Thomas Mann and Germany's Demons

It is understandable that Donald Prater, in his new biography of Mann, should have emphasized the novelist's political evolution, which was so closely associated with the history of Germany.

Issue: Summer 1996

Donald Prater, Thomas Mann: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Was there ever a great writer whose relationship to his own country was as anguished as that of Thomas Mann with Germany? Dante, perhaps, who can be said to have made Italy, and who certainly made the Italian language. But Dante did not suffer Italy in the way that Mann suffered Germany. Mann's first great novel--Buddenbrooks--was subtitled "The Decadence of a Family" and recounted the downfall of that North German patriarchal bourgeoisie from which he came. In due course, his own life was to become the record of a similar collapse. His family life, so apparently ordered and set in its ways, such a model of German middle-class behavior, was to experience political exile, two suicides among the children, addiction to drugs, and the other dangerous pleasures of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, Mann himself ruthlessly sacrificed the happiness of everyone around him to his literary greatness, as he struggled to maintain that bourgeois model of comfortable living that provided the necessary framework for his own unremitting determination to write great books, live like a great man, and die as the most revered of German intellectual figures.

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