Following the publication of Buddenbrooks in 1901, it became Thomas Mann’s daily custom, when his ritual hours at the writing desk had ended shortly after noon, to attend to the obligations which fame had brought him. Foremost among such obligations was an already immense correspondence—it is the reliable estimate of experts who have consulted the Mann archives in Zurich that during his lifetime, from his boyhood in Lübeck to his last days, Mann wrote some twenty thousand letters. In later years, after he had come to the United States and settled in California, he acquired the habit—which he did not like—of dictating his correspondence to a secretary, and the letters of those years are as often typewritten as handwritten. He preferred his correspondence to be handmade, so to speak, but it is still a question whether he wanted it to be personal.

Fame confers a hunger for, and a terror of, communal voyeurism, and in the correspondence of the famous the issue of how much the writer should be aware of the potentially large audience that will be attending his “private” utterances cannot be far from the surface of his consideration. When he reveals himself, how much should he reveal, even to his intimates? As for us, his readers, with what degree of ironic perspective should we, at this late date, view his revelations? Such questions are all the more pressing in the case of a figure like Mann, whose complex views on the relation between the private individual and public life in the 20th century—a relation, indeed, that forms the subject of more than one of his novels—might be expected to come into focus in his voluminous private writings.

The principal correspondences of Mann that have been published so far in English include a selection from Erika Mann’s three-volume German edition of her father’s letters with supplementary addenda; the complete correspondences with Hermann Hesse (which begins in 1910) and with Erich Kahler, the philosopher and intellectual historian (which begins in 1931); and, finally, the extensive exchange between Mann and the classicist historian of myth and ancient religion, Karl Kerenyi, which was inaugurated by Kerenyi in 1934 and was pursued to the end of Mann’s life.1 German editions have also appeared of Mann’s correspondence with his early friend, Ernst Bertram, with whom he broke when Bertram joined the Nazis, and with his lifelong German publisher, Samuel Fischer, as well as several others of specialized interest. The value of these correspondences, quite apart from their internal character and content, is that they afford a control experiment, a narrow segregation of sensibility in which, over the decades, one can discover how Mann’s private voice varies, when and how it acquires the modulations of the public person. The wonder is that it varies so little.


In his illuminating little book, The Orbit of Thomas Mann, Erich Kahler, one of Mann’s closest friends, described him as a “man of mind.” The man of mind in Kahler’s view is one “for whom supra-personal problems and decisions are a personal concern, one who no longer draws a line between the personal and supra-personal” (as opposed to an intellectual, who in Kahler’s terms is more of a specialist or expert). The man of mind is a generalist, and he is also, as Kahler thought Thomas Mann to be, someone who exercises “personal responsibility for the human condition.”

It fits, of course. Thomas Mann was an autodidact who moved through literatures, philosophies, religions as the needs of the imagination required, picking up whole disciplines and leaving them behind when the occasion passed. For The Magic Mountain, Mann became expert in matters of medicine, biology, pharmacology, engineering, meteorology, radiology, and psychology, as well as the other more abstract disciplines of philosophy and theology; for Joseph and His Brothers, myth, religion, Semitic languages, ancient history; for Doctor Faustus, musical theory, the history of music and musical instruments, medieval literature and old German, the variants of the Faust legend, the history of diabolism and of the devil. But once the novel which required the disciplines was completed, the source books were cleared away, the notebooks filed, and the information was promptly forgotten.

Mann was insistent that he was not an intellectual, and equally insistent that as a “man of mind” all that really mattered to him was what remained behind, embedded in the fictions. Yet at the same time he did indeed harbor a view of himself as something other than a solitary man doing his work in private, disconnected from the world of public concerns and manipulations, preoccupied by considerations which the world would only overhear when a new book was published. He was from early on someone who felt “personal responsibility for the human condition.”

When he began to feel this way is a question of interest. The letters of Mann’s early maturity are immensely youthful, childishly formal, self-preoccupied, full of reports of visits to the opera and exhibits, the acquisition of (but not the judgment upon) important books, social notes without a point of view. These years—the last years of the century—were not uneventful: Mann’s first stories had begun to appear, and his first story collection; he had left the employ of the South German Fire Insurance Company, the university, the editorial offices of Simplicissimus, the army in which he had served less than a year, and he was awaiting word from Samuel Fischer about the fate of Buddenbrooks. But with the important exception of those to his older brother, Heinrich, there is virtually nothing in the letters of these years of the anxiety or the ecstasy which one would have thought commonplace in the letters of men of genius (one need only think of the early letters of Proust or Rilke). Even with the writing of Buddenbrooks behind him, the young Mann still seems submerged, getting by with acceptable postures and modes, amusingly arrogant self-assertiveness, or obviously false conceits like the exclamation that he was an “arrogant decadent” who would find it “extraordinarily refreshing to be bawled out ruthlessly and vigorously” during military service.


The letters to Heinrich are the exception that proves the rule (as, later, the letters to Katia Pringsheim would also be). The new century opened for the twenty-five-year-old Mann without an answer from Samuel Fischer, with money problems, concern about his future as a writer (“I think I would become a bank clerk. These fits come over me sometimes”), thoughts of suicide, dreadful depressions followed by “pure and unexpected inner joy, with experiences that cannot be told and the mere hint of which would naturally sound like boasting.” The letter to his brother which contains these disclosures, this gloom, and this exaltation, the postulating of his possession of something “sincere, warm, and good” which is “not just ‘irony’,” contains, as well, further down in the same unbroken paragraph, a melodramatic outburst:

Ah, literature is death! I shall never understand how anyone can be dominated by it without utterly hating it. Its ultimate and best lesson is this: to see death as a way of achieving its antithesis: life. I dread the day, and it is not far off, when I shall again be shut up alone with my work, and I fear that the egotistic inner desiccation and over-refinement will then make rapid progress.

Only after this statement (which contains the embryonic theme of his first masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, still twenty years away from completion) does he announce to his brother, whose own first novel had just been published to controversy and praise, that Fischer had broken into his “exaltation and suicidal self-disgust” with the decision to publish Buddenbrooks, uncut and “probably in three volumes” (two would prove sufficient). Mann continues, “I shall have my picture taken, right hand tucked into the vest of my dinner jacket, the left resting on the three volumes. Then I might really go down happy to my grave.”

The evident confusions of those early years of the century when Mann still regarded himself as ensnared by a protracted adolescence, still drawing a “line between the personal and the supra-personal,” were immensely clarified by the enormous success which Buddenbrooks came to enjoy. The book started slowly, reviews were mixed, but within three years it had sold 30,000 copies in Germany alone. Mann had definitely emerged from the shadows to a resounding fame which was never again to desert him. Writing of that period in his Sketch of My Life (1930), he noted: “It was fame. I was snatched up in a whirl of success. My mail was swollen, money flowed in streams, my picture appeared in the papers, a hundred pens made copy of the product of my secluded hours, the world embraced me amid congratulations and shouts of praise.”


The physical picture of the Thomas Mann of those years is not at variance with the persona of his letters—a man astonishingly formal, correct, his mustache as trimmed as his bearing, shorn of excess, dash, or abandon. Only when Mann enters upon his courtship of Katia Pringsheim in early 1904 do we encounter in him for the first time a raw, vulnerable, authentic passion, even though that passion remains characteristically restrained, pressed through the mesh of intelligence, checked by the obligations of form. Mann determined to meet Katia when he saw her answering back to a rude streetcar conductor sometime toward the end of 1903 (Katia Mann recollects in Unwritten Memories2) . Thereupon, contriving invitations and working through intermediaries, he gained entrance to the Pringsheim circle and laid cautious siege to Katia, then not even twenty-one, a brilliant student of mathematics and physics. The twenty-four surviving letters of the courtship, occasioned by her apparent disinclination to marry and later by her separation from Mann while she accompanied her father to a spa where he was recovering from a serious illness, are splendid.

The Mann who said “literature is death” saw Katia Pringsheim as life—as vitality, energy, truthfulness, unreflexive spontaneity: in other words, as his compatible opposite. The fact that Katia did not immediately tumble to the young celebrity made her all the more desirable, impelling Mann to move from the safe ground of self-appraisal in the early letters (“You know that for many years, important years, I regarded myself as nothing, humanly speaking, and wished to be considered only an artist”) to insinuations of a shared superiority to the commonplace (“Everything naive, noble, and devout is ‘stupid,’ all intrepid devotion on this earth. Let us be ‘stupid,’ my Katia”) to a guarded assertion of sexual conquest shortly before they became engaged (“Oh, you amazing, painfully sweet, painfully tangy creature! Longing—Sehnsucht ! You don’t know how I love the word. It is my favorite word, my holy word, my magic formula, my key to the mystery of the world”).

Katia Mann has said of these letters: “Thomas Mann wrote me wonderfully beautiful letters—he did know how to write—which naturally impressed me, but which I didn’t answer quite so beautifully.” What she answered, we do not know. Indeed, we would undoubtedly not have Mann’s letters to Katia, either—so revealing and so full of self-disclosure—had Mann not incorporated them, verbatim, into his novel Königliche Hoheit (“Royal Highness,” 1909).

One is entitled to speculate they may have unconsciously been intended for this purpose all along. The truth is as Mann claimed it to be: his fiction was always to receive the ardor of his life. Tonio Kröger initially, but then later Felix Krull, and, on another plane, the patriarch Joseph, and Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus (and indeed the old Goethe of Lotte in Weimar with whom Mann says he had performed his unio mystica), were to express and to give meaning to his interior experience. Mann insisted that every story he wrote was grounded in a historical event to which he had established an intimate connection. The credibility of the fiction, he asserted, rested within the contours of the original episode; nothing was simply made up. This should not be taken at face value: what he meant was not that he worked without imagination, but that what he imagined was real. Fiction was more the life of Mann than his life itself.


In a 1906 letter to the critic Kurt Martens, who had published an essay on “The Mann Brothers” critical of this very tendency in Mann, which he equated with hatred of life and pleasure, Mann formulates his view of the artist’s purpose with some asperity. “It won’t do to attribute to me ‘icy misanthropy’ and ‘lovelessness’ toward everything flesh and blood which is ‘replaced’ by a fanatic worship of art.” Mann reminds Martens that Tonio Kröger and his play, Fiorenza (1905), were “full of irony toward art, and written into Tonio Kröger is a confession of love for life which verges on the inartistic in its overtness and directness.” As for the charge of personal asceticism, Mann acknowledges its justness, but transforms it into a triumph of conscience: “I am an ascetic insofar as my conscience directs me toward achievement in contrast to pleasure and to happiness.” Yet this, he asserts, has nothing to do with the workings of the creative imagination, or his ability in fictional representation to encompass the heroic and the sensual. Indeed, the artist himself is in Mann’s view first and foremost a man of adventure and danger, an explorer of realms where other men would not or could not venture.

By 1910, when the correspondence with Hermann Hesse, the earliest of the complete correspondences available, begins, Mann had ceased to be a private man, and he was scarcely ever again to extend himself so far, to risk as much disclosure, as in his furious apologia pro vita sua to Kurt Martens.

Those letters which we have after the close of the first decade of the century (and even more so after the publication of The Magic Mountain in 1924), are marked by a species of formality through which hardly any personal passion is allowed to obtrude—replies to critics, responses to appeals, dealings with the famous, comments on the deteriorating situation of Germany in the post-World War I period, and, after the Hitler era forced him into exile in 1933, letters on behalf of refugees and exiles, political appeals and defenses. By the time of his immigration to the United States in 1939, which might have been expected to summon forth rich commentary on the two cultures or even the two continents, Mann was already old and weary, and had his own work to get on with.


The Mann-Hesse letters are marked by a moral urgency, by truthfulness, and by a mutual respect which is almost familial in character. Each man regarded the other as a beleaguered outpost of humane culture. Where Hesse had declared his pacifist independence as early as World War I, thereafter maintaining an engaged distance from the Germany of both the Weimar and the Hitler years, Mann had to pass through a period of cultural conservatism to a growing contempt for nationalism which emerged in the 20’s, was confirmed in the 30’s, and became militant anti-fascism thereafter. Hesse did not understand Germany better than did Mann, but he glimpsed more earlier, grounding his political views on a species of natural mysticism which was as affecting as it was sentimental (the poems sent as greetings from Hesse to Mann are ghastly).

Mann, the more wordly of the two, was an immensely loyal friend to Hesse and to Hesse’s art, going so far as to defend Hesse to Erich Kahler who in his lectures on the modern novel had dismissed Hesse’s work as sentimental gush. Yet The Hesse-Mann Letters, preceded by a tendentious foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski, are finally uninteresting. There is not a single exchange which reaches a level of intensity, pain, or enthusiasm, which leaves behind any sense of the immense talents responsible for the pallid words. The letters are full of engaging asides, political comment, biographical detail—but if one were given these letters as an introduction to either writer, there is little likelihood one would be inspired to go further.

The same can be said of the Mann-Kahler correspondence. In fact it may be doubted whether Kahler, had he lived, would have allowed such casual intimacy to be given formal publication. The correspondence is affectionate and respectful throughout, but more obtrusive than any substantive issue the two men discuss is the tone of anxiety in which both attempt to interpret the periodic silences between them. Mann puts it on one occasion: “A deeper reason for our mutual not-writing-much may be the feeling that it is unnecessary. Separated in space, we are on the whole experiencing the same things, and each of us knows fairly precisely what the other is feeling and thinking.” Yet the sense of discomfort conveyed by the letters overcomes such self-justifying explanations, and indeed, when put together with the periodic silences themselves, goes far toward accounting for the thinness of the correspondence.

Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerenyi is the only volume of the published correspondences which transcends the difficulties I have been describing, and for reasons worth speculating upon. Karl Kerenyi (1897-1973) had first sent Mann an essay on the Greek god Apollo in 1934, knowing that Mann was engaged in the Joseph tetralogy and was preoccupied with mythological archetypes in classical culture. Kerenyi solicited Mann’s attention and having once secured it, never let go. The letters between them are marked by a kind of reverential hubris, the younger scholar continually saluting the world-famous master in elegant encomia while feeding him the product of his own imagination and intelligence, until the point arrives at which the master begins to return the compliment, acknowledging, as Mann did, that Kerenyi had played a significant role in elaborating the mythico-religious humanism which is at the base of Joseph and His Brothers and the works which succeed it.

The correspondence between Mann and Kerenyi works precisely because the correspondents never sought intimacy. Kerenyi, brilliant and not a little fatuous, wanted Mann in his corner as aid and sponsor (which he became) but not as boon companion, not as someone who might share his mind so completely that correspondence became psychological reinforcement. The letters between them are genuinely illuminating—Kerenyi’s intelligence was riveting and clear, his mind filled with lore which he never stinted in sharing. Mann, who all along had been inquisitive, fascinated, somewhat unnerved by the barrage of Kerenyi’s learned glosses, comments with a kind of wonder toward the end of the correspondence, during the last year of his life:

After Joseph, I thought to myself: “Yes, certainly, that was an interesting and productive episode, the exchange with that scholar. Now we are fairly well finished with one another, and our ways will presumably separate.” Not at all. Nothing of an episode. It seems that in spite of the differences in our modes of expression, our spheres will repeatedly come into contact; and what is to me (and probably to you too) an increasingly striking proximity and parallelism of interests and of intellectual orientations has come to the surface, a phenomenon of predestined friendship in which, for all its strangeness, we acquiesce most happily.

The correspondence with Kerenyi is virtually the only body of letters in which Mann is functioning as an artist, as a “man of mind,” and the testimony of these letters yields a truth about Mann as correspondent which deserves to be underscored. What was tolerable in art, what, indeed, the artistic vocation required, was for that reason not to be borne in life. Letter-writing seems to have suggested to Mann an almost obscene nudity, and most of his correspondence appears to have consisted, precisely, in a fastidious reaching for cover in an attempt to protect that dignity with which he was almost pathologically preoccupied his entire life. Only occasionally, in his youth when writing to his older brother Heinrich or to his wife Katia, or in later years when writing to a virtual stranger, could he transform the occasion into an unveiling of self, or voluntarily deal with those issues in which art and intelligence were allowed to overcome his natural sense of vulnerability.


1 Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, selected and translated by Richard and Clara Winston, introduction by Richard Winston, Knopf (1971), 690 pp., $17.50. The Hesse-Mann Letters, 1910-1955, edited by Anni Carlsson and Volker Michels, translated by Ralph Mannheim, annotations by Wolfgang Sauerlander, foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski, Harper & Row, 196 pp., $10.00. An Exceptional Friendship: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Erich Kahler, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Cornell University Press, 196 pp., $12.50. Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerenyi, translated by Alexander Gelley, Cornell University Press, 231 pp., $12.50.

2 Katia Mann: Unwritten Memories, edited by Elisabeth Plessen and Michael Mann, translated by Hunter and Hildegarde Hannum, Knopf, 165 pp., $7.95.


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