Mixed assessment of The Hero.
Taggard, Genevieve. A review of The Mirror of Fools. The Nation 136, No. 3527 (1933): 156.
Mixed review of The Mirror of Fools.
Additional coverage of Neumann's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 56.
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