(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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Unlike their English contemporaries (William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron) and German rivals (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller), the German Romantics have not, on the whole, received much attention outside the borders of their own country. Their impact on humane letters in the English-speaking world has been negligible. Many of their principal works remain either untranslated or available only in archaic and generally out-of-print versions; only occasionally do they merit inclusion (and then only in brief snippets) in standard anthologies of Romantic literature. Nowhere is the general neglect of the German Romantics more strikingly illustrated than in the case of Kleist’s well-nigh canonical essay, “Über das Marionettentheater.” Enthusiastically received by E. T. A. Hoffmann at the time of its original publication in the Berlin Abendblätter, the essay has provoked widespread admiration and occasioned some famous borrowings (notably by Rainer Maria Rilke in the fourth of the Duineser Elegien, 1923; Duino Elegies, 1930) among the great figures of German letters. Despite the text’s considerable reputation in the literary and cultural history of central Europe, the only adequate English translation extant at the moment of writing was published some years ago in the Times Literary Supplement—an odd place for the enshrinement of a classic text, to be sure.

It is with some pleasure, therefore, that one contemplates the translation into English of a full-scale biography of Kleist. Originally published in 1957, revised and reissued in 1977, Joachim Maass’s Kleist covers the ground of Kleist’s brief and troubled life in copious detail. Would that the energy and excitement of its subject’s life were matched by the narrative of this biography. It may be that the plodding, tedious quality of Maass’s book is unnecessarily accentuated in the translation—although Ralph Manheim is highly regarded as a translator—but for whatever reason, this book has taken an important, neglected, and potentially lively subject and turned it into an extremely tiresome read. Readers with only limited German but diligently devoted to the study of German culture and interested in the Romantics will find the book a useful source of new information, but for those whose command of German is good, reading Kleist’s own letters would be preferable to plowing through this biography.

Nevertheless, the record, such as it can with confidence be established—as Erich Heller has remarked, “Kleist’s life, more than that of any other celebrated figure in the literary history of his epoch, abounds in unsolved puzzles, both factual and emotional, and biographies of him, therefore, often engage in purely speculative constructions”—is all there in Maass’s account. He draws liberally upon Kleist’s correspondence and on legal and political documents, and his knowledge of the day-to-day details of Kleist’s dealings with friends and associates is considerable. Most valuable, perhaps, is the knowledge one gains of the history of composition and publication of Kleist’s major works. Maass has obviously done his bibliographic homework with some care.

Setting aside the somewhat lugubrious incidents of Kleist’s personal life, including his suicide à deux with Henriette Vogel (which Maass draws out with all the excessive sentiment and morbid fascination for details that Kleist himself, a distinguished writer of drama and clearly in his final hours preter-naturally concerned with the theatricality of his own death, could have wished for its presentation to posterity), the real interest of the present study lies in the glimpse it affords of literary life in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germany. Above all—in both the spatial and idiomatic senses of the phrase—there is Goethe.

Relations between Goethe and Kleist were stormy and, Maass speculates, perhaps ultimately responsible for the personal tragedy of Kleist himself. Kleist’s boast that he would “tear the wreath off [Goethe’s] head” has not been vindicated in the ensuing one and three quarters centuries. Goethe, it would seem, treated Kleist rather badly, and posterity, whatever its praise for individual works, has scarcely been more kind. Kleist was undoubtedly a difficult man to deal with, and surely some of Goethe’s distaste for his work stemmed from his sense of the destructiveness of Kleist’s personality. “Die verfluchte unnatur!” Goethe is supposed to have exclaimed upon reading Kleist’s play Penthesilea (1808; English translation, 1959), consigning it to the fire as he did so. It may be that Goethe’s instincts in the matter were correct, but one might speculate that what most moved the elder poet to rage was a clear recognition that in Kleist he beheld something like a former incarnation of himself. Goethe had, after all, done a considerable amount to popularize the Romantic cult of early death in his own youthful novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther), the autobiographical dimensions of whose character are well-known.

In addition, one learns much about the literary mode of production in Germany at this period. What Jürgen Habermas, referring most often to the eighteenth century (and frequently more to France than to Germany), has dubbed the “public sphere” operated in this period with somewhat less force, though not without consequence to literary production. The salons (or, in England, coffeehouses) where educated men and women mixed and discoursed about politics and culture had, by the time Kleist began to publish, been overtaken by forms of cultural dissemination more directly controlled by the state. Kleist’s efforts to have his works printed (or, in the case of the plays, performed) encountered repeatedly the coercive power of the Prussian state apparatus. True, it was ultimately public opinion that doomed Kleist’s literary (and personal) life to oblivion, but the force of this opinion was frequently felt in the refusal of licenses to print or in the unwillingness of state-supported institutions to make his works public. The forms of overt censorship that would characterize the Prussian (and other German) states for much of the nineteenth century had already emerged in Kleist’s lifetime. It is instructive to learn that the notorious forms of political repression under which Karl Marx would later suffer in Germany applied at this period equally to cultural matters, particularly when, as was the case with many of Kleist’s works, conventional manners and morals were affronted (see, for example, Maass’s account of the reaction to Die Marquise von O ..., 1808; The Marquise of O, 1960).

Where this biography fails most noticeably is in its treatment of the literary character of the works themselves. Maas falls back repeatedly on empty phraseology about Kleist’s “genius” and the “artifice” of his language, as well as on nebulous references to “Kleistean themes” (whatever they might be). Nowhere is there a single sustained reading of a text, nor is there any effort to describe Kleist’s writings at a more profound level than the thematic. Where plots are given, Maass is content to recount the incidents, leaving even a rudimentary formal analysis of structure to be inferred by the reader. One might dismiss this objection as mere carping, because Maass does not lay claim to literary critical analysis but seems to have intended merely to give a full and relatively unspeculative account of Kleist’s life, both in and out of the world of letters. Nevertheless, it is fair to fault a biographer who consistently makes claims for the literary genius of his subject for neglecting to give more than passing attention to the texts on which the claims for genius rest. Because Christoph Martin Wieland’s judgment (after hearing Kleist recite fragments of his Robert Guiskard, Herzog der Normänner in 1804) that “Kleist was born to fill the wide gap in our dramatic literature which, at least in my opinion, even Goethe and Schiller have failed to fill” has proved exaggerated, if not simply wrong, it would seem incumbent upon Maass to justify his high opinion of Kleist’s achievement with critical interpretation of some of the major works.

This demand is warranted not only by the judgments expressed in Maass’s text but also by similar judgments in the larger body of literature dealing with Kleist, which has failed notably to do more than honor him. Indeed, genuinely critical reading of Kleist has hardly begun (although the impending publication of the late Paul de Man’s essay on “Über das Marionettentheater” may begin to redress this imbalance). Only after more careful exegeses of his texts have shown the actual rhetorical and aesthetic complexity that has often been attributed to them will the large claims for Kleist’s literary genius be supportable. Maass’s biography does nothing to advance this cause and is therefore something of a disappointment.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Library Journal. CVIII, July, 1983, p. 1364.

New Leader. LXVI, October 3, 1983, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, July 24, 1983, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LIX, September 12, 1983, p. 157.

Observer. January 8, 1984, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, May 13, 1983, p. 44.

Time. CXXI, May 30, 1983, p. 79.