Mann was born in 1875 in Lübeck, a German port on the Baltic Sea that was in economic decline throughout the nineteenth century. His diligent and well-respected father was forced to grapple with Lübeck's failing economy, both as head of the family trading firm and as an officer in the city government. The elder Mann chided sons Thomas and Heinrich for their lack of interest in commerce, for he hoped to groom them as his successors in the family business. Mann's mother, of mixed German and Brazilian parentage, seemed exotic by contrast with her business-oriented husband. Highly interested in music, she encouraged her sons' growing interest in the arts. To Mann, his parents embodied a common German view of European culture: a Germanic North, emotionally aloof but dutiful and productive, versus a Latin South, passionate and artistic but potentially irresponsible. In 1891, when Mann was sixteen, his father died at an untimely age, and the trading firm was liquidated. The family relocated to Munich, widely regarded at the time as the leading city of German culture. Thomas and Heinrich soon became professional writers.
Nevertheless, as many biographers suggest, Mann often expressed a businessman's suspicion of the artist's role, fearing that self-expression could lapse into empty self-indulgence. As an established writer he paid tribute to the restraining influence of his father and hometown, most notably in the 1926 speech Lübeck als geistige Lebensform ("Lübeck As a Spiritual Concept of Life"). Heinrich and Thomas owed much to their mother's "blithe southern disposition," Mann said, quoted by the Winstons. But "our father endowed us with 'the serious conduct of life'. . . the ethical note that so strikingly coincides with the bourgeois temper." Mann's ideal bourgeois was not the grasping capitalist disdained by Marxism, but rather the German burgher of preindustrial times. The lives of such merchants, wrote biographer R. Hinton Thomas, "signified an ideal humanism--freedom without licence, spirituality without extravagant subjectivism, practicality without philistinism."
When Mann prepared to become a writer in his teens and early twenties, he became acquainted with a wide variety of artists and thinkers. As biographer Henry Hatfield observed, his inspiration often came from beyond the world of fiction writing. While a teenager Mann became infatuated with the music of Richard Wagner, whose operas were known for their complexity, passion, and epic vision; but soon, Mann's love of Wagner became tinged with skepticism. As T. E. Apter explained in Thomas Mann: The Devil's Avocate, Wagner's strong appeal to the emotions "can appear as a disturbing attack" on rationality and social responsibility. In the opera Tristan und Isolde, for instance, the composer pointedly mixes such powerful and contradictory feelings as the yearning for love and the fascination with death. R. Hinton Thomas observed that "the evil power of music," which could draw its listeners towards "escape from the restraints and commitments of practical existence," became "a major theme of Mann's work."
After discovering Wagner, Mann delved into the works of nineteenth-century German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Both philosophers rejected the truths by which most Europeans, including Mann's burgher class, had directed their lives--that good would be rewarded and evil punished because the world was a rational place, presided over by a benevolent God or by human reason. Schopenhauer believed that life was fundamentally irrational, for all living things were driven by the force of will--an inborn, mindless striving that could never be satisfied. Human reason was only a tool created by this striving force in order to attain its desires, he maintained, and all people were condemned to unhappiness as their individual wills conflicted with each other. Though pessimistic about the human condition, Schopenhauer found limited consolation in the effort to transcend one's own will, either through charity to others, through art, or, possibly, by losing one's sense of self after death.
Nietzsche took Schopenhauer's premises to more audacious conclusions. He detected a clear purpose in the human force of will, which he labeled the "will to power." According to Nietzsche, every human being is driven to dominate their surroundings, including other people; much of human unhappiness comes from misdirecting this natural drive. Accordingly, he blasted Christianity for advocating guilt and submissiveness, finding its followers self-tortured and too weak to meet the demands of life. He also became dubious of Schopenhauer, whose subdued pessimism seemed as unhealthy as Christianity. Aware that modern science was undermining religious faith in the West, Nietzsche feared that disillusioned believers would lapse into nihilism, choosing death and destruction on the grounds that life had lost its purpose. Thus he advocated a new, more confident human being--the superman or overman--who would find a sense of purpose in the innate force of will.
Commentators suggest that Mann's diverse influences--from dutiful burghers to the flamboyant Nietzsche--do not form a unified philosophy, or even a succession of philosophies. For many of Mann's admirers, his ability to pursue several different modes of thought at once is key to his appeal. As Hatfield explained in Modern German Literature: "Mann's gift--or curse--of seeing both sides of almost everything and everyone was perhaps his most characteristic talent. It often made him irritating and unsatisfactory as a thinker, and particularly as a political essayist. But in the realm of fiction this 'dual perspective' on man gave his vision a stereoptic quality, and his characters a third dimension. His people are good and evil, perceptive and blind; they are extraordinarily real. . . . Their very inconsistencies keep them alive and fascinating." Mann's double vision extends to his narrative style, which is well known for its irony. His narrators tend to remain aloof, undercutting characters with bemused skepticism. (Often, reviewers lament, the irony is conveyed by subtleties of the German language that are difficult to reproduce in translation.) In Rede und Antwort, quoted by R. Hinton Thomas, Mann celebrated "the poetic charms and possibilities which arise out of doubt, out of faith called into question." The author asked: "What is poetry if not irony?"
Mann's early writing career was marked by sudden successes. At nineteen he was apprenticed to a Munich insurance firm, where he eluded work in order to write his first short story. Its publication gained him an appreciative letter from Richard Dehmel, a prominent poet of the day. The short story made Mann determined to write professionally, so he quit his job after a few months in order to audit a broad range of courses at Munich's university. A few more short stories quickly led to Mann's first book--Der kleine Herr Friedemann ("Little Herr Friedemann"), a collection published by the distinguished literary firm of Samuel Fischer. By the time Friedemann was published, Mann was in Italy with his brother, Heinrich, who was a great admirer of Italian culture. Thomas showed little interest in his surroundings, however: he was writing a novel about his German merchant ancestors, whom he thinly disguised as the Buddenbrook family. Buddenbrooks was a work with few precursors in German literature. It was patterned on the naturalistic novels of Western Europe and Scandinavia, which used lavish detail to create the portrait of an individual, a family, or a society. Many Lübeckers were soon filled with shock and outrage, for Mann had surveyed his hometown with unsettling detachment, as betrayed by his book's subtitle--Verfall einer Familie ("Decline of a Family").
Buddenbrooks opens with a celebration, as Johann Buddenbrook, elderly head of a prosperous trading firm, entertains guests at his new mansion. Hatfield called him "a type of the eighteenth century as popularly conceived--rationalistic, optimistic, skeptical, and of uncomplicated, single-minded energy." Johann soon dies, having virtually disinherited one son who married below the proper station. A dutiful and religious son, Jean, gains control of the family business. In the name of duty Jean persuades his tempestuous daughter, Tony, to boost the family finances through a loveless marriage, but the husband turns out to be a bankrupt swindler. As Tony careens through a succession of unhappy marriages, control of the firm falls to her brother, Tom, a talented and honorable man slowly overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Tom draws solace from the writings of a pessimistic philosopher, reading that after death he will lose his individual identity (Mann later suggested that the philosopher was Schopenhauer). Tom dies while still in middle age, and his son, Hanno, represents the final generation of Buddenbrooks. Hanno, an artistic and sensitive child, fond of Wagner and devoid of willpower, dies at the age of fifteen. Financial success comes to other families, whose crass attitudes, critics suggest, signify the triumph of grasping modern capitalists over the more humane burghers of German tradition.
Buddenbrooks was massive, even by nineteenth-century standards. Fischer, fearful he could not sell a costly two-volume novel, unsuccessfully pressured Mann to condense the book. The first edition sold slowly, but when Fischer reissued the work in a single volume it became wildly popular, and Mann was suddenly celebrated throughout Germany. "Mann has given evidence of a capacity and ability that cannot be ignored," declared poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In a 1902 review, later quoted in Hatfield's Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, Rilke hailed Mann as both "chronicler" and "poet," a master of detail and of vivid characterization. He praised the "particular subtlety" Mann uses to show how progressive self-absorption speeds the family's decline. Other German-speaking contemporaries praised Mann's skill and chided his wordiness, thus expressing opinions that would follow the author throughout his career. American reviewers had comparable reactions when Buddenbrooks appeared in English in the 1920s. "There is a beauty of decay as well as of growth, a charm of fading colors . . . as well as of the dawn," wrote Robert Morss Lovett in the New Republic. "Of this beauty and this eloquence Thomas Mann is master."
Despite the popular success of Buddenbrooks, Mann never wrote such a highly realistic work again. Admirers stress that he continued to show a flair for realistic detail, including subtle insights into human psychology. Nevertheless, in analyzing most of Mann's fiction, commentators tend to view the characters as representations of ideas. In his study of Mann, Hatfield attempted to reconcile the contrasting views of Mann as philosopher and storyteller. Hatfield advised: "Whatever Mann's importance as a thinker--and many of his critics seem to discuss the 'philosophy' of his stories with a certain pontifical overseriousness--the works can best be read as literature; the artistic how is at least as interesting as the ideological what. With Mann one cannot afford to neglect either."
Commentators suggest that Buddenbrooks, for all its meticulous realism, is based on a philosophical issue: can successive generations of a family become so emotionally sensitive, so preoccupied with personal concerns, that they become unable to survive the vicissitudes of life? In Mann's other early fiction, typically novellas and short stories, he applied such a question to his own situation as a fledgling writer, showing the conflict between life and art. The tone of these stories is often cold and pessimistic: as Hatfield observed, "'life' and its healthy representatives are dull or brutal or both; but the antagonists to 'life,' the isolated and introspective protagonists, are sick, psychologically maladjusted, and frequently grotesque." "Der kleine Herr Friedemann" was the title story of Mann's first book. Friedemann is a hunchback who avoids human society in favor of literature and music. At a performance of Wagner, Friedemann observes a socialite with fascination; the two begin a tentative friendship, but he is soon rejected and attempts suicide. The title character of "Tobias Mindernickel" is a lonely misfit who is taunted by children as he walks the streets. He enjoys comforting his dog when it is weak, but when the dog becomes willful, Mindernickel kills it and weeps over the corpse. Soon after Mann's first short stories appeared, he spent about two years on the editorial staff of Simplizissimus--a Munich periodical noted for its strong satire.
In "Tonio Kröger," published shortly after Buddenbrooks, Mann made an explicit effort to resolve the controversy between art and life. Son of a North German merchant with a foreign-born wife, Tonio Kröger invites comparison to Mann; his Italian-German name underscores his divided sympathies. As a child Kröger realizes that he is too morbidly introspective to share the simple joys of his handsome, blond, outgoing schoolmates. He matures into a talented writer, but as he circulates among contrasting social settings--the middle class and the artists, northern and southern Europe--he continues to agonize about his relationship to other people. A girlfriend diagnoses him as a "lost burgher" and an artist "with a bad conscience." Finally, Kröger finds a sense of purpose by accepting his ambiguous position in society. "It is precisely [Kröger's] frustrated love for the Nordic-normal-bourgeois which gives him the inner tension that makes him creative," wrote Hatfield. "He will stand between [the art world and the middle class], a sympathetic if ironic mediator."
During the next several years Mann suffered a series of professional setbacks. Fiorenza, his only play, was judged too slow-moving for the stage; Königliche Hoheit ("Royal Highness"), a novel based on his happy marriage, was found disappointingly shallow. He soon became stalled on his next novel, a projected multivolume saga titled Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull ("Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man"). Lamenting his inability to write, Mann took his wife on a vacation to Venice. In the decaying Italian port, which largely survived by displaying its Renaissance art treasures to tourists, he met a series of exotic characters who gave him inspiration for a short story. Conceived as a diversion suitable for Simplizissimus, Der Tod in Venedig ("Death in Venice") became known as one of the world's finest examples of short fiction.
Death in Venice begins in Munich, as the renowned writer Gustav Aschenbach struggles against the exhaustion of his creativity. Aschenbach is about fifty years old, unmarried, highly disciplined and repressed; he writes tales of spiritual struggle that reassert conservative values. Walking by a cemetery, Aschenbach is startled by an odd-looking traveler standing at the door of a crypt; the writer suddenly decides to leave Munich and refresh himself with a trip to southern Europe. The ominous stranger seems to appear twice more as Aschenbach travels to Venice: once as a decrepit homosexual whose face is rouged in a futile effort to look younger; again as a menacing gondolier who apparently operates without a license. In the city Aschenbach spots an adolescent Polish boy named Tadzio whom he finds strikingly beautiful; he begins following the boy and his family throughout Venice. The writer is alternately frightened and elated by his growing passion for Tadzio, and in a nightmare he joins animals and humans at an orgy in honor of a "stranger god." One day Aschenbach smells the sweet odor of disinfectant on the city's air, denoting an outbreak of cholera; however, he does nothing to save himself or the boy's family. Instead he asks a barber to rouge his face and redden his lips, then eats overripe strawberries that are apparently contaminated with the fatal disease. On the beach a few days later Aschenbach shouts to intervene when other boys beat Tadzio, and the boy then stands alone by the sea, returning the writer's gaze. Aschenbach rises from his beach chair, then collapses from illness. "By nightfall," the tale concludes, "a shocked and respectful world learned of his decease." Unsettling and evocative, Death in Venice has been treated by commentators as a major work despite its modest length. Many reviewers have praised the carefully controlled tone of Mann's prose. Devoid of either harsh judgment or sympathy, the narration echoes the degeneration of Asche nbach's personality: the style is austere at the opening, then grows overwrought as the writer sinks into irrationality. Recurrent words and images create an oppressive, deathly atmosphere; reviewers liken the effect to repeated musical themes in Wagner's operas. The word "sweet," for instance, acquires a menacing tone as Mann uses it to describe the smell of overgrown plants, rotting fruit, and disinfectant. The recurring figure of a sinister stranger recalls the imagery of ancient myths, in which men are confronted by the figure of death. Mann, wrote Cyril Connolly in The Condemned Playground, has given Aschenbach's demise the impact of an ancient tragedy; the story, he wrote, "has the frozen completeness of a work of art."
Death in Venice has prompted a vast array of interpretations. Some critics have suggested that the work is based on Mann's own homosexual fantasies; by contrast, Mann suggests in his correspondence that the story was often viewed as an attack on homosexuality. D. H. Lawrence, who tried to portray the joys of sexuality in his works, blasted Mann's "sick vision": Lawrence did not object to the story's plot, which he considered largely symbolic, but to Mann's apparent inability to portray human sexuality in terms that were not repulsive. T. E. Apter, noting the story's focus on "death, passion and the debilitating effects of beauty," averred that Mann was repudiating the emotional excess he found in Wagner's work. Martin Swales, in Thomas Mann: A Study, pointed out that Aschenbach's widespread popularity as a writer makes him "the spokesman of a generation"; thus Aschenbach's swing between emotional extremes--from strident repression to unthinking frenzy--seems an ominous diagnosis of European society on the eve of World War I. Europe, relatively peaceful and productive for a century, greeted the war in 1914 with what Swales calls "waves of collective enthusiasm."
But as biographers suggest, Mann's perceptiveness as a writer of fiction did not always carry over into his personal life. For example, the year that the rather daring Death in Venice was published, Mann paradoxically joined the Munich Censorship Council; he soon withdrew after heated criticism from other writers. After World War I began, Heinrich became a pioneering advocate of peace, praising the more democratic society of Germany's opponent, France. But Thomas cast aside his fiction to write words of encouragement for the German war effort; in such missives, he echoed the nationalist position that Germany was an emerging power, entitled to take an aggressive stand against overbearing countries such as France and England. The Mann brothers began a painful political quarrel that, as many biographers observed, mirrored German society's debate about its future. In the closing years of the war Thomas summarized his view of Germany in a book that remains the most controversial part of his literary legacy--Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen ("Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man"). Drawing a sharp contrast between Germany and France, the book suggests that French democracy, a product of intellectual theories rather than long-term experience with human nature, is by nature didactic and intolerant; whereas Germany's less political, more inward-looking culture is better attuned to the realities of human experience, including society's need for a well-established hierarchy. "To transform Germany into a middle-class democracy," summarized Carolly Erickson in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "would reduce her rich spiritual complexity to something 'dull, shallow, stupid and un-German.'"
In light of Germany's subsequent plunge into Nazism, Mann's nationalist rhetoric seems at best naive; at worst, willfully blind. After World War I, Reflections was embraced by German ultraconservatives as a political tract, and for years thereafter Mann faced charges that he had encouraged incipient fascism. Mann's defenders, stressing the confused, tormented nature of the work, echo the view that Mann himself provided several years later in Lebensabriss ("A Sketch of My Life"). Reflections, Mann suggested, was an inner dialogue, the struggle of a burgherly German conservative to adjust to the changes sweeping Europe in the early twentieth century. For the rest of his life Mann was steadfast in his views about the fundamental differences between Germany and Western Europe, but he concluded that rational democracy was the salvation of the West and that Germany's culture had spurred the country's downfall.
In 1918 Germany surrendered and replaced its imperial government with a Western-style democracy--events that seem to have left Mann temporarily baffled. He asked that Reflections be viewed as a novel, and penned a lengthy poem, Gesang vom Kindchen) about the birth of his youngest daughter. But by the 1920s Mann showed renewed interest in social issues, for he had begun what admirers call his education in democracy. He shocked conservatives with the speech Von Deutscher Republik ("The German Republic"), backing the new democratic government and attempting, somewhat awkwardly, to link democracy to German tradition. "My ideas have perhaps altered--not my intention," Mann declared in a preface to the printed work, quoted by Hamilton. "Thoughts are always--however sophistic this may sound--only a means to an end, a tool in the service of an intention." Mann declared that his main concern was "exactly the same as in Reflectio ns:namely that of German humanity." The Mann brothers were reconciled in the 1920s, and Heinrich praised his brother's growth from a mere "observer" to a man "involved with his people." The fruit of Thomas Mann's new social consciousness--according to his brother and many literary critics--is his 1924 novel, Der Zauberberg ("The Magic Mountain"). Considered a landmark of world literature, The Magic Mountain depicts the conflicting cultural and political trends that sundered the Mann brothers and vexed all Europe in the opening decades of the twentieth century.
Set in the years preceding World War I, The Magic Mountain takes place on a Swiss mountaintop in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Mann had visited such a place in 1912, when his wife was recovering from the disease. Mann's fictional sanatorium serves as a symbolic gathering place for the nations of Europe, for its patients include wealthy patrons from throughout the continent. As guests undergo the prescribed "rest cure," they lose their sense of the passing of time, for they are removed from the struggles of ordinary existence and turn to pastimes that range from games to endless philosophical discussions. The staff systematically insulates the patients from their most pressing concern--death--by affecting a cheerful attitude and surreptitiously removing the bodies of the dead. The book opens as Hans Castorp, a newly graduated engineer, arrives to visit his sick cousin. When doctors find a trace of tuberculosis in Hans, he agrees to stay at the sanatorium for a few weeks; instead, he becomes captivated by the hospital's unworldly atmosphere and remains for seven years. As an open-minded, somewhat directionless young man, Hans becomes the central character in Mann's revival of the Bildungsroman, or "novel of education"--a classic German genre in which thoughtful role models aid a naive youth to become a productive member of society.
But unlike the typical hero of a novel of education, Hans never finds a trustworthy mentor. Instead, he learns moderation by confronting extremists--patients or doctors whose doctrinaire approaches to life are undercut by their self-contradictory personalities. Naptha, named for a flammable liquid, relishes strong emotions. An Eastern European Jew who saw his father crucified in a pogrom, he nonetheless became a Christian and joined the Jesuits, a religious order known for its zealous defense of Catholic doctrine. Now he praises communism as well as Catholicism, for both, he contends, are admirably authoritarian; to reform society, he advocates "anointed Terror." Naptha's opposite is the Italian Settembrini, a humanist whose strong faith in reason, which initially appeals to Hans, proves to be laced with intellectual arrogance. Settembrini relishes the destruction of his enemies much as Naptha does, but he cannot consciously accept the validity of human emotion. Trivializing insanity, Settembrini claims to have cured a madman by giving him a "rational" stare; he also dismisses Hans's pangs of love for a woman patient, prompting Hans to denounce him. Finally Settembrini and Naptha stage a duel that is considered Mann's satire on intellectual excess. Settembrini fires his gun in the air; Naptha, unable to comprehend such a gesture, shoots himself in the head. Hans also seeks out patients who are more comfortable with their physical nature, but his mentors once again prove to be flawed. Claudia Chauchat, a languorous Russian woman, thrills Hans with sexual flirtation but prefers the company of Mynheer Peeperkorn, a charismatic Dutch plantation owner who dominates and frightens her. Peeperkorn, though aggressive
and inarticulate, draws the admiration of Hans and many others for his impassioned love of life. As the Dutchman approaches old age, however, he surrenders to despair, and shortly after arriving at the sanatorium he commits suicide. Hans's lessons in the need for moderation end abruptly, for as the book ends he is drafted into the German Army to serve in World War I. Mann last shows him facing enemy fire on a battlefield. Many reviewers surmise that he is killed.
As biographer Hamilton wrote, "The Magic Mountain restored [Mann] to his rightful standing: the master novelist of his age." The book received widespread attention in Germany and throughout the Western world, garnering praise from such notables as French novelist André Gide and American literary critic Joseph Wood Krutch. When the novel first appeared, Krutch proclaimed it comparable in stature to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Mann, wrote Krutch in the Nation, had told "the whole story of the modern mind," creating a unique work about the interaction between ideas and individual character. Commentators have reiterated such views for decades. The Magic Mountain "is Thomas Mann's most complex creation," wrote T. J. Reed in Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, "the summa of his life, thought, and technical achievement to the age of fifty." Reed called the work "spiritual autobiography . . . intricate allegory . . . historical novel, an analysis of Man and a declaration of principle for practical humanism." Five years after The Magic Mountain was published, the author received the Nobel Prize in literature.
Mann, biographers believe, hoped that postwar Germany would choose the course of sensible moderation embodied by Hans Castorp. Instead the nation became politically polarized, and when spokesmen of the increasingly fascist right branded Mann a traitor to their cause, he responded by endorsing socialism. While the Nazi Party consolidated its control of Germany after the 1933 elections, Mann and his wife were out of the country. To the author's dismay, he received warnings from his eldest daughter that it was unsafe to return, in part, presumably, because Mann's wife was Jewish. At first Mann avoided an open break with the Nazis, apparently hoping, along with the Jewish president of his publishing house, that prominent moderates could outlast the regime and encourage opposition. As a result Mann's work escaped the first wave of Nazi censorship campaigns, but he was compromised in the eyes of antifascist groups and came to view his forbearance as a mistake. In 1936 Mann issued a series of increasingly strong statements against the Nazi regime, and before the end of the year his German citizenship had been revoked. The University of Bonn promptly withdrew its honorary doctorate, and Mann replied with a blistering open letter that was read throughout the world. If the Nazis held sway, Mann warned, quoted by Hamilton, the German people would become "an instrument of war . . . driven by a blind and fanatical ignorance." He declared: "Woe to the people which . . . seeks its way out through the abomination of war, hatred of God and man! Such a people will be lost. It will be so vanquished that it will never rise again." For the rest of the Nazi era, Mann was widely known for both his attacks on wayward Germany and his praise of democracy. Combined with his Nobel Prize-winning status, such activities made him--perhaps against his wishes--a leading representative of German progressives in the eyes of the public. After receiving a warm welcome on lecture tours of the United States, Mann took up residence there and became an American citizen in 1944.
In contrast to his speeches, Mann's reaction to Nazism in his fiction was at first indirect. His new series of biblical novels about the ancient history of the Jews, for instance, became a refutation of the Nazis' racist mythmaking. The novels focus on the story of Joseph, whose great-grandfather Abraham had initiated the special relationship between the Jews and God. Known collectively as Joseph und Seine Brüder ("Joseph and His Brothers"), the series includes four books: Die Geschichten Jaakobs ("The Tales of Jacob"), Der junge Joseph ("Young Joseph"), Joseph in Aegypten ("Joseph in Egypt"), and Joseph der Ernaehrer ("Joseph the Provider"). Joseph, supremely talented, confident in his abilities and in God's providence, is for R. J. Hollingdale a benevolent variation on Nietzsche's overman and the leading character in a "cheerful myth." Joseph survives his own egotism, the envy of his brothers, betrayal into slavery, and false imprisonment to become the savior of his Egyptian masters in time of famine. Mann's narrative, lightly irreverent, is a blend of mythology and psychology. The author wished, in Hatfield's words, "to reveal basic human archetypes as they occur in the myths of the gods, in legend, and in history"; to this end the characters often resemble each other or famous persons from history and fiction. At the same time, as Mann himself suggested, he wanted to show the emergence of individuality; accordingly, the characters acquire subtle motivations missing from the short biblical account. The series of "Joseph" novels drew regular praise from reviewers in the United States. "The whole," wrote J. F. Fullington in the Atlantic Monthly, "constitutes a work which in encyclopedic scholarship, imaginative power, and magnitude of conception can hardly be approached by any other literary product of our time." But Hatfield observed that the books have also been accused of slow pacing, repetition, and pedantry; such problems could be symptoms, he observed, of "that decrease in intensity often characteristic of aging writers."
Upon completing the "Joseph" books, Mann began a novel he both dreaded and felt compelled to write--an explicit indictment of German culture and its role in fomenting the Nazi regime. Heinrich, one of Germany's first social satirists, had long viewed his native culture as if he were an outsider, but Thomas tended to identify strongly with German tradition: To indict German culture was to indict his own nature. Mann discussed his situation in the 1945 speech "Germany and the Germans," which he delivered at the U.S. Library of Congress just weeks after the fall of the Nazi regime. Here he rejected his public image as the representative of a "good Germany" that stood apart from the Nazis. There is only a single Germany, Hamilton quoted him, "which has turned its best by devilry into bad." Mann concluded: "It is . . . impossible for a German-born mind to disown the evil, guilt-laden Germany. . . . I have it also in me; I have experienced it in my own body."
To portray Germany's descent into evil, Mann revived the old German legend of Faust, a learned man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and supernatural power. Titling his work Doktor Faustus ("Doctor Faustus"), he made his lead character Adrian Leverkühn, a fictional German composer who lives from 1885 to 1940. Adrian spends his childhood on a farm and in a small town, then studies religion at a university where his teachers show a morbid interest in the nature of evil. Soon he opts for a career in music, which remained for Mann a symbol of irrationality, as the author suggested in "Germany and the Germans." As a composer Adrian discovers a problem familiar to creative artists in the sophisticated twentieth century: he believes he has arrived on the world scene too late, and that all the original, expressive works of art have already been made. The complaint also recalls the German nationalist doctrines that Mann had once endorsed; Adrian's cry for an artistic "breakthrough" resembles Nazi rhetoric about overcoming Anglo-French domination. Using the technique he developed in the "Joseph" saga, Mann makes Adrian the embodiment of a menacing human archetype: the arrogant, overreaching German. Adrian's life particularly resembles that of Nietzsche, whose works Nazi propagandists falsely claimed as precursors of their own ideas about a master Germanic race. In his youth Adrian contracts syphilis in a brothel, as Nietzsche is alleged to have done, and thereafter his life is a similar mixture of daring creativity and growing madness. The composer becomes convinced that in Italy he conversed with the devil about music and traded his soul for the chance to write great new compositions. He soon becomes renowned as the inventor of twelve-tone music, a system that abjures the harmonies familiar to Western listeners (and that was actually the brainchild of Mann's fellow expatriate, Arnold Schönberg). In 1930, as the Nazis rise to power, Adri an summons friends and reviewers to his home to introduce his new symphony, "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus." Before playing parts of the work on his piano, Adrian gives a long, tormented speech that amounts to a confession of his pact with Satan. But his speech is so disordered, the language so archaic, that his auditors assume he is demented. They respond with a mixture of shock and mere embarrassment. As with Nietzsche, Adrian suddenly collapses in insanity and spends the last ten years of his life being tended by his mother. Doctor Faustus is narrated by Adrian's friend Serenus Zeitblom, a well-intentioned, burgherly German who is slow to comprehend the evil nature of the composer's genius. Zeitblom writes his reminiscences during the war years from 1943 to 1945, as Germany is driven to defeat. By the end of his account, Zeitblom is conscious of the parallel fates of his friend and his country.
Mann spoke of Doctor Faustus as one of the most important and daring works of his career, calling it his "wildest" novel, as biographer Ignace Feuerlicht noted. But even commentators who respected the author's effort often found the book flawed. Mann's characteristic weaknesses--a love of length and complexity, a preoccupation with philosophy--seemed, for many commentators, to have defeated his intention. "This book is a monster: one cannot love it," wrote Hollingdale, citing such problems. Nonetheless, he called the novel "a 'great' book, an enduring book . . . full of faults and yet worth ten thousand petty 'successes.'" "Among [Mann's] longer works," wrote Hatfield, The Magic Mountain "is formally more successful, and conveys a far greater sense of intellectual excitement," but Doctor Faustus is still much more than "an ambitious failure." Hatfield called the work an "end product"--a writer's final summation of his artistic vision. As with the "vast late works" of other authors, Hatfield averred, the novel is "only partially successful" but contains "an enormous variety of riches."
Mann lived for a decade after World War II, and as a man of high public stature he was the object of both admiration and outrage. He received many prestigious awards throughout Europe, but he was blasted as a fraud by German writers who had lived under Hitler and were compromised by Nazism. At first reluctant to visit Germany at all, he finally insisted on touring the communist eastern half as well as the noncommunist west. Suddenly the man once denounced as a conservative ideologue was branded by the American right as a communist dupe, and he moved from the United States to Switzerland, expressing concern that America might be headed for fascism. Mann's last major work, begun a half-century earlier, was the completed first volume of Felix Krull. The novel is of special interest to admirers of Mann as a burlesque of many ideas that appear in the rest of his writing. The title character, a confidence man, combines the moral blindness of Adrian Leverkühn with the cheerful self-confidence of Joseph. For Felix Krull--who is seen as a mocking self-portrait of the author--fraud is both an art and a philosophy of life.
After Mann died in 1955, he was sometimes recalled as a friend of democracy and humanism--ignoring, perhaps, the complex and ambiguous nature of his work. "I once saw Thomas Mann plain," declared Alfred Kazin, contending that Mann used a "conservative social self" to mask "a mind so complex that his real opinions were always elusive." Hollingdale depicted Mann in Nietzschean terms, as the child of a Western civilization that had become unable to believe in God or anything else. In a world without values, Mann's novels were long because there was, in the critic's words, "no principle of selection." Mann preached no ideology because none was credible; irony was his "self-defence against the meaningless." For a world that "really has no values," Hollingdale observed, Mann's "fictional world is a true mirror." He summarized Mann with a proverb: "As the mirror replied to the monster: 'There is nothing wrong with me, it is you who are distorted.'"
From: "(Paul) Thomas Mann." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2004.