Richter, Jean Paul Friedrich

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Richter, Jean Paul Friedrich (1763-1825): German Writer.

One of the most popular German novelists of his time, Jean Paul attempted in his writings to come to terms with the excesses of romanticism and rationalism. Born in Wunsiedel to a Lutheran clergyman, Johann Paul Friedrich Richter attended the gymnasium in Hof, where he read voraciously and began to write fiction. In 1781, he went to Leipzig University to pursue theological studies, but his focus quickly turned to philosophy and the work of satirists such as Erasmus and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de. Richter himself wrote an imitative satire and a series of essays on a number of topics — including aesthetics, philosophy, and theology — many of which were later collected in Grönländische Prozesse (1783) and Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren (1789), but they were largely ignored. Serving as an itinerant tutor, he returned to Hof in 1794, where he continued to teach and write.

Richter’s first widespread success came in 1795 with Hesperus, which he published under the pseudonym Jean Paul, in homage to Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Typical of his narrative style, the novel introduces numerous characters that engage one another in romance or violent confrontation, only to discover eventually that they have been mistaken about their lineages and class identities. At the time, the novel’s popularity rivaled Goethe, Johann Wolfgang’s Werther, and Jean Paul toured the region as a literary celebrity. He was particularly well received in Weimar, where Tieck, Ludwig and Herder, Johann Gottfried praised his anti-classical style. During this time, Jean Paul published a number of shorter works, which were followed by Siebenkäs (1796), a novel on the marital conflict between a woman of faith and a man of intellect, and the four-volume Titan (1800-03), in which he criticizes the Romantics’ cult of genius. Titan also contains two appendices, one of which, the Clavis Fichtiana, satirizes Fichte, Johann Gotlieb’s philosophy as a form of solipsistic insanity.

In 1801, Jean Paul married Karoline Mayer, and the two moved from Meiningen to Coburg to Bayreuth, where they settled in 1804. Shortly thereafter, he published the comic novel Flegeljahre (1804-05), which became his most popular work in Germany. The book dramatizes the extremes of feeling and intellect in the twin brothers Walt and Vult, and hints at the desirability but impossibility of their synthesis. After this success, Jean Paul continued to write prolifically, but his strong reaction to negative reviews early in his career engendered a critical silence. Although he continued to travel and extend his circle of friends, his fame declined, and he spent most of his final years writing cloistered in an inn outside of Bayreuth. Plagued by various illnesses and failing eyesight, Jean Paul died in 1825.

Shortly after his death, critics generally considered Jean Paul to have been excessively praised during his lifetime. Yet, his works were translated by Staël, Germaine de and Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and George Eliot acknowledged their indebtedness to him. Furthermore, many literary historians now claim that his attention to the presence of the narrator as well as the alienations and anxieties with which he struggled prefigured the preoccupations that animate the modern novel.

Further Reading:

Eduard Berend and Johannes Krogoll, Jean-Paul-Bibliographie, 1963.

Matthew Altman

Central Washington University