The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Thomas Mann Symposium

by Claude Hill chairman
Rutgers University

Katia Mann: Unwritten Memoirs

by Katia Mann, edited by Elizabeth von Plessen and Michael Mann
Knopf, 192 pp., $7.95

The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955

edited by Anni Carlsson and Volker Michels, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harper & Row, 256 pp., $10.00

Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerényi

translated by Alexander Gelley
Cornell University Press, 231 pp., $12.50

An Exceptional Friendship: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Erich Kahler

translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston
Cornell University Press, 195 pp., $12.50

“He took his fountain-pen and began to answer various items of his correspondence.”

Death in Venice

At Rutgers University’s comprehensive symposium commemorating the centenary of Thomas Mann, Hans Wysling, director of the Mann archives in Zürich, estimated that the novelist had written some 25,000 letters. Wysling attributed this epistolic prodigality to a variety of factors: the practical one of Mann’s exile; his impeccable courtesy, even when conscious of being importuned to write letters for collectors; the substitution of letter writing for conversation; the constant need for literary exercise; the belief that his letters were a medium for his role as spokesman for the age—though, at the same time, the written communication also enabled him to maintain distance and to preserve what others thought of as his aloofness. Above all, according to Wysling, Mann regarded letter writing as a means to self-analysis, even to a “merciless examination” of himself. Yet one of the peculiarities of Thomas Mann is that the failure to see and understand his own character, as evidenced in the letters, could exist side by side with the powers of observation and analysis exhibited in his fiction.

The separate publication of the letters between two people is much less satisfactory than the inclusion of these individual contributions in an integrated total correspondence. In order to view Mann from more than one aspect his comments to different people, both concurrently and over a long period, must be compared. The three new volumes of letters would have benefited by the fuller pictures afforded through references within an expanded collection. For example, in the letters to Kerényi concerning the transmutation of myth in Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s word “umfunktionieren” comes from Ernst Bloch, whose letters to the novelist would seem to constitute an invaluable commentary; but though Bloch’s letters to Mann and Mann’s references to this philosopher are cited in a footnote, the texts themselves are not provided. Unlike the only extensive selection of Mann’s letters1 that has so far appeared in English, however, these three volumes represent complete, two-sided exchanges.

Even Mann’s most ardent disciples will look for relief from the impersonality of his discourse in the new collections. But precious few glimpses of his personal feelings are to be found in any of the published correspondence, which is less than a seventh of the letters so far counted, and only the earliest of these can be classified as bona fide private communications. Soon after his emergence as a writer the public persona eclipsed the private one, and the bulk of the available letters consists preponderantly of commentaries on public events. Indeed, the reader suspects that Mann would not have minded if much of his mail had been intercepted and printed in the letters to the editor columns of newspapers, which sometimes would seem to have been the destination he actually wished for it. In contrast, while in Kafka’s letters it is virtually impossible to establish any orientation to the world without, even to the…

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