Auerbach, Erich

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AUERBACH, ERICH (1892–1957), literary critic. Auerbach is remembered foremost for his innovative book Mimesis, a survey of what he defined as "the representation of reality in Western literature" (1946), which he wrote during his exile years in Istanbul. The book was gradually appreciated as the most valuable contribution to the field of literary criticism in the 20th century, especially in the English-speaking world.

Auerbach was born in Berlin and first took a degree in law before changing over to Romance studies. After his doctorate he was appointed in 1929 as ordinarius university professor in Marburg. In 1936 he left Germany for Turkey and taught there at Istanbul State University until 1947. He then lectured in several American universities before he was appointed Sterling Professor at Yale, a year before his death. His other books include Dante, Poet of the Secular World (trans. Ralph Manheim, 1961), and Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (1984).

Although he lacked an adequate library during his exile in Istanbul, he managed to write an introduction for his Turkish students called Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature, as well as further articles. He never mentioned being a Jew in his writings. His ten years of Turkish exile and then the several universities in the U.S. where he taught made him a symbol of the wandering Jewish scholar who had fled Nazi Germany. His intimate self-reflective linguistic and stylistic examination of diverse texts ranging back almost 3,000 years has made his work indispensable for critics and scholars of Western culture. In his efforts to explain the workings of literary allegory in European literature he coined the word "Figura." This could be summarized as a personage or event that prefigures or signifies another. Both are distinct historical personages or incidents, related to each other in many ways.

In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of Mimesis, Edward Said, who recognized Auerbach as a fellow-émigré, wrote an introduction to the new edition of this essential work.


S. Lerer (ed.), Literary History and the Challenge of Philology. The Legacy of Erich Auerbach (1996); "Auerbach-Alphabet," Karlheinz (Carlo) Barck zum 70. Geburtstag, in: Trajekte (special edition, 2004); D. Caroll, "Mimesis Reconsidered: Literature, History, Ideology," in: Diacritics (1975), 5–12.

[Ittai Joseph Tamari (2nd ed.)]