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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Payson Evans (1831–1917)

By Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter) (1763–1825)

JEAN PAUL FRIEDRICH RICHTER was born as the “twin brother of spring,” on March 21st, 1763, at Wunsiedel, a little town of the Fichtelgebirge in the principality of Bayreuth, where his father was assistant schoolmaster and organist. His mother, Sophie Rosina, was the daughter of a clothier, Johann Paul Kuhn, who plied his trade in Hof, an important manufacturing center situated on a spur of the above-mentioned pine-clad range of mountains. On the next day after his birth the child was baptized. He had for his sponsors the maternal grandfather aforenamed, and a bookbinder, Johann Friedrich Thieme; the infant was therefore burdened at the font with a compound of both their names,—the first of which he translated some years later into French, out of admiration for Jean Jacques Rousseau.

When the babe was scarcely five months old, he was taken to the death-bed of his grandfather Johann Richter, rector or headmaster of the school at Neustadt on the Kulm, in the Upper Palatinate. The dying man, like Jacob of old, laid his hand on the child and blessed him. The event left a strong impression, not so much in the actual occurrence as in the repeated relation of it by his father in after years. “Pious grandfather,” exclaims Jean Paul in his autobiography, “often have I thought of thy hand, blessing as it grew cold, when fate led me out of dark hours into brighter; and I can already hold fast to the belief in thy blessing in this world, penetrated, ruled, and animated as it is by miracles and spirits.”

In the second year of his age his father became pastor of the church in Joditz, a village not far from Hof, and situated in a charming region on the Saale; where the boy passed his earliest and most impressionable years in idyllic surroundings, and cultivated that innate delicacy of feeling for the beauties of nature which finds such warm and wonderfully original expression in the writings of the man. Unfortunately his entire education at this period was conducted at home by his father in a desultory and very disadvantageous way, with no inkling of the pedagogical method which Pestalozzi was just then putting into practice with the charity-children of Zürich. The good pastor pursued the old preceptorial system of mechanically memorizing Biblical texts and catechistical doctrines, alternating with long lists of Latin words and grammatical rules, without any explanation,—a form of instruction called “learning by heart,” but contributing little or nothing to the development of either heart or head. History, natural science, geography, arithmetic, astronomy, and even a branch of knowledge so elementary and useful as orthography, were utterly neglected; music too, in which the father was quite accomplished, and for which the son showed decided taste and talent, found no place in this pietistic and pedantic programme. Oases in the pedagogical desert were occasional opportunities of reading by stealth in his father’s library; and the eagerness with which he devoured the dry theological tomes—whose contents, as he confesses, were wholly unintelligible to him—is pathetic proof of his inborn and insatiable love of letters. It was only after his father was promoted to the more important pastorate of Schwarzenbach in 1776, that the youngster of thirteen was sent to school; where he received systematic instruction from the kind-hearted and clear-headed Rector Werner, and above all, had access to books that were books,—poems, romances, and other products of polite literature, historical works, philosophical treatises, and a casual volume of controversial divinity, which seems to have attracted him in proportion as it “leaned to the heterodox side.” Three years later he was sent to the gymnasium at Hof, and in 1781 matriculated as a student of theology in the University of Leipsic.

Meanwhile the death of his father on April 15th, 1779, had not only cut off all financial supplies from home, but also reduced the family to extreme poverty, and caused the widowed mother to look to him as her only strength and stay. Ofttimes he was on the verge of starvation, without either money or credit for a loaf of bread, a bowl of milk, or new soles to his boots; but he struggled on manfully and cheerfully and overcame all adversities. Hardships arising from this source could not depress a man who was convinced that as a rule, “wealth weighs heavier than poverty on talent.” The choice of theology as a profession—which may have been determined by family influences, but certainly accorded with his deeply religious nature—grew somewhat distasteful to him even during his preparatory course of study at Hof, and was wholly abandoned soon after he entered the University, where, as he states, the academical atmosphere was impregnated with religious skepticism, and “most of the professors and nearly all the students had a leaning to heterodoxy.” Thus he wrote in one of his letters to Pastor Vogel:—

“I am no longer a theologian, and do not pursue any science ex professo: indeed, none of them have any attraction for me except so far as they bear upon my literary work; even philosophy is now indifferent to me, since I doubt everything.”

The literary work here referred to was the series of satirical sketches entitled ‘Grönländische Processe’ (Greenland Lawsuits), published in two parts in 1783–4. It is a rather unripe production; somewhat in the manner of Hippel’s ‘Lebensläufe,’ but with a delicate vein of sentiment and genuine humor in it reminding the reader occasionally of Sterne. Unhappily his exuberant fancy runs riot: the quaintest conceits are clothed in forced and far-fetched similitudes, often inextricably mixed; one metaphor gives birth to a dozen; and the whole living mass, composed of parts without organic connection, holds together like a mother-opossum and her young by intertwisting their tails. Nevertheless it was a remarkable performance for a youth of nineteen; rich in promise, and full of deep meanings half hidden from the hasty reader under a grotesque style.

Of a like character, though rather more mature and therefore less extravagant, are ‘Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren’ (Selection from the Devil’s Papers: 1788), and ‘Biographische Belustigungen unter der Gehirnschale einer Riesin’ (Biographical Diversions under the Brain-pan of a Giantess: 1796). But these works did not suit the public taste, and brought neither fame nor pecuniary returns to the author; who in 1784 was obliged to flee from Leipsic, as Lessing had done thirty-six years before, in order to avoid the debtor’s prison. It may be proper to add that in both cases the creditors, thus constrained to possess their souls with patience, received their own with usury in due time. Meanwhile Jean Paul earned his daily food as private tutor; but although devoting himself conscientiously and lovingly to the training of his pupils, gave his best energies to the more congenial task of “bringing up his own children,”—namely, to the writing of books. The first of this literary progeny that excited favorable attention, and was thought to do credit to him, was ‘Die Unsichtbare Loge’ (The Invisible Lodge), which appeared in two volumes in 1793, and bore the secondary title of ‘Mummies.’ From a purely artistic point of view this novel, in which the influence of Rousseau is clearly perceptible, is a failure. Jean Paul himself speaks of it as “a born ruin,”—a quite characteristic example of mixed metaphor (for ruins, unlike poets, are not born, but made), though sufficiently expressive of the fact that the work not only remained unfinished, but was positively unfinishable. The course of the narration is constantly obstructed, diverted, and covered up by the masses of miscellaneous matter which are dumped into it, and borne along by the current until they take shape as a luxuriant and labyrinthian delta of reflections on all sorts of topics, in which the stream is at last wholly lost to view. If in its structure it is a chaos “without form,” it is in its substance by no means “void.” It is also important as a turning-point in the career of the author, who was not only warmly praised by the critics, but received a still more welcome recognition from the publisher in the form of a hundred ducats.

It was doubtless due in a great measure to this encouragement, that a more cheerful and less sardonic tone prevails in his next novel, ‘Hesperus’ (1794), as well as in most of his subsequent writings: ‘Leben des Quintus Fixlein’ (Life of Quintus Fixlein: 1796); ‘Blumen-, Frucht-, und Dornenstücke; oder, Ehestand, Tod, und Hochzeit des Armenadvocaten Siebenkäs’ (Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces; or, Wedded Life, Death, and Nuptials of the Poor Man’s Advocate Siebenkäs: 1796–7); ‘Das Kampaner Thal; oder, Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele’ (The Campan Valley; or, On the Immortality of the Soul: 1797); ‘Titan’ (1800–3); ‘Flegeljahre’ (Wild Oats: 1804–5); ‘Dr. Katzenbergers Badereise’ (Dr. Katzenberger’s Journey to the Bath: 1809); ‘Der Feldpredigers Schmelzles Reise nach Fläz’ (Chaplain Schmelzle’s Journey to Fläz: 1809); ‘Leben Fibels’ (Life of Fibel: 1812); and ‘Der Komet; oder, Nikolaus Marggraf’ (The Comet; or, Nicholas Marggraf: 1820–2). To these titles, which comprise his principal works, may be added ‘Die Vorschule der Aesthetik’ (Introduction to Æsthetics: 1804); ‘Levana; oder, Erziehungslehre’ (Levana; or, Theory of Education: 1807); and ‘Selina; oder, Über die Unsterblichkeit’ (Selina; or, On the Immortality of the Soul). The last-mentioned discourse on his favorite theme was left unfinished at the time of his death on November 14th, 1825, and borne on his bier to the grave, but was not published till two years later.

To complete the account of Richter’s outer life, it may be added that after the death in 1797 of his mother, whose last years were cheered and made comfortable by his literary success, he lived for a time in Leipsic and Weimar, and then went to Berlin, where in 1801 he found a highly cultivated and thoroughly congenial wife in Caroline Mayer, the daughter of a Prussian privy-councilor. In 1804 he settled permanently in Bayreuth; and four years later the Archbishop and Prince Primate von Dalberg granted him a pension of one thousand florins, which after the dissolution of the Confederation of the Rhine in 1813 continued to be paid by the King of Bavaria. Titular honors were also bestowed upon him: he was made Legationsrath (Councilor of Legation) by the Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen; in 1817 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg; and was chosen a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1820.

Richter’s best and most brilliant works of fiction are ‘Hesperus,’ ‘Titan,’ ‘Quintus Fixlein,’ ‘Flegeljahre,’ and ‘Siebenkäs.’ He himself seems to have thought most highly of ‘Flegeljahre’; but the critical reader of to-day will probably give the preference to ‘Fixlein’ and ‘Siebenkäs.’ The permanent value of these products of the imagination, as well as of his so-called scientific writings,—‘Introduction to Æsthetics,’ ‘Levana,’ and ‘Selina,’—lies less in their symmetry and unity as artistic creations (in which respects they are woefully deficient) than in the wealth of isolated thoughts, aphoristic utterances, and original conceits which they contain. Even in Germany the dust on the sixty-five volumes of his ‘Complete Works,’ issued shortly after his death, is nowadays seldom disturbed. It is only in anthologies that he is read or can be really enjoyed by the present generation. Even his humor, which is his one precious quality, is apt to cloy through excess of sensibility running over into sentimentality. It is also difficult to find a passage of considerable length in which his metaphors do not halt, and to use his own comparison, go limping along like an actor with a buskin on one foot and a sock on the other. The meaning, too, is apt to be obscured by unintelligible allusions; a peculiarity due in part to his lifelong habit of keeping a commonplace-book, which gradually grew into numerous volumes, and was filled with notes and excerpts, curious facts and fancies, serving as material for illustration, and suggesting tropes overstrained and incomprehensible to the general reader without a special commentary. Indeed, as early as 1808, the Hamburg publicist Carl William Reinhold deemed it necessary to prepare a dictionary explaining Richter’s strange modes of speech, and rendering the more difficult passages into plain German for the benefit of his own countrymen and contemporaries. In this respect he is the very antithesis of Lessing, whose thoughts are simply and strongly expressed, and need no exegetical apparatus to make them understood.

But with all these defects as an artist, Richter was an original thinker, a keen but kind-hearted humorist, a genuine poet, and a noble man. Of the German romanticists he was unquestionably the healthiest; or rather the least “tainted in his wits.” However much he may love to peer into graves and charnels, and to weep over the wrongs and miseries of human life, his melancholy is “a most humorous sadness”; the wormwood and the gall of cynicism are not the ingredients of his satire, and in his bosom there beats a stout, warm, cheerful heart, with no drop of misanthropic bitterness in it. He studied men and nature through a microscopic lens, and thus discovered a world of wonders where the common eye saw nothing. Owing to the circumstances of his youth, the sphere of his observation of social phenomena was limited, but his vision exceedingly sharp within this narrow range. His one point of firm footing on the earth was his genuine sympathy with the joys and sorrows of the common people, the sufferings and sacrifices of the poor; and herein lay his strength.