“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 mention of the beginning or ending of a war, the reader searches those of Mann, usually in vain, for so much as a peek at the world within.

But is there an “inner” Mann? The answer could conceivably lie in further publications of correspondence, surely to be anticipated, and in his diaries, on which the twenty-year seal is free to be broken this year. If future installments of the letters do not include more of those to his intimates and fewer to other public figures, however, and if the examples from the diaries quoted in The Genesis of Doctor Faustus2 is indicative of what might be expected from them, that “inner” life will remain an unsupported conjecture. Most crucial for Mann studies would be the publication of the complete correspondence between Thomas and Heinrich,3 since the love-hatred between these gifted brothers is the darkest mystery in their lives as well as an important unexplored episode in contemporary literature.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that outside the United States Heinrich Mann’s stature as a novelist is recognized as the near equal of his brother’s, and that some German readers consider at least one book, Zwischen den Rassen, as a masterpiece of world literature greater than any single opus by the Nobel Prize winner. The reasons for Heinrich’s continuing obscurity in this country are difficult to ascertain. Certainly, a quarter of a century after his death, his “un-American activities” can no longer matter. But the wonder is that the American academic machine could have overlooked the rich theses material in linguistic, stylistic, statistical, and thematic comparisons of the brothers’ works.4

The story of Thomas and Heinrich Mann is stranger than any in the fiction of either writer, and Richard Winston’s Rutgers lecture on the subject was a revelation. Tracing the long history of fraternal animosity, Winston cited Thomas’s confession, “My hostility to my brother was responsible for my worst hours,” and concluded that Thomas was more at fault than Heinrich. Winston also reversed the accepted notion that Heinrich had attacked Thomas because of political differences, or gratuitously, or out of jealousy. Heinrich, of course, had bitterly opposed Imperial Germany, while Thomas defended it—in a preposterous, William F. Buckley-like polemic—actually calling the events of 1914-1918 “this stirring, people’s war.”


But the war between the brothers had begun long before the Kaiser’s. Thomas had insulted Heinrich, both covertly and pointedly, even going so far as to add barbs to unfavorable notices of his brother’s work. Moreover, Thomas borrowed—or stole—from Heinrich’s books, as in the case of the final phrase of Royal Highness, which had already been used by the older writer. Heinrich also borrowed—or stole—from Thomas, however, and it seems that the roots of the ambiguous relationship may have sprung both from ordinary sibling rivalry and from a strong family resemblance. A friend of both brothers in their Santa Monica period, describing her seventieth-birthday party for Heinrich, relates how, with sober mien and apparently no sense of pomposity, first Thomas and then Heinrich read lengthy speeches to each other.5 Such behavior it seems, was utterly characteristic of both of them.

Thomas was obsessed with the brother question, returning to it in almost every book. “The brother problem always stimulates me,” he wrote. And apparently it did inspire him more than, for example, the subject of women, whom, so he once admitted in a letter to Heinrich, “I do not understand at all.” But Heinrich understood them, and his erotic infatuations are sometimes flagrantly exhibited in his books. Nor did the sons-and-lovers theme appeal to the brothers with the same intensity, for while Heinrich built an entire novel around their mother and the reminiscences of her early years in Brazil, Thomas made only a single chapter out of the same material.

Winston tentatively concluded that Heinrich possessed the larger talent and the greater originality, and that, unlike Thomas, he was unimpeded by an insistence on a rigid distinction between literature and life. Yet Thomas, the more careful artist, is ultimately the greater one as well. Heinrich’s last novel concedes this superiority in a dialogue between two sisters (!), one of whom says: “You have defeated me, but is that a reason to hate me?” But in the very moment of congratulating his brother on having won the lifelong contest between them, Heinrich claimed that “In Faustus you have acknowledged your debt to my methods.”

The memoir of Thomas Mann’s widow, compiled in her ninetieth year, does not illuminate the relationship of the brothers or offer other explanations than that of a North German burgher background for her husband’s formality and traditionalism. As in the case of other perfectly self-disciplined and tightly controlled people, it seems reasonable to suspect that some way-ward attraction or propensity, what Jung calls the “shadow,” must have required these constraints. Mann’s social and moral upbringing was strict, as well as deep and enduring. And whatever the causes, such as a regard for the values of family and institutions—“Passion is like crime…it welcomes every blow dealt the bourgeois structure” (Death in Venice)—he displays traits of suppressions and sublimations, though in a generalized and pervasive, rather than in a tangible, way.

All of which brings up the question of Aschenbach, and of “the love that dare not”—at least in 1911—“speak its name.” Katia Mann unequivocally identifies her husband with his fictional character, explaining that Mann “stylized into extreme passion…the pleasure he actually took in that charming boy.” But can an “extreme passion” be “stylized” unless it has been experienced? And is it not possible that more of the inner Thomas Mann found a way into Death in Venice than into any of his other works? Moreover, is there not some paradigmatic connection between Tadzio and Joseph, since Joseph, too, was the pursued and not the pursuer?—though even this irreverent reviewer would not venture to suggest that the author had subconsciously disguised himself as Potiphar’s wife.

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that katia Mann brings her husband closer either as a person or as a writer. She adds helpful details: he worked slowly and with little rewriting; as a violinist he was at one time able to play Beethoven sonatas; Naphta was not intentionally modeled on Georg Lukács. Frau Mann also contradicts her spouse’s officially publicized view of Theodor Adorno, whom they grew to dislike to the extent that Mann did no more than allow his name to appear under a notice in The New York Times, actually written by his second son, of a book by Adorno and Horkheimer. But so brief a memoir should have been confined to personal reminiscences and not have included repetitions of such well-known stories as that of the triskaidekaphobic crisis surrounding Schoenberg’s death, which occurred while the Manns were on a transatlantic steamer. “Schoenberg went upstairs to bed….” In fact Schoenberg had not been downstairs in weeks.


Katia Mann possesses considerable charm, bourgeois or otherwise, and even when made to speak in Vonnegutese:

And so it went until I was sixteen;… They drove to Italy and all over the place;… Some how…Bert Brecht and my husband…just didn’t click.

And, despite the shortcomings of the book, she endears herself to her readers in remarks like the following:

My husband always said that if he were ever born again he would like to be a conductor. I don’t know if that will happen but you never can tell….

Mann’s correspondence with Hesse and Kerényi is presented from their respective sides and not from his. In fact the foreword to the Hesse volume ill conceals a bias in Hesse’s favor, while the Kerényi includes his preface and annotations. Only the correspondence with Kahler is primarily for Mann devotees, but this is the least specialized and the least interesting. About halfway through their exchanges, and anticipating the reaction of future readers, Mann gives the game away:

A deeper reason for our mutual not-writing-much may be the feeling that it is unnecessary…. We are on the whole experiencing the same things, and each of us knows fairly precisely what the other is feeling and thinking about them.

Yet he goes dutifully on, appraising world events and fulfilling his purpose, which would appear to be little more than that of returning the ball to Kahler’s court.

One of the appendixes to the Hesse collection reprints his 1910 review of Royal Highness. Antedating his friendship with Mann, this offers more outspoken and more valuable criticism than the multitudinous compliments in the letters that follow:

[Mann] lacks the somnambulistic sureness of the naïve genius…. A “pure,” naïve writer…doesn’t think about readers at all. A poor author thinks about them, tries to please them, flatters them…. [Mann] gives the average reader a certain feeling of superiority but in return cheats him out of all that is fine, serious, and really worth saying….

Mann’s reply, which precipitated a forty-five year correspondence, does not—could not—answer this, but instead shows either that he did not understand the depth of the criticism or was already impervious to unmanageable truths:

Your shrewdly distrustful remarks have made me ponder the matter…and I can assure you that no calculation, no conscious flirtation with the public was at work.

Hesse’s review might better have begun the book than Theodore Ziolkowski’s foreword, which, in describing the new Hesse-Mann “humanism,” sets some kind of record in vacuity:

It acknowledges all aspects of the personality—its good and its evil, the horror and the glory—and strives to reconcile them into a grand harmony that transcends all ideology.

It is true that Mann’s Pharisaism can be insufferable:

When I received your letter yesterday at the post office, I had just sent off a banknote to a starving colleague.

And the same applies to his self-importance:

I owed it to my fellow refugees to make a satisfactory statement…and I have shown that there is still something resembling character and conviction in the world.

Yet not even these and other objectionable qualities mandate the introductory parti pris:

While Mann was savoring public adulation,…Mann basked in public acclaim,…the recipient of the Goethe Medal virtually eclipsed Goethe himself in the festivities…. [Mann] never tired of reminding Hesse of the grand monde in which he [sic] moved so easily: he has just met Nehru, he recalls a visit with Roosevelt (the first visit,…and therefore by implication not the only one)….

But this is unfair, since an encounter with Nehru in California was a far more conspicuous and mentionable event than it would have been in London or Paris, and since Mann’s purpose was to compare Nehru’s intellectual qualities with those (if any) of the American leadership (1949). Also, Mann’s object in specifying the White House invitation as “the first” was to underscore the early date (1935) at which Roosevelt was giving private assurances of American intervention.

Mann’s political vision was always astigmatic. Thus in the year 1932 gullible Thomas was announcing that “the worst is over.” Even so, his conduct is more laudable than Hesse’s, who, a year later, declared that he still admired the “blue-eyed enthusiasm and spirit of self-sacrifice” in the Third Reich. Mann came charging back at this with:

the deceit, the violence, the ridiculous show of “historical grandeur,” the sheer cruelty fills me with horror, contempt, and revulsion. I am no longer moved by the “blue-eyed enthusiasm” you speak of….

Hesse later intimated that his position as a “notorious pacifist” had made him a martyr. But how long would pacifism, or that “philosophical detachment from German politics” which Mann respected in Hesse, have been tolerated in a Hitler world? Further-more, soon after the war’s end and the discovery of the crematoria, Hesse complained to Mann that “the sadists and gangsters in Germany are no longer Nazis and German-speaking, but Americans.” One wonders how any informed person could seriously compare the crimes of the SS and the US.

The letters contain too little about the art of the novel, too much about public affairs. But when Mann adjudges Steppenwolf “in no way inferior to Ulysses,” the reader is grateful to be spared further literary evaluations. Occasionally some clue to a true reaction inadvertently slips through the fulsomeness, as when Mann remarks that the style of The Glass Bead Game is “overgrown in shrubbery and rich in arabesques.” Hesse, for his part, is quick to inform Mann of attacks on him in the press about which he might not otherwise have known.

Karl Kerényi introduces what is the most rewarding of the three collections with: “The actual basis of our relationship was that [Mann] found me useful.” It began in 1934, while the novelist was writing Joseph and His Brothers, and the mythologist sent one of his essays on Greek religion. From then until Mann’s death, with a four-year interruption during the war, Kerényi was his guide in mythological matters, instructing the novelist, sensitively redirecting him, drawing his attention to parallels from classical literature (Potiphar’s wife is a “new-born sister of Euripides’ Phaedra”). But Kerényi is more tactful when writing to than about Mann, and some of his claims of influence on the novels could scarcely be termed self-effacing. “I was the observant, the warmer partner, he the creative, the colder,” Kerényi writes, and he goes on to describe the writings of the “colder partner” as

the most reliable commentary possible on [his] mythological novel, an exceptional scholarly source for which there is hardly a parallel in world literature.

The “scholarly source” is too obviously not Mann, however, but his informant. No doubt the final Joseph books would have been different without Kerényi, though whether he is justified in characterizing his effect on them as “the convergence of mythology with psychology” will have to await comparison of the novels with those of his writings that Mann is now known to have read.

The most challenging of the Rutgers lectures, Klaus Schröter’s “Myth, Psychology and Society: The Changing Concept of the ‘Joseph’ Stories,” postulated that Joseph was conceived as a work of art against its time and in accordance with Mann’s current philosophy of the necessary discrepancy between the social reality and the work of art. Schröter (who was the first to uncover the association in 1895 of Heinrich and Thomas Mann with the reactionary and anti-Semitic review “Das 20. Jahrhundert“) then treated the development of the later parts of the book as reflecting the author’s increasing political responsibility. Surely the “changing concept” theory will be further modified as a result of the publication of the complete Kerényi letters describing his “partnership.”

Of the two correspondents, Kerényi makes the fuller and more valuable contribution, as Mann acknowledged when Kerényi published their prewar letters: “It is much more your book than mine.” Kerényi’s first entries disclose that he read English and was conversant with contemporary British writers unfamiliar to Mann—J.C. Powys, for one (A Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solent), and D.H. Lawrence, “a poet who draws forth the positive from nature.” Mann had scarcely heard of the former and found the author of Twilight In Italy, from which Kerényi quotes, less to his taste than Aldous Huxley. On the other hand, Kerényi inspires Mann to such literary-historical speculations as the possibility that Boccaccio might have been the bridge between the Greek novel and Cervantes, and mythology the bridge from Goethe to Wagner. Finally, some of Mann’s best statements in any of the new books are addressed to Karl Kerényi: “My God, it is simply sympathy that must be the basis of everything…,” and, “One is always striving and wishing to get finished without noticing that in essence one strives for the sake of being finished and for death.”

Almost every letter, beginning with Kerényi’s recognition of Mann’s partisanship toward Settembrini, pursues the meaning of “humanism.” At one point Kerényi refers to his brand as “religio Academici,” which critics have attacked as “neither scholarship nor religion.” Elsewhere he deepens the idea of Humanitas (“anthropismós,” which “occurs for the first time” in Aristippus) by characterizing his new book, Prometheus, as

the link between the Hermes and the “Socrates,” between the figure who is able to live easily and the one who is able to die easily.

Once he ventures to define his “humanism” as “that state of progressive enlightenment that is part of the true progress of consciousness.” Mann, too, believed in human progress at some level, the Bomb notwithstanding: “All in all, mankind has been pushed ahead…in spite of all signs to the contrary.” Yet Kerényi failed to discern Mann’s different attitude toward Freud, remarking: “You have definitively overcome the essentially disintegrating mode of analysis of Freudianism.”

Mann having then sent his Freud lecture—the same one that, out of blind egotism or a failure of a sense of the absurd, he had read to Freud himself—Kerényi took issue with the contents, and Mann rejoined, felicitously:

You put the seriousness of scholarship in the place of a half-playful etymology of convenience.

Aside from the Freud question, it is evident from Kerényi’s reaction to The Transposed Heads—which will interest readers of Dumézil’s Mythe et épopée more than those of Mann’s “metaphysical jest”—that the mythologist was disconcerted by the novella.

In the second, postwar, half of the correspondence, Kerényi is too overtly continuing a good thing, and his writing becomes more self-conscious. He excitedly repeats a notice of the first half that compares the letters to those of “Erasmus and his friends,” and goes on to quote from the piece:

It must be disheartening for [Mann and Kerényi] to write so many subtleties and allusions which presuppose enormous learning and great maturity, knowing full well that the succeeding generation will already be unable to understand them.

Though no blanket endorser of “the succeeding generation,” this reviewer is inclined to believe that this once anyway it has been underrated. But the later letters also suffer from a divergence of interests. By this time Kerényi, having moved from Hungary to Switzerland, began his collaborations with Jung and immersed himself in the study of comparative religion. Mann’s attention, meanwhile, had turned to the German problem, concerning which he declared that

Goethe, like all our great ones…was, as a formative force, a dire fatality.

The “humanist” is a reader, Kerényi notes in a final provision, and he quotes from the Bibliothèque Nationale scene in Malte Laurids Brigge:

How good it is to be among reading men…. If you jostle a neighbor…he nods. His face turns toward you and does not see you…. I am seated and in possession of a poet….

Kerényi writes to Mann: “I am in possession of a novelist, an epic fabulist.”

Mann created no school. And, unlike Hesse, he is of no marked interest to the youth of today, perhaps because he was not an innovator, and because he held so firmly to dying values and middle ground. In spite of this, his “epic fables” are still studied in courses in “the contemporary novel” and are known to a substantial, if not exactly vanguard, readership. But some of his qualities, above all his powers of observation and his narrative technique, have not often been surpassed. In the great story about Venice, for instance, he enumerates many characteristics of the people and the city which, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, are mentioned by no other writer. Thus it would seem that Thomas Mann will continue to be read when much that is currently fashionable has passed into oblivion.

(This is the first of two articles on Thomas Mann.)

This Issue

June 12, 1975