Wieland, Christoph Martin

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Wieland, Christoph Martin (1733-1813): German Writer.

Christoph Martin Wieland has been called 'Germany's forgotten classicist'. He was one of the most energetic and original writers of the late Enlightenment. A poet, novelist, translator, essayist, journalist, editor, professor and gentleman's tutor, he remains hard to pin down on account of the many conflicting attitudes he assumed and the kaleidoscopic role he played in society. He combined the functions of court poet and free-thinker, and emerged as a committed educator who found time to entertain readers with romances of a piquant and at times risqué nature. His artistic pursuits led him to evolve his own peculiar brand of classicism, but he continued to view the world with ironic detachment and remained hostile to various manifestations of idealism.

After briefly studying law in Tübingen, then travelling and teaching in Switzerland, he found a position as town clerk and senator in Biberach (Swabia). Here he published his first major works, a collection of gallant novellas and German versions of 22 plays by Shakespeare. These translations were among the first in German, and became influential in encouraging writers to find powerful new approaches to drama. As the cult of Shakespeare gained momentum, some of his erstwhile disciples turned against their mentor, whom they recognized as vulnerable to attack on the grounds of cultivating old-fashioned notions of harmony and refinement in his own works. Goethe moved rapidly from admiration to mockery, but never denied the contribution Wieland had made to literature.

Wieland is remembered for his prose fiction rather than for the many other genres in which he worked. Before him, the German novel was struggling to free itself from the constraints of excessive moralism and conformity to the rigid principle of the epistolary format. Geschichte des Agathon (first edition: 1766), a neo-classical, utopian novel of character development (Bildungsroman) is richly imaginative, delicate and witty, intriguingly convoluted and not without a sensual as well as a philosophic dimension. Its combination of titillating humour and seriousness of purpose gave it wide appeal. The author's fame was enhanced by the verse epic Musarion (1768).

For several years, Wieland was active as professor of philosophy at Erfurt. Several of his novels display didactic tendencies and seek to engage in political debate. This is particularly true of Der goldene Spiegel oder die Könige von Scheschian (1772), in which he vied with Plato and Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de to formulate a programme of good government, hoping that this work would earn him an official position at the court of Joseph II in Vienna. Anna Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar was impressed, and in 1772 Wieland was offered the post of tutor to the future Duke. He was active in this capacity until 1775, when he was succeeded by Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. A generous pension allowed him to continue his literary activity in the vicinity of a court that was quickly establishing itself as the cultural center of the German-speaking world. His satirical novel Geschichte der Abderiten (serialized 1774-80) is a thinly veiled attack on small-town mores. This and other novels are set ostensibly in an idealized ancient world whose Arcadian landscapes are peopled by figures weighed down by modern prejudices and foibles. His most valuable activity from this period onwards was perhaps as founder of the journal Der Teutsche Merkur, which he established in 1773 and edited until 1810. This publication remained an influential platform for writers on political, historical, scientific and literary subjects well into the nineteenth century.

Essentially, Wieland was an enlightened rationalist who encouraged many younger artists both by his example and through his frank assessments of their work. He gave generous space in his journal to budding talents of different persuasions. Yet his popularity lagged behind that of many of his contemporaries. This is due to a confusing combination of radical modernity, involving clever alienation effects and ironic perspectives, with lingering interests in declining genres (for example, the Singspiel), a somewhat inflated view of himself, and an ethos which seems both moralistic and liberal at the same time. His prolific works are characterized by their harmony, grace and wit, which some have portrayed as superficial, others as thought-provoking and multifaceted. In his style, Wieland is indebted to bygone ages when ornamentation was highly esteemed, as it had been in the Rococo period during which he grew up. There are, however, several aspects of his work that look forward to Impressionism and beyond. His smiling portraits of a flawed world anticipate the ironic narrative approaches that were to be employed in later years by Theodor Fontane, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil.

Further Reading:

J.A. McCarthy, Christoph Martin Wieland, 1979.

F. Sengle, Wieland, 1949.

Osman Durrani

University of Kent