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Erich Auerbach (1892-1957)


German philologist, educator, critic, and literary historian, originally trained as a lawyer. Auerbach's famous account of the genesis of the novel, Mimesis (1946), has been since its appearance one the most widely read scholarly works on literary history and criticism. René Wellek, Auerbach's colleague at Yale University, wrote: "The work is a strikingly successful combination of philology, stylistics, history of ideas and sociology, of meticulous learning and artistic taste, of historical imagination and awareness of our own age." (from A History of Modern Criticism 1970-1950, Volume 7, 1991)

"He who represents the course of a human life, or a sequence of events extending over a prolonged period of time, and represents it from beginning to end, must prune and isolate arbitrary. Life has always long since begun, and it is always still going on. And the people whose story the author is telling experience much more than he can ever hope to tell. But the things that happen to a few individuals in the course of a few minutes, hours, possibly even days - these one can hope to report with reasonable completeness." (Auerbach in Mimesis)

Erich Auerbach was born in Berlin into a upper-middle class Jewish family. The son of a prosperous merchant, he grew up in privileged circumstances in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Charlottenburg. At the French gymnasium, an elite school, he underwent a training in classical studies and in reading and writing French. In 1913 Auerbach received a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Heidelberg, where got to know several members of the Max Weber circle. During World War I he served in the German army, and was wounded in the leg; the injury left him with a limp.

Even before the war Auerbach renounced law for literature. He changed disciplines and earned his doctorate in Romance philology from the University of Greifswald in 1921, where his advicer Erhard Lommatzsch had moved. His dissertation was entitled Zur Technik der Frührenaissancenovelle in Italien und Frankreich. In 1922 he married Marie Mankiewitz, whose family was the largest private shareholder of the Deutsche Bank. They had one son, Clemens. Marie's younger sister married  Raoul Hausmann, a founding member of the Dada movement in Berlin.

Between the years 1923 and 1929 Auerbach served as a librarian of the Prussian State Library in Berlin, spending these years just reading, translating Giambattista Vico's Scienza nuova, and writing his first book of Dante. After a paper on Vico in 1922, Auerbach's German translation Scienza nuova appeared in 1924 and then in 1927 his translation of Croce's introduction to Vico. At the age of thirty-seven, he was appointed the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, succeeding Leo Spitzer, who had moved to Cologne.

Auerbach spent only six years as a professor in Germany. To keep his job, he took the oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1934. In Marburg he gained recognition with his work Dante, Poet of the Secular World (1929). Auerbach argued that after Dante myth and legend became history; he was the first great realist author, "the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness; in that he has been followed by all subsequent portrayers of man." Later Harold Bloom elaborated these lines of thought when he wrote in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) that Shakespeare "invented the human as we continue to know it." The other major authors and thinkers, to whom Auerbach showed a lifelong interest, were Vico and Benedetto Croce.

Following Hitler's election as chancellor of German in 1933, a law was passed which would make impossible for Jews to hold official positions. Aurbach was dismissed by the Nazis in 1935. With a letter from Croce, and with support of Spitzer, he went to Istanbul where he taught at the Istanbul State University. Like many other German émigrés, he settled in the suburb of Bebek.

During his years in Turkey Auerbach wrote his famous work, Mimesis, which was first published in German in 1946 and seven years later in English. In Istanbul Auerbach did not have access to all the literature he needed and the libraries were not well equipped for European studies. "On the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. It had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing." Two smaller studies dating from this period appeared in Finland in the journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen.

In 1947 Auerbach moved to the United States. Having been cast out of Europe and deciding not to return, Auerbach refused the offer of a chair in West Germany. For a short period, he was a teacher at Pennsylvania State University. Due to a preexisting heart problem, he had to leave because he could not be insured by the university's insurance company. Before Auerbach was appointed Professor of French and Romance philology at Yale University, a temporary refuge, with the help of Erwin Panofsky, was found at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1949-50. In 1956 he was named Sterling Professor of Romance Philology. Auerbach died in Wallingford, Connecticut, on October 13, 1957.

In Mimesis Auerbach examined changing conceptions of reality as they are reflected in literary works. His point of view constantly moves between the content and analysis of the language and such questions as the difference between the high and low style. The word "mimesis" has almost the same meaning as "mime," but is broadly translated as "imitation." Auerbach starts from Homer and continues throught the texts of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc. ending with such writers as Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. Often he first focuses on stylistic analysis and interpretations of meaning, and from these comments he moves to broader observations on social history and culture. Although Auerbach analyzes writers' attitudes toward reality, he does not rush to give the reader his own definition of the concept "realism." Auerbach's idea is to approach the subject from different points of view, through writers and a selection of excerpts from wide variety of texts, mostly from France and Italy. From Scandinavian writers Ibsen is settled with a few sentences and about Russian realism Auerbach writes: "...remembering it came into its own only during the nineteenth century and indeed only during the second half of it, we cannot escape the observation that it is based on a Christian and traditionally patriarchal concept of the creatural dignity of every human being regardless of social rank and position, and hence that it is fundamentally related to old-Christian than to modern occidental realism. The enlightened, active bourgeoisie, with its assumption of economic and intellectual leadership, which everywhere else underlay modern culture in general and modern realism in particular, seems to have scarcely existed in Russia."

According to Auerbach, Stendhal and Balzac broke the rigid separation of stylistic levels, dating from classical antiquity, in which the low, comic mode was reserved for the description of ordinary, everyday reality, and tragic, the problematic, the serious within everyday life was depicted in the high style. But before these French writers, who did not separate the serious and the realistic, the unification of styles was seen in Dante's Commedia. Christ's passion, in which the low and the sublime were combined, broke down the hierarchical rules of literary depiction for the first time. Modern realistic view of the world was fully developed in the character of Julien Sorel from Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black (1830) – Sorel's tragic life is deeply connected with the historical, social, and political conditions of the period.

René Wellek has criticized that Auerbach's concept of realism is contradictory: "... the early examples of the uses of realism are quite different from those he uses in the later sections on Stendhal, Balzac, and the Goncourts. He uses the term realism in the book in the most diverse manner, yet still always referring to the "represented reality." (from A History of Modern Criticism 1970-1950, Volume 7) Also the concept of mimesis has been defined in many ways in contemporary aesthetics, referring sometimes to the inner world of consciousness. Against the view of the novel as a realistic representation of human experience, structuralists and deconstructionists have emphasized the self-referentiality of all literature. Auerbach himself insisted, that the New Criticism was a threat to scholarship.

For further reading: 'Typology and the Holocaust: Erich Auerbach  and Judeo-Christian Europe' by Malachi Haim Hacohen, in Religions 3 (2012); 'Introduction to Erich Auerbach "Passio as Passion"' by Martin Elsky, in Criticism, 43:3 (2001); Literary History and the Challenge of Philology, edited by Seth Lerer (1996); A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: Volume 7, by René Wellek (1991); Literary Criticism and the Structures of History by G. Green (1982) 

Selected works:

  • Zur Technik der Frührenaissancenovelle in Italien und Frankreich, 1921 (doctoral thesis)
  • Giambattista Vico: Die neue Wissenschaft, 1924 (introduction and translation)
  • Dante als Dichter der iridischen Welt, 1929
    - Dante, Poet of the Secular World (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1961)
  • Vico und Herder, 1932
  • Passio als Leidenschaft, 1941 (Passio as Passio)
  • Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abenländischen Literatur, 1946 (2nd ed. 1959)
    - Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (translated by Willard R. Trask, 1953)
    - Mimesis: todellisuudenkuvaus länsimaisessa kirjallisuudessa (suomentanut Oili Suominen, 1992)
  • Introducion aux études de philologie romane, 1949
    - Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (translated by Guy Daniels, 1961)
  • Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung, 1951
    - 'On the Political Theory of Pascal,' 'La Cour et la Ville,' 'The Aesthetic Dignity of the "Fleurs du Mal"' (translated by Ralph Manheim, in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, 1959) 
  • 'Philologie der Weltliteratur,' 1952 (in Weltliteratur: Festgabe für Fritz Strich zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Walter Muschg and E. Staiger)
    - 'Philology and Weltliteratur' (translated by Edward and Marie Said, in Centennial Review, 1969)
  • Literatursprache und Publikum in der lateinischen Spätantike und im Mittelalter, 1958
    - Literary Language and Its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1965)
  • Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, 1959 (foreword by Paolo Valesio)
  • Gesammelte Aufsätze zur romanischen Philologie, 1962
  • Erich Auerbachs Briefe an Martin Hellweg (1939-1950), 1997 (edited by Martin Vialon)

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