Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, 1822-32, 1836-1848 (Conversations with Goethe, 1839)
Probably the name of Johann Peter Eckermann (EHK-ur-mahn) would be without any significance for literary history had it not been for his encounter with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Eckermann was born in 1792, the youngest child of a second marriage. The living conditions of his early life were extremely poor. His home was a one-room hut that could not be heated, and the only possession of the family was a cow, which also supplied the major part of the family’s diet. There was plenty of work for young Eckermann to do, and there was no opportunity for education. Nevertheless, he found time for drawing and painting. One of his drawings came to the attention of a county official, and soon Eckermann obtained patronages that gave him opportunity for education. His ambitions for the arts then shifted from drawing to poetry.
When he read for the first time a volume of Goethe’s poetry, he discovered his idol, and until his death he was a devoted disciple of the great author, who at this time was already the undisputed master of literary life in Germany. Eckermann had the courage to send some of his poetic efforts to Goethe and was rewarded by some encouraging words. From then on, he was determined to become a writer. In 1823 he completed his “Contributions to Poetry” and was searching for a publisher who might be willing to advance a reasonable fee. Goethe’s publisher, Herr von Cotta, was the most famous in Germany at this time, and Eckermann was hoping to obtain Goethe’s recommendation to Cotta. He made a strenuous journey on foot to Weimar to meet Goethe personally.
The encounter with Goethe was of great significance for both men. Goethe recognized in Eckermann a worthy companion. Eckermann’s love for poetry and his never-ending quest to gain a deeper insight into “what holds the world together” (as Goethe phrased it in Faust) qualified him as a valuable conversation partner. Goethe asked him to be his private secretary, a post Eckermann gladly accepted. Now he had the unique opportunity of talking with Goethe alone and of being present at most social functions at the court of Weimar, where Goethe held a ministerial position. Weimar was the hub of cultural life. The guest list at the court contained the names of all the leading personalities in literature, science, and the fine arts. From the start Eckermann carefully recorded all Goethe’s encounters and remarks. He called his work simply “My Goethe”; he never acted as a censor and was not afraid to record the occasions when Goethe contradicted himself. The conversations cover the last ten years of Goethe’s life (Goethe died at eighty-three). Eckermann’s critics claim that he was attempting to dramatize and idolize his subject and that some episodes are fictitious. Still, Eckermann’s work represents the most comprehensive record of Goethe’s sayings. He remained Goethe’s faithful secretary and eyewitness reporter to the very end. Fifteen years after Goethe’s death, Eckermann was still working on his “conversations.” Until his death in 1854 he labored diligently on all manuscripts which Goethe had left behind and prepared them for publication to make sure that not one word would be lost to posterity.