Mann, Thomas

views updated Jun 11 2018

Thomas Mann

BORN: 1875, Lübeck, Germany

DIED: 1955, Kilchberg, Switzerland


GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction

Buddenbrooks: Decline of a Family (1901)
“Death in Venice” (1912)
The Magic Mountain (1924)
Doctor Faustus (1947)


Considered one of the foremost twentieth-century German novelists, Thomas Mann gained fame for ironic and philosophical works that reflected the doubts and fears of his era. Mann's epic novels and short stories highlighted the struggles and psychology of intellectuals and artists, exploring philosophical issues as he investigated German national identity. Praised as the peer of writers like James Joyce, Mann won the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature and achieved international acclaim during his lifetime.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Shared Interest in the Arts Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lübeck, Germany. (Germany had only recently been unified by Otto von Bismarck in

1871.) Mann's father, Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, was a well-to-do merchant. His mother, Júlia da Silva Bruhns, was born in Brazil and was the daughter of a German planter and a woman of Portuguese-Creole descent. Faced with Lübeck's failing economy, Mann's father wished that two of his sons, Thomas and Heinrich, would take over positions at the helm of the family business.

However, their father's death in 1891, when Mann was sixteen years old, freed up the brothers to pursue their growing interest in the arts, though Mann would retain a suspicion of artists and nonbusiness pursuits for the rest of his life. Heinrich Mann went on to become an outstanding novelist and essayist, and even Mann's younger brother, Viktor, made a name for himself with a 1948 family chronicle.

Though Mann was bright, he hated school. He worked briefly in an insurance company, but, increasingly influenced by music and literature, he soon tried his hand at writing. He found inspiration in culture, philosophy, and opera. Mann was infatuated with the Romantic music of Richard Wagner as a teen, but became skeptical of Wagner's power as he grew older. Mann also read the work of German philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, exploring the idea of free will and the individual's relationship to society. These diverse influences would lead to a flexibility of style that would become Mann's literary trademark.

Early Success with Novels After writing a short story when he should have been working, Mann found himself a published author. The story, which gained Mann a letter of appreciation from prominent poet Richard Dehmel, encouraged Mann so much that he quit his job and began auditing courses at the University of Munich. By the time his first book, Little Herr Friedemann, was published in 1895, Mann had gone to Italy with his brother Heinrich.

Fruitful Excursion to Italy Though Heinrich was enthusiastic about the Italian language and culture, Mann was alienated from Italian society and spent most of his three-year stay discovering Russian, Scandinavian, and French literature and writing a book inspired by his ancestors. Buddenbrooks: Decline of a Family (1901) was unlike most German literature of the time. Drawing from Scandinavian and western European naturalistic novels, Budden-brooks told the story of a German merchant family through lavish detail, poorly concealing the fact that it was based on Mann's own family and his hometown of Lübeck.

Stunted by writer's block after a series of literary failures, Mann went to Venice with his wife, Katia Pringsheim, whom he had married in 1905. There, he met a cast of exotic and strange characters who would appear in his short story, “Death in Venice” (1912). The story, which deals with a writer's obsession with a younger boy, has received international acclaim as an example of a major short work of fiction, exploring atmosphere, characterization, and motifs of death and repression in vivid detail. The work also created controversy with its depiction of homosexual love.

Political Controversy The advent of World War I drove a wedge between Mann and his brother Heinrich. By the early 1910s, Germany had become the strongest military, industrial, and economic power on the European continent and was involved, as many countries of the time were, in an elaborate system of alliances. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Bosnian terrorist in Serbia in 1914, all these alliances came into play, and World War I broke out. Under the leadership of Emperor Wilhelm II, Germany had initial success in the war, allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey against the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and, later, the United States. Ultimately, Germany was defeated, and 1.6 million Germans died in the conflict.

Though Mann's brother Heinrich took a stand against the atrocities of World War I, Mann himself encouraged the war effort, adopting a nationalistic position. The brothers' conflict reflected German society's debate about its place in history. Around this time, Mann published his controversial Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), a nationalistic book celebrating Germany's unique heritage. The book was later embraced by ultra-conservative Germans for its anti-European stance. Though Mann would later change his views on German society's benefits, he would keep arguing for the remainder of his life that Germany was different from the rest of Europe. Criticized as fascistic and out of touch with reality, the book remains Mann's most controversial work.

Postwar Nobel Prize Though Mann had embraced conservatism in print, he was converted to the new democratic principles adopted in Germany after World War I. Germany became a republic, governed under the liberal Weimar Constitution. However, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany nearly totally disarm, lose all its colonies and territories gained in the Franco-Prussian War, and accept stringent reparations requirements. Thus, Germany suffered a series of economic and social dislocations in the postwar period. Mann's waffling between two political ideals was reflected in German society as it moved from imperialism to democracy to fascism.

Around this time, Mann began working on The Magic Mountain (1924), the novel that is now considered a landmark in world literature. Set in the years leading up to World War I, the book takes place in a sanatorium on a mountaintop in Switzerland and depicts a young man's struggles to find meaning in life against a backdrop of death, illness, and extremism. The book appeared to a tidal wave of favorable criticism, gaining comparisons to Proust's epic Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927), winning Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature, and solidifying his position as one of the world's greatest storytellers.

Forced into Exile by Nazis Mann's life once again intersected with politics when he was discouraged from returning to now-Nazi Germany from a vacation in the early 1930s because his wife was Jewish. By this time, Adolf Hitler had taken power in Germany, and he converted the republic into a dictatorship. Under Hitler's leadership, Germany greatly expanded its military and adopted a tone of extreme nationalism. As part of the Nazi agenda, Jews had their civil rights taken away and were later interned and killed en masse as part of the government's policy.

Mann decided to tread lightly, avoiding open criticism of the Nazis, but these actions earned him the scorn of antifascist groups. Tired of being cautious, Mann issued a set of strong statements against the regime. The consequences were quick and brutal: his German citizenship was revoked in 1936 and his honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn was taken away. Unswayed, Mann responded with an open letter that gained worldwide attention. “Woe to the people which … seeks its way out through the abomination of war, hatred of God and man!” warned Mann. “Such a people will be lost.” Though he had initially feared speaking out against the Nazis, Mann's actions and his Nobel Prize status turned him into a leading representative of German progressive thought.

Became American Citizen Now an exile, Mann moved to the United States in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1944. He began to tackle the Nazis through his fiction, writing a series of books about ancient Jewish history and eventually moving on to an outspoken critique of German culture and its contribution to the oppressive Nazi regime. While Germany had early success in World War II, the Nazi regime was ultimately defeated by the Allies (Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States). After Hitler's suicide in 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered. As Germany was occupied by the winners of the war and strove to rebuild in the postwar period, Mann's own struggle with the German culture with which he so closely identified was reflected in his 1947 book Doctor Faustus. This complex novel met with mixed critical reviews. Though the book was not popular, it is considered to be a summary of Mann's artistic vision.

Mann continued to be a controversial figure in the postwar period. Though he won many prestigious awards in Europe, he was blasted by German writers who had been compromised by Nazism. He finally returned to now-divided Germany, touring both sides in an attempt to gain reconciliation, but was immediately denounced in the United States for his supposed Communist sympathies. (The democratic West Germany was under the influence of Western powers like the United States, while the Communist East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union, who had joined the Allies late in World War II.) Upset by his adopted homeland's intolerance, he moved to Switzerland, returning to a once-abandoned novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, a humorous picaresque novel that depicts the artist as a criminal. He died on August 12, 1955, just two months after his much-celebrated eightieth birthday.

Works in Literary Context

Mann is known for his lengthy, complex style and his exploration of German language, literature, and culture. Vivid in detail and description, his novels explore artistic figures in great depth and reflect influences of German culture, music, and philosophy. Germany's tumultuous history in the first half of the twentieth century also greatly affected Mann's output. In addition, Russian, Scandinavian, and French literature also proved inspirational to Mann.

Exploration of German Culture As a child, Mann was influenced by his Brazilian mother's love of culture and art and his German father's love of business and order. Raised in a literary family, Mann was immersed in German language and literature. He tackled his German literary heritage in works like Lotte in Weimar (1939) and Doctor Faustus. These books directly questioned and reimagined works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Germany's most esteemed writers. In his quest to describe and define German culture, Mann managed to alienate an entire generation of Germans who were turned off by his conservative and nationalistic message. However, his ideas and philosophies changed as World War II affected his personal life, and he was later known for speaking out against German nationalism. He is famed for his emphasis on humanism (a philosophy that focuses on the inherent worth of all people) and his celebration of Western culture.

The Artist's Place in Society One of the central themes in most of Mann's stories is the place of the artist in modern society. Many of his main or supporting characters are artists of some sort, such as the author Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. In Doctor Faustus, the composer Leverkühn sells his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of musical success. While he is depicted as existing outside the norms of society, the book also suggests that such artists are actually the heart and soul of a culture. After his successful career, Lever-kühn spends a decade in an increasingly deteriorating mental state, unable to function in any normal way. This parallels the decade during which Nazism rose to prominence in Germany—a time of cultural deterioration during which artists fled the country, were imprisoned, or were killed.

Reimagining Existing Literature Throughout Mann's body of work are many examples of his extensions and reimaginings of existing pieces of literature. As mentioned previously, his novels Doctor Faustus and Lotte in Weimar are, respectively, an update of and a response to two of Goethe's most well-known works. In addition, his four-book epic Joseph and His Brothers is a retelling of a portion of the Bible's book of Genesis. Even “Death in Venice” has been viewed by scholars as a recasting of ancient Greek mythological characters into a modern setting.

Influence Mann's own work influenced writers as diverse as Franz Kafka, Michel Houellebecq, and Orhan Pamuk.


Mann's famous contemporaries include:

Georg Lukács (1885–1971): Hungarian philosopher and literary critic known for founding the Western Marxist tradition. His books include History and Class Consciousness (1923).

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941): Emperor of Germany and king of Prussia from 1888 until 1918, he was forced to abdicate his throne in the final months of World War I.

Henri Bergson (1859–1941): Prominent French philosopher noted for his writings on time and consciousness.

Marcel Proust (1871–1922): French author famous for his massive, complicated work In Search of Lost Time, published in sections between 1913 and 1927.

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946): An American writer famous for her Paris literary salon of the 1920s and such works as Tender Buttons (1914).

Works in Critical Context

Known as much for cultural controversy as his great works of literature, Mann is commonly heralded as the most important German writer of the twentieth century. However, critical response to his works varied during his lifetime, with many critics blasting his tendency to write wordy, overblown, and confusingly complex novels. Though Mann's work has gained international acclaim, he is often cited as hard for non-German speakers to appreciate, in part because of his close identification with uniquely German ideals and cultural norms.

Buddenbrooks Mann's early literary career was marked by success, with his first novel published by Samuel Fischer, a renowned literary firm that still upholds a high standard in German literature. Buddenbrooks brought him his first taste of literary scandal when his thinly veiled portrait of northern German society was recognized. With its detached portrayal of grasping capitalism and insensitive townspeople, it shocked many Germans. Still, the book received high critical praise, with Rainer Maria Rilke, a noted poet of the time, praising the book as giving “evidence of a capacity and ability that cannot be ignored.” Thomas Rockwell, in Preface to Fiction: A Discussion of Great Modern Novels, states that the tragedy of the novel “is effected in a manner which brings out the beauty inherent in decay,” and that with his skill at subtlety, Mann “established himself as perhaps the foremost contemporary writer of German prose.”

The Magic Mountain When it was published in 1924, critics praised The Magic Mountain as marking “a return to his rightful standing [as] the master novelist of his age.” Upon its publication, a reviewer for Time proclaimed, “The author displays an intellect profound, searching, inclusive, an artistry profound and subtle in all his works.” Henry Hatfield, in Thomas Mann (1951), states of the novel: “Employing a microscopic closeness of observation, it adds a new dimension to the realistic novel, while at the same time it marks Mann's major shift to the use of mythical patterns.” Hatfield also calls the book “one of the most imposing structures erected by the modern mind.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Mann was condemned for his nationalistic political writings. Do you think that Mann's political views should shape criticism of his literary work? Why or why not? Write an essay that outlines your conclusions.
  2. Mann's work is known for its length and complexity, features he drew from influences like Russian and Scandinavian novels of the nineteenth century. Using the Internet and your library, write an essay on the distinguishing features of nineteenth-century Russian fiction.
  3. Mann was born into a literary family. Using the Internet and your library, write a paper on another famous literary family and their accomplishments.
  4. During his career, Mann turned from supporting German nationalism to speaking publicly against fascism. Using the Internet and your library, create a presentation on the rise of fascism in Germany and its implications for German political and cultural stability.
  5. One of Mann's primary interests was the relationship of artists to society. What place do you think an artist should hold in society? Are artists obligated to support or to question cultural values? What about artists whose aim is primarily to entertain? Write a paper that outlines your views.


Thomas Mann's use of other writers' works as inspiration for his own is not uncommon. Here are some more examples of works that were inspired by the creations of other writers.

Pygmalion (1913), a play by George Bernard Shaw. This play updates Ovid's ancient tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his creation. In Shaw's version, the sculptor is replaced by a linguist named Henry Higgins, and his “creation” is a lower-class flower girl whom he teaches to act like a lady of high society.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), a novel by Gregory Maguire. The novel is set in the same universe as L. Frank Baum's series of Oz novels, but is told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956), a novel by C. S. Lewis. This novel is an alternative take on the myth of Cupid and Psyche as told by the ancient Roman Apuleius in The Golden Ass (c. 158 c.e.). Lewis's version of the story is told from the point of view of Psyche's sister Orual.

O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film takes many elements from Homer's ancient Greek epic the Odyssey (c. late 700s b.c.e.) and transplants them into Mississippi in 1937.



Bürgen, Hans, and Hans Otto-Mayer. Thomas Mann: A Chronicle of His Life. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1969.

Feuerlicht, Ignace. Thomas Mann. Boston: Twayne, 1968.

Hatfield, Henry C. Thomas Mann. New York: New Directions, 1951.

Rockwell, Thomas S. “Buddenbrooks.” In Preface to Fiction: A Discussion of Great Modern Novels. Edited by Robert Morss Lovett. Chicago: Thomas S. Rockwell, 1931.

Scaff, Susan. History, Myth, and Music: Thomas Mann's Timely Fiction. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997.

Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Zeller, Bernard. Portrait of Hesse: An Illustrated Biography. New York: McGraw, 1971.

Web Sites

“Mortal Fairyland.” Time (June 13, 1927). Reprinted on the Time Web site at,9171,730723,00.html, accessed April 16, 2008.

Nobel Thomas Mann: The Nobel Prize for Literature 1929. Retrieved March 9, 2008, from

Thomas Mann

views updated May 23 2018

Thomas Mann

The German novelist and essayist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was perhaps the most influential and representative German author of his time.

Born in the free Hanseatic city of Lübeck on the Baltic Sea, the second son of a north German patrician merchant and senator in the city government, Thomas Mann often stressed his twofold heritage: his South American mother, from Rio de Janeiro, was the daughter of a German planter who had emigrated to Brazil and married a woman of Portuguese-Creole origin.

Mann's family can be compared to that of the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, leading poet-critics in German romanticism: his elder brother Heinrich was an outstanding novelist and essayist. A younger brother, Viktor, a civil servant in Germany, made a name for himself as author of an important family chronicle, Wir waren fünf (1948). Two of Mann's six children, Erika and Klaus, were talented writers in their own right, and his son Golo was a noted historian.

Early Career

As a pupil of the "Katherineum" in Lübeck, Mann hated school. Devoted to music and above all to writing, at the age of 17 he edited a school periodical, Frühlingssturm (Spring Storm), in which his first prose and poetry appeared under the pseudonym Paul Thomas.

After the death of her husband and the liquidation of the family's grain business, Senator Mann's widow moved to Munich. Thomas, however, remained at school in Lübeck until he passed the qualifying exam for the 1-year military service certificate. When he finally joined his mother, two sisters, and younger brother in Munich in 1894, he worked briefly as a clerk in an insurance company. There he wrote his first story, Gefallen (Fallen), published in the avant-garde naturalistic monthly Die Gesellschaft. Soon the young author gave up his job and, under the pretense of becoming a journalist, attended lectures at the university without formally enrolling as a student. For a while he was a member of the editorial staff of the satiric magazine Simplicissimus, in which his next story, Der Wille zum Glück (The Will to Happiness), appeared.

In 1895 Mann joined his brother Heinrich in Italy, and together they spent most of the next 3 years in Rome and Palestrina. Isolated from Italian society, he read voluminously, mostly Scandinavian, French, and Russian literature. It was here that he began writing the novel which climaxed this first phase of his literary career, Buddenbrooks. While he was living in Rome, Mann's first book, Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1898), a collection of naturalistic short stories, was published by S. Fischer in Berlin. These sharply drawn, youthful narratives are variations of a single theme; they deal, for the most part, with the "marked" man, the isolated individual, the artist and his relationship to life. These stories foreshadow many characteristics of Mann's later works: dualism, or the divided mind; the opposition of spirit to life; and the resulting antithesis of artist and bourgeois. Also evident here is his frequent and effective use of the leitmotiv, which calls to mind his admired masters, Theodor Fontane and Richard Wagner. In these stories of his youth the leitmotiv is handled in a more obvious, mechanical way than in his later work, where it is applied with far greater subtlety.

Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice

Most representative of the work from Mann's first stage as a writer (1896-1906) was his first novel, Buddenbrooks. Originally envisioned as a brief novel of some 250 pages, to be written jointly with his brother Heinrich, it was executed by Thomas alone and assumed massive proportions. It appeared in 1901 and became a best seller both at home and abroad. Again, the technique of the linguistic leitmotiv is present, but this time it is lifted from the external, mechanical basis into the musical sphere.

Written in the tradition of the Scandinavian genealogical novel, Buddenbrooks gives a broad account of the rise and fall, through several generations, of a fictitious Hanseatic family, patterned after that of the author, and immediately calls to mind John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, with which it has much in common. The first two generations, who created the family wealth, are sturdy and aggressive burghers, and for their bourgeois code, their rigorous ethical standards, Mann shows profound respect. Only the last two generations are marked by decadence, both physical and mental, but they, at the same time, show increased intellectual gifts and greater artistic sensibility. The fourth generation is represented by little Hanno, a pathetic, sickly, neurotic boy whose only love is his music. With his death at the age of 16, the once distinguished family comes to an end.

After Buddenbrooks came Tristan (1902), a parody of Wagner's opera, set in an Alpine sanatorium. Mann's next work, his most lyrical artist's story, Tonio Kröger, (1903), exceeded even Buddenbrooks in popularity. It deals with a gifted writer, Tonio Kröger, from north Germany, again a marked man isolated from his environment, and his unrequited love for Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm, who represent the blond and the beautiful, the normal and bourgeois world.

In February 1905 Mann married Katharina (Katja) Pringsheim, the daughter of a famous Munich mathematician. The first fruit of his marriage was a fairy tale, or light comedy, in the form of a novel, Königliche Hoheit (1909; Royal Highness). Marking the beginning of his second stage as a writer, this book reveals an optimism thus far unknown in Thomas Mann's work. Decadence, Mann now believed, could be overcome, and a synthesis of life and art could be attained.

A visit to the Lido in May 1911 provided the raw material for Mann's most complex novella, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice). A series of sinister circumstances and strange impressions almost immediately suggested to him the basis for this story, which truly reflects Mann's preoccupation with the irrationalism of Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Its hero, Gustav von Aschenbach (resembling, in some ways, the composer Gustav Mahler), is a fictitious German writer in his early 50s whose self-discipline makes him what Mann calls a Leistungsethiker, a man who has sacrificed everything for the sake of achievement. Having suppressed his emotions for too long, he goes on a trip to Venice, ignoring all warnings not to visit the cholera-infected city. It is not cholera, however, but Italy itself which disintegrates his carefully calculated self-control. He is obsessed by a homoerotic love for 14-year-old Tadzio, who represents both death and Apollonian beauty, but he excuses his passion on the grounds of classical precedent and Nietzche's conception of Dionysian Greece. Death comes to him, finally, as he sits in a deck chair on the beach, looking out to the sea and longing for the boy.

The Magic Mountain

A 3-week stay in a Davos sanatorium during the summer of 1912 gave Mann the impetus for his next book, Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain), the highlight of the second phase of his career (1912-1933). His first major novel since Buddenbrooks, this work attempts to overcome the dualism that had marked Mann's youthful stories and to reconcile the enmity of life and spirit that dominated those works. It deals with the intellectual development of an ordinary young man who spends 7 years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland, against a broad panorama of European society in the 7 years preceding World War I.

Hans Castorp, the simpleminded hero, stands between two men engaged in an ideological battle: an Italian humanist and liberal, Settembrini, a champion of reason and life who believes in progress, and Naphta, a Polish Jew turned Jesuit, representing the nonrational forces, who combines a fervent belief in Catholicism with Marxist doctrines. A third "educator," introduced toward the end of the book, is a Dutch planter from Indonesia, Mynheer Peeperkorn, who, anything but an intellectual, impresses Hans through the power of his personality, which is patterned after dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann.

Der Zauberberg is largely a romantic book, a book about the "sympathy with death," and in the author's own words, Hans Castorp's dream, his vision of the good life, could not have appeared in any of his previous works. While lost in the mountains (in the chapter "Snow"), Hans dreams that "for the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts." Surely, this is an impossible dream, either in the alpine sanatorium with its eccentric patients or down in the flatland of bourgeois triviality from which Hans has come. In the end he accepts life and, when the war breaks out, returns to his homeland, leaving the sheltered atmosphere of the magic mountain for military service, only to meet his death on a battlefield in Flanders.

Political Views

Until World War I Mann's tastes and cultural tradition had been those of a nationalist and a German patriot, and he was convinced of the superiority of its authoritarian constitution over the democratic institutions of France and England. During the years 1914-1918 he interrupted his work on the novel Der Zauberberg to embark upon "war service with the weapon of thought." In a series of highly introspective essays, examining the very foundations of his own philosophy, he presented a vigorous defense of the German Reich (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, 1918; Reflections of an Unpolitical Man). But when this book appeared, Mann was already evolving from a romantic conservative to a believer in democracy who was to become a champion of the Weimar Republic. With his speech honoring Hauptmann on his sixtieth birthday, on Nov. 15, 1922, Von deutscher Republik, the process of his transformation was complete, and for the next 10 years, the decisive period of his second, or middle, phase, he was the spokesman of the Weimar Republic.

Mann's first works published after the 1918 armistice are largely autobiographical: Gesang vom Kindchen (The Song of a Child), written in hexameter and dealing with the birth and baptism of his youngest daughter, and Herr und Hund (Bashan and I), an account of his life in Munich with his dog, Bashan (both published in 1919). Two of his finest novellas were written in that decade: Unordnung und frühes Leid (1925; Disorder and Early Sorrow), an affectionately ironic, melancholic treatment of the relations between the generations in a middleclass German family in Munich in the 1920s and the moral and social confusion which resulted from the chaotic inflation of values in postwar Germany, and Mario und der Zauberer (1930; Mario and the Magician), a "tragedy of travel with moral and political implications," as Mann himself called it. Again largely autobiographical, Mario presents a terrifying picture of the rise of fascism in Italy and clearly warns against its dangers. Cipolla, the hypnotist who is shot to death by Mario, the goodnatured waiter whose human dignity he has outraged, stands symbolically for Mussolini, and his end foreshadows that of the dictator in 1945.

In 1929 Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. As early as 1930 he warned publicly against the dangers of Hitler and his followers in his courageous philippic against the Nazis, Appell an die Vernunft (An Appeal to Reason).

On Feb. 10, 1933, Mann delivered a lecture in Munich on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner (Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners; The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner), and the next day he left Germany with his wife to repeat his lecture in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, a trip from which he was not to return for 16 years. Finding himself a voluntary exile from Nazi Germany, Mann spent the summer in southern France and settled in Küsnacht, near Zurich, where he remained until 1938. He attacked the Nazi regime in an open letter published by the Neue Züriche Zeitung on Feb. 3, 1936. Soon the Nazis deprived him of his German citizenship and banned his books, and the University of Bonn withdrew the honorary doctorate awarded him shortly after World War I.

Mann's reply became his best-known political tract, the famous Letter to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of Bonn, published early in 1937. As a further manifestation of his political engagement, he founded in 1937 a literary magazine devoted to the ideals of the "Third Humanism": Mass und Wert (Measure and Value), edited in cooperation with Konrad Falke and published in Zurich until 1940. In 1938 Mann and his family emigrated to the United States. For 2 1/2 years they lived in Princeton, N.J., where he served as a lecturer in the humanities at the university. In 1941 he moved to southern California, built a home in Pacific Palisades outside Los Angeles, and became one of a colony of German and Austrian exiles which included, in addition to his brother Heinrich, Lion Feuchtwanger, Bruno Frank, Lotte Lehmann, Erich Maria Remarque, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, and Franz Werfel. In 1944 he became an American citizen.

During the war years Mann's life was filled with numerous activities: he was actively engaged in helping refugees from Europe through the Emergency Rescue Committee; he served as a consultant in Germanic literature for the Library of Congress; he lectured in many American cities and appealed to the German people over the British Broadcasting Corporation. Whatever time was left, he devoted to his literary work. At Princeton, he completed a "Goethe novel," Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns), relating the historic visit of Charlotte Kestner to Weimar in 1816, 44 years after the love affair which had become common knowledge through the European success of Goethe's Werther.

Later Works

During the first 2 California years Mann completed his gigantic Joseph cycle, on which he had been working, with interruptions, since 1926. At that time he had found in the story of Joseph a theme embracing, as he called it, "the typical, the eternally human, eternally recurring, timeless—in short, the mythical." Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers), his version of the biblical story, was to become his greatest critical success in the United States, ending on an optimistic note with its fourth volume, Joseph der Ernährer (Joseph, the Provider).

In California between 1943 and 1946 Mann wrote what is usually considered his most difficult and complex book, Doktor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (1947). In contrast to the optimistic tone of the Joseph tetralogy, this is a deeply pessimistic, somber book, a bitter accusation against his former country, which, like Doktor Faustus, has made a pact with the devil. But it is also a self-accusation, for Mann does not distinguish between a good and a bad Germany. He finds some negative characteristics manifest in every German of all times. In this fictional biography Mann writes about an artist, a musician—since music, in Mann's thinking, is closely linked with decay, decadence, disease, danger, and death and since it is the one art he considers most characteristically German. In describing the life of an artist (closely patterned after that of Nietzsche), Mann shows himself as a master of the technique of montage by succeeding in combining several time levels. Of the third phase of Mann's writing career (1933-1955), this book represents the highlight, the climax.

In 1952 Mann returned to Europe to spend his remaining years in Switzerland, taking up the life he had lived there from 1933 to 1938. Mann's last major work, Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man), was published in 1954 as Der Memoiren Erster Teil. Having begun the book in 1911, the author had published additional fragments in 1922 and 1937. The projected second part, however, was never written. Following the tradition of the picaresque, or rogue, novel, Mann presents a humorous portrait of the artist as mountebank, or criminal, a thought that had always caught his imagination. Felix Krull is among his most vivid and effective books and attracted huge audiences in many countries. With its publication Thomas Mann achieved an immediate popular and critical success. His last completed work was his brilliant essay on Friedrich von Schiller.

Mann's eightieth birthday, on June 6, 1955, brought him honors from all sides, both East and West. Respected throughout the world as Germany's greatest man of letters since Goethe, Mann died 2 months later, on August 12, in Kilchberg near Zurich.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive biography of Mann in English, well documented and illustrated, is Hans Bürgin and Hans-Otto Mayer, Thomas Mann: A Chronicle of His Life (trans. 1969). Of the large number of books about Mann, the best introductions in English for the nonspecialist are Henry C. Hatfield, Thomas Mann (1951; rev. ed. 1962), and Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann (1968).

The more advanced student will find a selection of the best critical opinion on Mann in Henry Hatfield, ed., Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964). Also recommended is the excellent critical analysis of Erich Heller, The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (1958). Erich Kahler, The Orbit of Thomas Mann (1969), is a collection of five excellent essays by a close friend of Mann. A critical essay on Mann's major novels is J. P. Stern, Thomas Mann (1967). Gunilla Bergsten, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Sources and Structures of the Novel, translated by Krishna Winston (1969), deals with one of Mann's best-known works. Two studies that discuss Mann in the context of philosophy are Joseph Gerard Brennan, Three Philosophical Novelists: James Joyce, André Gide, Thomas Mann (1963), and Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (1966).

For a treatment of the German literary background see Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature, 1871-1945 (1965). A guide to the worldwide literature on Mann is in a two-volume bibliography of criticism by Klaus W. Jonas, Fifty Years of Thomas Mann Studies (1955), which covers the years 1901-1954, and its supplement, Klaus W. Jonas and Ilsedore B. Jonas, Thomas Mann Studies: A Bibliography of Criticism (1967), which continues the bibliographical record to 1966.

Additional Sources

Hamilton, Nigel, The brothers Mann: the lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1871-1950 and 1875-1955, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, 1978. □

Mann, Thomas

views updated May 11 2018



MANN, THOMAS (1875–1955), German writer.

Thomas Mann's standing as a modern classic rests securely on his singular accomplishments as a writer. Contributing to his pre-eminence was his role, first in Germany, later in the United States, as incisive public intellectual during the most tortured period of the twentieth century. Mann was the head of a family of six children, three of whom achieved fame in their own right: Erika as cabaret performer and journalist; Klaus as author and essayist; Golo as historian. In 2001, Die Manns became a popular television series in Germany—the most visible sign of a growing recognition that the members of the Mann family, including Heinrich, Thomas's older brother, embodied in their lives and works much of the genius, spirit, and unrest of recent German culture and history.


Paul Thomas Mann was the second of the five children born to Johann Heinrich Mann, the owner of a grain trading firm and a senator from the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, and Julia, née da Silva-Bruhns, his wife of Brazilian-German descent. After attending a performance of Lohengrin in 1893, Mann's love of music, kindled by his mother, grew into a passionate and lifelong interest in everything Wagnerian. Mann was a poor student who never obtained the high school diploma required for formal university study. He rather became a formidable autodidact, as evidenced in all his literary work, and outstandingly in Joseph and His Brothers.

In 1894, Mann moved to Munich, where he remained until 1933. Briefly, while Heinrich was its editor, he wrote for the nationalist journal Das zwanzigste Jahrhundert; he then held a job for two years with the satirical weekly Simplicissimus. Having established himself as a major writer in 1901, he married, in 1905, Katia Pringsheim (1883–1980), the daughter of a distinguished Jewish family. Although Mann was profoundly shaped by the homosocial culture prevalent in artistic circles of the day, the marriage was by all standards a success. Nonetheless, his essentially homoerotic imagination remained a most profound source of his creativity, as evidenced in nearly all his works, and notably in Death in Venice.

When war broke out in 1914, Mann was carried away by the prevailing nationalist fever. In an inspired five-hundred-page essay, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), part intellectual autobiography, part analysis of German culture, he aggressively defended Germany's right to preserve its unique music-centered culture and, pitting Western Zivilisation against German Kultur, to reject Western-style democracy. The book made him a hero in conservative circles. However, by entering the political arena Mann began a learning process that soon led him to revise his wartime views of France and the West. In 1922, in one of his most consequential public interventions, he irritated his conservative admirers by enjoining German youth to support the unloved Weimar Republic. Much of Mann's spiritual journey of those years is reflected in The Magic Mountain.

As an early critic of fascism (Mario and the Magician, 1929) and of National Socialism (An Appeal to Reason, 1930), Mann was forced to leave Germany in 1933 when, in the wake of the powerful speech he gave to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Wagner's death, an opportunistic alliance of prominent cultural figures and Nazis singled him out for denunciation as un-German and unwanted in the new Germany. During the first three years of his exile (in France and Switzerland), he maintained a tactical silence about the Nazi regime, largely to protect his publisher. When he did begin to speak out, in February 1936, Mann rose from the German exiles as the most implacable foe of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, expressing himself nowhere more effectively than in the open letter to the University of Bonn in response to having been stripped of his German citizenship and honorary doctorate.

In 1938, Mann moved to the United States, first to Princeton, New Jersey, where he was a lecturer at the university, then, in 1941, to Los Angeles, where he became the central figure of an illustrious German exile community (the so-called Weimar on the Pacific) that included Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, and Theodor W. Adorno. Long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in speeches across the country, Mann sought to convince a reluctant America of the necessity to go to war against Germany. With Albert Einstein and Arturo Toscanini, he was one of the politically most outspoken intellectuals in America, broadcasting, from 1940, monthly radio messages to Germany (Listen, Germany!).

Having entered the country on a Czech passport, Mann became an American citizen in 1944. In 1945, after the defeat of the Third Reich, he was asked to return to Germany to help to heal the wounds. He refused to do so, citing his "national excommunication" of 1933 and rebuking his colleagues for having continued to publish under the Nazi regime. This only deepened the rift between Germany and its most prominent writer. Dismayed by the policies of the Truman administration and publicly branded as a communist dupe, Mann left America in 1952 to spend the last years of his life in Switzerland. Helies buried in Kilchberg, near Zurich.


Mann's work embraces short fiction; novels; a play; essays on literature, music, and philosophy; and political commentary. He left thousands of letters and ten volumes of diaries covering the years from 1918 to 1921 and 1933 to 1955, all others having been destroyed by the author.

At first, Mann considered the short story in the manner of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov to be his particular forte. In fact, all his novels were conceived as novellas, including Buddenbrooks (1901), a family saga spanning four generations and tracing the decline of a once robust Hanseatic merchant family as its members display a growing interest in matters of the mind, music in particular. With the death of sixteen-year old Hanno, intoxicated by the music of Wagner and unfit for the harsh realities of life, the family becomes extinct, thus making room for the rise of a rival Jewish family. Drawing on Theodor Fontane's late novels and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, philosophically shaped by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Buddenbrooks remains Mann's most popular novel. It was this book that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1929. The theme of the artistically inclined outsider, personified by Hanno, is continued in several early novellas, most felicitously in Tonio Kröger (1903), a portrait of the artist as a young man. The competing claims of art and society long remained at the center of Mann's work; however, under the weight of historical experience he both broadened and sharpened his vision with a focus on the nexus of culture and politics that eventually produced Doctor Faustus.

Mann's second novel, Royal Highness (1909), an allegorical romance set at the court of a small German principality, proved to be a artistic dead end. It was the polished, neoclassical form of Death in Venice (1912) with its elaborate mythological subtext that opened the way to the future. The story's hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, bears more than a superficial resemblance to its author; but while Aschenbach's life is tragically destroyed by his passion for a fourteen-year-old Polish boy, Mann himself emerged from writing Death in Venice artistically strengthened. Conceived in 1912 as a comic and satirical counterpart to the tragedy of Aschenbach, The Magic Mountain (1924) grew into a modernist bildungsroman and an epicex position of prewar Europe an cultural issues. Set in a Swiss sanatorium, the novel traces the emotional and intellectual adventures of an engineering student from Hamburg and concludes with the "thunderclap" of the outbreak of war.

For most of the sixteen years from 1927 to 1943, Mann was preoccupied with his four-part epic, Joseph and His Brothers, a meticulous, often humorous retelling of the biblical story through the lens not only of modern scholarship but also of Freudian and Jungian psychology. Part III, Joseph in Egypt, contains what may well be the most elaborate and moving erotic scene in all modern literature. Part IV, Joseph the Provider, written entirely in the United States, contains a covert tribute to Roosevelt's New Deal. Joseph and His Brothers is above all a loving tribute to the exemplary humanity and spirituality of the Jewish people at a time when they were under assault from Mann's native country.

A tribute of a different sort—to Goethean humanism—is manifest in Lotte in Weimar (1939), a lovingly amplified episode drawn from the life of Charlotte, the real-life model of Goethe's Young Werther, who, forty years after the events immortalized in the novel, comes to Weimar to visit the now famous, emotionally distant author.

In 1943, as it became evident that Germany would be defeated, Mann began to write Doctor Faustus, a largely self-critical probing into the psychological and cultural root causes of the "German catastrophe." Designed as a biography of a fictitious composer as narrated by a friend, the novel draws on the Faust myth and on the invention, by Schoenberg, of twelve-tone composition; it suggests that the "German catastrophe" may be traced to the Faustian hubris of German aspirations to translate musical supremacy into political hegemony. Despite expert help from Adorno, Mann became embroiled in a public spat with Schoenberg about the true authorship of the method of composition with twelve tones. The book remains controversial for its apparently wholesale implication of German music in the failure of German culture.

The Holy Sinner (1950), a linguistically virtuosic retelling of the medieval story of Pope Gregory, was eclipsed by the popular success of Felix Krull (1954), one of the great comic novels of modern literature, the origins of which date from 1905. Mann had returned to the story intermittently but was unable to complete it until the final years of his life.


Mann's career was punctuated by rivalries and occasional clashes with other writers. Stung by his politically more conscious brother's criticism of his lack of political awareness, Mann caricatured, in Reflections, Heinrichasa Zivilisationsliterat (a politicizing littérateur). Relations with Gerhart Hauptmann, the uncrowned king of German literature at the time, were equally complex. Mann's caricature of Hauptmann as Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain may well have been motivated by his regicidal desire to take Hauptmann's place. Mann and Brecht were ideological opposites, and no love was lost between them; in Los Angeles, in 1943, they clashed over a political manifesto concerning the future of Germany. Virtually all of Mann's colleagues who remained in Nazi Germany resented him for his harsh criticism of their comportment.

Mann admired Kafka when he discovered him posthumously and was moved to learn that Kafka had wept over Tonio Kröger. Relations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler were cordial and mutually respectful. He enjoyed a lasting, warm friendship with Hermann Hesse who, in a brief obituary, offered this generous thought about Mann:

Beneath his irony and virtuosity—and completely unappreciated for decades by the German public—he possessed great courage, loyalty, a sense of responsibility, and a capacity to love that will keep both his work and memory alive far beyond our own confused times. (13 August 1955)

See alsoEinstein, Albert; Germany; Hofmannsthal, Hugo von; Kafka, Franz; Modernism; Schnitzler, Arthur.


Fetzer, John F. Changing Perceptions of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: Criticism 1947–1992. Columbia, S.C., 1996.

Hamilton, Nigel. The Brothers Mann: The Lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1871–1950 and 1875–1955. New York, 1979.

Koopmann, Helmut. Thomas-Mann-Handbuch. Stuttgart, 1990; 3rd ed., 2001.

Kurzke, Hermann. Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, translated by Leslie Wilson. Princeton, N.J., 2002.

Lehnert, Herbert, and Eva Wessel, eds. A Companion to the Works of Thomas Mann. Rochester, N.Y., 2004.

Lubich, Frederick A. "Thomas Mann's Sexual Politics: Lost in Translation," Comparative Literature Studies 31 (1994): 107–127.

Minden, Michael, ed. Thomas Mann. London, 1995.

Reed, T. J. Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1974. 2nd ed., 1996.

Robertson, Ritchie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Shookman, Ellis. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice: A Novella and Its Critics. Rochester, N.Y., 2003.

Vaget, Hans Rudolf. "National and Universal: Thomas Mann and the Paradox of 'German' Music." In Music and German National Identity, edited by Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter, 155–177. Chicago, 2002.

Hans Rudolf Vaget

Mann, Thomas (1875-1955)

views updated Jun 11 2018

MANN, THOMAS (1875-1955)

German writer Thomas Mann was born in Lübeck, Germany, in 1875 and died in Kilchberg, near Zurich, Switzerland, in 1955. He settled in Munich with his family after the death of his father, remaining until 1936; he then went into exile in the United States. His life and work were dominated by two major questions: Germany and German identity; the status of the artist and art in society.

Concerning the question of German identity, Mann began by holding conservative, monarchist, and militarist beliefs until the rise of Nazism. He opposed a Germanic ideal that accepted values held by the rest of Europe. In this he distanced himself from the position of his brother Heinrich Mann, a republican, cosmopolitan, and critic of the Empire. During this time, Mann's literary output began with a lengthy autobiographical novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), in which he describes the decline of four generations of a rich Hanseatic family. The fate of this fictional family can be compared with his own experience of the loss of his father while he was still very young. After dabbling briefly with Nazi ideology, Mann underwent a fundamental change of opinion in the thirties. It was in his novel The Magic Mountain (1924) that he developed his new attitudes toward all the most important areas of thought and action, including psychoanalysis.

Mann contrasted the mediocrity of an average, bourgeois existence with the unconscious drives of the sensitive intellectual enamored of knowledge and beauty. He continued to articulate, throughout the course of his work, series of paired opposites: art and morality, art and civilization, culture and society, the genius of disease and the stupidity of health. He contrasted the North, cold and puritan, where his family had come from, with the South, Bavaria, where he lived. This was the carnal South of Tonio Kröger (1903), the mephitic Venice of Gustav Aschenbach (1910), the voluptuous Egypt of Joseph (1933-1934), the magic mountain of Hans Castorpall of them fantasies of the experience of forbidden desire, places of love and death, of disease, of castration.

He contrasted liberating psychoanalysis with an alienating hypnosis. In Mario and the Magician (1929), Mann created a portrait of a disturbing illusionist who evokes Hitler. And in 1938, after the Anschluss, Mann contrasted Freud with Hitler: "How that man must hate analysis! I secretly suspect that the furor with which he marched against a certain capital was at bottom directed against the old analyst living there, his real enemy, the philosopher who unmasked neurosis, the great disillusionist, the man who knows so much about belief and genius."

Mann praised Freud directly on several occasions. From his "My Relationship with Psychoanalysis" of 1926, where he exposes his ambivalence toward Freudian theories, to the two texts written for the seventy-fifth and eightieth birthdays of Sigmund Freud, where he is compared, using an allegory from a Dürer painting, to the knight between death and the devil, Mann saw Freud as the "pioneer of a humanism of the future."

Didier David

See also: Psychoanalytische Bewegung, Die ; German romanticism and psychoanalysis.


Finck, Jean. (1982). Thomas Mann et la psychanalyse. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Mann, Thomas. (1941). Freud's position in the history of modern culture. Psychoanalytic Review 28 (1), 92-116.

. (1996)Être écrivain allemandà notre époque. Paris: Gallimard.

Mann, Thomas

views updated May 17 2018

Mann, Thomas (1875–1955) German novelist and essayist. Perhaps the outstanding figure of 20th-century German literature, Mann linked individual psychological problems to the great decline in European culture. His first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), is an epic family saga. Shorter works include the novella Death in Venice (1912), and the autobiographical essay Reflections of a Non-political man (1918). The Magic Mountain (1924) is widely acclaimed as his masterpiece. In 1933, Mann left Germany, first for Switzerland, then the United States. Other works include the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (1933–43), and Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1955). Mann received the 1929 Nobel Prize in literature.

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