(1875 - 1955)
German novelist and essayist whose early novels--Buddenbrooks (1900),
Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice), and Der Zauberberg (1924;
The Magic Mountain)--earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.
Early literary endeavours.
Mann's father died in 1891, and Mann moved to Munich, a centre of art
and literature, where he lived until 1933. After perfunctory work in
an insurance office and on the editorial staff of Simplicissimus, a
satirical weekly, he devoted himself to writing, as his elder brother
Heinrich had already done. His early tales, collected as Der kleine
Herr Friedemann (1898), reflect the aestheticism of the 1890s but are
given depth by the influence of the philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
and the composer Wagner, to all of whom Mann was always to acknowledge
a deep, if ambiguous, debt. Most of Mann's first stories centre in the
problem of the creative artist, who in his devotion to form contests
the meaninglessness of existence, an antithesis that Mann enlarged into
that between spirit (Geist) and life (Leben). But while he showed sympathy
for the artistic misfits he described, Mann was also aware that the
world of imagination is a world of make-believe, and the closeness of
the artist to the charlatan was already becoming a theme. At the same
time, a certain nostalgia for ordinary, unproblematical life appeared
in his work.
This ambivalence found full expression in his first novel, Buddenbrooks,
which Mann had at first intended to be a novella in which the experience
of the transcendental realities of Wagner's music would extinguish the
will to live in the son of a bourgeois family. On this beginning, the
novel builds the story of the family and its business house over three
generations, showing how an artistic streak not only unfits the family's
later members for the practicalities of business life but undermines
their vitality as well. But, almost against his will, in Buddenbrooks
Mann wrote a tender elegy for the old bourgeois virtues.
In 1905 Mann married Katja Pringsheim. There were six children of the
marriage, which was a happy one. It was this happiness, perhaps, that
led Mann, in Royal Highness, to provide a fairy-tale reconciliation
of "form" and "life," of degenerate feudal authority
and the vigour of modern American capitalism. In 1912, however, he returned
to the tragic dilemma of the artist with Death in Venice, a sombre masterpiece.
In this story, the main character, a distinguished writer whose nervous
and "decadent" sensibility is controlled by the discipline
of style and composition, seeks relaxation from overstrain in Venice,
where, as disease creeps over the city, he succumbs to an infatuation
and the wish for death. Symbols of eros and death weave a subtle pattern
in the sensuous opulence of this tale, which closes an epoch in Mann's
World War I years.
The outbreak of World War I evoked Mann's ardent patriotism and awoke,
too, an awareness of the artist's social commitment. His brother Heinrich
was one of the few German writers to question German war aims, and his
criticism of German authoritarianism stung Thomas to a bitter attack
on cosmopolitan litterateurs. In 1918 he published a large political
treatise, Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, in which all his ingenuity
of mind was summoned to justify the authoritarian state as against democracy,
creative irrationalism as against "flat" rationalism, and
inward culture as against moralistic civilization. This work belongs
to the tradition of "revolutionary conservatism" that leads
from the 19th-century German nationalistic and antidemocratic thinkers
Paul Anton de Lagarde and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the apostle of
the superiority of the "Germanic" race, toward National Socialism;
and Mann later was to repudiate these ideas.
With the establishment of the German (Weimar) Republic in 1919, Mann
slowly revised his outlook; the essays "Goethe und Tolstoi"
and "Von deutscher Republik" ("The German Republic")
show his somewhat hesitant espousal of democratic principles. His new
position was clarified in the long novel The Magic Mountain. Its theme
grows out of an earlier motif: a young engineer, Hans Castorp, visiting
a cousin in a sanatorium in Davos, abandons practical life to submit
to the rich seductions of disease, inwardness, and death. But the sanatorium
comes to be the spiritual reflection of the possibilities and dangers
of the actual world. In the end, somewhat skeptically but humanely,
Castorp decides for life and service to his people: a decision Mann
calls "a leave-taking from many a perilous sympathy, enchantment,
and temptation, to which the European soul had been inclined."
In this great work Mann formulates with remarkable insight the fateful
choices facing Europe.
Political crisis and World War II.
From this time onward Mann's imaginative effort was directed primarily
to the novel, scarcely interrupted by the charming personal novella
Early Sorrow or by Mario and the Magician, a novella that, in the person
of a seedy illusionist, symbolizes the character of Fascism. His literary
and cultural essays began to play an ever-growing part in elucidating
and communicating his awareness of the fragility of humaneness, tolerance,
and reason in the face of political crisis. His essays on Freud (1929)
and Wagner (1933) are concerned with this, as are those on Goethe (1932),
who more and more became for Mann an exemplary figure in his wisdom
and balance. The various essays on Nietzsche document with particular
poignancy Mann's struggle against attitudes once dear to him. In 1930
he gave a courageous address in Berlin, "Ein Appell an die Vernunft"
("An Appeal to Reason"), appealing for the formation of a
common front of the cultured bourgeoisie and the Socialist working class
against the inhuman fanaticism of the National Socialists. In essays
and on lecture tours in Germany, to Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Amsterdam,
and elsewhere during the 1930s, Mann, while steadfastly attacking Nazi
policy, often expressed sympathy with socialist and communist principles
in the very general sense that they were the guarantee of humanism and
When Hitler became chancellor early in 1933, Mann and his wife, on holiday
in Switzerland, were warned by their son and daughter in Munich not
to return. For some years his home was in Switzerland, near Zurich,
but he traveled widely, visiting the United States on lecture tours
and finally, in 1938, settling there, first at Princeton, and from 1941
to 1952 in southern California. In 1936 he was deprived of his German
citizenship; in the same year the University of Bonn took away the honorary
doctorate it had bestowed in 1919 (it was restored in 1949). In 1944
he became a U.S. citizen.
Mann visited both East Germany and West Germany several times after
the war and received many public honours, but he refused to return to
Germany to live. In 1952 he settled again near Zurich. His last major
essays--on Goethe (1949), Chekhov (1954), and Schiller (1955)--are impressive
evocations of the moral and social responsibilities of writers.
The novels on which Mann was working throughout this period reflect
variously the cultural crisis of his times. In 1933 he published The
Tales of Jacob (U.S. title, Joseph and His Brothers), the first part
of his four-part novel on the biblical Joseph, continued the following
year in The Young Joseph and two years later with Joseph in Egypt, and
completed with Joseph the Provider in 1943. In the complete work, published
as Joseph and His Brothers, Mann reinterpreted the biblical story as
the emergence of mobile, responsible individuality out of the tribal
collective, of history out of myth, and of a human God out of the unknowable.
In the first volume a timeless myth seems to be reenacted in the lives
of the Hebrews. Joseph, however, though sustained by the belief that
his life too is the reenactment of a myth, is thrown out of the "timeless
collective" into Egypt, the world of change and history, and there
learns the management of events, ideas, and himself. Though based on
wide and scholarly study of history, the work is not a historical novel,
and the "history" is full of irony and humour, of conscious
modernization. Mann's concern is to provide a myth for his own times,
capable of sustaining and directing his generation and of restoring
a belief in the power of humane reason.
Mann took time off from this work to write, in the same spirit, his
Lotte in Weimar (U.S. title, The Beloved Returns). Lotte Kestner, the
heroine of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, his semi-autobiographical
story of unrequited love and romantic despair, visits Weimar in old
age to see once again her old lover, now famous, and win some acknowledgment
from him. But Goethe remains distant and refuses to reenter the past;
she learns from him that true reverence for man means also acceptance
of and reverence for change, intelligent activity directed to the "demand
of the day." In this, as in the Joseph novels, in settings so distant
from his own time, Mann was seeking to define the essential principles
of humane civilization; their spacious and often humorous serenity of
tone implicitly challenges the inhuman irrationalism of the Nazis.
In Doktor Faustus, begun in 1943 at the darkest period of the war,
Mann wrote the most directly political of his novels. It is the life
story of a German composer, Adrian Leverkuhn, born in 1885, who dies
in 1940 after 10 years of mental alienation. A solitary, estranged figure,
he "speaks" the experience of his times in his music, and
the story of Leverkuhn's compositions is that of German culture in the
two decades before 1930--more specifically of the collapse of traditional
humanism and the victory of the mixture of sophisticated nihilism and
barbaric primitivism that undermine it. With imaginative insight Mann
interpreted the new musical forms and themes of Leverkuhn's compositions
up to the final work, a setting of the lament of Doctor Faustus in the
16th-century version of the Faust legend, who once, in hope, had made
a pact with the Devil, but in the end is reduced to hopelessness. The
one gleam of hope in this sombre work, however, in which the personal
tragedy of Leverkuhn is subtly related to Germany's destruction in the
war through the comments of the fictitious narrator, Zeitblom, lies
in its very grief. No other literary work expresses the tragedy of Germany
as this does.
The composition of the novel was fully documented by Mann in 1949 in
The Genesis of a Novel. Doktor Faustus exhausted him as no other work
of his had done, and The Holy Sinner and The Black Swan, published in
1951 and 1953, respectively, show a relaxation of intensity in spite
of their accomplished, even virtuoso style. Mann rounded off his imaginative
work in 1954 with The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the
light, often uproariously funny story of a confidence man who wins the
favour and love of others by enacting the roles they desire of him.
Mann's style is finely wrought and full of resources, enriched by humour,
irony, and parody; his composition is subtle and many-layered, brilliantly
realistic on one level and yet reaching to deeper levels of symbolism.
His works lack simplicity, and his tendency to set his characters at
a distance by his own ironical view of them has sometimes laid him open
to the charge of lack of heart. He was, however, aware that simplicity
and sentiment lend themselves to manipulation by ideological and political
powers, and the sometimes elaborate sophistication of his works cannot
hide from the discerning reader his underlying impassioned and tender
solicitude for mankind.
Mann was the greatest German novelist of the 20th century, and by the
end of his life his works had acquired the status of classics both within
and without Germany. His subtly structured novels and shorter stories
constitute a persistent and imaginative enquiry into the nature of Western
bourgeois culture, in which a haunting awareness of its precariousness
and threatened disintegration is balanced by an appreciation of and
tender concern for its spiritual achievements. Round this central theme
cluster a group of related problems that recur in different forms--the
relation of thought to reality and of the artist to society, the complexity
of reality and of time, the seductions of spirituality, eros, and death.
Mann's imaginative and practical involvement in the social and political
catastrophes of his time provided him with fresh insights that make
his work rich and varied. His finely wrought essays, notably those on
Tolstoy, Goethe, Freud, and Nietzsche, record the intellectual struggles
through which he reached the ethical commitment that shapes the major
The most complete collection of Mann's work is Gesammelte Werke, 13
vol. (1960-74). Hans Burgin, Das Werk Thomas Manns (1959), is a bibliography.
There are many volumes of Mann's correspondence, the most complete being
Briefe, ed. by Erika Mann, 3 vol. (1961-65), selected and edited by
his daughter. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, compiled and trans.
by Richard Winston and Clara Winston, 2 vol. (1970), is also recommended.
Autobiographisches, compiled by Erika Mann (1968), contains his autobiographical
Biographies by family members include Erika Mann, The Last Year of Thomas
Mann (1958, reissued 1970; also published as The Last Year, 1958; originally
published in German, 1956); and Viktor Mann, Wir waren funf, 3rd rev.
ed. (1973), a description of the childhood home by his younger brother.
Hans Burgin and Hans-Otto Mayer, Thomas Mann: A Chronicle of His Life
(1969; originally published in German, 1965), gives a detailed account.
Nigel Hamilton, The Brothers Mann (1978), on Heinrich and Thomas, is
especially good. Richard Winston, Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist,
1875-1911 (1981, reprinted 1990), covers Mann's early years. Biographies
written with access to Mann's posthumously published diaries include
Anthony Heilbut, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature (1995), focusing on
Mann's life and works through his fifties; Ronald Hayman, Thomas Mann
(1995); and Donald Prater, Thomas Mann (1995).
Klaus W. Jonas, Fifty Years of Thomas Mann Studies (1955, reissued
1969), gives a bibliography of contemporary critical studies. Georg
Lukacs (Gyorgy Lukacs), Essays on Thomas Mann (1964, reprinted 1978;
originally published in German, 1949), presents Marxist essays that
are shrewdly critical as well as admiring. Charles Neider (ed.), The
Stature of Thomas Mann (1947, reissued 1968); and Erich Kahler, The
Orbit of Thomas Mann (1969), collections of essays, are also recommended.
Broad studies of his works are Esther H. Leser, Thomas Mann's Short
Fiction, ed. by Mitzi Brunsdale (1989), an examination of Mann's intellectual
development through his works; Martin Travers, Thomas Mann (1992); and
Irvin Stock, Ironic Out of Love: The Novels of Thomas Mann (1994). Recent
in-depth treatments of individual works include Martin Swales, Buddenbrooks:
Family Life as the Mirror of Social Change (1991); T.J. Reed, Death
in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master (1994); and Michael Beddow,
Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (1994). Two collections of criticism on
individual works are Hugh Ridley, The Problematic Bourgeois: Twentieth-Century
Criticism on Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain (1994);
and John Francis Fetzer, Changing Perceptions of Thomas Mann's Doctor
Faustus: Criticism, 1947-1992 (1996).