The Critical Reception of Goethe in the Ante-Bellum South

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Although Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is undeniably one of the leading figures in Western literature, his reception in America in his own day was mixed at best. In fact, Goethe's stature was recognized by a select few in this country, and many of the highly influential arbiters of taste remained hostile to the man and his works for years after his death. It is also worth noting that while Goethe's more prominent American admirers, such as Longfellow and Emerson, were able to appreciate his works from an aesthetic standpoint, they voiced strong moral reservations.

This moral aversion to Goethe's works--and in some cases to his character as well--which was so evident in the nineteenth century, has not escaped critical attention. Scott H. Goodnight, who compiled a study of German literature in American magazines prior to 1846, concluded that "scarcely any American has written on [Goethe]--not even Ticknor, Everett, Bancroft, Motley, Margaret Fuller or Bayard Taylor--who has not protested against a certain laxity in regard to morals in many of his works" (66). Goodnight's conclusion is certainly borne out by a study of these reviews and commentaries. Even the scholar George Bancroft, who later came to know Goethe personally and understand his works well, felt a sense of revulsion at their moral tone:

   I do not love Goethe. He is too dirty, too bestial in his conceptions.
   There is nothing of a noble, high, enthusiastic soul in him. His genius is
   admirable. His knowledge of life wonderful. But the whole is spoiled by the
   immorality of his writings, by the vulgarity of his characters. It may be,
   that all this happens in the world, but at any rate, this remains a blot on
   his fame, which all the waters in the world cannot make white and which
   justify in his censures a moral man, who cannot find in him a single work
   of genius. (Long 116-117)

In his 1814 translation of "The Sorrows of Young Werther," George Ticknor felt it advisable to delete or subtly censor passages to tone down what many saw as the licentious nature of the work (Ryder 360-372). Writing to Goethe's translator Carlyle in 1834, Emerson admits that "the Puritan in me accepts no apology for bad morals in such as he" (Braun 25). Like his contemporaries, George Calvert protested in 1836 that Goethe "refers everything ... to the standard of taste instead of the bar of conscience" (Wahr 55). While studying in Germany in 1835, Longfellow reached the conclusion that "the moral impression of Goethe's works was not good" (Long 175). In an effort to explain Margaret Fuller's regret that Goethe "has used life to excess.... He might have been a priest, he is only a sage," F.B. Wahr concludes that the unsettling feelings experienced by Goethe's early American critics are caused by conflicts between their artistic sense and their Puritanical severity (57).

What a majority of these early reviewers shared was a deeply ingrained streak of New England Puritanism, a characteristic they displayed in both their personal convictions and their public pronouncements. That the role played by New Englanders and New England journals in early nineteenth-century American criticism was preeminent is indisputable, and it is hardly original to point out that the Puritan influence which began in New England with the Mathers in the colonial era held sway even among the more progressive Unitarians and Transcendentalists in the first half of the last century. Even though most of these Unitarians rejected the Calvinist tradition of religious authority over secular matters, they had internalized the Puritan viewpoint to such an extent that they were incapable of separating moral from literary judgments. In short, they felt that the countenancing of immorality--especially sexual immorality--in literature implied its advocacy.

Another attitude shared by many of these critics was their aversion to pessimism and melancholy in literature. …