Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a highly regarded German novelist and social critic of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, and his works were considered classics by the end of his life. His novels and essays combined philosophy, psychology, and political insights with his literary craft. His themes often centered on dualism: the coexisting physical and spiritual human natures, the life of action and the life of thought.
Mann’s writings detail the complexity of reality and time. The Magic Mountain, his novel published in 1924, most clearly explores the inner time-consciousness of the main character, Hans Castorp, as he seeks knowledge and adjustment to life in a tuberculosis sanatorium. This novel is full of references to understanding time. Mann insists that time cannot be narrated and is not linear. Hans remarks about time being a turning point in a circle. The daily routines and seasons circle around the characters’ lives.
Thomas Mann was born Paul Thomas Mann into a prosperous middle-class family in Lübeck, Germany, on June 6, 1875. He was baptized as a Lutheran. He was one of five children of a prominent merchant and city councilman. When his father died, the family moved to Munich, where he received his early education. He began the daily habit of writing in his personal diary when he was a schoolboy in the 1890s. In 1905, he married Katia Pringsheim, an educated woman and the only daughter of a professor in Munich. She devoted herself to him, his career, and their six children. He traveled on the lecture circuit and vacationed around Europe. They had a life of culture, order, and comfort. He had many famous acquaintances in the fields of literature, music, psychology, and politics of the time.
In 1933, while Mann and his wife were vacationing in Switzerland, they were advised not to return to the political turmoil of Germany. Adolf Hitler’s actions forced Mann into a reluctant exile. Mann was very concerned about getting his private diaries back. On July 7, 1935, Mann received Harvard University’s honorary doctor of letters degree with Albert Einstein. In 1938, Mann and most of his family settled in the United States, where he continued his writings in the German language. His children grew up to succeed in a variety of literary and scholarly endeavors. In 1944, he became a U.S. citizen. Mann moved back to Switzerland and died there on August 12, 1952.
Major Novels and Essays
After writing several essays and journal articles, Mann published his first novel, Buddenbrooks, in 1901. This novel thoroughly detailed the story of three generations of a family as they declined physically but grew to include several failed artists. The values and attitudes of the middle class were in conflict with those of the artists. These internal conflicts of opposing forces leading to change are associated with the philosophy of dialectics. Mann read the classics, and his writings reflect his thinking about the nature of Western middle-class culture as well as his version of his own family.
His short novel Death in Venice, published in 1912, also is considered a mirror of his own life and his psychological issues. This novel details a writer’s moral conflict and collapse through a humiliating, uncontrollable, and unfulfilled passion for a young boy.
During the period from 1914 to 1918, Thomas Mann supported Germany’s slide in World War I. He wrote a lengthy essay published in 1918 as Reflections of a Non-Political Man. This was part of a disagreement with his older brother, Heinrich Mann, who was also a published author but who was very opposed to the military buildup in Germany. At this point, Thomas Mann praised Nietzsche for supporting the acceptance of ambiguity as a great personal strength. His essay claimed the romantic view that art would not surrender to the system but could remain isolated from politics. Later he realized that this position was political itself, and he finally reconciled with Heinrich in California in 1942.
The publishing of The Magic Mountain in 1924 marked the end of 12 years of work. Just as he had come to believe that there is no turning point in politics, this work incorporated the notion of time’s circular nature in both the novel’s form and its content. The reference to time not being linear seems to refer to Hegel’s idea about bad infinity being linear but real infinity being circular and dialectical. The protagonist Hans Castorp notes that the longest day of the year, June 21st, is called the first day of summer, yet the days start getting shorter at that point, so it truly is the beginning of winter. Joy and melancholy can exist at the same time in a dualistic philosophy. Mann used techniques of the composer Richard Wagner to tell this story: multiple themes with variations and the exploration of the characters’ emotional lives. This novel is based on the setting of the Davos Sanatorium, where his wife spent 6 months in 1912 for a lung condition. The Magic Mountain is an allegory of Western civilization’s sickness as well as a sympathetic telling of the story of individuals dealing with personal sickness, real or imagined. Man is the master of contradictions, and the human goal is not to decide but to reach harmony with the human condition.
Through the years Mann wrote essays on Freud, Goethe, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Wagner. These essays detail his intellectual struggles, which shaped his fiction writing. He wanted to understand people completely and took great interest in understanding himself and his world, as is minutely detailed in his diaries.
In 1943, Mann published a four-novel series on the biblical Joseph, Joseph and His Brothers. The project took him 10 years to complete. This epic begins in the timeless tribal existence of the desert and moves into the historical timeline of Egyptian civilization. Mann wanted to restore a belief in the power of humane reason. These novels show the individual as a reflection of his epoch as well as of his personal story.
Doctor Faustus, published in 1947, tells the tale of a great German composer who bargains with the devil and rejects love and moral responsibility in favor of artistic creativity. Mann connects the 12-tone musical system to totalitarianism. He writes that a chord has not one key but is all about relationships. This became a novel about commitment and the failure of accepting ambiguity. At the end of his career, he finally chastised the dialectic and recognized the importance of fighting evil. He aided the Allies through his writing and saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as saving the world. He chose to leave the United States when the anticommunists and Senator Eugene McCarthy held power and influence.
Ann L. Chenhall
See also Dostoevsky, Fyodor M.; Goethe, Johann
Wolfgang von; Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich; Hitler, Adolf; Joyce, James; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Novels, Time in; Proust, Marcel; Time, Cyclical;
Tolstoy, Leo Nikolaevich; Wagner, Richard
Kesten, H. (1982). Thomas Mann diaries, 1918-1939
(R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Abrams.
Kurzke, H. (2002). Thomas Mann: Life as a work of art:
A biography (L. Wilson, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mundt, H. (2004). Understanding Thomas Mann. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.