Carl Spitteler Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler (SHPIHT-uh-lur), Swiss novelist, epic poet, short-story writer, essayist, and Nobel Prize winner, was born in Liestal, near Basel. He moved with his family to Bern four years later, when his father was appointed treasurer of the Swiss Confederacy. Spitteler returned to Basel in 1856, living with his aunt and attending first the Gymnasium and later the Obergymnasium called Pädagogium. To please his father, he studied law at the University of Zürich in 1863 and branched into the study of theology. With theology his primary focus, by 1867 Spitteler was preparing himself for a future as a Protestant minister. A crisis of faith turned him from that direction, however, and by 1870 he no longer hoped for a religious career. Having no means of earning a living, he managed to secure an invitation from Russian General Standertskjöld to tutor his young children in St. Petersburg, Russia. Spitteler spent the years from 1871 to 1879 in Russia and Finland, during that time writing his first major literary work, the verse epic Prometheus and Epimetheus. Under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem, he self-published the piece, which he had conceived during his university years, but its lack of commercial success proved disheartening to Spitteler, who moved back to Switzerland and resigned himself to earning his living as a schoolteacher rather than as a poet.{$S[A]Tandem, Carl Felix;Spitteler, Carl}

In 1883, Spitteler married his former student Marie op der Hoff, and together they had two daughters. Supplementing his income with newspaper work, he wrote for Grenzpost in Basel from 1885 to 1886 and Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Zürich from 1890 to 1892. When in 1892 his wife received a substantial inheritance from her parents, Spitteler used his new financial independence to retire from teaching and newspaper writing, moving his family to Lucerne and concentrating full-time on his writing. Preferring to live and work in near-seclusion, he produced novels and several collections of poems, short stories, and critical essays.

Two incidents briefly marred an otherwise peaceful literary life for Spitteler. Upon republishing Prometheus and Epimetheus in the early 1890’s, this time under his own name, Spitteler was accused of plagiarizing some of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas, despite the fact that Spitteler’s original publication of his epic predated Nietzsche’s ideas. Eventually, Spitteler felt compelled to defend himself against plagiarism charges in Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche (my relation to Nietzsche) in 1908. The second troubling incident occurred in 1914 when Spitteler publicly voiced support for Swiss neutrality amid World War I-era Europe and opposed the increasingly popular view that German-speaking Swiss citizens should ally themselves with Germany. In contrast to earning the disdain of many Swiss for his views, he earned praise from the French and was awarded the Medal of the Society of French Men of Letters, 1916.

Spitteler’s most noteworthy epic poem, Olympischer Frühling, appeared between 1900 and 1905 in installments and was revised in 1910. The culmination of a lifetime of work, this six-hundred-page work combines many facets of his ideas, including religion, philosophy, mythology, and allegory. Books 1 and 2 of the piece were relatively unnoticed, but famous composer Felix Weingartner endorsed the work in a special pamphlet, Carl Spitteler, ein künstlerisches Erlebnis (1904), bringing widespread recognition to those first two books, along with the other three yet to come. The 1919 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Spitteler at age seventy-five for Olympischer Frühling; however, too ill to travel to Stockholm, he received the award from the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had accepted it on Spitteler’s behalf.

Four years later, Spitteler died in Lucerne, shortly after producing Prometheus der Dulder, a new rhyming version of his first epic. Following his death, much praise was accorded Spitteler’s life and work; the most notable was given by Romain Rolland, who called Spitteler “Our Homer, the greatest German poet since Goethe, the only master of the epic since Milton died three centuries ago. But a more solitary figure amid the art of his day than either the one or the other of these.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jantz, Harold S. “The Factor of Generation in German Literary History.” Modern Language Notes 52, no. 5 (May, 1937): 324-330. A “generational” approach to literature, examining how writers of an era assimilate contemporary culture. Spitteler is included in the “idealistic, anti-realistic” generation.

Muirhead, James F. Introduction to Selected Poems of Carl Spitteler. Translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928. Muirhead shows the poems to represent Spitteler’s deepest convictions. Biographical material also presented.

Robertson, John George. Essays and Addresses on Literature. 1935. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. Connections between classical and romantic in German literature. Spitteler and other writers are studied.