Georg Brandes life and biography

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Georg Brandes biography

Date of birth : 1842-02-04
Date of death : 1927-02-19
Birthplace : Copenhagen, Denmark
Nationality : Danish
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-05-26
Credited as : Literary critic, ,

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Georg Brandes was an influential Danish literary critic whose interpretations of such writers as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Bjernsterne Bjernson are credited with bringing Scandinavian literature into the mainstream of European culture. Similarly, his analyses of major nineteenth-century German, French, and English authors, including John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche, also served to alleviate the cultural gap that separated Danish readers from the central currents of European thought. According to Neil Christian Pages in Scandinavian Studies, "Brandes was without exaggeration the most influential European literary critic and commentator at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth century… . A prolific scholar, biographer, and essayist, Brandes's pan-European approach transgressed literary and national boundaries combining art and political activism in an astute manner."

Brandes was born to Jewish parents in Copenhagen, Denmark, on February 4, 1842. By all accounts an excellent student, he studied law and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and early on developed an antireligious point of view. After completing a master's degree in 1864 he continued his studies, taking a doctorate in aesthetics and publishing his dissertation, Den franske esthetik i vore dage, in 1870. During this period he produced the collection of essays esthetiske studier (1868), which presented theoretical discussions of comedy and tragedy, and he translated John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women into Danish. Brandes maintained that literature should serve to reform society through confronting controversial social issues, and his early work was strongly influenced by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and the French critic Hippolyte Taine, who sought to apply the methods of scientific investigation to the interpretation of literature and culture. In describing Brandes's critical perspective, biographer Bertil Nolin wrote that to Brandes "Literature was a weapon in an ideological debate, an instrument for the continuous change of values and social situations."

During 1870 and 1871 Brandes traveled outside Denmark, meeting with Mill (whose Utilitarianism he would translate in 1872), and with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the author of Peer Gynt (1867), whose works embodied the realistic ideals Brandes advocated. Returning to Denmark he began lecturing at the University of Copenhagen on the relationship between literature and cultural progress and published these lectures in Emigrant-litteraturen ( The Emigrant Literature, 1872); Den romantiske skole i Tydakland ( The Romantic School in Germany, 1873); Reactionen i Frankrig ( The Reaction in France, 1874); Naturalismen i England ( Naturalism in England, 1875), the first volumes of his monumental survey of European literature; and Hovedstre˜mninger i det nittende aarhundredes litteratur ( Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 1872-1890). Featured in The Emigrant Literature are analyses of French writers who were influenced by time spent outside their homeland, including Vicomte de Chateaubriand, who fled to London during the Reign of Terror and served later governments as ambassador to Rome, and the novelist Madame de Staal (1766-1817), who was banished from Paris by Napoleon after the publication of Delphine (1802), a novel sympathetic to divorce, Protestantism, and the British. Brandes's consideration of French literature is continued in The Reaction in France, offering considerations of the political agitator and former priest Felicite de Lamennais, who predicted the rise of a revolutionary working class, and the Romantic writer Victor Hugo, among others. In Naturalism in England Brandes considered the works of such poets as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, particularly praising Byron's liberalism.

Brandes expected to take a position within the faculty of the University of Copenhagen, but his appointment was denied owing to his Jewish background and the radical nature of his views, including his avowed atheism. During the mid-1870s Brandes undertook the publication of the journal Det nittende aarhundrede with his brother Edvard, but when this enterprise failed, he left Denmark. For the next five years Brandes lived in Berlin, during which time he became personally acquainted with many leading writers and wrote analyses of a number of European thinkers, including the English Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli and the Danish existentialist philosopher Se˜ren Kierkegaard. The volume on Kierkegaard is considered important as the earliest extended consideration of Kierkegaard's philosophy, and, when translated in 1879, the first to introduce Kierkegaard's thinking to an international audience.

With private financial support, Brandes returned to Copenhagen in 1883 and became well known as a public lecturer, unaffiliated with the university. During the ensuing decades his renown and influence grew as he published a number of significant studies and after 1887 became a leading proponent of the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Largely unknown at the time, Nietzsche was in the final two years of lucidity when he and Brandes began corresponding. In Brandes's 1889 essay, "Friedrich Nietzsche: En afhandling om aristokratisk radikalisme," he presented the earliest systematic treatment of Nietzsche's philosophy and technique. As quoted by Pages in Scandinavian Studies, Brandes introduced readers to this obscure writer by declaring, "Nietzsche appears to me the most interesting writer in German literature at the present time. Though little known even in his own country, he is a thinker of a high order, who fully deserves to be studied, discussed, contested, and mastered. Among many good qualities he has that of imparting mood and setting thoughts in motion." Nietzsche, in a letter quoted in Scandinavian Studies, later approved Brandes's characterization of his work as "aristocratic radicalism," calling that phrase "the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself." Through Brandes's efforts—he lectured on Nietzsche in Copenhagen and developed a theoretical framework for Nietzsche's works—Nietzsche gained prominence, but not before the philosopher had succumbed to madness, and he died in 1900. Brandes later issued the volume Friedrich Nietzsche (1909), which included biography, criticism, and correspondence.

Among Brandes's works of this period are the final two volumes of Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature, as well as a monumental three-volume consideration of Shakespeare (1895-1896) and the travel books Intryk fra Polen ( Impressions of Poland, 1888) and Intryk fra Rusland ( Impressions of Russia, 1888). Nolin identified Den romantiske skole i Frankrig ( The Romantic School in France, 1882), the fifth volume of Main Currents, as "the most substantial volume" of the series. In it Brandes focused on the period 1824 to 1848, analyzing works by Hugo, George Sand, Stendhal, Honore de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a literary critic with whom Brandes is often compared. The final volume of the survey, Det unge Tydakland (Young Germany) was published in 1890. Brandes here examined the influence of Heinrich Heine, Karl Ludwig Berne, and Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow, and other advocates of the Young Germany movement in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the literary biography William Shakespeare Brandes combined literary evaluation with psychological portrait, attempting to elucidate the life of the writer through his works. Brandes, as quoted by Rene Wellek in A History of Modern Criticism: The Late Nineteenth Century, 1750-1950, expressed the opinion that "given the possession of forty-five important works by any man, it is entirely our own fault if we know nothing whatever about him. The poet has incorporated his whole individuality in these writings, and there, if we can read aright, we shall find him." Brandes's travelogues were praised by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen in Essays on Scandinavian Literature as showing "a faculty to enter sympathetically into an alien civilization, to seize upon its characteristic phases, to steal into its confidence … and coax from it its intimate secrets." In the English journal the Spectator, a contemporary reviewer of Impressions of Russia asserted that Brandes "has drawn a portrait of the Russian State that in depth of insight, range of knowledge, and vividness of presentation, surpasses every contribution we are acquainted with."

Brandes was at last made a professor of the University of Copenhagen in 1902. His memoir, Barndom og ferste ungdom (Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth) was published in 1906. Though now ensconced in the academy, with many of his formerly controversial ideas gaining acceptance, Brandes remained an iconoclast throughout his career. He was a vocal opponent of the First World War and in 1925 elicited wide criticism when he published Sagnet om Jesus (Jesus: A Myth), a treatise in which he proclaimed that Jesus had never existed. Inspired in part by Nietzsche's concept of the e bermensch, or Superman, Brandes focused much of his later career on producing biographies of extraordinary historical personages, including Wolfgang von Goethe (1914-1915), Voltaire (1916-1917), Julius Caesar (1918), and Michelangelo (1921). Brandes died on February 19, 1927.

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