Kleist, Heinrich von

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Kleist, Heinrich von (1777-1811). German, Writer.

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist is considered one of the great dramatists and novella writers of world literature. A member of a Prussian noble family, Kleist grew up in military surroundings and joined a regiment of the Potsdam guards. Finding that the emphasis on discipline and the monotony of military life did not appeal to his creative personality, he left the army in 1799.

Initially, Kleist set out to realize what he called his “life-plan”: the quest for knowledge and truth. He studied physics and mathematics, and later he developed an interest in music and philosophy. A product of the Enlightenment, he believed that life could be planned and that all things could be understood.

In 1801, Kleist gave up his studies after his reading of the philosophy of Kant, Immanuel had shaken his faith in the value of knowledge. The stabilizing influence of his life-plan was gone. Kleist now questioned the superiority of reason and directed his attention instead to the soul. In his personal and professional life, he was constantly at odds with the wishes of his family and the expectations of early nineteenth-century Prussia.

In 1802, his literary career began, and his occasional bouts of depression intensified. His first play, The Schroffenstein Family, was published in 1803. That same year, he also worked on a drama, Robert Guiscard, and had nearly completed it when he began to doubt his ability as a writer and burned the manuscript.

During the years until his death, Kleist met a number of German literary greats. Christoph Martin Wieland, Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, and Friedrich Baron de La Motte-Fouqué admired Kleist’s literary production and gave him valuable support. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang was initially attracted to Kleist, but after a disastrous staging of The Broken Jug in 1808, he distanced himself from Kleist.

Kleist’s literary production—the compositon of his plays, essays, and novellas—occurred in the final ten years of his life. His best-known plays include Amphytrion, The Broken Jug, Penthesilea, Katherine of Heilbronn, and Prince Frederick of Homburg. The most famous of his novellas are Michael Kohlhaas, The Marquise of O…, and The Earthquake in Chile. His essay “On the Marionette Theater” also appeared at this time.

Kleist experienced some success toward the end of his life. Katherine of Heilbronn was popular with audiences, and he started and edited Berlin’s first daily newspaper. But overall, he was not understood, and he managed to antagonize most members of his family and many prominent Prussians. In the end, he chose to commit suicide with his friend, Henriette Vogel, at Wannsee in 1811.

Kleist had immense influence on later literary periods. His interest in the theme of alienation, his portrayal of political conflicts, his belief in the unpredictability of human destiny, and his search for a meaning to life give his works a decidedly modern feel and have helped to make him popular with contemporary audiences.

Further Reading:

Gerhard Weinholz, Heinrich von Kleist: Deutsches Dichtergenie, kämpfender Humanist, preussisches Staatsopfer, 1993.

David Witkosky

Auburn Montgomery