Authors: Erich Auerbach

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German literary critic

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Zur Technik der Frührenaissancenovelle in Italien und Frankreich, 1921

Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt, 1929 (Dante: Poet of the Secular World, 1961)

Das französische Publikum des 17. Jahrhunderts, 1933

Neue Dantestudien, 1944

Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, 1946 (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 1953)

Introduction aux études de philologie romane, 1949 (Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature, 1961)

Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung, 1951

Literatursprache und Publikum in der lateinischen Spätantik und im Mittelalter, 1958 (Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, 1965)

Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, 1959


Die neue Wissenschaft über die gemeinschaftliche Nature der Völker, 1925 (of Giovanni Battista Vico’s Scienza nuova)


Erich Auerbach (OW-ur-bahk) was one of the most influential and thought-provoking literary critics of the twentieth century. As a high school student in Berlin, he received a solid education in German, French, and Latin. In 1913 he defended his doctoral dissertation on jurisprudence at the University of Heidelberg. During World War I, he served in the German army. After his return to civilian life, Auerbach decided against practicing law and instead undertook the study of romance philology. In 1921 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Griefswald on literary techniques in French and Italian short stories from the early Renaissance.{$I[AN]9810001361}{$I[A]Auerbach, Erich}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Auerbach, Erich}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Auerbach, Erich}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Auerbach, Erich}{$I[tim]1892;Auerbach, Erich}

Throughout his long and distinguished academic career, Auerbach maintained a serious interest in philology, stylistics, and the influence of the classical traditions on French and Italian writers. He published important scholarly works in his native German as well as in Italian, French, and English. His mastery of many languages enabled him to make insightful comments on the interrelationships among the literatures of different countries.

In the 1920’s Auerbach worked as a librarian in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. In 1929 he published an important study on Dante Alighieri, and this book resulted in his appointment to the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, where he taught from 1929 until 1935. In analyzing Dante’s writings in Italian and Latin, Auerbach combined a rigorous philological approach with interpretative criticism. Auerbach stressed the dangers of anachronistic explanations of Dante’s works. Auerbach showed that one must discover the meanings of key terms and concepts for Dante’s learned contemporaries in order not to misjudge Dante’s true originality. His research on Dante convinced Auerbach that each period in European literature had developed a unique form of creativity which literary historians needed to recognize and appreciate. Auerbach believed that flexibility and cultural relativism were essential for literary criticism.

Auerbach’s intellectual and moral commitment to tolerance would soon be severely tested. In 1935 he and other Jewish professors were dismissed from German universities by the Nazis. In 1936 Auerbach and his family fled to Turkey. For the next eleven years Auerbach taught French and Italian in Istanbul. Although Auerbach accepted this necessary exile with dignity, at first he felt a sense of alienation in Turkey because he did not know its culture or language. He nevertheless learned Turkish and became greatly admired by his colleagues and students there.

Between May, 1942, and April, 1945, Auerbach wrote his critical masterpiece, Mimesis. Each of the twenty chapters in Mimesis is an extended stylistic and historical analysis of a specific literary passage. Each chapter combines stylistics and historical philology with a thoughtful discussion of the cultural, social, and aesthetic value systems which constituted the unique traits of specific periods in European literary history. The breadth of Mimesis is extraordinary. Auerbach makes insightful comments on the cultural movements and traditions which produced such diverse writers as Homer, Chrétien de Troyes, François Rabelais, Molière, Friedrich Schiller, Stendhal, and Virginia Woolf. He demonstrates that flexibility and an acceptance of cultural diversity are essential for meaningful literary criticism.

Auerbach realized that his method, which combined stylistics with historical and interpretative criticism, could easily be applied to many important authors and literary movements which he had not discussed in Mimesis. The twenty chapters in Mimesis made readers more sensitive to the artistry by which writers presented their own perception of reality and defined the basic aesthetic and ethical beliefs of their cultures. Mimesis enriched the reader’s understanding of the rich diversity and complexity in European literature.

After the Allied forces liberated the concentration camps in 1945, Auerbach became fully conscious of the horrors of the Holocaust. During the last years of his life he frequently wrote on the conflicts between a commitment to moral values and the destructive power of evil in society. In a 1946 essay titled “The Triumph of Evil” Auerbach discusses Blaise Pascal’s affirmation that a society which rejects God and denies the dignity of each individual invariably yields to evil. The relevance of this analysis to Nazi Germany could not have escaped the attention of Auerbach’s readers.

In 1947 Auerbach emigrated to the United States, where he accepted a position at Pennsylvania State University. Unfortunately, Auerbach suffered from a heart condition, and his inability to pass a medical examination prevented him from receiving tenure at the university. He then spent one year at Princeton University before being named a professor of romance languages at Yale University. He taught at Yale from 1950 until his death in Wallingford, Connecticut, near New Haven, in 1957. During his decade in the United States, Auerbach once again had access to excellent library collections on European literatures. He published extensively on French literature. His posthumously published bookLiterary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages encouraged other scholars to examine the works of many neglected neo-Latin writers. While indispensable for medievalists, Auerbach’s last book never had the broad appeal of Mimesis.

Had he not written Mimesis, Auerbach would probably be remembered as a very learned Dante and neo-Latin specialist. One should not underestimate the significance of his insightful writings on medieval literature. Mimesis, however, enriched all areas of literary criticism because it demonstrated eloquently that stylistics and historical, or sociological, criticism complement each other very well. Mimesis helped critics to understand that it is not truly significant if a literary text does or does not realistically reproduce historical events. Such ephemeral realism does not interest readers from different cultures. In interpreting literary works, one should rather admire the subtle artistry by which gifted writers both express their own perceptions of reality and make their readers more sensitive to the diversity of the human condition. The first published reviews of Mimesis were extremely favorable, both in North America and in Europe. Since Auerbach’s death in 1957, admiration for Mimesis has not abated. This seminal work has enabled generations of readers to appreciate more thoroughly the complex relationships between the study of European literature and the history of European ideas.

BibliographyGreen, Geoffrey. Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Compares Auerbach with fellow literary critic and German émigré Leo Spitzer (1887-1960).Holquist, Michael. “The Last European: Eric Auerbach as Precursor in the History of Cultural Criticism.” Modern Language Quarterly 54 (September, 1993). Discusses Auerbach in relation to 1980’s and 1990’s views on cultural criticism.Levin, Harry. “Two Romanisten in America.” In The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, edited by Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969. Compares Auerbach with fellow literary critic and German émigré Leo Spitzer (1887-1960).
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