Thomas Mann was born to a wealthy family in Lubek Germany in 1875, and before his death in 1955 he had become one of the twentieth centuries most renowned, respected and arguably, most prolific writers. In 1997 Georg Potempa published his Thomas Mann – Bibliographie, an exhaustive and truly massive bibliography of Mann’s work that weighed in at an astounding 1600 pages. Despite this wealth of text, Mann was more known as a writer of quality not quantity. Acknowledging this quality, Mann was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1929, chiefly for the novel Buddenbrooks that he wrote in 1901 at the tender age of 26.
Mann was raised in a well to do family and received the bulk of his primary education at the Lubek gymnasium. His father was a respected and successful tradesman who was twice elected to Burgomaster of Lubek. In 1891 Thomas’s father died and his trading firm was dissolved. The remainder of the family moved to Munich where Thomas continued his education at the University of Munich. After University, Thomas spent a few years working for German Fire and Insurance and had his first work published in the magazine Simplicissius, and in 1898 his first book, Der Kleine Herr Freidman.
In the three short years between the publishing of his first work and the completion of his masterpiece, Thomas studied and was greatly influenced by the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzche and Wagner, synthesizing their elements of style, political themes and techniques. The result, Bruddenbrooks, is an epic saga of one Hanseatic family’s fall from social grace. The novel, which had begun as a short story, was loosely based on Thomas’s own childhood spent in Lubek and was not well received there. Many of the residents of Lubek were embarrassed or insulted by what they felt were thinly veiled caricatures and misrepresentations of actual people and events.
This was a method frequently employed by Mann to great effect. He would draw from his own personal acquaintances and experiences, and fictionalize portions for dramatic and symbolic effect. He used literary themes that personalized internal conflicts while simultaneously relating them to the changes he was witnessing in European cultural values during and after the World Wars. Oddest and most effective of these techniques was his use of Wagner’s leitmotif. The Leitmotif is a method of musical composition that associates a particular theme that reappears in its original or, modified but recognizable, form during symbolic portions of a dramatic work. Most often used in opera to introduce characters and highlight symbolic portions of the story. A popular example would be Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf, where each character is identifiable by a particular instrument and arrangement. Mann adapted this technique to writing, repeating key phrases or incidents to make certain dramatic or symbolic points.
During World War I, Mann expanded his repertoire to include political commentary and published in support of the Kaiser and authoritarianism, speaking out against liberalism. The Great War changed the way a lot of people thought and Thomas Mann was no exception. In 1923 Mann published Von Deutscher Republik, a book in support of the Weimar Republic and parliamentary democracy.
The next year, 1924, Mann published a book he’d been working on for nearly ten years. If it were possible to have two masterpieces, Mann’s second would have been Der Zauberberg, the Magic Mountain. The core dramatic conflict in The Magic Mountain is in the comparisons and contrasts of liberal and conservative values, between the enlightened modern world and the irrational belief systems of the romantic past. One of the main characters, Naptha, the voice of the radical and blind faith, chillingly prophesies, “The mystery and precept of our age is not liberation and the development of the ego. What our age needs, what it demands, what it will create for itself, is – terror.” It was a dark foreshadow of the cloak of Nazism that would fall less than a decade later and drive Mann from his homeland.
When Hitler ascended to Chancellor, Mann left Germany for Switzerland, where he edited the journal Mass und Wert. In 1936 Thomas pulled up roots again and moved to the United States, taking up residence as a visiting professor at Princeton. In the same year Mann was stripped of his German citizenship and the honorary degree he received from the University of Bonn in 1919 was revoked.
In 1941 Thomas moved to the west coast and settled in Santa Monica California, becoming a US citizen in 1944. Mann spent nearly ten years in the US but was troubled by the treatment of Communist sympathizers, fearing perhaps the specter of tyranny that nationalism can and has spawned. In 1947 he returned to Europe, but not Germany. He visited several times, but refused to reside in Germany and instead lived in and around Zurich until, on the twelfth of August 1955, he died leaving his final novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, unfinished.
Mann, Thomas Magic Mountain, 1924