Serenity is not much in favor these days, writes Ormsby; it is not edgy enough, and we Americans tend to associate it "with such pedestaled behemoths as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the full name says it all.)" Another term with this flavor bestowed on Goethe was "Olympian." It is true that Goethe often seems above it all, distant from the cares of the world. The Olympians, however, were not all serene. Thomas Mann points out about Goethe (in his 1932 essay "Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age") that "there are in Goethe, on closer examination, as soon as the innocence of the youthful period is past, signs of profound maladjustment and ill humor, a hampering depression, which most certainly have a deep-lying uncanny connection with his mistrust of ideas, his child-of-nature indifference. ... Nature does not confer peace of mind, simplicity, single-mindedness; she is a questionable element; she is a contradiction, denial, thorough-going doubt."
I reencountered this quote from Mann today while perusing Harold Bloom's book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Bloom begins his discussion of Goethe with reference to the trope, contrasting the energetic melancholia of Samuel Johnson with Goethe's "hard-won serenity."
Ormsby notes of Thornton Wilder his "acuity in spotting the eternal type under a character's idiosyncratic lineaments," which is on display throughout his work. I would add that Goethe's characters also have something of the "type" about them, which can be seen even in the names bestowed on them. (How many variations of "Otto" in Elective Affinities!) Bloom is of the opinion that, "since Goethe, unlike Shakespeare, could create no persons except himself, we are puzzled by his novels and plays. Faust is an idea (or matrix of ideas) but not an individual. Shakespeare invented the human; Goethe hardly needed to invent Goethe, who arrived as nature's masterpiece, the genius of potential happiness."
Very interesting observation by Bloom, certainly applicable to the figures that appear in Goethe's novels and plays, though it tends to obscure rather than illuminate the person of Goethe.