Heinrich von Kleist Biography

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(History of the World: The 19th Century)

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Article abstract: Kleist was one of the most important literary figures in the development of the German Novellen of poetic realism. Although he is better known in Germany than in English-speaking countries, he is usually acknowledged to have been ahead of his time, a forerunner of the modern literature of the grotesque, usually associated with Franz Kafka a century later.

Early Life

Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born on October 18, 1777, in Frankfurt an der Oder, the first son of a Prussian officer, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane Ulrike Pannwitz. By the time he was fifteen, both of his parents had died and he, without much enthusiasm, had become a soldier. Although little is known about his childhood, what evidence there is available from letters and other sources indicates that he was bored and unhappy with his life as a soldier; although he was promoted to lieutenant, he resigned from the army in 1799 to enter the University of Frankfurt. While there for three semesters, Kleist threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies of mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

Also while at the university, Kleist met and became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of an army officer. His letters from this period suggest that he was an extremely serious young man, introspective and concerned with finding fulfillment in his life by means of intellectual pursuits. Even his love affair with Wilhelmine was characterized by his efforts to make her into a kind of idealized soul mate, an embodiment of intellectual and moral beauty. In letters to his sister and his fiancée, he talks of his “life plan,” a rational pursuit that would prevent him from being merely a puppet at the mercy of fate.

Yet Kleist’s hopes for a purely rational plan of life were crushed in 1801 by what his biographers refer to as his “Kantian crisis.” In a letter to Wilhelmine, he declared that as a result of reading Immanuel Kant all of his faith in rationality as a basis for leading a purposeful life had been destroyed, and his anguish at facing a life governed by chance, fate, and meaninglessness had become almost unbearable. In what some have called an attempt to escape his intellectual torment, Kleist left Frankfurt and began traveling, first to Paris and then to Switzerland, where he became fascinated with ideas learned from Jean-Jacques Rousseau about leading the “natural life.” Because his fiancée refused to go along with his new enthusiasm to lead the simple life of a peasant, their engagement was broken the following year. It was while living in Switzerland that Kleist began writing and thus launched his short-lived career.

Life’s Work

Some of his biographers suggest that Kleist’s literary career began because he was attempting to compensate for his failure to achieve his intellectual goals by succeeding immediately as a writer. While living on a small island on the Lake of Thun in Switzerland, he completed his drama Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803; The Schroffenstein Family, 1916) and began work on Der zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930) and Robert Guiskard (1808; English translation, 1962). Although he began two of his best-known short fictions at this time, “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (1811; “The Engagement in Santo Domingo,” 1960) and “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (1807; “The Earthquake in Chile,” 1946), he had been greatly encouraged to continue his work on Robert Guiskard by the high praise for an early fragment of the play received from Christopher Martin Wieland, one of the most respected literary figures in Germany at the time.

For reasons known only to the tormented mind of Kleist, when he returned to Paris he burned the fragment of Robert Guiskard , which Wieland had said was worthy of Sophocles and William Shakespeare. Stung by his own self-imposed sense of failure, he joined Napoleon I’s forces, which were ready for an invasion of England, perhaps hoping, as some biographers suggest, that...

(The entire section is 1,807 words.)