Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813)

Wieland was a poet and novelist. His works have an urbane, enlightened character. His early work was Pietistic in character but in the 1760s he developed a lighter, erotic style under the influence of French literature. He became a professor at Erfurt University in 1765.

According to the novelist Arno Schmidt:

‘among us Germans, no one has reflected more profoundly about prose forms, no one has experimented more boldly, no one has supplied such thought-provoking patterns, as Christoph Martin Wieland’

– Arno Schmidt, Nobodaddy’s Children, trans. by John E. Woods (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), p. 52.

Wieland’s works include:

Don Sylvio von Rosalba (1764)

Geschichte des Agathon; The Story of Agathon (1766-67)

Der goldne Spiegel; The Golden Mirror (1772)

Die Geschichte der Abderiten; The Story of the Abderites (1774-1780)

Aristipp; Aristippus (1800-02)

Wieland also founded an important periodical, Der teutsche Merkur; The German Mercury in 1773.

In 1784, Wieland’s Teutsche Merkur describes reading as a ‘need […] that can without further ado be classified as nourishment’. Hence ‘all patriots’ and the authorities have a duty ‘to use all means available to distribute books at the lowest price’ [Teutsche Merkur 48 (1784), 185].

Wieland’s verse romance Oberon appeared in 1780.

In a letter of March 1764 Wieland wrote to his Swiss friend Zimmermann setting out his philosophy of life:

Car vous savez que Salomon a dit qu’il vaut mieux aller à la maison de deuil qu’à la maison de joie, en quoi, if it may please his Majesty, je ne suis point de son avis. Il pouvait fort bien être dans cette opinion, lui, qui, pendant le cours d’une assez longue vie s’était gorgé et rassasie de tous les biens et plaisirs de ce bas-monde. Mais moi, j’ai appris par une longue expérience de privations, de peines, de soucis et de chagrins ce que vaut le plaisir, […] je suis persuadé que la joie vaut mieux que la tristesse.

You know that Solomon said that it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of joy. On this point, if it may please his Majesty, I do not agree with him at all. He could well afford to have such an opinion, he who during the course of a long enough life had gorged himself and sated himself with all the goods and pleasures of this world. But I myself have learned from a long experience of privations, pain, worries and woes what pleasure is worth […] I am convinced that joy is worth more than sorrow.

* * *

Geschichte des Agathon; The Story of Agathon (1766-67)

Appearing almost thirty years before Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Geschichte des Agathon; The Story of Agathon (1766-67) is the first German Bildungsroman, although the term Bildungsroman was only introduced in the late 19th century by Wilhelm Dilthey.

The novel is set in ancient Greece but it has autobiographical elements. It owes a debt to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). Agathon is the story of the sexual and moral education of a young man with Pietistic inclinations. The chief agents of his education are Psyche, a pious young woman who later turns out to be Agathon’s sister; Danae, a courtesan of noble character; and Hippias, a libertine philosopher.

The novel describes its own intentions in the following way:

Aber Sie sollen glauben daß es sehr viele ehrliche Leute gibt, […] und einige von diesen werden den ›Agathon‹ lesen, werden alles in dem natürlichen, wahren Lichte sehen, worin ungefälschte, gesunde Augen zu sehen pflegen, und werden sich […] daraus erbauen. Für diese also haben wir uns anheischig gemacht, den Agathon, als eine moralische Person betrachtet, zu schildern. Es ist hier um eine Seelen-Malerei zu tun […] es ist darum zu tun, daß uns das Innerste seiner Seele aufgeschlossen werde; daß wir die geheimern Bewegungen seines Herzens, die verborgenern Triebfedern seiner Handlungen kennen lernen […]


But you should believe that there are many honest people, and some of these will read Agathon, and will see everything in the natural, true light in which genuine, healthy eyes tend to see, and they will be uplifted by it. For these people we have undertaken to depict Agathon, considered as a moral person. The aim here is to paint his soul, so that his innermost soul is opened up to our view; so that we get to know the secret movements of his heart, the hidden motives of his actions […]

Further Reading in English

Claire Baldwin, The Emergence of the Modern German Novel: Christoph Martin Wieland, Sophie von La Roche, and Maria Anna Sagar (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)

Michael Beddow, The Fiction of Humanity: Studies in the Bildungsroman from Wieland to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Chapter on Geschichte des Agathon

Eric A. Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language 1700-1775 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), Chapter 12: ‘The Culture of Wit and Feeling’

Sarah Vandegrift Eldridge, ‘Narrating (Im)Maturity: The Progressive Popularization of Enlightenment Principles in Wieland’s Geschichte des Agathon and Engel’s Herr Lorenz Stark’, Monatshefte 107 (2015)

Lorna Martens, ‘Constructing Interiority in Eighteenth-Century Narrative Fiction: Wieland’s Geschichte des Agathon’, German Quarterly 81 (2008), 49-95

Michael Minden, The German Bildungsroman: Incest and Inheritance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Chapter on Agathon

Simon Richter, ‘Wieland and the Homoerotics of Reading’, in Outing Goethe and his Age, ed. by Alice A. Kuzniar (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 47-60

Ellis Shookman, Noble Lies, Slant Truths, Necessary Angels: Aspects of Fictionality in the Works of Christoph Martin Wieland (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)

Guy Stern, Fielding, Wieland, Goethe and the Rise of the Novel (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2003)

Martin Swales. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), Chapter 2 on Agathon

Martin Swales, ‘An Unreadable Novel? Some Observations on Wieland’s Agathon and the “Bildungsroman” Tradition’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 45 (1975), 101-30

Malte Wessels, ‘The Parrhesiastic Urszene of the Modern Novel in Wieland’s Geschichte des Agathon: Subject as Method’, Monatshefte 107 (2015)

W. E. Yuill, ‘Christoph Martin Wieland’, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan and Brian Keith-Smith, vol. 6 (London: Wolff, 1972), pp. 93-119

Further Reading in German

Jutta Heinz (ed.), Wieland-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008)