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Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)

Today, E.T.A. Hoffmann is one of the most famous figures of early 19th-century German literature. He is a salient and, at the same time, not uncontroversially Romantic author. He had many talents, of which his creative writing was neither the first to come to fruition, nor was it, once Hoffmann began turning his attention to literary works, the most important to him. Hoffmann composed (church music, piano sonatas, operettas and operas) as well as painted, and he was skilled at caricature. At university, he studied law and subsequently went into practice. Before starting his literary endeavour only in his thirties, Hoffmann was a celebrated music critic alongside his day job. At least in 1813, the reputation for a leading position in the music world meant more to Hoffmann than securing authorial fame. Writing to his publisher on the 20th July that year, he claimed that he would rather become renowned ‘durch eine gelungene musikalische Composition der Welt’ (‘due to a successful world-class musical composition’) than present himself to society as a writer. Indeed, his third name ‘Amadeus’ was an act of self-stylization after Mozart – it replaced his parents’ choice of ‘Wilhelm’.

Hoffmann’s interest in the musical and visual arts enriched and complicated his literary creativity. He conceived a fictional alter ego, the composer Johannes Kreisler who appears in multiple texts. With the insane genius Kreisler, excluded from society, Hoffman not only re-works the cliché of the tortured artist; he introduces the theme of psychological madness into his portrayals of creativity, a topic that will inform his entire oeuvre. A draft title for Hoffmann’s 1814-15 collection Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner was ‘Bilder nach Hogarth’ (‘Pictures Following Hogarth’), referring to the influential English pictorial satirist of the eighteenth century. In the end, it explicitly followed the style of the baroque printmaker Jacques Callot. The title of Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke; Night Pieces (1816-17) plays on a technical term in painting (though it is also a musical term): ‘Nachtstück’ or ‘nocturne’. Hoffmann’s vivid imagination – a vital part of his ‘Serapiontic Principle’ in Die Serapions-Brüder; The Serapion Brothers (1820-22) – and an amazing eye for bizarre details becomes definitive of his prose, and self-reflexivity about such visual observation is fundamental to the story Des Vetters Eckfenster; My Cousin’s Corner Window (1822), which Hoffmann wrote on his deathbed. More often, though, references and influences from music and painting are conflated in Hoffmann in a dizzying way. One of his most complex and yet most light-hearted texts, Prinzessin Brambilla; Princess Brambilla (1820), is not called a ‘Capriccio after Jacques Callot’ for nothing: a Capriccio is a piece of music with a lively form; and through confusing narrative layering, this literary piece creates a playful but strange written carnival. The great French poet Charles Baudelaire – one of the first critics to recognize the modernity and aesthetic value of Hoffmann’s texts – rightly characterized Prinzessin Brambilla; Princess Brambilla as an epitome of the vertiginous ‘comique absolu’.

Hoffmann’s final, partly autobiographical story about a semi-paralysed author and his cousin who together survey the Berlin Gendarmenmarkt below them, Des Vetters Eckfenster; My Cousin’s Corner Window (1822), alludes to empirical characters from high literature of the age and, through a flower girl, to the typical end consumer of the contemporary commercial literary market: the user of the lending library. Hoffmann’s style has long been criticized because of its apparent proximity to popular fiction; August Langen, for example, writes that the author’s lexis derives from the ‘Trivialroman’ and ‘Almanachsnovelle’ (the trivial novel and short novels of the almanacs – quoted in Feldges and Stadler, p. 46). This is partially right: Hoffmann helped his friend establish a lending library in Bamberg, and for a while was a frequent borrower of its books. He engaged with belletristic literature, but the judgement that Hoffmann’s writing is low-brow should not be negative, and it is not wholly correct. The pleasure we gain from reading Hoffmann is not only due to the fact that he is funny and thrilling, but also stems from his interwoven references to both material culture and more intellectual sources. The traditions that informed Hoffmann’s oeuvre are as multifaceted as the narrative perspectives he has penned. Recent criticism has demonstrated Hoffmann’s nuanced relationship to contemporary aesthetic philosophy, for example, or his engagement with contemporary scientific discourses such as the emergent fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Hoffmann’s knowledge of contemporary psychology informs the specific way in which he adapts elements of Gothic fiction. His Gothic novel Die Elixiere des Teufels; The Devil’s Elixirs (1814-15) and his Gothic stories – the most famous one being Der Sandmann; The Sandman (1816) – send shivers down our spines precisely because they anchor the supernatural in a dense psychological framework, revealing the darker side of the human mind. By using topical insights on madness such as the psychiatrist Johannes Reil’s, Hoffmann elevated the Gothic story to a new level, taking it way beyond mere entertainment, and anticipating Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. Characteristically for Hoffmann, the tension between the supernatural and the natural is never quite resolved. Are his characters really encountering ghosts, vampires and mysterious Doppelgänger, or are these just figments of the characters’ imagination? Hoffmann’s narratives blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality, offering a multitude of perspectives, and pointing toward the ambivalent, split nature of modern identity.

Hoffmann is a second-generation Romantic. He began his literary career as an admirer of Jean Paul Richter, and read Novalis avidly. He worked closely with Adelbert von Chamisso and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué; and he composed the music for a comedy by the young Brentano. His writing was influenced by, and at times satirically re-casts, Ludwig Tieck. In part for this reason, categorizing Hoffmann under Romanticism can be also problematic: the author was well-connected with, and worked within the movement, but he at times depicts it from an ironic point of view. He does so both for comic effect, and as part of serious criticism. Ironic self-reflexivity is, of course, a characteristic trait of Romanticism generally. But in his later works, Hoffmann adopts a particularly strong critical and parodistic stance toward Romantic poetics. In their ideas as well as in their form, some of his later stories like Des Vetters Eckfenster transgress – or regress from – the Romantic, paving the way towards Realism. In his diatribe Die Romantische Schule; The Romantic School (1836), Heinrich Heine wrote that while Achim von Arnim commanded the legions of spectres that he conjured up, Hoffmann was afraid of his own ghosts. Heine may have been right in detecting a modern angst in Hoffmann’s spectral visions, but at the same time he failed to appreciate the specifically modern aesthetics expressed in Hoffmann’s ambivalences. And though Hoffmann was to be internationally admired by authors such as Poe, Baudelaire, Dostojewskij and Arno Schmidt, it was not until the last third of the 20th century that literary criticism began to appreciate this author and his peculiar literary thought, a poetics which combines the fantastic and the realistic, the uncanny and the humorous, entertainment and high art.

Hoffmann wrote two novels, explicated here through a discussion of Die Elixiere des Teufels; The Devil’s Elixirs (1815-16). 

He authored around fifty tales and stories, including: 

Der goldene Topf; The Golden Pot (1814) 

Don Juan (1813) 

Der Sandmann; The Sandman (1816)


Futher Reading in English

Eric A. Blackall, The Novels of the German Romantics (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983), Chapter 10 on Hoffmann

Hilda Meldrum Brown, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Serapiontic Principle: Critique and Creativity (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006)

Sheila Dickson, The narrator, narrative perspective and narrative form in the short prose works of the German romantics: with particular reference to the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1994) 

Victoria Dutchman-Smith, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol: Biography, Reception and Art (London: Maney/MHRA, 2010)

Glyn Tegai Hughes, Romantic German Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), Chapter 7

Margaret Kohlenbach, ‘Women and Artists: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Implicit Critique of Early Romanticism’, Modern Language Review 89:3 (1994), 659-73

Kenneth Negus, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Other World: The Romantic Author and his “New Mythology” (Philadelphia, Penn.: Univ. of Penn. Press, 1965)

Joanna Neilly, E.T.A. Hoffmann's Orient: Romantic Aesthetics and the German Imagination (Oxford: Legenda, 2016)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Introduction’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Golden Pot and Other Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. vii – xxxii

Birgit Röder, A Study of the Major Novellas of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003)

Lucia Ruprecht, Dances of the Self in Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)

Ricarda Schmidt, ‘Male Foibles, Female Critique and Narrative Capriciousness: On the Function of Gender in Conceptions of Art and Subjectivity in E. T.A. Hoffmann’, in From Goethe to Gide: Feminism, Aesthetics and the French and German Literary Canon 1770-1936, ed. by Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005), pp. 49-64

Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger: Double Visions in German Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Chapter 3: ‘Hoffmann’s Chronic Dualisms’, pp. 113-94

Seán M. Williams, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Hairdresser around 1800’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 85:1 (2016), 54-66 [Open Access]

Séan M. Williams, ‘Consumption, Creativity, and Authors around 1800: The Case of E. T. A. Hoffmann’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 87 (2018), 81-98

Elizabeth Wright, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Rhetoric of Terror (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1978)


Futher Reading in German

Heinz Ludwig Arnold (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1992)

Brigitte Feldges and Ulrich Stadler, E.T.A. Hoffmann: Epoche - Werk - Wirkung (Munich: Beck, 1986)

Gerhard R. Kaiser, E.T.A. Hoffmann (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1988)

Detlef Kremer (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann: Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2010)

Gerhard Neumann, ‘Romantische Aufklärung. Zu E.T.A. Hoffmanns Wissenschaftspoetik’, in Helmut Schmiedt und Helmut J. Schneider (eds.), Aufklärung als Form. Beiträge zu einem historischen und aktuellen Problem (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1997), pp. 106-48

Günter Saße (ed.), Interpretationen. E.T.A. Hoffmann: Romane und Erzählungen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004)


Web Links

Carlos Spoerhase, ‘Reading the late-romantic circulating library. Authorship and the anxiety of anonymity in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s late work’, in Andrew Piper and Jonathan Sachs (eds.), Romantic Cultures of Print (RaVoN 57/58, 2010) [Open Access]

Seán M. Williams, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Hairdresser around 1800’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 85:1 (2016), 54-66 [Open Access]