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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This new critical biography provides a complete picture of German novelist, playwright, and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Offering fresh, thought-provoking interpretations of all Goethe’s major works, including novels such as The Sorrows of Young Werther and The Elective Affinities, plays such as Egmont and Iphigenia in Tauris, and Goethe’s greatest work, Faust, Jeremy Adler also provides many original readings of Goethe’s poetry, beginning with the poems written in his early youth. Alongside Goethe’s work, Adler analyzes the incidents of his life, including his love affairs and his meetings with the luminaries of his age, such as Napoleon Bonaparte. Uniquely, Adler also shows how Goethe’s encyclopedic interest in literature, science, philosophy, law, and many other fields became important for a wide range of later scientists and thinkers. Among the figures he influenced were Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim and Susan Sontag. Goethe has often been called the last Renaissance man. This biography shows that Goethe was in fact the first of the moderns—a maker of modernity.

256 pages | 48 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4

Critical Lives

Biography and Letters

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"Adler's aim . . . goes beyond giving an overview of the world that made Goethe (the Enlightenment, Leibniz, Spinoza). Its larger subject is Goethe's impact on shaping modernity itself. . . . Each chapter suggests an astonishing variety of individuals and concepts that Goethe's writings are said to anticipate. Entire books have been devoted to the influence on figures from Karl Marx to Oswald Spengler, but Adler includes references to the structure of the double helix, chaos theory, modern sociology, labor under capitalism and Impressionism, to name just a few. . . . Adler's extensive endnotes show how far and wide he has ranged to make the case for Goethe being our forebear in these areas. As he writes, it is no accident that we speak of the Age of Goethe."

Times Literary Supplement

“Goethe was a polymath, not least in the areas of art history and criticism, who combined practical abilities as a draughtsman, painter and scientist. Adler focuses on Goethe’s influence on modernity.”

Art Newspaper

“An excellent introduction to Goethe. It gives you a view of his life, the contexts of his activity, and the major influences on him. It offers a rich and insightful account of the full spectrum of his literary work. The focus is primarily literary, but not exclusively by any means. There’s a wonderful introduction that tells us about Goethe’s ongoing influence into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We also get an outline of his biography, since the book is chronologically organized. . . . It is a book that makes clear Goethe’s indispensability to our contemporary self-understanding. Moreover, the book is wonderfully written and broadly accessible. It provides translations of all the passages and draws pertinent connections to contemporary culture. So, this is the book to pick up if you want to find out something about Goethe. It’s a tremendous achievement. There’s nothing more difficult than to take such a complex and rich writer and give us a compelling sense of his contribution.”

David E. Wellbery, "The Best Goethe Books" | Five Books

"An erudite and at the same time passionate book on Goethe. It offers the general reader a highly stimulating opportunity to be introduced to his life and work, especially the latter. . . . An exciting and brilliant book. Such scholarship and passion are not often found together. They are a great gift to any reader."

Camden New Journal

“Adler provides a welcome, eminently readable summary of Goethe’s astounding life, work, and lasting influences. Delightfully illustrated, with acknowledgement of the strengths of translations cited, this carefully documented book covers an impressive range of academic fields with erudition and insight, providing a rich symbiosis of literary history and the history of science. Goethe’s splendid education, together with a trove of varied experiences, allowed him a life of productivity and self-conscious reflection. Never losing sight of Goethe's unequaled literary accomplishments (poetry, drama, prose long and short, autobiography), Adler traces sources and outgrowths of Goethe’s thinking and writing in—to mention only some of his areas of study—philosophy, history, economics, physics, chemistry, and, of course, contemporary and ancient literature. Especially welcome is an update on the status of Goethe’s groundbreaking theory of color, long considered erroneous. Adler considers Goethe’s numerous major works, providing carefully considered summaries of research along with valuable observations on past and contemporary meaning. This cultural biography will serve as both an introduction and a state-of-the-art overview of Goethe’s remarkable contributions to Weltliteratur. Essential.”


"Adler has packed a lifetime of scholarship into his excellent introductory book on Goethe, which is aimed at the general reader. . . . The seven chapters of the book take us through Goethe’s life and focus on the major works with admirable clarity and succinctness. Adler does not claim to present any new angle on Goethe’s life, but he is especially good at situating it in the intellectual and cultural context and drawing attention to the paradoxes that underlie it, for example that of a sedentary life constantly on the move or a sheltered life enduring the violence of his age."

Journal of European Studies

“Beyond its lively biographical account and incisive readings of Goethe’s major works, the true originality of Adler’s brilliant contribution lies in its impressive contextual background and often startling insights, which only a scholar steeped not only in literary and philosophical history but also the natural and social sciences could provide—from Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare down to Einstein, Freud, and Weber.”

Theodore Ziolkowski, Princeton University

“Adler ranges with equal mastery across several fields besides literature, placing Goethe the poet convincingly at the center of the intellectual and scientific culture, of his own day and ours.”

Jim Reed, Queen’s College, University of Oxford

Table of Contents


1 The Birth of a Poet
2 Sturm und Drang
3 First Years in Weimar
4 The Italian Turn
5 The Classical Centre
6 The Intellectual Capital of the World
7 The Faustian Age

Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements

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