In the spring of 1771 Werther (no first name), a young man of good education and comfortable means, arrives in the small German town of Wahlheim. He is there to attend to family business (an inheritance) but also to escape an unhappy love affair. To his friend Wilhelm back home he writes long letters telling of the joys of living close to nature as well as of his meeting with a local belle, Charlotte (Lotte), who shares his tastes in literature.
Unfortunately for Werther, Lotte is betrothed to Albert, an up-and-coming young bureaucrat. Albert and Lotte treat Werther with the utmost friendliness, but he finds the frustration of his undeclared love for Lotte increasingly hard to bear. He quits Wahlheim to take up a diplomatic post in a principality some distance away. Here he suffers a humiliating snub when, as a person of middle-class origin, he is asked to leave a reception for the diplomatic corps. He resigns, and for months drifts around before fatalistically returning to Wahlheim.
Lotte and Albert are now married; there is no hope for Werther. His letters to Wilhelm break off, and an unnamed editor appears on the scene, undertaking to put together a record of Werther’s last days from his diaries and private papers. For, it emerges, having decided that there is no way out, Werther has borrowed Albert’s dueling pistols and, after a last, stormy meeting with Lotte, shot himself.
The Sufferings of Young Werther (otherwise known as The Sorrows of Young Werther) appeared in 1774. Goethe sent a synopsis to a friend:
I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head.
This synopsis is notable for the distance Goethe seems to be putting between himself and a hero whose story was in important respects his own. He too had gloomily asked himself whether a self-defeating compulsion did not underlie his practice of falling in love with unattainable women; he too had contemplated suicide, though he had lacked the courage to do the deed. The crucial difference between himself and Werther was that he could call on his art to diagnose and expel the malaise that afflicted him, whereas Werther could only suffer it. As Thomas Mann put it, Werther is “the young Goethe himself, minus the creative gift.”
Two energies go into the making of Werther: the confessional, which gives the book its tragic emotional force, and the political. Passionate and idealistic, Werther is representative of the best of a new generation of Germans sensitive to the stirrings of history, impatient to see the renewal of a torpid social order. An unhappy love affair may precipitate his suicide, but the deeper cause is the failure of German society to offer young people like him anything but what Goethe would later call “dull, spiritless citizen life.”
The Sufferings of Young Werther was avidly read; its youthful author was lionized. A spate of unauthorized editions and translations followed (authors in Goethe’s day had little protection against piracy). The gossip press soon uncovered who the characters in the book “really” were: Lotte was Charlotte Kestner, née Buff, daughter of a bailiff in the town of Wetzlar; Albert was Johann Kestner; and of course Werther was Goethe himself. Kestner was justifiably peeved at what he regarded as a betrayal of their friendship. Goethe shamefacedly pleaded that his book was “an innocent mixture of truth and lies”; but Kestner continued to grumble that his wife had never been on such close terms with their visitor as was claimed, nor was he as cold a fish as Goethe made him out to be.
If Goethe was now surrounded by a buzz of scandal in which art was hopelessly confused with life, he had only himself to blame. He had meant to maintain an ironic distance between himself as author and Werther as character; but for most readers the irony was too subtle. As a text ostensibly assembled from writings the dead man had left behind, Werther lacks a guiding authorial voice. Readers naturally identified with the point of view of Werther himself, the sole narrator until the late appearance of his “editor” (Wilhelm’s responses to Werther’s letters are not reproduced). The excesses of Werther’s language, the discrepancies between his idealized view of Lotte and Lotte’s often coquettish behavior, were passed over by all but the most attentive readers. Werther was read not only as a roman à clef about Goethe and the Kestners, but as an endorsement of Romantic suicide.
In the fourth of his Roman Elegies, written in 1788–1789, in a suppressed draft, Goethe gives thanks that he has escaped from the endless interrogation—Was there really such a person as Werther? Was it all true? Where did Lotte live? “How often I have cursed those stupid pages/That exposed my youthful suffering to the masses,” he writes. “Even if Werther had been my brother and I had killed him,/It could not be worse than this: being vengefully pursued by his sad ghost.”
The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.
The history of Werther and his Lotte comes to an end with Werther’s death on Christmas Day, 1772. But the story of Goethe and his model Charlotte Buff had yet a while to run. In 1816 Charlotte, then a widow of sixty-three, visited Goethe’s home town of Weimar and contacted him. After their meeting she wrote to her son: “I have made the acquaintance of an old man, who, if I had not known it was Goethe, and even then, made no very pleasing impression on me.” Coming across this sour remark, Thomas Mann made a note: “I believe this anecdote could form the basis…of a novel.”
In 1939 Mann published Lotte in Weimar, in which he dramatizes the 1816 encounter, bringing together the couple who, inextricably confused as they are in the national imagination with their fictional avatars, belong by now to the realm of myth. Goethe is as ungracious as can be (“Why could not the old woman have spared me this?”). Reluctantly he invites Charlotte and her daughter to his grand home, then pays more attention to the daughter than to her. Observing that she suffers from a tremor, he shuts his eyes fastidiously. For her part, Charlotte recalls why she turned Goethe down in the old days: because he seemed “inhuman, without purpose or poise.”
In this novel about the transfiguring powers of art, Goethe the artist—or the human shell in which the artist resides—takes second place behind his model Frau Charlotte Kestner, who in Weimar can at last become who she truly is: Germany’s sweetheart, the beautiful, dark-eyed heroine of Werther. Rumors of her presence cause a sensation. Fans camp outside her hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She revels in her celebrity.
Having resolved to kill himself, Werther writes a farewell note to be handed to Lotte after his death. But then he cannot resist calling in person one last time.
Lotte is not thrilled to see the distracted young man. At a loss for how to deal with him, she produces a manuscript he has lent her and asks him to read to her. Werther proceeds to read aloud from his translation of The Works of Ossian, renderings into rhythmical English prose by James Macpherson, a young Scottish schoolmaster, of fragments of what he claimed to be epic poetry sung by the bard Ossian in the third century CE, passed down orally from one generation to the next of Gaelic-speaking Scots.
The poetry moves Lotte to tears, in which Werther joins. Their hands touch; they embrace; he tries to kiss her. She tears herself free. “This is the last time! Werther! You will never see me again,” she cries, and hurries from the room.
Werther’s declamation from Ossian is no small affair: for page after page ancient bards raise their voices in lament over lost heroes. The taste for Ossian is a feature of early Romantic sensibility easy to mock. The fact is, however, that until well into the nineteenth century the poems were widely accepted as a great epic of northern European civilization. “The Homer of the North,” Madame de Staël called Ossian. The recovery of the Ossian epic in Scotland became a spur to the recovery—or invention—of other founding national epics: Beowulf in England, the Kalevala in Finland, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, the Chanson de Roland in France, the Song of the Host of Igor in Russia.
Macpherson was not a great poet (pace William Hazlitt, who set him alongside Dante and Shakespeare) nor even a dedicated one: his Ossian project concluded, Macpherson quit the Highlands for London, where he was fêted, then took ship to Pensacola in the new British colony of West Florida, where he spent two years on the staff of the governor. Returning to England, he entered politics; he died a wealthy man.
As a historian of ancient times Macpherson was unreliable: much of his archaic Scotland was cribbed from Tacitus on the Gauls and Germans. His barbaric warriors behave like eighteenth-century gentlemen of sensibility, tempering pride of arms with generosity to fallen foes. Nonetheless, he was an innovator of genius. The wild popularity of his Ossian signaled the rise of a new, assertive nationalism in which each European people would demand not only its national independence but its national language and national literature and unique national past too.
Macpherson’s most perceptive reader was Walter Scott. The Ossian poems were certainly not what they were claimed to be, namely the words of a blind bard from the third century, said Scott, yet Scotland might be proud that in modern times it had brought forth “a bard, capable…of giving a new tone to poetry throughout all Europe.”