Perhaps no writer of modern times, with the possible exception of Francis Thompson, has suffered greater indignities than Jakob Wassermann (VAHS-sehr-mahn) in the struggle to vindicate himself as an artist. He was born of Jewish parentage to his merchant father, a man with a narrow, conservative outlook who allowed his second wife, the boy’s unsympathetic stepmother, to regulate the life of the household. In his childhood Wassermann’s literary talents were ruthlessly curbed on the principle that if he should become a writer he would be poor and therefore worthless. In 1889 he was sent to Vienna, where his uncle was the proprietor of a factory; unable to bear the routine of business, Wassermann made a temporary escape to Munich with the plan of studying to enter the university. Lacking money, he returned home and was sent to Vienna again, this time to learn the export trade. Less than a year later, he left his new job. Conscripted into the army for the required year of military duty, he became the butt of anti-Semitic pranks and insults from comrades.
After completing his year of service he held a government job in Nuremberg until, inheriting a small sum of money, he ventured to Munich again and remained as long as his resources allowed. He briefly found employment in Freiburg but then, destitute again, he roamed as a beggar in the Black Forest before working his way with odd jobs to Zurich and then once more to Munich. A turn in his fortunes occurred, just in time to avert the collapse of his health, when in 1895 he became engaged as secretary to the writer Ernst von Wolzogen. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as an editorial assistant by the manager of the satirical Munich periodical Simplicissimus, which was then in its first year of publication. Some of his poems and tales appeared in that journal in 1896, and one story gained him a prize of three hundred marks. Between 1897 and 1900 his novels Dark Pilgrimage and Die Geschichte der jungen Renate Fuchs (the story of young Renate Fuchs) were published to positive reviews, inaugurating the succession of major novels that established his literary reputation. In 1898 he returned to Austria, to live there the rest of his life, and in 1901 he married Julie Speyer. After separating from her in 1919 and obtaining a divorce several years later, he married Marta Karlweis. On New Year’s Day, 1934, he died at Alt-Aussee, where he had resided for ten years.
Wassermann was strongly admired by Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Thomas Mann. His work is impressive for the scope of its themes. He was especially interested in the problems of ethical conduct and was devoted to the ideals of democratic liberalism.