Richard Beer-Hofmann 1866-1945
Austrian playwright, novelist, short story writer, and poet.
An influential member of a group of writers known as "Young Vienna," Beer-Hofmann produced a small body of works that are characterized by keen psychological insight as well as a preoccupation with art, love, and death—themes that were often explored by Young Vienna writers. One of Beer-Hofmann's most important contributions to Austrian literature was his early experimentation with stream-of-consciousness narrative technique in his novel Der Tod Georgs (The Death of George) and other works. In his later years Beer-Hofmann worked on a cycle of biblical dramas, most prominently Jaákobs Traum (Jacob's Dream), that combined his growing awareness of his Jewish heritage with his sense of artistic calling.
Beer-Hofmann was born in Vienna to Hermann and Rose Beer. A few days after his birth his mother died, and he was subsequently placed in the care of his aunt and uncle, Berta and Alois Hofmann, who later adopted him and whose surname was added to his own. Beer-Hofmann was raised in upper middle-class Jewish milieus in Brünn and Vienna. He later attended the University of Vienna, where he received a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1890. Rather than practicing law, however, he overcame the resistance of his family and embarked upon a career as a writer. In the 1890s Beer-Hofmann became acquainted with a number of Austrian artists and writers who collectively became known as Young Vienna and whose most famous members included Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Beer-Hofmann's first published work, the short story collection Novellen, and his subsequent novel, The Death of George, demonstrated that he was a writer of acute psychological insight. In 1895 Beer-Hofmann married Paula Lissy, and their loving marriage was the subject of his last major work, a book of reminiscences entitled Paula, ein Fragment. From the early 1900s until his death Beer-Hofmann worked on writing biblical dramas, the most famous of which is Jacob's Dream. He also received critical acclaim for adapting and directing plays for the Burgtheater in Vienna. In 1938, after the Nazis assumed power in Germany, Beer-Hofmann went into hiding with Paula, and in 1939 the couple fled to the United States. En route to New York, Paula suffered a fatal heart attack; after his wife's death, Beer-Hofmann lived in Manhattan, eventually becoming an American citizen. He died in 1945.
Critics have noted that the hallmarks of Beer-Hofmann's most mature work—his inventive literary techniques, beautiful imagery, and psychological astuteness—are all evident in his first published book, Novellen. In his novel The Death of George Beer-Hofmann polished the stream-of-consciousness technique that he had begun to experiment with in Novellen. The Death of George is considered a representative example of Austrian fin-de-siècle literature for its rich imagery and symbolism, its aesthete hero, and its exploration of youth, beauty, and death. However, in a marked departure from other works chronicling late nineteenth-century decadence, Beer-Hofmann's hero ultimately chooses to become more deeply engaged with life, rather than remaining detached from it. During his life-time Beer-Hofmann grew more aware of his Jewish identity, and his interest in Judaism is reflected in Jacob's Dream and the unfinished David cycle, which consists of Der junge David (Young David) and fragments and out-lines published as Das Vorspiel aufdem Theater zu "König David." In Jacob's Dream Beer-Hofmann depicted his hero as suffering from profound doubt—Jacob rails against having been chosen as God's elect—before ultimately deciding to enter into a covenant with God. Commentators observe that Jacob's Dream functions on many levels at once: it is the retelling of a well-known Bible story, a chronicle of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people, and a parable about the writer's artistic calling. After the Nazis came to power, Beer-Hofmann fled Vienna and took up residence in New York; there, he wrote Paula, ein Fragment, a memoir about his marriage and his recently deceased wife. In this reminiscence he explores the dominant themes of his life and work in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness style.
Beer-Hofmann is recognized as a literary innovator for having used experimental techniques like stream of consciousness and the interior monologue long before they were in vogue. Several critics have remarked that Beer-Hofmann's stylistic experimentation prefigures the work of better-known writers, including Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Although Beer-Hofmann's work is generally overlooked today, his lullaby for his daughter, "Schlaflied für Mirjam" ("Lullaby for Miriam"), has endured and is widely anthologized.
Novellen (short stories) 1893
Der Tod Georgs [The Death of George] (novel) 1900
Gedenkrede auf Wolfgang Amadé Mozart [Memorial Oration on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart] (essay) 1906
Der Graf von Charolais (drama) [first publication] 1906
*Jaákobs Traum [Jacob's Dream] (drama) 1919
Schlaflied für Mirjam [Lullaby for Miriam] (poetry) 1919
*Der junge David [Young David] (drama) [first publication] 1933
*Vorspiel auf dem Theater zu "König David" (drama) [first publication] 1936
Verse (poetry) 1941
Paula, ein Fragment (reminiscences) 1949
Gesammelte Werke (novel, short stories, dramas, poetry, and nofiction) 1963
*These works are collectively referred to as Die Historie von "König David."
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SOURCE: "The Viennese Aesthete," in Richard Beer-Hofmann, Bloch Publishing, 1936, pp. 1-21.
[In the following excerpt, Liptzin discusses the psychological insight that characterizes Beer-Hofmann's work, particularly his first published volume, Novellen.]
German literature at the close of the nineteenth century seemed to center in the three metropolises: Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. Each of these cities had a physiognomy of its own which found expression in its literary life. The Prussian capital, that had been most violently affected by the triumph of science and industrialism, reacted by taking over in its literary products the technique of science and the subject-matter of industrialism. It sought to substitute keen observation for native inspiration, to speak of heredity and environment instead of God and fate, to vie with sociology in the interpretation of social phenomena and with psychology in the exact description and careful analysis of instincts and reflexes. Thus was born the militant naturalism of Holz and Schlaf and Young Hauptmann. The Bavarian capital, though acceding to Berlin political supremacy in the new empire, sought to retain for itself the literary ascendancy that Wagner and Geibel and Heyse had for a generation bestowed upon it. The attack upon the older Munich school, especially upon Heyse, in the columns of Michael Georg Conrad's organ Die Gesellschaft, was at the same time...
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SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hoffman," in Germany's Stepchildren, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944, pp. 239-54.
[In the following excerpt, Liptzin discusses how Beer-Hofmann's Jewish heritage influenced his religious dramas.]
When Theodor Herzl, at the close of the last century, proposed his radical solution of the duality in which Jews of the Diaspora found themselves, assimilationists and Jewish Aryans mocked at his visions. The non-German Jews, who flocked to his banner, were primarily interested in the political consequences of his thought, the homeward march of a long exiled people. The Viennese aesthetes and epicureans, who were his early associates, dismissed his Zionist theories with a shrug of the shoulders and a sceptical smile. For many years the influential Viennese organ to which he was a contributor refused to print any news or comments about his messianic complex, and he was compelled to found and to finance a newspaper of his own in order to further the spread of his ideas. A single Viennese poet of Jewish origin sensed the motivating force that prompted Herzl's dignified reaction to the German-Jewish duality. Immediately after the appearance of Herzl's pamphlet, The Jewish State, Richard Beer-Hofmann wrote to him: "More sympathetic even than everything contained in your book was the personality behind it. At last, once again a human being who does not bear his Judaism resignedly...
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SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hofmann," in Commentary, Vol. 1, No. 6, April, 1946, pp. 45-50.
[In the following excerpt, Kahler discusses the religious themes in Beer-Hofmann's work.]
Beer-Hofmann's first great book, Der Tod Georgs (The Death of George), published in 1900, has for its theme the chain of reflections that a friend's death gives rise to in a young man; death reveals to him the nature of life, of his own life and human life in general. "George was dead to him. Yet all searching into George's possible fate had only been an anxious questioning of his own.…Much of his own anguish and confusion had been tranquillized by verbalization; so that he had disburdened himself of his own restless and questioning thoughts by casting them upon George, whence they echoed back in altered form, strange only as some favorite song is that we sang just a moment ago, and which now returns to us familiarly from sounding strings in the distance … he had sought only himself in everything and had found only himself in everything. It was his fate alone that was realized, and whatever else happened, happened far away, as if on a stage, as though performed, and when it told of others it seemed only to tell of himself; it was worth only what it was able to yield him personally: dread and compassion and a fleeting smile. He had arrogantly kept himself apart from those others who performed for him. He had never...
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SOURCE: "A Heroic Dramna," in Commentary, Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 87-8.
[In the following essay, Spender discusses the revival of interest in poetic dramas and favorably reviews Jacob's Dream.]
Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the poetic drama. Although it cannot be said that the poetic form has achieved significant victories in the theater, it may be claimed that the modern poet can only express certain ideas in dramatic form and that some of the most important poetry written in this century has, in fact, been dramatic. That important poems should be written which depend for their realization on a theater which cannot interpret them adequately, is an unsatisfactory situation. Nevertheless this should not lead us to ignore the fact that some of the most effective poetic statements of our time have been made in the poetic plays of Claudel, The Dynasts of Thomas Hardy, Murder in the Cathedral of T. S. Eliot, Der Turm of Hofmannsthal, and in Jacob's Dream of Beer-Hofmann.
It is significant also that four plays by poets expressing ideas so different as Hardy in The Dynasts, Claudel in L'Annonce Faite d Marie, Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral, and Beer-Hofmann in Jacob's Dream, should yet have most important characteristics in common. All these plays are concerned with man in relation to the historic human...
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SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hofmann: The Poet as exculpator dei," in Protest—Form—Tradition, The University of Alabama Press, 1979, pp. 123-31.
[In the following essay, Elstun discusses the effects of exile on Beer-Hofmann's later work, particularly Paula, ein Fragment.]
The external facts of Richard Beer-Hofmann's exile can be recounted in a few brief sentences. On the evening of August 19, 1939, after a year of hiding, he and his wife Paula left Vienna for the last time, en route to the United States via Switzerland. Beer-Hofmann was seventy-three years old; his wife, sixty. She was still convalescing from the near-fatal heart attack she had had the preceding winter; consequently they were traveling in slow stages and still in Switzerland when Paula suffered a complete collapse. After weeks in the hospital she died on October 30 and was buried in the Friesenberg Cemetery at Zurich on November 2. Unable to obtain permission to remain in Switzerland, Beer-Hofmann continued the journey alone, arriving in New York on November 23. During the first year and a half of his exile, he and his daughter Mirjam lived in a flat on Waverley Place. In 1941 they moved to an apartment on Cathedral Parkway, which remained Beer-Hofmann's home until his death on September 26, 1945.
Those are the skeletal facts, and there is, of course, much more that could be said. The biographical...
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Harris, Kathleen and Sheirich, Richard M. "Richard Beer-Hofmann: A Bibliography." Modern Austrian Literature 15, No. 1 (1982): 1-60.
Comprehensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Beer-Hofmann; includes information about his correspondence and unpublished work, primarily from the personal collection of Beer-Hofmann's daughter, Miriam Beer-Hofmann-Lens.
Bermann, Tamar. "Richard Beer-Hofmann, 1866-1945." The Jewish Quarterly 14, No. 2 (Summer 1966): 37-39.
Appreciation of Beer-Hofmann on the centenary of his birth. Bermann deplores the fact that Beer-Hofmann's works have declined in popularity and urges a revival of interest in him.
Liptzin, Solomon. Richard Beer-Hofmann. New York: Block, 1936, 114 p.
—. "Richard Beer-Hofmann: A Biographical Essay," in Jacob's Dream: A Prologue, by Richard Beer-Hofmann. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946, 188 p.
Overview of Beer-Hofmann's life and works.
Sheirich, Richard. "Frevel and der erhöhte Augenblick in Richard Beer-Hofmann: Reflections on a Biographical Problem." Modern Austrian Literature 13, No. 2 (1980): 1-16.
Interprets Beer-Hofmann's literary career in terms of two major...
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