von Kleist, Heinrich 1777-1811
German short story writer, essayist, journalist, and dramatist.
Unappreciated in his own time, Kleist posthumously received wide critical acclaim for his short prose. His eight short stories, or Novellen, originally puhlished in two volumes in 1810-11, are considered comparable to the work of Giovanni Boccaccio and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to his Novellen, Kleist wrote eight plays and many political essays. The extreme stylization and frank sexuality of his works shocked his contemporaries, denying him the acclaim he coveted; however, these same qualities have ensured continuing interest in his work today, and he is now particularly praised for his acute psychological insight and honest depictions of sexuality.
Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder on October 18, 1777, into a prominent military family that had produced eighteen Prussian generals. He was educated privately until the age of eleven, when he went to the French Gymnasium in Berlin. He joined the army at the age of fifteen and participated in the 1793 Rhine campaign against the French. Kleist broke with family tradition in 1799 when, disillusioned with military life, he resigned his commission to attend the University of Frankfurt. There he studied mathematics, science, and philosophy for one year while also serving as tutor to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of a family friend. The two became engaged and Kleist left the university for a job in the civil service. Soon, however, he resigned his position to embark alone on a journey through Europe. Scholars note the importance of this trip in Kleist's intellectual development; it was in his letters to Wilhelmine that he first expressed his desire to pursue a literary career. Another key event in Kleist's education was his 1801 reading of Immanuel Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason (1788). Kleist's rationalistic belief in human perfectibility and immortality was challenged by Kant's ideas on the inability of reason to discern the truth behind appearances, and he entered a period of despondency that scholars commonly call his "Kant crisis." Critics note that Kleist's reaction to Kant set the tone for the metaphysical background of his creative work, especially his Novellen. Kleist wrote all of his major works between 1804 and 1810 and, with the German economist Adam Muller, started the literary journal Phöbus as a vehicle for his stories. Lack of financial support caused the journal's early demise. In 1810, the first volume of Kleist's Erzhälungen (the collection of his Novellen), which includes Michael Kohlhaas, "Die Marquise von O . . ." ("The Marquise of O . . ."), and "Das Erdbeben in Chili" ("The Earthquake in Chile"), was published. At this time he also started a political periodical, Die Berliner Abendblätter, in which he published anti-Napoleonic articles, but the paper was discontinued after six months due to a lack of popular support. Throughout his life, Kleist had expressed a wish to die and had frequently asked friends to commit suicide with him. In 1811, he befriended Henriette Vogel, an actress dying of cancer who agreed to a suicide pact. They traveled together to an inn near Potsdam, and on November 21, Kleist shot Vogel and then himself.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Kleist's eight Novellen were collected in the two-volume Erzhälungen: "Der Findling" ("The Foundling"); Michael Kohlhaas; "Das Bettelweib von Locarno" ("The Beggarwoman of Locarno"); "Der Zweikampf ("The Duel"); "Die Marquise von O . . ." ("The Marquise of O . . ."); "Das Erdbeben in Chile" ("The Earthquake in Chile"); "Die Verlobung in St. Domingo" ("The Engagement in Santo Domingo"); and "Die Heilige Cäcilie" ("St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music"). These narratives form the body of Kleist's short fiction and are considered major contributions to the German Novelle genre. Kleist himself has been variously described as extremist, neurotic, and tense. There can be no doubt that his personality as well as his failure to find acceptance, fame, and meaning in life informed his work. Arthur A. Cohen wrote that Kleist "was always intent on an inversion of sensibility, on externalizing the riot of passions that he discerned within himself and, by extension, with everyone. He used himself continuously as his test case." Kleist's internal conflicts infuse his stories and are manifested in the paradoxical themes of his work. Seemingly normal characters are tested under suddenly extraordinary and chaotic circumstances: an earthquake in "The Earthquake in Chile," a racial uprising in "The Engagement in Santo Domingo." The play of opposites is central to "The Foundling," in which good and evil characters resemble each other and whose names are anagrams of each other. "St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music" features men bent on destruction at a church who are transformed into G/tfria-singing acolytes. As Denys Dyer noted in his The Stories of Kleist: A Critical Studyy these stories are "narrated in a prose style staggering in its originality and quite unique in German literature." The singularity of these Novellen prompted E. K. Bennett in his A History of the German Novelle from Goethe to Thomas Mann to describe the stories as having "significantly no framework." Bennett concluded that the deviation of Kleist's Novellen from the standards of the time served to widen acceptable Novelle parameters, "opening the genre to other themes and other treatment."
Kleist's potential genius was acknowledged by such leading German literary figures as Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland, though most considered Kleist's work eccentric and problematical. Since his death, speculation about the cause and meaning of Kleist's suicide has been an integral part of most interpretations of his works. Nineteenth-century critics searched the author's writings for evidence of mental illness, focusing on the extreme and eccentric nature of his characters. In the early twentieth century, scholars influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche regarded Kleist's suicide in a more positive light, elevating him as an example of Nietzsche's tragic artist. Others saw him, in the words of Julius Petersen, as the "classic of Expressionism," interpreting his works as a quest for philosophical certainty. In the later twentieth century, critics influenced by existentialist philosophy saw Kleist's suicide as a normal response to the tragic nature of human existence, and they praised his artistic obsession with the human struggle to make sense of an incomprehensible universe. It was not until Marxist critics expressed interest in the political and historical aspects of Kleist's works that literary interpretation was separated from biographical concerns. Many Marxist scholars believe that Kleist's primary concern was the relation of man to society under capitalism, though they debate whether he condoned middle-class values or supported a rebellion against authority. Despite such uncertainty, critics have praised Kleist's perception and honesty and have acknowledged the unique power of his prose narratives.