Thomas Mann and Walt Whitman

By Meyers, Jeffrey | Notes on Contemporary Literature, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Thomas Mann and Walt Whitman

Meyers, Jeffrey, Notes on Contemporary Literature

Thomas Mann, though married and the father of six children, had strong homoerotic urges, which he obliquely portrayed in Tonio Kroger's love for Hans Hansen, Gustav von Aschenbach's love for the Polish boy Tadzio in "Death in Venice" and Hans Castorp's love for Pribislav Hippe (another beautiful Slav) in The Magic Mountain. Mann--who had written a story and a novel about incest, "The Blood of the Walsungs" and The Holy Sinner--even confessed in his secret diary of 1920 an incestuous attraction to his fourteen-year-old son, Klaus: "Am enraptured with Essi [Klaus], terribly handsome in his swimming trunks. Find it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son" (Mann, Diaries, 1918-1939, ed. Hermann Kester, NY: Abrams, 1982, 101).

The quintessential modern German author rarely mentioned American or English writers. Yet, like many others of his fin-de-siecle generation, Mann was powerfully drawn to and liberated by the "Calamus" poems, and wrote extensively about Whitman in a major essay, "The German Republic" (1923). And Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" inspired one of the greatest scenes in The Magic Mountain (1924): Hans Castorp's declaration of love to Clavdia Chauchat (a cat in heat) during the unconstrained revelries of carnival night.

In "The German Republic," originally a speech delivered to students in Berlin in October 1923 to celebrate the birthday of the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, Mann tried to persuade young intellectuals to support the five-year-old Weimar Republic. In a surprising conjunction the buttoned-up Mann, co-opting the bohemian Whitman, looked to an American, whose country had just helped defeat Germany, to provide a political solution to the country's disastrous problems and help rebuild the national spirit. In a forced analogy, Mann compared Whitman's America after the Civil War to his own Germany after World War I. As early as the uncompleted "Geist und Kunst" (Spirit and Art, 1910), Mann wrote that the "influence of Whitman on the youngest people is greater than that of Wagner" (T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, Oxford: Clarendon, 1974, 137). After reading Hans Reisiger's "noble" two-volume German translation of Whitman's poetry and prose (1922), which "made a very great impression" on him, he "proclaimed the unity of humanity and democracy." Mann quotes three passages from "I sing the body electric," three from "Calamus" and four from Democratic Vistas.

Mann called Whitman the "lover of mankind across the ocean," "the herald of athletic democracy and of free states holding each other embraced" and "the hectic dreamer of perpetual bridal night." He praised Whitman's "dithyrambic Americanism" and the "erotic, all-embracing democratism" of his "raging and reverent song-sequence." In a rare burst of lyrical enthusiasm, a notable contrast to his formal and conventional eulogy of Gerhart Hauptmann, Mann extolled the "social eroticism," "the pure, sweet-smelling primitive healthiness of the singer of Manhattan . . . bursting with racial freshness, which just now let us bring into touch for a moment democracy and aestheticism" (Mann, "The German Republic," Order of the Day, NY: Knopf, 1942, 37, 43, 44, 25, 39, 38, 27, 42, 43). Mann's translator H.T. Lowe-Porter, frightened by Mann's bold suggestion--in his plea for sexual freedom--that democracy has emancipated the homosexual, excised three pages. She cut a passage prophesying that beautiful, narcissistic, "adoring youth, joined in a dream of themselves as gods, or young males drawn to their own mirror image, [would be] bound in a passionate community" (Anthony Heilbut, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature, NY: Knopf, 1996, 380). But, as T. J. Reed observes, Mann's argument "was little short of ludicrous to expand on Whitmanesque homosexual feeling as a force binding society" (Reed, Uses of Tradition, 293).

In The Magic Mountain Hans Castorp comes to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps on a three-week visit to his cousin. …

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