Thomas Mann, the foremost German novelist of the 20th century, was born of a patrician family in the north German city of Lubeck on June 6, 1875. The setting of his youth was one of gradual decline, especially after the death, in 1891, of his father, a respected businessman and city senator. His mother, who was of Brazilian origin, then moved to Munich, where Mann worked briefly in an insurance agency; attended lectures at the University of Munich; and became a contributor to Simplicissimus, a satirical literary journal, which he subsequently edited. He then became a free-lance writer, living (1895-97) in Italy, where he worked in close proximity to his older brother and rival, Heinrich Mann.
Mann’s first collection of short stories, Little Herr Friedemann (1898), won critical acclaim; his partially autobiographical first novel about the decline of a patrician family, Buddenbrooks (1901), established his German fame and European reputation. Tristan (1903), a collection of novellas that includes “Tonio Kroger” (1903), portrays the artist as an onlooker, or exile from society. Mann’s marriage (1905) to Katja Pringsheim, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family of bankers and scholars, fulfilled his ambition to become father of a family (they were to have six children) and also secured his financial independence. Mann satirized his engagement in The Blood of the Walsungs (1906) and celebrated his marriage, with gentle irony, as the union of a German prince and an American heiress in Royal Highness (1909).
Mann lived in or near Munich until 1933, taking up his country’s cause during World War I and arguing passionately against his own doubts and the beliefs of his pacifist, democratic brother, Heinrich, in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of a Non-Political Man, 1918). During the Weimar Republic, however, Mann became a spokesman for liberal democracy and an eloquent antagonist of Fascism – a role he continued to play during the early years of Nazi government.
In 1933 he emigrated to Switzerland, where he edited a periodical, Mass und Wert (Measure and Values, 1937-39), and then to the United States, where he lived first in Princeton, N.J. (1938-40) and subsequently at Pacific Palisades, Calif. (1941-52), acquiring U.S. citizenship in 1944. The tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers (1933-42) and Lotte in Weimar (1939) reflect Mann’s attempt to rid himself of cultural pessimism. Doktor Faustus (1947), a symbolic novel concerning the German catastrophe and defeat, reverts to a pessimistic view of Western civilization, as does the serenely cynical Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954), a picaresque account of a crook. After the war and during the McCarthy era, Mann became increasingly dissatisfied with the United States and frequently returned to Europe. He settled in 1952 in Switzerland and died near Zurich on Aug. 12, 1955. He received many honors, including the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.
Mann stressed various influences on his work, especially the musical leitmotif technique of Richard Wagner that suggested the use of recurrent verbal patterns – characteristic phrases and episodes – that form an underlying thematic structure in his prose. Although he adopted a pessimistically metaphysical view of the world from Arthur Schopenhauer, he was also a disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche’s impassioned skepticism and antimetaphysical celebration of the forces of life. Despite Mann’s adoption of Theodor Fontane’s art of mannered, ironic dialogue and admiration for the epic sweep of the Russians – notably Tolstoi – he was a novelist in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert. He combined meticulously realistic description with pervasive symbolism, investing every detail with symbolic significance.
Mann was deeply aware of the Western cultural tradition, whose values he both shared and questioned. Like Tonio Kroger, the artist-hero of the novella of that title, Mann believed that spiritual gifts make the artist an exile from life, while longing to share its passions. The spirit thrives as the artist’s vitality declines. In Death in Venice, the artist’s longing for life is depicted as a diseased and fatal passion, but Tonio Kroger is saved from sterile isolation by his love for the “blond and blue-eyed,” the normal, healthy, average humans who, in all their banality, relish the passions of life. The artist’s intermediary position between animal nature and spiritual aspiration make the artist the true representative of a universal human dilemma.
In The Magic Mountain (1924) Mann alludes to the decline of a diseased Western civilization through an account of the inmates of a Swiss sanatorium. Hans Castorp, the protagonist of the novel, dreams of a synthesis between the forces of darkness and light. It is typical of Mann’s ironic detachment, however, that he carries his vision, at the conclusion of the novel, into the trench warfare of 1914.
A more positive notion of a humanist synthesis inspired Joseph and His Brothers and The Beloved Returns, which deal with men who are blessed by spirituality and by physical vitality. In Doktor Faustus, however, Mann brought his exploration of the artist’s relation to society to a tragic conclusion. The composer Adrian Leverkuhn makes a pact with the devil to achieve an artistic breakthrough from a sterile decadence to creative vitality. His nihilistic bargain and its consequences are a symbolic parallel to Germany’s pact with a political devil, Hitler, who gave the nation vitality but led it toward destruction.
Mann’s lifelong theme, as he observed in the essay “On Myself” (1940), is the breakdown of civilization – the invasion of the carefully cultivated and disciplined defenses of Western culture by the elemental power of Dionysian urges.