Monday, June 21, 2021

The Young Goethe

Johann Michael Eben, Rossmarkt in Frankfurt (1780)

In recent years I focused my Goethe research on world literature in connection with Goethe's comments on
the subject and with the work by Fritz Strich, Goethe und die Weltliteratur. Since the publication last year of my essay, I have turned back to my earliest interest in Goethe, the pre-Weimar Goethe and the subject of my dissertation, basically "how Goethe became Goethe." At the time of writing my dissertation (1994), the scholarly literature on this period was sparse. A reader of one of my earliest submissions to the Goethe Yearbook, of Goethe’s early play Die Laune des Verliebten, complained that I included no recent literature on the subject. As I wrote to Tom Saine, then editor of the Yearbook, there were scarcely any recent publications on this early pastoral drama, excepting an article in 1991 by Heinrich Detering. Thus, my dissertation had been heavily reliant on scholarship of the early 20th century, if not earlier: Hermann Baumgart, Fritz Br├╝ggemann, Max Herrmann, Hans Georg Heun (Der Satzbau des jungen Goethe, one of my favorites!), Heinz Kindermann, Albert Leitzmann, Siegmar Schulte.

Anyway, here I am back again, with a new project that may or may not have something to do with Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung, and am again immersing myself in early scholarship on Goethe's formative years, e.g., the study by Elisabeth Mentzel from 1909 entitled Wolfgang and Cornelias Lehrer: Ein Beitrag zu Goethes Entwicklungsgeschichte. Goethe's father's record of his household accounts indicates the payments made to various teachers, both male and female, but Mentzel's further archival research is indeed impressive, especially as few of Goethe’s teachers merit any contemporary mention, outside of birth and death records, applications for Frankfurt citizen status, tax payments, and the like. Besides the material on the subjects of instruction, the chapters of her book offer much insight into the life of many an aspiringly upwardly mobile individual, most of whom had no family roots in Frankfurt and had to fight hard not only for residence rights and rights to teach but also for their daily existence.

The first thing one notes about the education of Wolfgang and Cornelia is that Herr Rat was a helicopter parent par excellence. Mentzel notes the changing nature of educational practice in the late 18th century, and the instruction employed by Goethe's father's for his children reminds me of parents of children in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, employing tutors and trainers to prepare their kids from even before kindergarten to get into elite schools and then into elite colleges. So, we may judge that certain similarities exist between economic conditions between the last half of the 18th century and the latter half of the 20th. At one time, Goethe had as many as five instructors.


I should also mention that, though she concedes that Goethe had an excellent memory, he included very few details of his early education in his autobiography, What I most love about Mentzel's book, along with Ernst Beutler's marvelous book, Essays um Goethe, is the way Mentzel extracts hints of sources for later works. For instance, she suggests that the figure of the harpist in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre may have its origin in the siblings' Italian teacher, Domenico Giovinazzi. As Menzel points out, Giovinazzi was already in his late sixties during the years of instruction (1753, 1754, and 1755). A native of southern Italy, he was first a member of a Catholic religious order, the faith of which he rejected before moving north and eventually landing in Zurich, where he converted to the Reformed faith. From there it was on to Frankfurt, where there were many performances of Italian opera in the first quarter of 18th century, which indicates a knowledge of Italian language and music. In the 1730s already, Giovinazzi was the most prominent Italian teacher in the city. He and Goethe's father got along well, having musical interests in common.

Mentzel also traces Goethe's later enthusiasm for Erwin von Steinbach and the Cathedral in Strassburg to Johann Michael Eben, Goethe's rather mediocre drawing teacher who nevertheless was known for his detailed copperplate renderings of "citiscapes." “Erfindung,” writes Mentzel, was not Eben's talent, but “getreue Wiedergabe des Geschauten.” The portrait Goethe made of himself at his desk in his Frankfurt bedroom indicates what he had learned from Eben by the early 1760s: namely, proportion, detail, and architectural features.

Images: eBay; Deutsche Geschichte in Dokumenten und Bildern