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A genius with versatile talents in graphics, music, and theater, E. T. A. Hoffmann first achieved artistic distinction as a musician. He composed symphonies, operettas, sonatas, and the first romantic opera Undine (1816), based on a Nouvelle by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqué, and he wrote perceptive, progressive...

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A genius with versatile talents in graphics, music, and theater, E. T. A. Hoffmann first achieved artistic distinction as a musician. He composed symphonies, operettas, sonatas, and the first romantic opera Undine (1816), based on a Nouvelle by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqué, and he wrote perceptive, progressive music criticism on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Juan and The Magic Flute, and other musical topics. He also wrote two major novels: Die Elixiere des Teufels: Nachgelassene Papiere des Bruders Medardus, eines Kapuziners (1815-1816; The Devil’s Elixirs: From the Posthumous Papers of Brother Medardus, a Capuchin Friar, 1824), a Jekyll-Hyde psychological novel exploring the darker side of human nature, and Lebensansichten des Katers Murr, nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (1819-1821; The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with the Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Scrap Paper, 1969), a structurally innovative novel which contains interspersed pages from the life of a fictitious musician, used as blotting paper and underlay by the main narrator, the cat.


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E. T. A. Hoffmann is a major figure of the romantic period and among the best-known writers of the German Romantic movement outside Germany. Although it would be difficult to trace completely his worldwide influence, his work certainly inspired writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe in the United States, Alexandre Dumas, père, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo in France, and Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoevski in Russia. His tales have also inspired many composers, perhaps most notably Jacques Offenbach (The Tales of Hoffmann) and Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker and The Queen of Spades). His short fiction introduced many modern themes, including parapsychology and abnormal psychology, alienation of humans from life and society, the subconscious, the use of robots and automatons, and the fantastic and the grotesque. Hoffmann has also been credited with writing the first detective story in 1820, “Das Fräulein von Scudéri” (“Mademoiselle de Scudéry”).

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For most of his life, E. T. A. Hoffmann (HAWF-mahn) cherished the hope that he would one day be remembered as a composer, and it was only late in his career as an artist that literary preoccupations began to outweigh his interest in music. By the time of his death, Hoffmann had nevertheless produced a considerable literary oeuvre that included two novels and more than seventy tales. Hoffmann gathered most of the tales into three collections. He published the first under the title Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1814-1815; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, 1996). Included in this collection are Hoffmann’s important first story, “Ritter Gluck: Eine Erinnerung aus dem Jahr 1809” (“Ritter Gluck”), as well as his most famous fairy tale, “Der goldene Topf: Ein Märchen aus der neuen Zeit” (“The Golden Flower Pot”). Hoffmann’s second collection, Nachtstücke (1817; night pieces), contains his most ghostly, even ghoulish, creations. Its opening story,“Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”), still servedSigmund Freud in 1919 as a case study of the human sense of the uncanny. Into the four volumes of Die Serapionsbrüder (1819-1821; The Serapion Brethren, 1886-1892) Hoffmann incorporated “Rat Krespel” (“Councillor Krespel”), “Die Bergwerke zu Falun” (“The Mines of Falun”), and—immortalized by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky in 1892 as The Nutcracker Suite—the fairy tale “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” (“Nutcracker and the King of Mice”). The first detective story in European literature and Hoffmann’s most popular tale during his lifetime, “Das Fräulein von Scudéri” (“Mademoiselle de Scudéri”), also appeared in The Serapion Brethren.

During the last three years of his life, Hoffmann wrote three lengthy, complex tales in which he tried to achieve a unique blend of fairy tale, social satire, and aesthetic speculation: Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober (1819; Little Zaches, Surnamed Zinnober, 1971), Prinzessin Brambilla: Ein Capriccio nach Jakob Callot (1821; Princess Brambilla: A “Capriccio” in the Style of Jacques Callot, 1971), and Meister Floh: Ein Märchen in sieben Abenteuern zweier Freunde (1822; Master Flea: A Fairy Tale in Seven Adventures of Two Friends, 1826). Hoffmann’s letters and diaries were published in the four-volume Tagebücher in 1971, and a volume of his letters was published in English in 1977.


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In his own day, E. T. A. Hoffmann became a successful writer in a remarkably short time. His ghost and horror stories were received with favor by critics and with enthusiasm by the general reading public. Still, few would have considered Hoffmann to be more than an admittedly original and masterful entertainer. With his mixture of the miraculous, the fantastic, and the horrible, he clearly catered to his generation’s fascination with the occult and his readers’ thirst for the thrill of a spine-chilling story.

After Hoffmann’s death, his reputation as a writer diminished rapidly and was finally destroyed by a formidable opponent from abroad. In 1827, Sir Walter Scott published in Foreign Quarterly Review a scathing attack against the excessive employment of supernatural elements in fiction titled “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition; and Particularly on the Works of Ernest Theodore William Hoffmann.” Using the works of Hoffmann to make his point, Scott concluded that only an opium-inflamed mind could have conceived such frightful chimeras. Scott’s assault on Hoffmann’s reputation proved fatal, because Johann Wolfgang von Goethe then made it his personal mission to recommend Scott’s indictment of the unsavory Hoffmann to the sane sensibilities of his German compatriots.

That Hoffmann’s writings survived this Olympian disapproval is largely the result of their success in France. Though none of Hoffmann’s works had been translated into a foreign language during his life, French translations of several of his tales appeared shortly after his death and were quickly followed by a veritable Hoffmann vogue among France’s most distinguished writers. Honoré de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire showed themselves to be greatly impressed, and in 1836, Gérard de Nerval summarized the French conception of Germany’s literary pantheon by speaking of Germany as the land of Friedrich Schiller, Goethe, and Hoffmann. Stimulated by the French reception, enthusiasm for Hoffmann caught fire in Russia as well. Indeed, no major Russian writer of the nineteenth century—from Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol to Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy—failed to acknowledge Hoffmann’s impact on his work.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, by contrast, Scott’s article squelched whatever interest there might have been in the achievements of Hoffmann. Still, as if by an ironic twist, it is in that world that Hoffmann doubtless found his most congenial successor, Edgar Allan Poe. The precise nature and extent of Hoffmann’s influence on Poe, however, remains a much-debated and apparently elusive issue among literary historians.

Hoffmann would certainly have derived special gratification from the fact that, while his own musical compositions did not bring him fame, composers throughout the nineteenth century set his literary inspirations to music. Thus, for a wide and international audience, Hoffmann’s name is often linked, if not identified, with the names of his greatest musical admirers. Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana (1838; eight fantasies for keyboard devoted to Kreisler, the hero of Hoffmann’s second novel), Jacques Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881; The Tales of Hoffmann), and Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker Suite are only the best known of many musical offerings to the genius of Hoffmann.

In the twentieth century, Hoffmann finally emerged, even in Germany, as one of that country’s most brilliant writers of fiction. He became especially valued as a fearless explorer of the labyrinthine qualities of the human psyche in its desperate search for inner order in the face of instinctual lust and aggression. Hoffmann’s works definitely began to cast their spell again, although more than ever before readers often found themselves feeling ambivalent about what is charm and what is curse within that spell’s obsessive power.

Discussion Topics

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In what ways does E. T. A. Hoffmann bring supernatural and realistic elements together in Master Flea: A Fairy Tale in Seven Adventures to Two Friends?

Is Councillor Krespel in the story named for him a version of the author?

Trace the influence of Hoffmann on the mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Hoffmann is usually called a Romantic. Are there aspects of his stories that seem anti-Romantic?

Cite several instances of the influence of Hoffmann’s stories as bases for works or parts of works by well-known composers.


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Allen, Richard. “Reading Kleist and Hoffmann.” In Romantic Writing, edited by Stephen Bygrave. London: Routledge, 1996. Discusses alienation, the Freudian notion of the uncanny, the relationship between love and death, and the sense of strangeness in Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.”

Bergström, Stefan. Between Real and Unreal: A Thematic Study of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Die Serapionsbrüder.” New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references.

Daemmrich, Horst S. The Shattered Self: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Tragic Vision. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. An important study of the literary work of Hoffmann. After his introduction, which places Hoffmann in historical context and outlines critical appraisals of his work, Daemmrich analyzes Hoffmann’s major themes and motifs. He sees a “dynamic structural pattern” as a basis for humans’ search for identity and finds in Hoffmann’s work a portrayal of “the disintegration of the individual in a world uncontrolled forces.” Contains extensive notes to individual chapters, a bibliography, and an index.

Hewett-Thayer, Harvey W. Hoffmann: Author of the Tales. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1938. A comprehensive biography of Hoffmann and a discussion of his works. The footnotes are very informative, containing comments and suggestions for further reading, as well as the original German for many passages when these appear in English translation in the main text. Includes very readable story analyses, often with a summary of the story line. Supplemented by a listing of Hoffmann’s literary works with dates of publication, a bibliography, and an index of names and works. Intended as an introduction for both the student and the general reader.

Kohlenbach, Margarete. “Women and Artists: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Implicit Critique of Early Romanticism.” The Modern Language Review 89 (July, 1994): 659-673. Notes the psychic limitation and misogynistic implications in several of Hoffmann’s narratives; examines “Der Sandmann” to determine the importance of the text’s ambiguity with respect to the Romantic discourse on femininity.

Kropf, David Gleen. Authorship as Alchemy: Subversive Writing in Pushkin, Scott, Hoffmann. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. Discusses the story “Das Fräulein von Schdern” in terms of how it reveals different ways in which authorship puts pressure on the creative process and undermines the workings of authorship.

Lazare, Christopher, ed. Introduction and biographic note to Tales of Hoffmann. New York: Grove Press, 1946. The introduction contains helpful comments on Hoffmann’s importance in nineteenth century European literature, and the biographical note is an informative essay, giving the general reader details of Hoffmann’s biography along with some insights into his attitudes and way of viewing life. The main body of the book contains modern English translations of ten of his most important stories.

McGlathery, James M. E. T. A. Hoffmann. New York: Twayne, 1997. A critical introduction to Hoffmann’s life and work, focusing on critical reception to his work, his own critical writings, and analysis of his major works of fiction. Includes discussions of “The Sandman” and “Ritter Gluck,” as well as several lesser-known stories and Hoffmann’s fairy tales.

Negus, Kenneth. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Other World: The Romantic Author and His “New Mythology.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965. A very readable and useful monography, focusing on Hoffmann’s development of a coherent body of myth in his fantasy world—a “new mythology” founded on an inner spiritual (or psychological) world but extending to form a “cosmic myth.” In the process, Negus examines all Hoffmann’s major, and many of the minor, literary works, with a view to laying a critical foundation for his narrative art. The book includes a select bibliography and an index.

Passage, Charles E. The Russian Hoffmannists. The Hague: Mouton, 1963. Intended for readers interested in comparative literature, this study focuses on the significance of Hoffmann’s work for Russian literature. Among the authors examined at length are Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevski. Passage attempts to show real areas of influence and correct claims of influence where none exists. The appendices include a helpful listing of Hoffman’s works with the original publication dates (even of individual stories when published elsewhere before appearing in a collection), a chronology, and a parallel listing of Hoffmann’s work in relation to works of Russian Hoffmannists.

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