In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

This is an archive of a dead website. The original website was published by Petri Liukkonen under Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 1.0 Finland and reproduced here under those terms for non-commercial use. All pages are unmodified as they originally appeared; some links and images may no longer function. A .zip of the website is also available.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955)


German essayist, cultural critic, and novelist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Among Mann's most famous works is Buddenbrooks (1901), which appeared when he was 26. He began writing it during a one-year stay in Italy and completed it in about two and a half years. The book outraged the citizens of Lübeck, who saw it as a thinly veiled account of local incidents and figures, although Mann never mentions the name of the city.

"A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries." (from The Magic Mountain, 1924)

Paul Thomas Mann was born in Lübeck, where he was baptized as a Protestant in St. Mary's Church. He was the son of a wealthy father, Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, who owned a grain firm and was elected the senator overseeing taxes for Lübeck. Mann's mother Julia, née da Silva-Bruhns, came from a German-Portugese-Creole family. After Mann's father died in 1891, his trading firm was dissolved, and the family moved to Munich. Mann was educated at the Lübeck gymnasium and he also spent some time at the University of Munich. He then worked for the south German Fire Insurance Company for a short period. Mann's career as a writer started in the magazine Simplicissimus. Mann's first book, Der kleine Herr Friedmann, came out in 1898.

While at university, Mann became immersed in the writings of the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche as well as in the music of composer Richard Wagner. In Buddenbrooks, Mann's early masterpiece, he used the technique of the leitmotif, which he adapted from Wagner. Mann had started the book in 1897 as a small story about one member of the family. However, the "protracted finger practice with no ulterior advantages" enlarged into a saga of a wealthy Hanseatic family, which declines from strength to decadence. The last Buddenbrook, the musically gifted young Hanno who dies of a typhoid infection; he is the first of many similar, often morally suspect aesthetes in Mann's novels, continuing in Tonio Kröger, Gustav Aschenbach, Felix Krull, and Adrian Lewerkühn.

After Buddenbrooks, Mann concentrated on short novels or novellas. In 1902 he published Tonio Kröger, a spiritual autobiography exploring art and discipline. He married in 1905 Katja Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Munich family; they had a total six children over the ensuing years. Königliche Hoheit (1909, Royal Highness) reflected Mann's views of duty and sacrifice. Der Tod in Venedig (1912, Death in Venice), Mann's famous multilayered novella, was inspired by a young, sailor-suited boy, Wladyslaw Moes, to son of Baron Moes, whom the author saw in Venice in 1911. Later in life Wladyslaw remembered "the old man", who had been watching him, and noticed after reading the story in Polish translation, how accurately Mann had described his linen suit and his favorite jacket. Other characters have also their counterparts in real life. However, Tadzio in the book is 14, but Wladyslaw was actually ten and a half. In the story an author, Gustav von Aschenbach, whose character is said to be based on the composer Gustav Mahler, fells hopelessly in love with a young teenager, Tadzio. Obsessed with the boy, he stays in Venice during a cholera epidemic, and also dies of cholera. The story was adapted into screen by Luchino Visconti, starring Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen. As a theme Visconti used the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

During World War I Mann supported Kaiser's policy and attacked liberalism. In Von Deutscher Republik (1923), as a semi-official spokesman for parliamentary democracy, he called the German intellectuals to support the new Weimar state.

After ten years of work Mann completed his second major work, Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain), a novel about ideas and of lost humanism. It depicted again a fight between liberal and conservative values, enlightened civilized world and nonrational beliefs. Hans Castorp, the protagonist, goes to the elegant tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, to visit his cousin. Castorp is not really ill, but he stays for a period of seven years, and undergoes an advanced education on the Magic Mountain, primarily through speaking and listening. Two men struggle for his soul, Settembrini, an Italian humanist, and Naptha (see: Georg Lukacs), a radical reactionary, who speaks of blind and irrational faith. Naptha cries out a prophecy that came true in Germany only a decade after publication of the book: "No!" Naphta continued. "The mystery and precept of our age is not liberation and the development of the ego. What our age needs, what it demands, what it will create for itself, is - terror." Naphta challenges Settembrini to a duel with pistols. Settembrini fires into the air, Naphta kills himself in a rage. Another weird character is Mynheer Peeperkorn, who arrives at the Mountain in the company of the beautiful Claudia Chauchat. Castorp falls in love with her at first sight. Claudia returns to Peeperkorn, and Castorp yearns her deeply. The vitalistic Peeperkorn, who confronts his own impotence, also kills himself. Castorp leaves the sanatorium to join the army at the outbreak of the war. Mann tells the reader that while the young man's chances of survival are not good, the question must be left open.

Mann's next major work was Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-42, Joseph and his Brothers), set in the biblical world. The story about the conflict between personal freedom and political tyranny was based on Genesis 12-50. The first volume recounts the early history of Jacob, and introduces then Joseph, the central character. He is sold to the Egypt, where he refuses Potiphar's advances and gains her enmity. Joseph develops into a wise man and the savior of his people.

During the writing process of Joseph and his Brothers the political control in Germany was seized by the Nazis. On Hitler's accession to power, Mann moved to Switzerland, where he edited the literary journal Mass und Wert. He settled finally in the United States in 1936, working among others at the University of Princeton. Lotte in Weimar (1939, The Beloved Returns) focused on the world of Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). In 1941 Mann moved to Santa Monica, California. He lived in the U.S. some ten years, but was disappointed with the American persecution of Communist sympathizers. The Manns were frequent visitors to Salka Viertel’s Santa Monica salon. Her Sunday tea parties were also attended by Bertolt and Helli Brecht, Bruno and Liesel Frank, and various other intellectuals exiled from Nazi Germany.

Mann admired greatly Russian literature and wrote several essays about on Leo Tolstoy and his "undying realism." Especially he loved Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. However, he disliked the later Tolstoy and considered him less noble than Goethe. In the essay 'Dostoevsky - With Moderation' (1945) he deals with the author's supposed confession to Turgenev that he had violated an underage girl. René Wellek has dismissed Mann's speculations and considers the whole business of Dostoevsky's criminality totally misconceived (A History of Modern Criticism, vol. 7, 1991).

Mann's last great work was Doktor Faustus (1947), the story of composer Adrian Lewerkühn and the progressive destruction of German culture in the two World Wars. In the background of the story was the innovative 12-tone music of Arnold Schönberg. Mann's account of the genesis of Doctor Faustus appeared in 1949. (Faust theme / Pact with the Devil, see J.W. Goethe.) After lung cancer operation Mann returned in 1947 to Europe. Demonstratively he avoided Germany, but he was made an honorary citizen of his hometown of Lübeck and he supported the rebuilding of its Marienkirche. Mostly Mann lived in Switzerland, near Zürich, where he died on August 12, 1955. Mann's parodic and light-hearted novel Confessions of Felix Krull was left unfinished.

For further reading: Thomas Mann by Henry Hatfield (1962); Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Henry Hatfield (1964); Essays on Thomas Mann by G. Lucàcs (1965); Thomas Mann by J.P. Stern (1967); Thomas Mann by Ignace Feuerlicht (1968); Thomas Mann by H. Bürgin and H-O. Mayer (1969); Thomas Mann: The Devil's Advocate by T.E. Apter (1979); The Borthers Mann by N. Hamilton (1979); Thomas Mann by E. Heller (1979); Thomas Mann by M. Swales (1980); The Ironic German by Erich Heller (1981); Thomas Mann by Richard Winston (1981); Thomas Mann and His Family ny M. Reich-Ranicki (1989); Thomas Mann by M.P.A Travers (1992); Thomas Mann: A Life by Donald Prater (1995); The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" and the Boy Who Inspired it by Gilbert Adair (2001); The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (2001); Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art by Hermann Kurzke (2002) - See also: Elias Canetti, Abraham Polonsky,