The House of Wittgenstein

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

With all the richness and scope of a classic historical novel, Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War is a portrait of the eccentric family that produced Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the twentieth century’s central philosophers, and Paul Wittgenstein, a famous concert pianist. In encompassing the entire Wittgenstein saga, Waugh places the family’s tale in the social, cultural, and political context of the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the turmoil of two world wars, and the dawn of the postmodern world that Ludwig helped shape with his seminal writings on language and logic.

It is clear why the Wittgenstein saga attracted Waugh as a writer, since he too is a member of an illustrious family. His great-grandfather, Arthur Waugh, was Charles Dickens’s publisher. Arthur’s sons, Alec and Evelyn, became significant novelists. Evelyn is best known as the author of Brideshead Revisited (1945), the classic novel of class relationships and the Catholic faith. Evelyn’s son, Auberon, became a well-known British journalist, and Alexander is Auberon’s son. Thus, Alexander Waugh knows well the tensions and glories of being a member of a famous familyknowledge that served him well in the writing of Fathers and Sons (2004), his memoir of the Waugh clan, and The House of Wittgenstein, his fourth book.

The strengths Waugh brings to this biography go beyond possessing famous relatives. As a music critic, a producer of award-winning classical albums, and author of Classical Music: A New Way of Listening (1995), Waugh has the perfect background to explore the musically inclined Wittgensteins, who were friends with Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and other major composers. Incidentally, Waugh’s musical vocation explains why pianist Paul Wittgenstein receives more attention in The House of Wittgenstein than his more significant philosopher brother, Ludwig. Still, Waugh has published two books of popular philosophyTime (1999) and God (2002)that provide him the credentials to tackle Ludwig’s life as well.

The House of Wittgenstein begins with Karl Wittgenstein’s rebellion against his father, Hermann Wittgenstein, who founded the family fortune through estate management and land speculation. In 1865, at the age of seventeen, Karl ran away from his Vienna home and landed in New York, where he made a living at a variety of trades, including waiter, fiddle player, and canal boat pilot. Kurt finally made his way to Rochester, New York, where he taught at an exclusive liberal arts college. With this position, he could finally return home without shame. In 1872, he became the head of an Austrian steel firm, and two years later he married Leopoldine Kalmus. This marriage was also an act of rebellion, since Leopoldine was Jewish, and Hermann had forbidden any of his children to marry a Jew. By 1900, Karl, who lived in a Viennese palace with his wife and extensive family, was one of the richest men in Europe. Ministers of government came to him for advice, and he was widely known as a patron of the arts.

Karl hoped that his children would exhibit his qualities of unconventionality, strength of character, and an instinct for success. However, to his disappointment, they essentially embraced only the first of these traits. The one exception was Helene, his fifth child, who married a minister of finance in the Austrian government and remained comfortably upper class. The rest of his children had strange, often tragic lives.

His eldest child, Hermine, never married and, like some character in a gothic novel, spent her life overseeing the Wittgenstein palace. The next child, Dora, died in infancy. Johannes arrived after Dora, and, while he showed promise as an engineer, he became a musician against his father’s wishes. To escape his father’s disapproval, Johannes fled to America in 1902. However, Johannes did not return triumphant from across the Atlantic as his father had in 1866. Instead, he mysteriously vanished. He may have changed his identity before losing himself in the vast South American continent, or he may have drowned in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, or Venezuela’s Orinoco Riverall of these locations being possibilities according to the rumors sent back to the Wittgensteins. Because of Johannes’s fascination with nihilism, his family assumed he committed suicide.

Two years later, Rudolf, the Wittgensteins’ sixth child, walked into a Berlin bar, ordered a glass of milk, mixed it with potassium cyanide, and drank it while the...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1, 2009): 39.

Chronicle of Higher Education 55, no. 33 (April 24, 2009): B4-B5.

Harper’s Magazine 318, no. 1906 (March, 2009): 77-82.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 20 (October 15, 2008): 1108.

Library Journal 133, no. 19 (November 15, 2008): 74-75.

London Review of Books 30, no. 23 (December 4, 2008): 13-14.

New Statesman 137, no. 4920 (November 3, 2008): 54.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 10 (June 11, 2009): 18-22.

The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, p. 8.

The New Yorker 85, no. 8 (April 6, 2009): 70-74.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 19, 2008, p. 11.