Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

The second son of a wealthy industrialist, Stefan Zweig had an early and auspicious start in literature in what he later described as a “world of security,” taking “flight into the intellectual” from his father’s stultifying business mentality and his mother’s overbearing snobbishness. Having an essay accepted by Theodor Herzl,...

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The second son of a wealthy industrialist, Stefan Zweig had an early and auspicious start in literature in what he later described as a “world of security,” taking “flight into the intellectual” from his father’s stultifying business mentality and his mother’s overbearing snobbishness. Having an essay accepted by Theodor Herzl, the influential editor of the prestigious Vienna daily Neue Freie Presse, was an important boost to the career of the fledgling writer, who soon became an outstanding member of the literary group Jung Wien (Young Vienna). His first book was published when he was still in his teens.

In 1904, Zweig earned a doctorate from the University of Vienna with a dissertation on Hippolyte Taine. Early trips to Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, England, Italy, Spain, India, and North America served to broaden the horizon of the young man, but what most decisively shaped Zweig’s evolution from an aesthetically oriented man of letters to a “great European” was his encounter with the Flemish poet Émile Verhaeren. Zweig regarded Verhaeren’s intense, vibrantly contemporary, and life-affirming poetry as a lyrical encyclopedia of his age. Zweig tirelessly served Verhaeren as a translator, biographer, and publicist. Zweig’s European education was continued through his friendship with the French writer Romain Rolland, whose exemplary pacifist and humanist activities in wartime were a great inspiration to Zweig. While working at the Austrian War Archives in Vienna, Zweig was able to write his pacifist drama Jeremiah. He went to Zurich to join a group of intellectuals who, like himself, rejected nationalism and worked toward the restoration of the community of European men of mind.

In 1919, Zweig moved to Salzburg and was soon able to solemnize his union with the writer Friderike Maria Burger von Winternitz. The years in Salzburg, where he lived with his wife and two stepdaughters, were his most productive ones. In addition to having his works published by the prestigious Insel Verlag of Leipzig, he became a trusted adviser to that publishing house, ever ready to help other writers and artists by introducing and championing their work. His readings and lectures took him all over the world. One of the most notable of these journeys was his trip to Russia in 1928 on the occasion of the Tolstoy centennial.

After 1933, the centrally located Salzburg became an inhospitable and dangerously exposed place, and an almost paranoid uneasiness took hold of the apolitical Zweig. His move to England in 1934 marked the beginning of years of insecurity, restless globe-trotting, and mounting despair. The breakup of his marriage was but one of many symptomatic events and situations that bedeviled the man who had acquired the coveted British citizenship and was materially far better off than most emigrants. Profoundly depressed by the fate of his spiritual homeland, Europe, and fearing that the humanist spirit was crushed forever, Zweig committed suicide in 1942 in a country which he had celebrated in a book as “a land of the future.” He was joined in death by his second wife, Elisabeth Charlotte Altmann, whom he had married at Bath in 1939.

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