Richard Beer-Hofmann Critical Essays

Introduction

Richard Beer-Hofmann 1866-1945

Austrian playwright, novelist, short story writer, and poet.

An influential member of a group of writers known as "Young Vienna," Beer-Hofmann produced a small body of works that are characterized by keen psychological insight as well as a preoccupation with art, love, and death—themes that were often explored by Young Vienna writers. One of Beer-Hofmann's most important contributions to Austrian literature was his early experimentation with stream-of-consciousness narrative technique in his novel Der Tod Georgs (The Death of George) and other works. In his later years Beer-Hofmann worked on a cycle of biblical dramas, most prominently Jaákobs Traum (Jacob's Dream), that combined his growing awareness of his Jewish heritage with his sense of artistic calling.

Biographical Information

Beer-Hofmann was born in Vienna to Hermann and Rose Beer. A few days after his birth his mother died, and he was subsequently placed in the care of his aunt and uncle, Berta and Alois Hofmann, who later adopted him and whose surname was added to his own. Beer-Hofmann was raised in upper middle-class Jewish milieus in Brünn and Vienna. He later attended the University of Vienna, where he received a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1890. Rather than practicing law, however, he overcame the resistance of his family and embarked upon a career as a writer. In the 1890s Beer-Hofmann became acquainted with a number of Austrian artists and writers who collectively became known as Young Vienna and whose most famous members included Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Beer-Hofmann's first published work, the short story collection Novellen, and his subsequent novel, The Death of George, demonstrated that he was a writer of acute psychological insight. In 1895 Beer-Hofmann married Paula Lissy, and their loving marriage was the subject of his last major work, a book of reminiscences entitled Paula, ein Fragment. From the early 1900s until his death Beer-Hofmann worked on writing biblical dramas, the most famous of which is Jacob's Dream. He also received critical acclaim for adapting and directing plays for the Burgtheater in Vienna. In 1938, after the Nazis assumed power in Germany, Beer-Hofmann went into hiding with Paula, and in 1939 the couple fled to the United States. En route to New York, Paula suffered a fatal heart attack; after his wife's death, Beer-Hofmann lived in Manhattan, eventually becoming an American citizen. He died in 1945.

Major Works

Critics have noted that the hallmarks of Beer-Hofmann's most mature work—his inventive literary techniques, beautiful imagery, and psychological astuteness—are all evident in his first published book, Novellen. In his novel The Death of George Beer-Hofmann polished the stream-of-consciousness technique that he had begun to experiment with in Novellen. The Death of George is considered a representative example of Austrian fin-de-siècle literature for its rich imagery and symbolism, its aesthete hero, and its exploration of youth, beauty, and death. However, in a marked departure from other works chronicling late nineteenth-century decadence, Beer-Hofmann's hero ultimately chooses to become more deeply engaged with life, rather than remaining detached from it. During his life-time Beer-Hofmann grew more aware of his Jewish identity, and his interest in Judaism is reflected in Jacob's Dream and the unfinished David cycle, which consists of Der junge David (Young David) and fragments and out-lines published as Das Vorspiel aufdem Theater zu "König David." In Jacob's Dream Beer-Hofmann depicted his hero as suffering from profound doubt—Jacob rails against having been chosen as God's elect—before ultimately deciding to enter into a covenant with God. Commentators observe that Jacob's Dream functions on many levels at once: it is the retelling of a well-known Bible story, a chronicle of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people, and a parable about the writer's artistic calling. After the Nazis came to power, Beer-Hofmann fled Vienna and took up residence in New York; there, he wrote Paula, ein Fragment, a memoir about his marriage and his recently deceased wife. In this reminiscence he explores the dominant themes of his life and work in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness style.

Critical Reception

Beer-Hofmann is recognized as a literary innovator for having used experimental techniques like stream of consciousness and the interior monologue long before they were in vogue. Several critics have remarked that Beer-Hofmann's stylistic experimentation prefigures the work of better-known writers, including Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Although Beer-Hofmann's work is generally overlooked today, his lullaby for his daughter, "Schlaflied für Mirjam" ("Lullaby for Miriam"), has endured and is widely anthologized.