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In addition to his short fiction, Thomas Mann wrote novels, essays, and some poetry. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, his novel Buddenbrooks (1901; English translation, 1924) was cited specifically, though many of his later novels have received wide acclaim. Especially widely read and written about...

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In addition to his short fiction, Thomas Mann wrote novels, essays, and some poetry. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, his novel Buddenbrooks (1901; English translation, 1924) was cited specifically, though many of his later novels have received wide acclaim. Especially widely read and written about are the novel Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), a philosophical exploration of post-World War I dilemmas, and the four volumes of Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934-1944, 1948), a modern mythology based on biblical tales. Mann’s essays, collected in Adel des Geistes (1945; Essays of Three Decades, 1947), cover a broad range of political and literary issues.


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During more than half a century of writing and publishing both fiction and nonfiction, the German writer Mann received at least a dozen honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Europe and the United States. Though Mann lost both his honorary doctorate from the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelm Universität in Bonn and his German citizenship in 1936, when he was accused of “subversive attacks on, and the gravest insults to, the Reich,” he was reinstated as an honorary doctor at Bonn in 1947. Among his other honorary doctorates, two stand out in particular: One was his honorary doctorate from Harvard University, which he received together with Albert Einstein in 1935; the other was an honorary doctorate of natural sciences from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule of Zurich in 1955, a degree that especially pleased Mann because it was so unusual.

Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, and he received numerous other honors throughout his writing career, including the Herder-Prize of Czechoslovakia for exiled writers in 1937. During his international travels, both before and during his exile, Mann received many personal honors. In 1935, he was the guest of former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife at a private dinner at the White House. From 1938 to 1941, he was a visiting professor at Princeton University, and in 1953, two years before his death, Mann saw Pope Pius XII in private audience.

Mann’s fiction is diverse, sometimes reflecting conventions of the nineteenth century, as in Mann’s early novel Buddenbrooks, sometimes exploring philosophical dilemmas, as in his novel The Magic Mountain, sometimes experimenting with stream-of-consciousness writing, as in the final chapter of his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns, 1940), and sometimes rewriting mythology, as in the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, based on a biblical story, and the novella The Transposed Heads, adapted from a Hindu legend. Always, however, Mann infused a new irony into his fiction. He is a key figure in Western literature.

Other literary forms

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Thomas Mann (mahn) presents a complex intellectual and aesthetic physiognomy, primarily in the area of long and short fiction, though for many he is equally powerful as an autobiographical, literary-critical, or political essayist. Alongside his novels and novelettes stand his novellas and short stories; the two types of fiction are often mixed in collections such as Ausgewahlte Erzählungen (1945).

A true twentieth century classical author, Mann spanned all the restless philosophical issues of his day, obsessed with the notion of decay and nothingness, with the concept of beauty superhumanly understood and melancholically associated with death, and with the shifting verities of political, social, and moral existence in a decadent world. On one hand, with the exception of the World War I period, during his early and middle years he guarded jealously his posture of intellectual independence and impartiality before historical events, retaining the objectivity of a witnessing spectator and artist, either acquiescing or rejecting (and doing so often, given the distance he maintained) with ironic glances. On the other hand, this stance did not preclude (particularly toward the end of his life) a strong ideological, idealistic commitment. These qualities of fundamental impartiality and occasional engagement spilled over into his noncreative writing, from the essays later collected in Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der Humanität (1945; Essays of Three Decades, 1947) and Neue Studien (1948) to more openly political tracts and those pieces collected in Altes und Neues: Kleine Prosa aus fünf Jahrzehnten (1953). The latter collection contains some of Mann’s best autobiographical and autocritical writings.

The intimate relationship between some of Mann’s nonfiction and his fiction creates a thought network that unifies his total production, which is that of an author less interested in conventionalnarrative than in analytical discourse. Thus, Mann’s thoughts on writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Leo Tolstoy relate to The Magic Mountain, as those on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and writer Fyodor Dostoevski relate to Doctor Faustus or as, conversely, his autocritical comments on the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers grow out of a lecture on psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. As a result, Mann’s narrative fiction contains little plot, as plot is narrowly understood. A document that stands on its own is Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918; Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, 1983), with its self-examining reflections mingled with a polemic against Western civilization and democracy (note the war-year dates).

Finally, to round out his writer’s profile and not to be overlooked are pieces such as his charming and sentimental (if unsuccessful) attempt at poetry, “Gesang vom Kindchen” (1919), on the occasion of the birth of his last child; his letter about matrimony, “Über die Ehe: Brief an den Grafen Keyserling” (1923), affirming the moral and religious validity of the institution; and his one attempt at drama, Fiorenza (pb. 1906), dealing with the supposed confrontation between the paganizing, art-loving Lorenzo de’ Medici and the moralistic, religious fanatic Girolamo Savonarola. In 1956, one year after his death, Mann’s Nachlese: Prosa, 1951-1955 appeared.


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While concerned primarily with the problem of Germany, however socially, politically, artistically, or morally perceived, Thomas Mann’s focus always benefited from an awareness of spatial and temporal considerations, from the geographical and the historical. Holland and London, Valparaiso and Florence, Russia and Venice, Palestrina and Switzerland, Italy and the Near East, Mesopotamia and Egypt, Torre di Venere and Davos, India and Lisbon—all these settings round out a worldview that is in no way restricted to the Rhineland or Thuringia or Munich or Lübeck, Hamburg, Weimar, or Bremen. Similarly, the historical dimension shifts broadly, from the Napoleonic wars in Buddenbrooks and the Italian Renaissance in Fiorenza or the Lutheran Reformation in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen to medieval society in The Holy Sinner, the Greek civilization in passages from Death in Venice, the Judeo-Egyptian world in Joseph and His Brothers, even the prehistorical world, in passages from Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. All was designed to arrive at a better understanding not only of Germany but also of the human condition, of what it means to be human.

The sheer breadth of his perspective facilitated, perhaps even inspired, one of Mann’s major analytical devices: contrast and antithesis. The Dionysian of Italy and the arts, of profane love and the irrational, is juxtaposed to the Apollonian of Germany and the mercantile, of sacred love and the rational. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and many other “Teutons” before him, Mann felt acutely the lure of southern Europe, the so-called Drang nach Süden, whereby Italy (and Greece, sometimes translated into what is Latin, French, or even Russian) beckons like a Siren of art, music, and poetry the efficient and practical will of the northerner. The bohemian attracts the bourgeois. With the attraction, interwoven with the whole question of genius or the superior creative spirit, come the notions of disease, sickness, and death as they counterbalance soundness, health, and life.

If the names and origins of the characters mislead at times in this regard, the antithetical premise remains the same. Tonio Kröger (Italian-German)—like the German engineer Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, who falls in love with the French-named Russian Clavdia Chauchat—is torn between the two poles, very much like the author himself. The Germanic Hans Hansen and Ingeborg, in Tonio Kröger, are juxtaposed to the Slavic and more romantic Lisabeta Ivanovna; in The Magic Mountain, the rational Italian humanist scholar Settembrini opposes the mystical, Jesuit-trained Jew Naphta; and in Doctor Faustus, the staid, conservative bourgeois Professor Serenus Zeitblom contrasts only too obviously with the genial hedonist composer Adrian Leverkühn. The same kind of dialectic obtains outside Mann’s novels and novellas, for example, in “Gesang vom Kindchen,” with the Nordic father and the southern/eastern mother; in Fiorenza, with the hedonistic Lorenzo and the ascetic Savonarola; indeed, even in “A Man and His Dog,” with the mongrel Bauschan and the purebred Percy. This contrasting technique usually makes for character delineations that project Mann’s own views through the protagonists or that portray eccentricities through the secondary characters.

Most often people are dealing with artist figures, creators concerned with beauty, and the sound of music is generally audible. According to the nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, music is the central energy of life; according to Nietzsche, it gives birth to the spirit of literature. Along with Goethe, Freud and Carl Jung, Tolstoy and Dostoevski, and the aestheticist Stefan George, Nietzsche in particular moved Mann to a number of speculations. For Mann, the superior artist is touched with madness and the devil, ecstasy and disease; isolated, he does not achieve the modest comforts and simple expectations of life—not even the love of a woman. One of Mann’s finest achievements lies in his representation of this concept in Doctor Faustus, a novel that readers and critics, unless they are versed in the art of music, will never fully understand. With its analyses of Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, twelve-tone composition, and modern music generally, it is a culmination of a process that had begun years before, with the later generations in Buddenbrooks, the Wagnerian presence in Tristan, and the musical observations in The Magic Mountain, and that had been abetted by Mann’s association with conductor Bruno Walter and composer Arnold Schönberg. More than Honoré de Balzac, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Romain Rolland, or Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose utterances on music have left a mark in novelistic history, Mann developed a unique facility to grasp the essence of the musical experience, theoretically and historically, and to communicate it in a way the art of the novel has never known before or since (Alejo Carpentier notwithstanding). Though associated with disease and therefore inhabited by a diabolism that places the mystique-powered Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler at the threshold of Nazism, music, however suspect to Mann, is nevertheless the centrifugal core of the free human impulse.

Mann preferred opportunities to meditate to opportunities to contemplate. Music is meditation, a landscape is contemplation, and it has often been noted that, outside the mountain (see The Magic Mountain) and the sea (see Death in Venice), Mann rarely paints landscapes, despite Joseph and His Brothers. What he excels in depicting is human nature, the portrait over the landscape, in all of its most intricate and elusive details—a talent that made him appreciate Albrecht Dürer, as Leverkühn’s soulful fascination with the painter clearly indicates.

Mann’s other achievement lies in his penetrating understanding of all that is human, the vagaries of sublimity and grotesqueness, of hedonism, passion, and violence, and of measure, Puritanism, and gentility. He discovers the stimulation of sickness and the relation between disease and genius, and he combines his observations with a keen interest in myth (there are archetypal reminiscences in all of his works) and its recurrence in the human experience; most obviously, the Faust archetype reemerges in Doctor Faustus. In line with Mann’s psychological/psychoanalytical preoccupations, one must mention his concern with eroticism, an almost sui generis eroticism, not one of pseudopornographic titillation but one derived from Nietzsche’s, and then Freud’s, views on erotic phenomena. Concealed at first, in such works as “Der kleine Herr Friedemann” (1897; “Little Herr Friedemann,” 1936) and Confessions of Felix Krull (which was actually begun as early as 1911), sensual love surfaces finally in The Magic Mountain, when, upon contracting tuberculosis, Hans Castorp develops a passionate love for Clavdia Chauchat, just as Leverkühn achieves stature as a composer after contracting syphilis. The Transposed Heads and The Holy Sinner (dealing with incest) sink even deeper into the erotic. If the psychoanalyst Dr. Krokowski in The Magic Mountain or his counterpart in The Holy Sinner does not fare well under Mann’s ironic pen, the author is more than well disposed toward the theory of a subconscious existence as an essential factor in assessing one’s true self.

Taking his clue from Nietzschean symptomatology, and studying with detachment but at close range the complex infirmities of modern society, Mann became the novelist of decadence. His attitude of study sometimes impinged on the fundamental humanity of his characterizations: Abstract hypotheses and experimental ideas often confer an intellectual quality on his protagonists, who, like Kröger and Leverkühn, tend to hover in their “realism” between observable reality and conceptual supposition. His guiding premise was psychophysiologically real enough to be acceptable and, more than that, significant: the interrelationship of the physical and the moral—put otherwise, medicine and the soul. (Mann once admitted that medicine and music were the two spheres closest to his art.) This coherence of the two pathologies, that of the body as well as that of the spirit, enabled Mann to use one as the metaphor of the other. Various layers of interpretation emerge for the attentive reader, who finds analogies between cancer, typhoid fever, or meningitis and social, economic, or political conditions. “Mario und der Zauberer” (1929; “Mario and the Magician,” 1936) gives off overtones of ruler Benito Mussolini’s totalitarian Italy; Buddenbrooks and Doctor Faustus reflect social evolution in Germany; and, as has been pointed out often, Leverkühn’s illness symbolizes (the word “symbolism” has been used in this context frequently) German (Teutonic?) decadence under leader Adolf Hitler.

All of this is accomplished with a consummate sense of style. Mann uses his native language not like a sculptor fighting marble but like a painter washing his canvas with a subtle variety of colors. He is analytical, but suggestively rather than pedantically; he is descriptive with selectivity of detail rather than with effusiveness; and he is haunting in the moods he establishes, from the snows of Switzerland to the waters of Venice to the wastelands of North Africa. In 1929 Mann won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work.

Discussion Topics

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Consider the relationship between physical and spiritual health in the fiction of Thomas Mann.

What problems did Mann face in his admiration for Richard Wagner, who in certain ways also appealed to the Nazis?

Contrast northern and southern German culture as seen in Mann’s works.

Does today’s greater knowledge about homosexuality enhance the modern reader’s appreciation of Death in Venice?

Examine the concept of German patriotism in Mann’s fiction.

How does a literary leitmotif differ from a musical one?

What were Mann’s chief literary successes while living in the United States?


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Berlin, Jeffrey B., ed. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992. Part 1 (materials) focuses on general introductions, reference works, and critical studies. Part 2 (approaches) contains in-depth essays on Mann’s handling of many themes and his approach to comedy, tradition, modernism, Sigmund Freud, and other thinkers and writers. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Cullander, Cecil C. H. “Why Thomas Mann Wrote.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 75 (Winter, 1999): 31-48. Examines Mann’s statements about his creativity, his fiction, and his journals and diaries; argues that his diaries helped him come to terms with his homosexuality and to know himself.

Feurlicht, Ignace. Thomas Mann. Boston: Twayne, 1968. A critical introduction to Mann that analyzes the plots, characters, ideas, and styles of his stories and novels against the background of his life. Notes that most of his early stories focus on a marked man, one who is weak, sick, or odd, an outsider who cannot endure everyday life.

Hayman, Ronald. Thomas Mann: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Heilbut, Anthony. Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature. New York: Knopf, 1996. The most commanding biography of Mann in English, with a carefully detailed narrative of his life and work. Provides detailed useful notes and an extensive bibliography.

Heiney, Donald W. Barron’s Simplified Approach to Thomas Mann. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1966. A basic introduction to Mann’s life and art. The chapter on the short stories and tales includes brief discussions of each of the important stories in Stories of Three Decades.

Heller, Erich. The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958. A study of Mann and his intellectual ancestry. Contains a chapter on “Mario and the Magician” and “Death in Venice.” A stimulating and influential book on Mann.

Hollingdale, R. J. Thomas Mann: A Critical Study. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1971. Rather than an analysis of individual novels and stories, this study discusses the basic philosophic assumptions, especially the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, in Mann’s works. Hollingdale focuses on such themes as crime, sickness, decadence, irony, and myth.

Kurzke, Hermann. Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, a Biography. Translated by Leslie Willson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. A celebrated work in Germany that provides a balanced approach to Mann’s life and work. Addresses his homosexuality and relationship to Judaism. The translation, however, is not good. Index.

Lesér, Esther H. Thomas Mann’s Short Fiction: An Intellectual Biography. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989. Lesér states the purposes of her biography as twofold: “as a reference work in which each story may be read individually with its comprehensive study materials, and as an organic study of Thomas Mann’s intellectual development.” The chapters are arranged thematically, each integrating analyses of representative works.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Edited by Naomi Ritter. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. A reprinting of a widely acclaimed translation of Mann’s novella, along with the presentation of five critical essays that serve to familiarize students to the novella.

Nemerov, Howard. “Themes and Methods in the Early Stories of Thomas Mann.” In Poetry and Fiction: Essays. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963. Discusses the types of characters in Mann’s stories, such as disappointed lovers of life, those whose love has turned to hatred, and those whose love masquerades as indifference and superiority. Contends that “The Infant Prodigy” is the first appearance in Mann’s work of some sinister qualities belonging to the underside of the artist’s nature.

Reed, T. J. Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A meticulously researched and well-documented study on Mann’s thought and fiction. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Robertson, Ritchie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A thorough reference source on Mann. Bibliography and index.

Thomas, R. Hinton. Thomas Mann: The Mediation of Art. Oxford, England: The Clarendon Press, 1956. A discussion of selected works from the point of view of Mann’s concern with art as a moral task of self-discipline. The short stories are discussed as Mann’s apprenticeship to the central theme of the yearning for art as a escape from practical life into infinity.

Travers, Martin. Thomas Mann. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An excellent, short introductory study, with chapters on Mann’s life, the autobiographical elements of his first novels and early stories, and separate chapters on the novels. A concluding chapter assesses Mann as a modern novelist. With notes and very useful annotated bibliography.

Von Gronicka, André. Thomas Mann: Profile and Perspectives. New York: Random House, 1970. The author, in his biographical analysis of Mann and his works, hopes “to offer some new insights to the specialists while helping the general reader to orient himself in Thomas Mann’s vast and complex world.” The book also includes two previously unpublished letters and a chronological list of significant events in Mann’s life.

Votteler, Thomas, ed. “Thomas Mann: 1875-1955.” In Short Story Criticism, Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. The entry begins with a brief introduction to Mann, but it is primarily a series of excerpts of the criticism of Mann’s short fiction.

White, Andrew. Thomas Mann. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965. White uses a thematic approach to the life and works of Mann. He concludes with a review of six decades of criticism.

Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Winston arranges the biographical information chronologically, but he intersperses chapters of thematic analysis and explication. The book, aimed at readers of literary biography, covers Mann’s early years.

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