Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is the towering figure of German letters. His novels, most notably “Sorrows of Young Werther,” Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” gave him immense fame. He was ennobled. He became wealthy. Philosophers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Emerson admired and wrote about him. Mozart and Beethoven set music to his poetry. His highly original book “Theory of Colours” brought him to the attention of the science community.
He took things seriously, which at times meant personally, especially when it came to discussion of German intellectuals, their place in the country, and their standing in world literature. In the German monthly journal Die Horen, edited by none other than Friedrich Schiller, Goethe, in 1793, took aim at a critic he describes as a “literary rabble-rouser.” The dressing-down of this unknown is at various points funny and mean. Goethe, for instance, ends the letter suggesting this “ill-tempered, small-minded critic” ought to be “excluded from literary society, as should everyone whose destructive efforts only make active members irritated, supporters less interested, and onlookers distrustful and indifferent.”
This ferocity is owed to the fact that Goethe took the defense of German writers and intellectuals as supremely important. The offending “rabble-rouser” appears to have published an article in a competing journal, Archiv, where he “deplor[ed] the scarcity of first-rate classical prose work in Germany.” Goethe argues this in fact is untrue, but uses the opportunity to tackle a more interesting problem: “When and under what conditions, in any nation, does one become a writer of classics?”
The answering of this question is not simply an exercise in vanity, as if the status “classic” is the goal of every author. “Classic” here means enduring. And for a work to endure it must resonate with an audience for longer than yesterday’s best-seller list. It takes, Goethe explains, “preconditions,” many of which are outside of a writer’s control.
I quote from the letter here at length:
“If the writer finds in the history of his nation great events which together with their consequences form a harmonious and significant whole; if his countrymen exhibit nobility in their attitudes, depth in their feeling, and strength and consistence in their actions; if he himself is permeated with the spirit of his nation and if he, because of an intuitive understanding of this spirit, feels capable of identifying with the past as well as with the present; if his native country has attained a high cultural level, thus facilitating his own educational process; if he has collected sufficient material and is aware of the perfect and not so perfect attempts of his predecessors; and if enough favorable external and internal circumstances coincide to make his apprenticeship less arduous so that in his mature years he is in a position to conceive a great work, organize it, and produce finally a coherent and unified whole.”
Goethe proceeds to lament that many of these preconditions are not at present available to the young German writer. Also working against the writers are a “mass public without taste that devours the good and the bad with equal relish.” Then there is the obvious, perennial need to provide for one’s family.
In spite of all this, and making explicit that he does “not wish for the political turmoil that would pave the way for classical works in Germany,” Goethe does find reason to be hopeful. The young writers of his day, thanks to the suffering of their predecessors, now have the opportunity to “develop their talent earlier.” We joyously learn that this cohort is presently at an “encouraging stage of development.” Good things, it seems, is in store for German literature.
But not so the rabble-rouser, who by dint of constantly tearing down aspiring writers commits the unforgivable sin of stunting the intellectual development of a nation. An offense during Goethe’s time, and one that continues to go unpunished today.