Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

While most people have heard of the mendacious Baron Münchausen, the author of the book bearing his name is practically a forgotten man. Little is known about the family of Rudolf Erich Raspe (RAHS-puh); though working class, they provided him with funds for his study at the universities of Göttingen and Leipzig between 1756 and 1760. After graduation, Raspe spent a year tutoring the son of a nobleman. Later he became a librarian, first at Hanover, then at Göttingen. There he translated from the French a philosophic work by Gottfried Leibniz, wrote verses in Latin, studied Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and composed a long allegorical poem on a medieval theme. With Jakob Mauvillon he founded The Cassel Spectator, for which he wrote articles about his many interests and hobbies.

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For his study of mammoths during the Ice Age, the Royal Society of England made Raspe an honorary fellow, and after the appearance of a volume on ancient gems and medals, he was sent to Italy to collect specimens. When he was detected stealing and selling the best of them, he was arrested, but he escaped and fled to England. The warrant for his arrest provides a description of him: “a long-faced man with small eyes, crooked nose, red hair under his stumpy periwig, and a jerky gait.”

In England, Horace Walpole and other admirers helped pay Raspe’s debts until details of his conduct arrived from the Continent; he was then expelled from the Royal Society.

Because of his smattering of geology, he became an assayist with a mining company at Dolcoath, in Cornwall. There, he did the only writing that has survived him. In Germany, he had known an eccentric old soldier, Hieronymus von Münchausen, who amused his guests and burlesqued his exaggerating gamekeeper by telling highly imaginative yarns as solemn truth. Sure that a book published in England would never reach the eyes of the original Münchausen, Raspe set down some of the yarns he remembered, invented others, and issued the book locally. A great success, the work was republished at Oxford in 1786. Neither brought Raspe much cash, but when a London bookseller bought the rights and sandwiched the original tales between a prefatory chapter and fifteen additional sketches at the end, the volume began a literary trend that still prevails in tall-story fiction. The first German edition of the tales appeared in 1786. Raspe, having concocted a scheme for amalgamating silver and gold, collected money for his experiments and then fled to a remote section of Ireland, where he died of scarlet fever in 1794.

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