Karl Lebrecht Immermann Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Karl Lebrecht Immermann 1796-1840

German novelist, playwright, and poet.

Best known as the author of Munchhausen (1839), Immermann is a transitional figure in his national literature, standing between the Romanticism of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German literature and the realistic novels of the later nineteenth century. Immermann wrote during a politically and culturally turbulent period in Germany, after the Napoleonic Wars. Many of his works are satirical attacks on what he saw as the dissolution of the traditional moral and spiritual values which he believed inhered in the monarchist system.

Biographical Information

Immermann was born in Magdeburg, into a family of Prussian civil servants. He enrolled at Halle University in 1813 to study law, but his education was almost immediately interrupted by the war with France. He entered military service that same year and fought at Waterloo in 1815, leaving the army a commissioned officer. Returning to Halle University, he became known for his public opposition to the nationalist student movements of the time. He wrote pamphlets against these groups and protested in person to the king—actions that alienated him from much of the German intellectual community, which was generally unsympathetic to the monarchy. After finishing his education, Immermann entered the Prussian civil service. He served as a judge in Magdeburg and then in Dilsseldorf, where he died suddenly at the age of forty-four.

Major Works

Immermann wrote a number of plays that were indifferently received and have been assessed by Jeffrey Sammons as "of no more than antiquarian interest." He also wrote an epic in verse and was at work on his memoirs when he died. His best works are the novels Munchhausen and Die Epigonen (1836). The latter is his portrait of the disoriented character of his generation, overshadowed by the generation of Romantics that preceded them and fractured by the social and political dislocations that followed the Napoleonic Wars. The central character of Die Epigonen is a young man named Hermann who becomes entangled in a protracted struggle between a duke and an industrialist over the inheritance of an estate. In this work Immermann parodies aristocratic excesses, including an attempt to stage a medieval tournament. During the course of the often-convoluted plot Hermann becomes unwittingly involved with the nationalist student revolution. Immermann continued his attack on the values of contemporary society in Munchhausen. Half the book is set in a castle, where Münchhausen mysteriously appears and begins narrating a series of incredible tales to an old baron and his daughter. The character of Munchhausen is generally considered a parody of the romantic artist—a fantastic visionary who cannot survive in the practical, modern world. The book is divided between this satirical portrait of an increasingly irrelevant aristocracy and a compassionate, detailed depiction of German agricultural society. Immermann moves back and forth between Munchhausen's accounts of his adventures and description of the life of the peasants around the castle.

Critical Reception

Munchhausen is so sharply divided between comic fantasy and social realism that some critics consider it two novels. Ferdinand Freiligrath has said the two halves are "rather connected by the thread of the bookbinder, than by a link springing from their nature." In fact, the village story was published separately as Der Oberhof (1863) after Immermann's death. Immermann's reputation has fluctuated since the nineteenth century. Critics who admire the ambitions of his satire have often been disappointed with his actual achievements, and many have noted his debt to Goethe, especially the influence of Wilhelm Meister on Die Epigonen. Immermann has been accused of a certain plodding seriousness, as if he were trying too hard, and Lee B. Jennings judges that "he lacks the saving grace of lightness as well as the unshakable certainty as to his own position." But most critics recognize the brilliance of individual passages in his works, and his novels are still widely read.