Georg Brandes

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Georg Brandes

Georg Brandes (1842-1927) was an influential Danish literary critic whose interpretations of such writers as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and BjØrn sterne BjØrnson are credited with bringing Scandinavian literature into the mainstream of European culture. Similarly, his analyses of major nineteenth-century German, French, and English authors, including John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche, also served to alleviate the cultural gap that separated Danish readers from the central currents of European thought. According to Neil Christian Pages in Scandinavian Studies, "Brandes was without exaggeration the most influential European literary critic and commentator at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth century… . A prolific scholar, biographer, and essayist, Brandes's pan-European approach transgressed literary and national boundaries combining art and political activism in an astute manner."

Literature and Social Reform

Brandes was born to Jewish parents in Copenhagen, Denmark, on February 4, 1842. By all accounts an excellent student, he studied law and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and early on developed an antireligious point of view. After completing a master's degree in 1864 he continued his studies, taking a doctorate in aesthetics and publishing his dissertation, Den franske Æsthetik i vore dage, in 1870. During this period he produced the collection of essays Æsthetiske studier (1868), which presented theoretical discussions of comedy and tragedy, and he translated John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women into Danish. Brandes maintained that literature should serve to reform society through confronting controversial social issues, and his early work was strongly influenced by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and the French critic Hippolyte Taine, who sought to apply the methods of scientific investigation to the interpretation of literature and culture. In describing Brandes's critical perspective, biographer Bertil Nolin wrote that to Brandes "Literature was a weapon in an ideological debate, an instrument for the continuous change of values and social situations."

During 1870 and 1871 Brandes traveled outside Denmark, meeting with Mill (whose Utilitarianism he would translate in 1872), and with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the author of Peer Gynt (1867), whose works embodied the realistic ideals Brandes advocated. Returning to Denmark he began lecturing at the University of Copenhagen on the relationship between literature and cultural progress and published these lectures in Emigrant-litteraturen ( The Emigrant Literature, 1872); Den romantiske skole i Tydakland ( The Romantic School in Germany, 1873); Reactionen i Frankrig ( The Reaction in France, 1874); Naturalismen i England ( Naturalism in England, 1875), the first volumes of his monumental survey of European literature; and HovedstrØmninger i det nittende aarhundredes litteratur ( Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 1872-1890). Featured in The Emigrant Literature are analyses of French writers who were influenced by time spent outside their homeland, including Vicomte de Chateaubriand, who fled to London during the Reign of Terror and served later governments as ambassador to Rome, and the novelist Madame de Staël (1766-1817), who was banished from Paris by Napoleon after the publication of Delphine (1802), a novel sympathetic to divorce, Protestantism, and the British. Brandes's consideration of French literature is continued in The Reaction in France, offering considerations of the political agitator and former priest Félicité de Lamennais, who predicted the rise of a revolutionary working class, and the Romantic writer Victor Hugo, among others. In Naturalism in England Brandes considered the works of such poets as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, particularly praising Byron's liberalism.

Brandes expected to take a position within the faculty of the University of Copenhagen, but his appointment was denied owing to his Jewish background and the radical nature of his views, including his avowed atheism. During the mid-1870s Brandes undertook the publication of the journal Det nittende aarhundrede with his brother Edvard, but when this enterprise failed, he left Denmark. For the next five years Brandes lived in Berlin, during which time he became personally acquainted with many leading writers and wrote analyses of a number of European thinkers, including the English Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli and the Danish existentialist philosopher SØren Kierkegaard. The volume on Kierkegaard is considered important as the earliest extended consideration of Kierkegaard's philosophy, and, when translated in 1879, the first to introduce Kierkegaard's thinking to an international audience.

The Critic Outside the Academy

With private financial support, Brandes returned to Copenhagen in 1883 and became well known as a public lecturer, unaffiliated with the university. During the ensuing decades his renown and influence grew as he published a number of significant studies and after 1887 became a leading proponent of the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Largely unknown at the time, Nietzsche was in the final two years of lucidity when he and Brandes began corresponding. In Brandes's 1889 essay, "Friedrich Nietzsche: En afhandling om aristokratisk radikalisme," he presented the earliest systematic treatment of Nietzsche's philosophy and technique. As quoted by Pages in Scandinavian Studies, Brandes introduced readers to this obscure writer by declaring, "Nietzsche appears to me the most interesting writer in German literature at the present time. Though little known even in his own country, he is a thinker of a high order, who fully deserves to be studied, discussed, contested, and mastered. Among many good qualities he has that of imparting mood and setting thoughts in motion." Nietzsche, in a letter quoted in Scandinavian Studies, later approved Brandes's characterization of his work as "aristocratic radicalism," calling that phrase "the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself." Through Brandes's efforts—he lectured on Nietzsche in Copenhagen and developed a theoretical framework for Nietzsche's works—Nietzsche gained prominence, but not before the philosopher had succumbed to madness, and he died in 1900. Brandes later issued the volume Friedrich Nietzsche (1909), which included biography, criticism, and correspondence.

Among Brandes's works of this period are the final two volumes of Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature, as well as a monumental three-volume consideration of Shakespeare (1895-1896) and the travel books Intryk fra Polen ( Impressions of Poland, 1888) and Intryk fra Rusland ( Impressions of Russia, 1888). Nolin identified Den romantiske skole i Frankrig ( The Romantic School in France, 1882), the fifth volume of Main Currents, as "the most substantial volume" of the series. In it Brandes focused on the period 1824 to 1848, analyzing works by Hugo, George Sand, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a literary critic with whom Brandes is often compared. The final volume of the survey, Det unge Tydakland (Young Germany) was published in 1890. Brandes here examined the influence of Heinrich Heine, Karl Ludwig Börne, and Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow, and other advocates of the Young Germany movement in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the literary biography William Shakespeare Brandes combined literary evaluation with psychological portrait, attempting to elucidate the life of the writer through his works. Brandes, as quoted by René Wellek in A History of Modern Criticism: The Late Nineteenth Century, 1750-1950, expressed the opinion that "given the possession of forty-five important works by any man, it is entirely our own fault if we know nothing whatever about him. The poet has incorporated his whole individuality in these writings, and there, if we can read aright, we shall find him." Brandes's travelogues were praised by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen in Essays on Scandinavian Literature as showing "a faculty to enter sympathetically into an alien civilization, to seize upon its characteristic phases, to steal into its confidence … and coax from it its intimate secrets." In the English journal the Spectator, a contemporary reviewer of Impressions of Russia asserted that Brandes "has drawn a portrait of the Russian State that in depth of insight, range of knowledge, and vividness of presentation, surpasses every contribution we are acquainted with."

Controversial to the End

Brandes was at last made a professor of the University of Copenhagen in 1902. His memoir, Barndom og fØrste ungdom (Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth) was published in 1906. Though now ensconced in the academy, with many of his formerly controversial ideas gaining acceptance, Brandes remained an iconoclast throughout his career. He was a vocal opponent of the First World War and in 1925 elicited wide criticism when he published Sagnet om Jesus (Jesus: A Myth), a treatise in which he proclaimed that Jesus had never existed. Inspired in part by Nietzsche's concept of the Ü bermensch, or Superman, Brandes focused much of his later career on producing biographies of extraordinary historical personages, including Wolfgang von Goethe (1914-1915), Voltaire (1916-1917), Julius Caesar (1918), and Michelangelo (1921). Brandes died on February 19, 1927.

While Brandes's criticism has been surpassed and is little known today, his role as an early supporter of the Scandinavian writers Ibsen, Strindberg, and Kierkegaard remains significant as does his advocacy of the works of Nietzsche, whose influence continued throughout the twentieth century. In an assessment of Brandes written in the late 1890s, William Morton Payne wrote in the Bookman, "That the work of Brandes, taken as a whole, has been a contribution of great value to contemporary criticism can hardly be denied even by those the least in sympathy with his ideals. It more than makes up in light what it lacks in sweetness, and it has the stimulating quality that comes from freshness of thought and unconventionality of utterance." Near the end of his life, Brandes was hailed by Robert Herndon Fife in an introduction to Julius Moritzen's Georg Brandes in Life and Letters, as "unique in his contribution to the development of European thought… . He is the only critic who has ever completely identified himself with the whole of Europe's culture and the entire spirit of the age." And in Essays in German and Comparative Literature Oskar Seidlin, assessing Brandes's lasting significance, noted, "His critical conceptions and analyses may be completely outmoded tomorrow; but his instinct for the truly great, his fight for the recognition of the new, will testify for him… . He was a great discoverer, and he had the courage of his discoveries."


Boyesen, Hjalmar Hjorth, Essays on Scandinavian Literature, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895.

Moritzen, Julius, Georg Brandes in Life and Letters, D.S. Colyer, 1922.

Nolin, Bertil, Georg Brandes, Twayne, 1976.

Seidlin, Oskar, Essays in German and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, The Gale Group, 1983.

Wellek, René, A History of Modern Criticism: The Late Nineteenth Century, 1750-1950, Yale University Press, 1965.


Bookman, April 1897.

Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2000.

Spectator, May 17, 1890. □