Gottsched, Johann Christoph

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Gottsched, Johann Christoph (1700-1766): German Literary Critic and Playwright.

Johann Christoph Gottsched was a prolific translator, lecturer, and literary theorist, who embraced the spirit of the German Enlightenment wholeheartedly. Literature, he believed, should educate, edify, and impart moral principles, not entertain.

Born near Königsberg, Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia), Gottsched first studied theology, but later devoted himself to philosophy and literature. In 1723, he began giving lectures at the University of Königsberg. A tall, strong man, Gottsched had to flee to Leipzig in 1724 to avoid being drafted into King Friedrich Wilhelm I’s grenadiers. Once situated in Leipzig, he resolved to take an active role in the intellectual life of the city. He was made professor of poetry and later professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Leipzig, became involved in the Deutschübende Gesellschaft, and acquired a circle of admirers who helped him carry out his reforms of German literature. Up until 1740, Gottsched dominated the German literary scene, but after that time, his views were increasingly attacked by scholars, such as Bodmer, Johann Jakob and Breitinger, Johann Jakob, and even some of his former students.

Gottsched is chiefly remembered for his contribution to Germany’s literary renewal. Following French and classical models, he transformed the German theater from crude entertainment into a dignified means of instruction. He provided the theoretical basis for his views in the monograph Essay on a German Critical Poetic Theory (1730) and the periodical Essays on the Critical History of the German Language, Poetics, and Rhetoric (1732-44). In order to provide a repertoire for the German theater, he and his wife, Luise Adelgunde Gottsched, translated plays, principally from the French, into German and published their work in The German Stage According to the Rules of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (6 vols., 1740-45). Gottsched is admired for his efforts at linguistic reform. Removing dialectal irregularities, he wanted to create a single German literary language. He is known too for a bibliography of German dramatic literature.

In the long run, Gottsched was not successful at reforming literature by imposing upon it rules observed by the French, Greeks, or Romans; his opponents were able to make a strong case for imagination, feeling, and enthusiasm in literature. For a time, his play, The Dying Cato (1732), was the most popular tragedy on the German stage, but eventually, it was criticized as being mediocre and unoriginal. Although he was a champion of the middle class, his moralizing weeklies, The Reasonable Female Critics (1725-26) and The Honest Man (1727-29), met with little commercial success.

Gottsched helped make Leipzig an important literary center in Germany. Between 1727-1740, he held immense power over the intellectual life in that city. Although many of his theories on drama and the nature of poetry were ultimately rejected, they led German intellectuals of the eighteenth century to question the literary practices of their day and the preceding century.

Further Reading:

Phillip M. Mitchell, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766): Harbinger of German Classicism, 1995.

David Witkosky

Auburn Montgomery