The Critical Reception of Goethe in the Ante-Bellum South

By Orth, Geoffrey | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1986 | Go to article overview

The Critical Reception of Goethe in the Ante-Bellum South


Orth, Geoffrey, The Southern Literary Journal


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Critical Reception of Goethe in the Ante-Bellum South
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.