Mann was born in Lübeck, Germany, second son of Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann (a senator and grain merchant) and his wife Júlia da Silva Bruhns (who was born in Brazil and came to Germany when she was 7 years old). Mann’s father died in 1891, and his trading firm was liquidated. The family subsequently moved to Munich. Mann attended the science division of a Lübeck gymnasium, then spent some time at the University of Munich where, in preparation for a career in journalism, he studied history, economics, art history, and literature. He resided in Munich from 1891 until 1933, with the exception of a year-long stay in Palestrina, Italy, with his older brother Heinrich, also a novelist. Thomas worked with the South German Fire Insurance Company 1894–95. His career as a writer began when he wrote for Simplicissimus. Mann’s first short story, “Little Herr Friedmann” (Der Kleine Herr Friedemann), was published in 1898.
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Check out J. E. Robinson’s “Guide to Thomas Mann”.
In 1905, he married Katia Pringsheim, daughter of a prominent, secular Jewish family of intellectuals. They had six children—Erika, Klaus, Golo, Monika, Elisabeth and Michael—who became literary and artistic figures in their own right. Mann emigrated from Nazi Germany to Küsnacht near Zürich, Switzerland, in 1933, then in the United States in 1939, where he taught at Princeton University, along with such other émigrés as Albert Einstein. In 1942, the family moved to Pacific Palisades, California, where they remained until after the end of World War II. In 1944, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Thomas Mann returned to Europe in 1952, where he resided in Kilchberg near Zurich in Switzerland. He was never to live in Germany again, though he traveled there regularly and was widely celebrated. His most important visit to Germany was in 1949, at the occasion of the 200th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, where he attended celebrations in both Frankfurt am Main and Weimar, making a clear statement that German culture extends beyond the new political borders.
In 1955, he died of Atherosclerosis in a hospital in Zurich.
During World War I Mann supported Kaiser Wilhelm II’s conservatism and attacked liberalism. In Von Deutscher Republik (1923), as a semi-official spokesman for parliamentary democracy, Mann called upon the German intellectual to support the new Weimar Republic. Afterwards, his political views gradually shifted toward liberal and democratic principles.
In 1930 Mann gave a public address in Berlin titled “An Appeal to Reason,” in which he strongly denounced Nazism and encouraged resistance by the working class. This was followed by numerous essays and lectures in which he attacked the Nazis. At the same time, he expressed increasing sympathy for socialism and communism. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power, Mann and his wife were vacationing in Switzerland. Due to his very vociferous denunciations of Nazi policies, his son advised him not to return. Later, Mann’s books, particularly Buddenbrooks, were amongst the many burnt by Hitler’s regime.
“Images of Disorder,” by social critic Michael Harrington in his collection The Accidental Century, is a highly literate account of Mann’s political progression from bourgeois conservative to left-wing nihilist.
Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, principally in recognition of his popular achievement with the epic Buddenbrooks (1901), which relates the decline of a merchant family in Lübeck (based on Mann’s own family) over the course of three generations. His next major novel was The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924), in which an engineering student who had planned to visit his tubercular cousin at a Swiss sanatorium for three weeks finds his departure delayed (ultimately for seven years) and encounters a variety of characters who play out ideological conflicts and discontents of contemporary European civilisation. Other novels included Lotte in Weimar (1939), in which Mann returned to the world of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774); Doktor Faustus (1947), the story of composer Adrian Leverkühn and the corruption of German culture in the years leading up to World War II; and The Confessions of Felix Krull (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, 1954), which was still unfinished at Mann’s death.
One of his greatest works was the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder, 1933–42), a richly imagined retelling of the story of Joseph related in chapters 27-50 of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. The first volume relates the establishment of the family of Jacob, who becomes the father of Joseph. In the second volume the young Joseph, not yet master of considerable gifts, arouses the enmity of his ten older brothers and is sold by them into slavery in Egypt. In the third volume, Joseph becomes the steward of a high court official, Potiphar, but finds himself thrown into prison after (mindfully) rejecting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. In the last volume, the mature Joseph rises to become administrator of Egypt’s graneries. Famine drives the sons of Jacob to Egypt, where the unrecogized Joseph adroitly orchestrates a recognition scene that results in the brothers’ reconciliation and the reunion of the family.
Mann’s diaries, unsealed in 1975, speak movingly of his own struggles with his sexuality, which found reflection in his works, especially through the obsession of the elderly Aschenbach for the young Polish boy, Tadzio, in his novella, Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig, 1912). Anthony Heilbut’s biography, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature (1997), was widely acclaimed for uncovering the centrality of Mann’s sexuality to his oeuvre. Mann himself described his feelings for young violinist and painter Paul Ehrenberg as the “central experience of my heart.” However, he chose marriage and family. His works also present other sexual themes, such as incest in “Wälsungenblut”.
Mann was a humanist who valued the cumulative achievements of Western culture and believed in the necessity of upholding civilization against the dangers of decay and barbarism. His work is the record of a consciousness of a life of manifold possibilities, and of the tensions inherent in the (more or less enduringly fruitful) responses to those possibilities. In his own summation (upon receiving the Nobel Prize): “The value and significance of my work for posterity may safely be left to the future; for me they are nothing but the personal traces of a life led consciously, that is, conscientiously.”
Regarded as a whole, Mann’s career is a striking example of the “repeated puberty” which Goethe thought characteristic of the genius. In technique as well as in thought, he experienced far more daringly than is generally realized. In Buddenbrooks he wrote one of the last of the great “old-fashioned” novels, a patient, thorough tracing of the fortunes of a family.
—Henry Hatfield in Thomas Mann, 1962
“A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.” (from The Magic Mountain, 1924)
“I always feel a bit bored when critics assign my own work so definitely and completely to the realm of irony and consider me an ironist through and through, without also taking account of the concept of humor.” (in Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, 2000)
- The Bible
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Theodor Fontane
- Sigmund Freud
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Hermann Hesse
- E.T.A. Hoffmann
- Carl Jung
- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
- Martin Luther
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Friedrich von Schlegel
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Richard Wagner
- 1897 Little Herr Friedemann (Der kleine Herr Friedemann)
- 1897 The Clown (Der Bajazzo)
- 1900 The Road to the Churchyard (Der Weg zum Friedhof)
- 1901 Buddenbrooks (Buddenbrooks – Verfall einer Familie)
- 1902 Gladius Dei
- 1903 Tristan
- 1903 Tonio Kröger
- 1909 Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit)
- 1912 Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig)
- 1918 Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen)
- 1922 The German Republic (Von deutscher Republik)
- 1924 The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)
- 1926 Disorder and Early Sorrow (Unordnung und frühes Leid)
- 1930 Mario and the Magician (Mario und der Zauberer)
- 1933–43 Joseph and His Brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder)
- 1933 The Tales of Jacob (Die Geschichtem Jakobs)
- 1934 The Young Joseph (Der junge Joseph)
- 1936 Joseph in Egypt (Joseph in Ägypten)
- 1943 Joseph the Provider (Joseph, der Ernährer)
- 1937 The Problem of Freedom (Das Problem der Freiheit)
- 1938 The Coming Victory of Democracy
- 1939 Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns
- 1940 The Transposed Heads (Die vertauschten Köpfe – Eine indische Legende)
- 1942 Listen Germany! (Deutsche Hörer)
- 1947 Doctor Faustus (Doktor Faustus)
- 1951 The Holy Sinner (Der Erwählte)
- 1922/1954 Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man, The Early Years (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull. Der Memoiren erster Teil); unfinished
- Works by Thomas Mann at Project Gutenberg