Alfred Neumann Essay - Critical Essays

Neumann, Alfred


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 Prüfer; adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace] (drama) 1941

Es waren ihrer sechs [There Were Six of Them] (novel) 1944

Gesammelte Werke. 2 vols. (short stories, dramas, novels) 1949-1950

Der Pakt [Strange Consequences] (novel) 1950


Gilbert Gabriel (essay date 1928)

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, heart-breaking finale, cold with the desolation of the sallow morning, smeared with the dregs of intrigue, when the blackened, stoic minister, whom you know at last for a savior of his country, a patriot who has flung away honor itself for the sake of the Russia of his Napoleonic day, orders his body servant to shoot, to repeat the suicides of Philippae:

“Look, Stepan, look at these hands of mine … they have been kissed by an emperor. And look at these lips of mine … they have kissed another emperor's hands. And both of them my emperors … my emperors … I am … But let us speak no more of that, Brother Stepan, no more of anything. Sing me a little song, Brother Stepan …”

The stolid soldier, pistols in hand, begins to croon a Russian peasant song. The church bells, the song ceases. The Tsar avenged, the nation rescued. Behind the slowly fallen curtain two shots ring out.


So colossal does this figure of Peter Pahlen loom, you begin to wonder why his name has managed to sift through the chinks of your knowledge of history hitherto. If you know of him at all, you know him as an icy old diplomat who has been given the benefit of no more than two or three lines in the usual encyclopaedias. Even in the Russian encyclopaedias. At any rate in those which were compiled in Russia's Tsarist days, and which are the only ones the New York public libraries can yet boast. The present Russian Government, of course, is publishing a set of its own which guarantees to be franker on the subject of crazy Tsars and successful assassinations.

Until then you must be content, for instance, with the reticence of such an official account as says merely that “On the 12th of March, 1801, Paul I. was found dead” in what is tactfully designated as his “dressing room.” And that “immediately thereafter Count...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

Clifton P. Fadiman (review date 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Pierre Loving (review date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 397 words.)

Mark Van Doren (review date 1935)

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...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Catherine Radziwill (review date 1937)

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...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Gerhard F. Probst (essay date 1987)

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,...

(The entire section is 3622 words.)

Further Reading


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.

(The entire section is 58 words.)