Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, of a prosperous and influential family in the Hanseatic free city of Lübeck. His mother, however, was from Brazil and was of mixed German and Portuguese stock. He frequently called attention to this mingling in him of the North and the South. From the North came his appearance and his manner of life. He had the air of a thoughtful and somewhat severe lawyer or businessman. He was methodical in work and of great industry, furnishing constant occupation to two secretaries; and even the upheaval in Germany and his voluntary exile did not alter his pleasure in a patriarchal form of family life. From the South came the luxuriance and range of his fancy, which included a preoccupation with the irrational and even morbid sources of artistic creation.
His father—senator and twice mayor of Lübeck—died when Thomas Mann was fifteen and the century-old family firm went into bankruptcy. His mother moved with her large family to Munich, where for a time he worked in an insurance office. He had been interested in writing, however, from his early years and at the age of twenty-two he published a first volume of short stories. With his brother Heinrich, who was also to become a distinguished novelist, he took a trip to Italy, where he began the composition of a long novel about the decline of a patrician family like his own in an unnamed Hanseatic city. Buddenbrooks was published at the end of 1900. At first it aroused little interest, but reissued the following year, it suddenly attracted wide attention,
and the author at twenty-six found himself famous. This work is unlike those long family novels to which we are accustomed in English and American literature, as it is unlike any apparently similar works in German literature. It seems—particularly in translation—to bring not only an element of irony
to the description of persons and place but one of outright derision. Referring to it obliquely in another work, Thomas Mann describes it as “passion preserved in ice.” That is to say: the South not merged with the North, not annihilated by the North, but dominated by it. It is without hero or heroine. Of the three characters who most engage our attention one is a woman of no exceptional or even pleasing qualities; her brother, inadequate in business, to his elevated social station, and to his family relationships; and a suffering boy, whose death is described, to our consternation, in the transcription from a medical manual of the successive stages of typhoid fever. This objectivity is not characteristic of German literature, yet the success of the book was
enormous. Within less than a generation, a million copies had been sold in the original language alone, which, in view of the book’s high distinction, and the number of German readers in the world, is without precedent.
In 1905 Thomas Mann married Fraulein Katja Pringsheim of Munich, and six children were born to them, growing up, for a time, in the leisured and richly cultured society of the Bavarian capital. For twenty-four years after the appearance of Buddenbrooks he published only essays and short novels, including Tristan) Tonio Kröger (generally regarded as his finest work in that form), and Death in Venice. Many of these deal with what he called “the inveterate dilemma of the creative artist in this world”—the gulf between those who “simply live” and those who strive to capture and preserve reality through the imposition of form.
During the First World War he wrote a series of essays which were published in 1918 as Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. These contain many statements and points of view which he was later to repudiate strenuously. They exalted war; they affirmed that Germany had nobler tasks to perform than could be expressed within the framework of democratic institutions; he ridiculed an excessive resort to “reason.” His shift of position came rapidly, however; within four years he was warning his readers against the “obscurantism” which he had so lately recommended. His next book was profoundly enriched precisely by this revolution within his thought. In 1924 he published his great novel The Magic Mountain. Modern civilization is there presented to us under the figure of life in a tuberculosis sanatorium. The successive viewpoints through which he had passed, and others which he had observed about him, are distributed among. the various doctors and patients in the institution, and developed with dialectical force as well as dramatized in striking characterizations.Thomas Mann described it as “the philosophical renunciation of much that I once loved, of many a dangerous sympathy … to
which the soul of Europe has been and still is prone … a book of leave-taking and pedagogical self-discipline.” He was now the most eminent German man of letters and the award to him of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 raised him to world renown. He viewed with alarm the dangerous tendencies
that were beginning to emerge in German public life, but unlike his brother he refrained for a while from polemics.
He felt that his distinguished position might yet enable him to be useful as an advocate of reason and reconciliation. Under strong provocation, however, in 1933, he spoke out in sharp warning. It became evident that he would not long remain undisturbed and he removed with his family to Switzerland. There he completed in 1934 the first volume of his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers. There, too, with the intention of preserving all that was best in the continuity of German intellectual life, he edited a review characteristically entitled Measure and Value. In 1938, he accepted a call to join the faculty of Princeton University and brought his family to this country, where he was to reside—finally as a citizen of the United States—for fourteen years. In 1939 the Rector of Bonn University informed him that the honorary doctorate that had been conferred upon him was rescinded. His famous letter in reply was but one of many publications, addresses and broadcasts in which he invoked the conscience of Germany and clarified the issues of the war. It was to this activity that our then Secretary, Van Wyck Brooks, referred in proposing Dr. Mann for honorary membership in this Academy. “He is defending,” wrote Mr. Brooks, “the basic ideas of our civilization perhaps more powerfully than any other writer.” In addition to this political writing, he completed two more volumes of the Joseph cycle. This enormous work was begun, he said, as an attempt “by means of a mythical psychology to present a psychology of the myth” – that is, not only with immense learning and narrative skill to analyze the motivations within so ancient a story, but to show us the ways in which such stories arise from the dreaming soul of the race and are molded by constant retelling.
In his last major novel, Doctor Faustus, he resumed on a vast scale many of the themes that had recurred so often in his earlier work. Here, under the symbol of a pact with the devil, he shows a great composer consciously employing toward the making of masterpieces those elements of unreason which are inseparable from all artistic creation, and he identifies them with the demonic forces which in and through Germany had wrought such havoc
in our times. To the two formulations we have found for characterizing Dr. Mann’s work- the mingling of North and South, and the “passion preserved in ice” —should be added a third: the application to literature of musical forms. As early as Tonio Kröger, of 1903, he began consciously to build his narratives upon systems of recurrent themes and symbols, of contrasting sections with their developments and resolutions. The organization of the longer novels is of an extraordinarily refined complexity which even includes a calculated play with numbers—such as the omnipresent employment of seven and the sevenfold in The Magic Mountain. This is the rigor and order of the North; this is the ice which impresses form upon the passion. The South is in the exuberance of his imagination and in the dazzling resourcefulness of his style. Through sheer virtuosity Dr. Mann constantly exercised his gift in what might be called a higher form of parody. The greater part of Doctor Faustus is written in imitation of a clerkly early nineteenth-century Biedermeier narrative; yet ,there are three chapters in the style of Martin Luther’s contemporaries. The short novel, The Holy Fool—with its now famous opening page describing the bells of Rome—is in the spirit of a very early Saint’s legend. In Lotte in Weimar there is an extraordinary chapter in what we have come to call the stream-of-consciousness technique, reproducing the thoughts of the aged Goethe as he awakes to a new day. His last published work,
The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, which he had begun forty years earlier, is one long droll recapture of the false elegance of an uneducated impostor. Yet he could write with utter simplicity, as in the tender story about his youngest daughter, published here under the title “Disorder and Early Sorrow.”
Dr. Mann was first elected to Honorary Membership in our Academy, but after his adoption of American citizenship he became, in 1951, a regular member. Four years after the close of the war he accepted Germany’s greatest honor, the Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt am Main—an occasion fraught, for speaker and listeners, with profound and painful emotion. In 1952 he returned to Europe for the last time and made his home in Zurich, where he died on August 12, 1955, in his eighty-first year.