Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich

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Schlegel, August Wilhelm (1767-1845) and Friedrich (1772-1829): German Writers.

Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel are known as central figures in the German intellectual scene at the end of the eighteenth century and the founders of the German Romantic movement. Their work, produced both in collaboration and separately, includes plays, novels, journals, translations, and criticism. While the popularity of August, whose translations of Shakespeare are still read in modern Germany, originally surpassed that of his younger brother, recent criticism has created a renewed interest in Friedrich’s importance as a major Romantic.

The brothers were born in Hanover to a prestigious literary family. August studied at the University of Göttingen, where he published articles and tutored. Friedrich was less focused in his early years and unenthusiastic about his planned legal career, but in 1792 he made the acquaintance of Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), whose literary gifts encouraged his own scholarly tendencies. The next year he met Caroline Böhmer, the friend and future bride of August. In Caroline, Friedrich found attentions and encouragement, and he thereafter devoted himself wholeheartedly to literary pursuits.

Working on treatises over Greek and Roman culture, Friedrich transformed his essays into the first and only volume of his History of Greek and Roman Poetry (1798). Traveling around the country, he moved to Jena with August and Caroline, though he later moved to Berlin, where he met other future contributors to the Romantic movement, Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst and Tieck, Ludwig, as well as Dorothea Veit, whom he married in 1804. His relationship with Veit became the inspiration for the novel Lucinde (1799), in which the protagonist falls in love with successive women, each contributing to his education, until he finds the perfect companion. Written while Friedrich was developing his own critical theories about the novel, the work was experimental, blending different genres. Although it was considered innovative, and has been widely reprinted, its popularity was marred by scandal for its frank discussion of sexuality.

August, in the meanwhile, contributed to several journals and took a professorship at the University of Jena. There, he made the acquaintance of Goethe, Johann Wolfgang and Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von, and from 1796-1799 he contributed nearly three hundred reviews to the influential Jenaische Allgemeine Litteratur Zeitung. He also began working on translations of sixteen of Shakespeare’s plays, Dramatische Werke (1797-1801), taking up nine volumes, that would eventually cement his reputation as the premiere German translator of the era.

But the individual achievements of the brothers at the end of the eighteenth century are overshadowed by their joint production. In 1799, Friedrich again joined August in Jena. With Novalis, Schleiermacher, Tieck and others, they began a journal, the Athenäum (1798-1800), edited by the Schlegels, that is today considered the center of the German Romantic movement. Far from a homogenous group, the “Jena Circle” shared anti-Enlightenment attitudes and an interest in blending literary production with criticism and philosophy. Among the most important of their innovations is the publication of epigrammatic fragments, and idea taken from the French, specifically from Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, whose writings August Wilhelm had enthusiastically reviewed. Immediate sales of the fragmentary works were not encouraging, but future critics found the fragments some of the most interesting work of the German Romantic period.

The Schlegels worked on other collaborations, including two volumes of critical essays and reviews, Charakteristiken und Kritiken (1801), but the success of the Jena Circle was short-lived. The Athenäum sold poorly, Tieck moved to Dresden, and Novalis died in 1801. Friedrich began to quarrel with many of his friends, including his brother, resulting in a rift that would never be entirely repaired. At the same time, many of his planned writing projects never came to fruition, and he had a series of disappointing lectures. August moved to Berlin, where he delivered popular lectures on art and poetry.

While their movement was over, both brothers continued writing and lecturing. Friedrich moved to Paris, where he published a journal, Europa (1803-1805), which was discontinued after three issues due to poor sales. Moving to Cologne, and later Vienna, he converted to Catholicism in 1808, and his writings became increasingly focused on religion. In later years, he wrote a landmark work on the history of language, On the Language and Wisdom of India (1808), though the book’s enthusiasm for an “Aryan” history of language has been read as a precursor to the future German fascist movement. Later, Friedrich oversaw the production of his ten volume Collected Works (1822-1825). His final publications were three lectures given in Dresden, expanding his Christian philosophy, Philosophie des Lebens (1828), Philosophie der Geschichte (1829), and Philosophie der Sprache und des Wortes (1830), the latter published posthumously. Friedrich died in 1829, days after finishing his final lecture. August’s late life included political writings, further translations, and two volumes of Poetical Works (1811-1815), before dying in Bonn, where he held a professorship, in 1845.

Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel are the founders of German Romanticism, though their prestige lies as much in literary production as it does in the scholarship and criticism that existed alongside their artistic endeavors. Their lectures and publications shaped critical views of the time, and their influence among their European contemporaries, particularly for the longer lived August, was extensive. Both brothers, though especially Friedrich, have received renewed attention in recent years, as postmodern scholars have found their focus on the origins of language, and their philosophical approach to literature, fertile grounds for study. Further Reading:

Hans Eichner, Friedrich Schlegel, 1970.

Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute, 1988.

Steven Zani

Lamar University