Thomas Mann (1875-1955)
Thomas Mann’s prose seamlessly fuses the personal, the philosophical and the political. Time and again his work shows that the spiritual, social, sexual, natural and political are interlinked. He is sometimes regarded as detached (even narcissistic), but this misses the point. In fact his style consists of an ambivalent play between intellectual detachment and urgent emotional attachment. His protagonists fear and despise intimacy, and yet they long for it. Mann’s understanding that his own desires are fundamentally contradictory lends his work an incredible emotional subtlety. His ironic narrative style is perfectly suited to expressing emotional and intellectual ambivalence.
Thomas Mann’s work engages profoundly with the time periods in which he lived. He was born in Lübeck in northern Germany, and moved to Munich in 1891. From 1914 onwards he became convinced that he had a public duty to represent the concerns of the German people in his essays and in his fiction. He was a conservative nationalist during World War One, but his political views changed after 1919 and in October 1922 he delivered a speech in support of the Weimar Republic, ‘Von deutscher Republik’; ‘On the German Republic’. Mann publicly opposed Hitler’s rise to power and from 1933 until his death he lived in exile. Mann left Germany on 11 February 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor on 30 January 1933. Mann had hoped to return to Germany, but on 16 April 1933 he was denounced by public figures in Munich for having made critical comments about Richard Wagner. Shortly afterwards, in May, his assets were confiscated. Mann fled first to Sanary-sur-Mer in the south of France (from June-September 1933), and then moved to Küsnacht on Lake Zurich in Switzerland (1933-38). Whilst living in Switzerland he visited the USA three times (in 1934, 1935 and 1937). Then he moved to the USA (1938-52). From 1938-41 he was based in Princeton; and from 1941-52 he lived in Pacific Palisades near Los Angeles. From 1952 until his death in 1955 he lived in Erlenbach near Zurich.
Mann’s fiction explores history from the inside, showing how political and ideological structures interact with individual consciousness.
Thomas Mann intended his fiction to appeal to the general public and to an intellectual elite. He called this ‘the double optic’ (die doppelte Optik). Nietzsche had criticised Richard Wagner for using this two-pronged approach in Der Fall Wagner; The Wagner Case. But Thomas Mann liked this approach and used it in his fiction. Mann discusses the double optic enthusiastically in a letter of 1 April 1910 to Hermann Hesse, and in the Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen; Reflections of an Unpolitical Mann (see Thomas Mann, Gesammelte Werke in 13 volumes, vol. 12, p. 109).
Thomas Mann was a closet homosexual and much of his fiction is informed by the theme of repressed sexual desire. In 1905 he married Katia Pringsheim, and they went on to have six children: Erika Mann, Klaus Mann, Golo, Monika, Michael and Elisabeth.
Much of Mann’s fiction is informed by his creative rivalry with his older brother Heinrich Mann.
Is Thomas Mann a modernist, and if so, what kind of modernist is he? Doktor Faustus is a modernist novel, but Buddenbrooks is more of a transitional work. Thomas Mann might be described as a conservative modernist, or a reluctant modernist: he recognised that modernism was an inevitable development, and he recognised that his own work could be described as modernist. But at the same time his work is imbued with nostalgia for the 19th-century tradition of German poetic realism (e.g. Theodor Storm; Theodor Fontane; Adalbert Stifter). The experts still disagree about the extent to which Thomas Mann is a modernist. The 'leitmotif' structure for example can be seen as an example of modernist patterning (according to Judith Ryan in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson, see below); but T. J. Reed, author of the standard work on Thomas Mann in English (see below), emphasises Thomas Mann's debt to the literary tradition. So for Ryan, Thomas Mann is a modernist; for Reed, Thomas Mann is a more complex mediator between old and new.
Thomas Mann's novels are:
Königliche Hoheit; Royal Highness (1909)
Joseph und seine Brüder; Joseph and his Brothers, 4 volumes (1933, 1934, 1936, 1943)
Lotte in Weimar; Lotte in Weimar (1939)
His novellas include:
Tonio Kröger (1903)
Schwere Stunde; A Weary Hour (1905)
Herr und Hund; Master and Dog (1919)
Unordnung und frühes Leid; Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925)
Die vertauschten Köpfe; The Transposed Heads (1940)
Der Erwählte; The Holy Sinner [literally, ‘The Chosen One’] (1951)
Die Betrogene; The Black Swan [literally, ‘The Deceived Woman’] (1953)
Henry Hatfield,Thomas Mann (New York: New Directions, 1962)
Anthony Heilbut, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
Erich Heller, The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958)
Todd Kontje, Thomas Mann’s World: Empire, Race, and the Jewish Question (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011)
Todd Kontje, The Cambridge Introduction to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Todd Kontje, ‘Mann’s Modernism’, in A History of the Modernist Novel, ed. by Gregory Castle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 311-26
Hermann Kurzke, Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, trans. by Leslie Willson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002)
Herbert Lehnert and Eva Wessell (eds.), A Companion to the Works of Thomas Mann (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004)
Michael Minden (ed. and intro.), Thomas Mann (London and New York: Longman, 1995)
Michael Minden, “Popularity and the Magic Circle of Culture: Thomas Mann in the Twentieth Century”, Publications of the English Goethe Society 76 (2007), 93-101
Hannelore Mundt, Understanding Thomas Mann (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004)
T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
T. J. Reed (ed.), Oxford German Studies 34:2 (2005), Special Issue on Thomas Mann
Ritchie Robertson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Irvin Stock, Ironic Out of Love: The Novels of Thomas Mann (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994)
Martin Swales, A Student's Guide to Thomas Mann (London: Heinemann, 1980)
Martin Swales, ‘Diagnostic Form: Reflections on Generic Issues in Thomas Mann’s Narrative Work’, Oxford German Studies 34:2 (2005), 212-16
Erica Wickerson, The Architecture of Narrative Time: Thomas Mann and the Problems of Modern Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Further Reading in German
Heinrich Detering, Juden, Frauen und Litteraten: zu einer Denkfigur beim jungen Thomas Mann (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2005)
Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann und die Grenzen des Ich (Heidelberg: Winter, 1966)
Rüdiger Görner, Thomas Mann. Der Zauber des Letzten (Düsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler, 2005)
Helmut Koopmann (ed.), Thomas-Mann-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1990)
Helmut Koopmann, Thomas Mann – Heinrich Mann. Die ungleichen Brüder (Munich: Beck, 2005)
Hermann Kurzke, Thomas Mann: Epoche – Werk – Wirkung, 3rd edn (Munich: Beck, 1997)
Hans Wisskirchen, Zeitgeschichte im Roman. Zu Thomas Manns ‘Zauberberg’ und ‘Doktor Faustus’ (Bern: Francke, 1986)
Web Link in English
Nobel Prize citation for Thomas Mann (1929)
Web Links in German
Search Thomas Mann’s works online in German (Gesammelte Werke)
Thomas Mann Jahrbuch (Thomas Mann Yearbook)
German Thomas Mann Society
Thomas Mann Society in Düsseldorf with its own yearbook
I would like to thank Professor Martin Swales for his constructive comments on the Thomas Mann section of this website - E.S.