Paul Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lübeck, Germany, and died August 12,1955, in Zurich, Switzerland. He wrote numerous novels, novellas, and essays and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.
Mann’s parents, Julia née da Silva Bruhns and Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, belonged to the wealthy Lübeck bourgeoisie. Thomas was the second of five children. His older brother Heinrich also became an important author. After his father’s death and the liquidation of the family firm in 1891, his mother moved with the three younger children to Munich while Thomas stayed at school in Lübeck. In 1894, he followed his mother to Munich and began to work for an insurance company but quit after 4 months. During this time, he wrote his first story, “Fallen” (Gefallen). During the same time, he attended some lectures at the Technical University of Munich, his only academic education. In 1898, the story collection Little Herr Friedemann (Der kleine Herr Friedemann) was published, followed by Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks, in 1901. In his novel, Mann described the decline of the family Buddenbrook that was inspired by his own family’s history. The financial decline was associated with an unfolding of aesthetic sensibility. The opposition between art and Bügertum (the middle classes/bourgeoisie) was one of Mann’s main themes, especially in his early works, and also was taken up in his novellas Tristan and Tonio Kröger in 1903.
In 1905, Mann married Katia Pringsheim, who belonged to a wealthy family of Jewish decent. The couple had six children. Mann’s second novel, Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit), was published in 1909. After some difficult years of low productivity, his novella Death in Venice (Tod in Venedig) was published 1912.
In reaction to World War I, Mann wrote his voluminous essay “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man” (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen) in 1918. In his novel The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) in 1924, he showed the decline of the bourgeois world of the 19th century by describing the stay of Hans Castorp, a young engineer from a wealthy family, in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. In 1929, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1930, his story “Mario and the Magician” (Mario und der Zauberer) depicted the psychology of fascism using the example of a family’s holiday experiences in Italy. Twelve days after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Mann left Germany for a lecture journey and did not return. After visits to several countries, he settled in Switzerland. In 1933, the first part of his tetralogy about “Joseph and His Brothers” (Joseph und seine Brüder) was published, and the last part followed in 1943. This epos described the biblical mythos of Joseph in a psychological perspective. In 1936, Mann became a citizen of the Czech Republic and was deprived of his German citizenship. In 1938, he settled in the United States, where he taught German literature at Princeton University. In 1939, he finished his Goethe novel Lotte in Weimar, which gave a psychological portrait of Goethe and his environment. Doktor Faustus, published in 1947, described the life of the composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by his friend Zeitbloom in Germany during the end of World War II. The novel dealt with the problems of Germany’s intellectual identity. Mann’s final novels, The Holy Sinner (Der Erwählte) and Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull), were published in 1952 and 1954, respectively. Alarmed by the anti-Communist hysteria of the Joseph McCarthy era in the United States, Mann moved to Switzerland in 1952. His final work was his essay on Friedrich Schiller in 1955. Mann died that year in Zurich.
Mann did not have any explicit anthropological theory of his own. Nevertheless, his work contained an artistic adaptation of the intellectual discussions of his time, strongly influenced by the thoughts of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Goethe but also by Kierkegaard, Paul, Schiller, and others. His novels and many of his essays reflected on the problems of human existence.
Characteristic of Mann’s style was a distance from his subjects that he took by using humor and irony. Irony for Mann was the reconciliation of life and spirit. The opposition between life and spirit mirrored Nietzsche’s conviction that life must be taken affirmatively. Mann denied this thought and united Schopenhauer’s pessimism with it. In this new conception, life was still unchangeable, but the spirit was not an affirmative one; rather, it denied life by taking an ironic view of it.
The Magic Mountain was representative of Mann’s intellectual novels, all of which reflected on the nature of humankind. In this novel, Hans Castorp, a young engineer, visits his cousin in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos and stays for 7 years, fascinated by the morbid atmosphere of this magic mountain (the title is an allusion to the Walpurgis Night in Goethe’s Faust). Castorp is drawn in by the atmosphere and patients and is immersed in a struggle for cognition about the world. The novel circles around the main themes of the intellectual debate of the time, the great questions of humankind—life and death, reason and emotion, and time. Castorp is fascinated by the eros of dying but tries to fight it on lonely ski walks in the dangerous Alps. Reason is symbolized by Settembrini, an Italian freemason and democrat, but is defeated by the erotic attraction of Clawdia Chauchat. After his sexual experience with her, Castorp finally gives up his work ethos. In The Magic Mountain, and in all of Mann’s other stories, humans are threatened by dark instincts or mysterious forces (e.g., by overwhelming sexuality) that destroy their orderly lives.
Time is of no importance in the magical atmosphere of the mountains, where people seem to live without time and everything runs in big circles. In this motive, Mann took up Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence of the same. After Chauchat’s departure, two more characters fight for Castorp’s “soul.” Naphta, Settembrini’s antagonist, is a Spanish Jesuit whose ideology is a mixture of Christian mystics, communism, and totalitarianism. In opposition to Settembrini and Naphta is Pieter Peeperkorn, who is not very intelligent but is very attractive in his vitality. Peeperkorn’s impressive personality wins this conflict without any fight. Finally, Castorp finds the synthesis of all polarities—love and goodness—in a dream but fails to understand the dream when he awakes. He and the whole environment disappear during World War I.
- Koopmann, H. (Ed.). (2001). Thomas Mann Handbuch (3rd ed.). Stuttgart, Germany: Kröner Verlag.
- Mann, T. (1974). Gesammelte Werke. Frankfurt, Germany: S. Fischer Verlag.
- Robertson, R. (Ed.). (2002). The Cambridge companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.