Johann Paul Friedrich Richter

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Johann Paul Friedrich Richter

The German humorist and prose writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), usually referred to as Jean Paul, achieved his greatest fame as a novelist.

On March 21, 1763, J. P. Richter was born at Wunsiedel, Fichtel Gebirge. As a boy, he went to school at the small town of Hof; then he moved to the University of Leipzig (1781-1784) to study theology. Financial difficulties forced him to become a tutor to various families. When he was 29, he called himself Jean Paul (after Jean Jacques Rousseau). Having given up the idea of entering the Church, he decided to become a writer. He was essentially a Platonist; Herder also had a profound influence on him, and they opposed Kant's speculative philosophy.

Jean Paul's early works were collections of satires about courtiers, society, and ladies: the Grönländische Prozesse (1783) and Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren (1789). The first work that made him widely known and appreciated was Die unsichtbare Loge (1793), whose appendix contains the famous Leben des vergnügten Schulmeisterleins Maria Wuz in Auenthal. This story is a supreme example of an idyllic situation depicting happiness and complete contentment in a rustic existence. After that his great works followed in quick succession: Hesperus (1795), Biographische Belustigungen unter der Gehirnschale einer Riesin (1796), Leben des Quintus Fixlein (1796), Blumen-, Frucht-und Dornenstücke, oder Ehestand, Tod und Hochzeit des Armenadvokaten Siebenkäs (1796/1797), Der Jubelsenior (1797), and Das Kampaner Thal (1797).

After the death of his mother (1797), Jean Paul left Hof for Leipzig, Weimar, Berlin, Meiningen, and Coburg, and in 1804 he settled in Bayreuth. In the meantime (1801) he had married Karoline Mayer. From 1808 on, his financial situation improved considerably, as he received from the prince-primate Reichsfreiherr von Dalberg a yearly pension of 1,000 florins.

About the turn of the century Jean Paul had reached the height of his artistic achievements. He had developed an original poetic language. One of his favorite images is that of man's emerging from the chrysalis state into a new existence; another one is the (Platonic) image of shadows upon the wall, of the soul imprisoned in a shell, and the concept of Hohe Menschen, who are condemned to endure an earthly life but whose real home is a higher, unselfish world.

The theme of Hohe Menschen is the key problem in Jean Paul's masterpiece, Titan (1800/1803). According to him, this novel should bear the title Anti-Titan, as it proves that an artist's ruthless single-mindedness must destroy the ideal of harmony. In his self-centered vehemence, Roquairol spends all energy in a state of extravagant imagination and empties life of true human feeling. Die Flegeljahre (1804/1805), too, depicts a poetic Schwärmer who has to fulfill several practical tasks (as piano tuner, gardener, proofreader, and so on) and thus learn how to come to terms with life.

These two great works were followed by a number of novels in which the comic, satirical, and even grotesque elements are stressed: Dr. Katzenbergers Badreise (1809), Des Feldpredigers Schmelzle Reise nach Flätz (1809), Das Leben Fibels (1806-1811), and Der Komet, oder Nikolaus Marggraf (1820-1822). Moreover, there are the wealth and depth of his theoretical and critical writings on esthetics, education, society, and politics, which not until the 20th century received full appreciation: Vorschule der Aesthetik (1804), Levana order Erziehungslehre (1807), Friedenspredigt (1808), and Politische Fastenpredigten (1817).

The last years were overshadowed by illness, misfortune, and disappointments. In 1821 his only son, Max, died of typhus. Lonely and almost blind, Jean Paul died in Bayreuth on Nov. 14, 1825.

Further Reading

An authoritative and readable study of Richter's visionary pieces is John William Smeed, Jean Paul's Dreams (1966), which also has a useful selective bibliography. For briefer discussions of Richter's work see George P. Gooch, Germany and the French Revolution (1920); Lawrence M. Price, English Literature in Germany (1953); and August Closs, ed., Introductions to German Literature (4 vols., 1967-1970; 3d vol. by E. L. Stahl and W. E. Yuill). □

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Johann Paul Friedrich Richter

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