Friday, June 6, 2014

Thomas Mann and the Mann Family

Thomas Mann (1875-1955)
photo: Library of Congress
On June 6, 1875, German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, and Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann was born. His highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His older brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann and three of his six children, Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann, also became important German writers.

In Germany, his novells have become a canonical reference. Everybody knows the Buddenbrock family and the story of their decline from a wealthy merchant family to mere insignificance. Or the story of Hans Castorp, the eternal patient of the magic mountain, curing his tuberculosis - but in general also his mind - in Switzerland. Or do you know the infamous imposter Felix Krull, Thomas Mann's last and unfinished novel? Well, let's have a closer look on this literary giant of the 20th century.

Mann was born Paul Thomas Mann in Lübeck, Germany and was the second son of Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, a senator and a grain merchant, and his wife Júlia da Silva Bruhns, a Brazilian of German and Portuguese ancestry who emigrated to Germany when seven years old. Mann's father died in 1891 and his trading firm was liquidated. The family subsequently moved to Munich. Mann attended the science division of a Lübeck Gymnasium (school). After finishing school rather ingloriously, he became a clerk in the office of a Munich insurance company whose director had been a friend of my father's. Later, by way of preparing for a career in journalism, Thomas Mann studied history, economics, art history and literature at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich and Technical University of Munich.

The start of his writing career was with a short story ‘Little Mr. Friedemann’ published in 1898. Mann started writing his first novel in 1896 ‘Buddonbrooks’, the a story about a merchant family which grabbed the interest of the public making Mann rich and famous. Buddenbrooks had gone through fifty editions in German before it was translated into English in 1924. American and British critics at the time compared it with John Galsworthy's "The Forsyte Saga," also telling the story of a family through several generations. What made Buddenbrooks particularly interesting to the literary student was the fact that the author, showing the social decline of a Luebeck Senatorial family, wove much of his own family history into the story.

His reputation as a writer escalated with his novel ‘Death in Venice’ published in 1912. This book described the experiences of a writer who goes to Venice and falls in love with a young boy. Many of his works revolved around homosexual themes. However, Mann married Katia Pringsheim, who belonged to a strong wealthy Jewish background, and they had six children. In 1924, Mann finally published what many consider to be his greatest work, The Magic Mountain. The novel is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a community that represents a microcosm of Europe directly before World War I. The protagonist, a healthy young man, comes to the sanatorium for a short visit, but ends up staying for seven years. Eventually, he finds fulfillment by leaving the community. The novel typifies the style that Mann is best known for: ironical, somber, and symbolic.

In 1929, Mann had a cottage built in the fishing village of Nidden (Nida, Lithuania) on the Curonian Spit, where there was a German art colony and where he spent the summers of 1930–1932 working on Joseph and His Brothers, a tetralogy on the history of the biblical character. In 1933, while traveling in the South of France, Mann heard from his children Klaus and Erika in Munich, that it would not be safe for him to return to Germany. The family (except the two oldest children) emigrated to Küsnacht, near Zurich, Switzerland but received Czechoslovak citizenship and a passport in 1936. He then emigrated to the United States in 1939, where he taught at Princeton University. Although Mann was not a political writer, he was forced to move on a number of occasions for political reasons. He taught at Princeton University in New Jersey for two years, but moved to Pacific Palisades, California to join an expatriate community of German intelligentsia including the composer Arnold Schoenberg, dramatist Berthold Brecht, and Mann's own brother, Heinrich. In his famous Doctor Faustus (1947), Mann retold the famous myth as a composer who sells his soul to the devil in return for fame. Based on his friend, composer Arnold Schoenberg, the work expresses Mann's despair over German Nazism. After World War II, during the McCarthy era, Mann grew disillusioned with American politics and moved back to Europe in 1952. His most important German visit was in 1949, at the 200th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, attending celebrations in Frankfurt am Main and Weimar, as a statement that German culture extended beyond the new political borders. Thomas Mann died in Zurich on August 12, 1955.

At yovisto you can learn more about Thomas Mann in a seminar by the Goethe Institute Boston on Thomas Mann and his Stories.

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