Last reviewed: June 2018
German romantic novelist and short-story writer.
March 21, 1763
Wunsiedel, Principality of Bayreuth (now Wunsiedel, Germany)
November 14, 1825
Bayreuth, Kingdom of Bavaria (now Bayreuth, Germany)
Neither classicism nor romanticism can lay claim to the works of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, who wrote under the pseudonym Jean Paul. His works differ from the classical works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller as much as they do from those of the romantic authors E. T. A. Hoffmann, Joseph von Eichendorff, Heinrich von Kleist, and Novalis. While Goethe and Schiller had been opposed to granting the novel its own aesthetic worth, Jean Paul—as the practitioner of the novel of mood, irony, and spiritual exultation—made the novel the preferred genre of German literature. He used humor, satire, love, and understanding to confront the finiteness of life and to depict psychic conditions of humankind; in his works, action emulates life, which becomes the mirror image of the world, reflecting its lack of order and lucidity. Portrait of Jean Paul.
Portrait of Jean Paul.
Johann Paul Friedrich Richter was born in 1763 in the Principality of Bayreuth, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, to Sophia Rosina and Johann Christian Christoph Richter, the latter a schoolmaster and organist. A gifted student, Richter copied important information and read books on a wide range of subject matters in a pastor’s library near Schwarzenau. His interests focused on philosophy, the theory of enlightenment, and, to a lesser degree, poetry. His writings reveal an immense storehouse of information that, he felt keenly, had to be shared so that his endeavors would not have been for naught. His desire to learn and to excel caused an estrangement between father and son, and he feared a complete break in their relationship. In 1779, two months after Richter entered the gymnasium (secondary school) at Hof, his father died, leaving behind a widow, five sons, and many debts.
Theology was a field of study open to gifted but poor young men, and Richter began his studies at the University of Leipzig in 1781. Further financial difficulties forced him to leave the university in 1784. The years between then and 1795 were especially hard: Richter worked as a tutor, mourned his brother Heinrich’s death by suicide in 1789, and, in 1790, became schoolmaster in Schwarzenbach.
Richter's initial writings, among them Grönländische Prozesse (Greenlandic processes, 1783), were not very successful, but Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren (Selection from the devil's papers, 1789), Die unsichtbare Loge (1793; The Invisible Lodge, 1883), and Leben des vergnügten Schulmeisterlein Maria Wutz in Auenthal (1793; Life of the Cheerful Little Schoolmaster Maria Wutz in Auenthal, 1959) were well received. Richter’s schoolmaster Wutz lives a happy life in a rather confining environment; life’s adversities are overcome by creativity and fantasy as Wutz writes his own books for a library devoid of them, and he negates old age by escaping back into his youth. Richter’s use of humor allows glimpses into Wutz’s mental processes as Wutz creates, in a most deliberate fashion, his own idyllic life. In Vorschule der Ästhetik (1804; Horn of Oberon: Jean Paul Richter’s School for Aesthetics, 1973), Richter explored again the importance of humor as a poetic device.
Success and recognition came with the publication of his novel Hesperus, oder 45 Hundsposttage (1795; Hesperus; or, Forty-Five Dog-Post-Days, 1865). He traveled to Weimar and was befriended by Charlotte von Kalb and Friedrich Herder, but his relationship with Goethe and Schiller was a strained one. The individual as creator of his or her own happiness surfaces again in the main character of Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornenstücke (1796–97; Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces, 1845), who desires the peace and tranquillity of simple life. He feigns illness and death to escape the materialism of his wife and the unhappiness in his first marriage and, upon his resurrection, finds true love and understanding in a second marriage. Flegeljahre (1804–5; Walt and Vult; or, The Twins, 1846) depicts one character embodying deeds and one embodying sentiment. Naïve fantasy and cool rationalism are opposite forces that can coexist only through the interjection of humor, which serves not to overcome their strife but to make it more acceptable. A symbiosis between these two opposing forces could mean perfection. The fragmentation evident in this unfinished novel points to the duality of Richter’s life, which included moving to Leipzig in 1797, to Weimar in 1798, and to Berlin in 1800; marriage to Karoline Mayer in 1801; moving to Meiningen and then Coburg; the birth of two daughters, Emma (in 1802) and Odilie (in 1804), and a son, Max (in 1803); and, finally, settling in Bayreuth in 1804. The fragmentation also stands as a symbol for Germany: Richter’s political writings include Friedens-Predigt an Deutschland (Peace sermon to Germany, 1809), Dämmerungen für Deutschland (Twilights for Germany, 1810), and Politische Fastenpredigten (Political Lenten sermons, 1817).
Richter wrote chiefly about himself, his idiosyncrasies, and the struggle between the enthusiast and the realist within himself. His works, though humorous, contain biting sarcasm. They reveal his keen awareness of human finiteness, his love for humanity, and his desire for humankind’s acceptance of nature in its entirety. His treatise on education, Levana (1807; Levana; or, The Doctrine of Education, 1848), reflects his deep insight into the total educational process, that of instilling knowledge and the schooling of the personality. Walt and Vult and Titan (1800–1803; Titan: A Romance, 1862) were the author’s most beloved works. Titan is a bizarre tale of love and yearning, in which the motives and correlation of characters and actions are interwoven and depict the spiritual and political situation in Germany. The arabesque style stands in direct contrast to the refined classicist model; it negates romanticism’s irony and the overemphasizing of the ego, embraced during the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) literary period.
Neither Walt and Vult nor Titan enjoyed the public’s appreciation, and Richter became withdrawn, living a life of public and political resignation. In 1809, Prince Karl Theodor von Dalberg granted Richter a pension, which the state of Bavaria continued paying. Richter’s son, Max, died in 1821, and, shortly before his own death, Richter became totally blind.
Few writers have evoked such a contradictory response from their contemporaries and from future generations of readers and critics as did Richter. Among his admirers were Adalbert Stifter, Jeremias Gotthelf, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and Stefan George; his detractors included Goethe, Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Nietzsche. His name is well known, his works hardly read.