Born in 1751, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz was a pastor’s son who attended school at Dorpat (later Tartu, Estonia). He studied at universities in Dorpat and Königsberg (later Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia). In 1771, he gave up the study of theology to accompany two young barons of the von Kleist family to Strasbourg, where he served as their private tutor. Soon Lenz had fallen in with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, and the other members of the Sturm und Drang circle around Johann Gottfried Herder. During his association with these other young writers, he produced the body of work for which he has become known: The Tutor, The Soldiers, Anmerkungen übers Theater nebst angehängten übersetzten Stück Shakespears, and the less influential Der neue Menoza.
Lenz’s personal life was continually in a state of disarray, a circumstance that influenced the response to his work after his death. His advances were rejected by one woman after another, a wound further aggravated by the fact that the long list included Goethe’s presumptive lovers Friederike Brion and Charlotte von Stein as well as Goethe’s married sister. Soon after Goethe had taken up residence in Weimar, Lenz followed him to the court of Duke Karl August. There, Lenz’s rather awkward and eccentric behavior amused members of the court. It was a well-intentioned condescension that turned into repugnance when the thoughtless guest wrote a parody that offended the duke. Lenz was expelled from Weimar in disgrace; he had been there eight months.
The literary establishment of his day, as well as earlier literary scholarship, tended to view Lenz as the reflection of young Goethe in a distorted mirror. Denigration of his work has usually been justified with references to the playwright’s emotional instability. Often, such hostile reception has actually been prompted by Lenz’s status as a socially “engaged” writer or as an innovator in dramatic form. Comparisons between the relatively sophisticated, upper-middle-class Goethe and the...
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