Monday, September 5, 2022

Goethe, Gottsched anew -- and James Boswell

Boswell (center) and Johnson (left) at home of Joshua Reynolds

And now for something completely different. My research on Goethe leads me down unexpected byways, including an interesting article in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology from 1947 by Daniel Hegemann, who was a professor of German at the University of Kentucky. It is entitled "Boswell's Interviews with Gottsched and Gellert." James Boswell, he of the later Life of Johnson, was on his European tour from 1763 to 1766, and one of his stops was Leipzig. In fact, he arrived one year earlier almost to the day of Goethe's arrival in that city to study law in 1765. According to Professor Hegemann's article, universities in Germany gained in prominence in the era of the Enlightenment, especially after the establishment of the University of Göttingen in 1738, due, as he writes, "to the determination of the Hanoverian Elector and King of Great Britain, George II, to endow his new creation with a body of teachers rivaling in distinction their counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge."

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Hegemann goes on to write that, except for such leading personalities as Kant, time has dealt harshly with German academics of this era, even as names like Michaelis, Heyne, and Lichtenberg were famous in their day. A third category includes those professors who, whatever their achievements, are known because of their "incidental encounters with men greater than themselves or for their feuds with antagonists who possessed the stuff of genius."

I think you know where I am heading. I have already posted on this subject, concerning two men who were portrayed in Goethe's autobiography, one favorably, the other considerably less so. The first was Count Thoranc; the second Johann Christoph Gottsched. Besides the account in Dichtung und Wahrheit, we know from Goethe's letters from Leipzig to his sister Cornelia and his Frankfurt friend Riese what he thought of Gottsched. Besides mentioning Gottsched's second marriage at sixty-five to a nineteen year old girl who “was thin as a herring," he described Gottsched "as fat as a feather-bed."

It turns out that Boswell met Gottsched and also another professor mentioned in Goethe's autobiography, Christian Fürchegott Gellert. Of Gottsched, Hegemann notes that, while Gottsched repelled Goethe with all his pompous vigor, Gellert was portrayed more sympathetically. The result is that these two pen portraits have become the accepted wisdom, with Germans "of both high and low degree united in their condemnation of Gottsched and their praise of Gellert."

Here is Boswell's description of Gottsched's appearance, after noting his achievement in cultivating the German language with his "excellent Grammar":

"I found him a big, stately, comely Man, with an ease of manners like a Man of the World. Altho' I had no recommendation, he received me with a perfect politeness. We talked of Scotland, of its language, and the difference between it and english.. ... He said the Preface to Johnson's Dictionary was one of the best Pieces he had ever read. ... Gotsched and I were quite easy together in a few minutes; and I was at once among his Books ... he promised to be of what service [he] could to me during my stay here."

During a second interview, Boswell said that Gottsched was much pleased with the "Specimen of my Scots Dictionary" that he gave him, saying it would "give much pleasure to the Curious Etymologists of every Nation."

What a difference Boswell's impression of Gellert. "He spoke bad latin and worse french; so I did my best with him in German. I found him a poor Mind, with hardly any science. His conversation was like that of an old Lady. ... Poor Man, he was very lean and very feeble. But he seemed a good Creature."

Samuel Johnson, by Joshua Reynolds

Hegemann mentions that Boswell's visits with the two men were of short duration, but that his association with great men of the day -- Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds! -- and "his gift for keen psychological observation entitle him to a part in establishing the definitive portraits of Gottsched and Gellert," especially of Gottsched, whose "urbanity and politeness toward an unrecommended foreigner should be remembered in any evaluation of the personality of the first important critic produced by German rationalism." In this connection, the above-linked post to a review of Steffan Martus's Aufklärung: Das 18, Jahrhundert -- Ein Epochenbild also gives more credit to Gottsched as well as the German professoriate in that century

As part of Boswell's positive evaluation of Gottsched it might be kept in mind that Samuel Johnson's name came up frequently in their conversation. Can Gottsched be considered the "Johnson of Germany"? Unfortunately for him, he had no Boswell in Goethe. Although Goethe's description in his autobiography stresses Gottsched's physical enormity, Samuel Johnson was likewise large and tended, as Hegemann puts it, toward "mental and bodily ponderousness." One can imagine that Goethe might have been similarly repelled by Johnson's physique.