1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm
HOFFMANN, ERNST THEODOR WILHELM (1776–1822), German romance-writer, was born at Königsberg on the 24th of January 1776. For the name Wilhelm he himself substituted Amadeus in homage to Mozart. His parents lived unhappily together, and when the child was only three they separated. His bringing up was left to an uncle who had neither understanding nor sympathy for his dreamy and wayward temperament. Hoffmann showed more talent for music and drawing than for books. In 1792, when little over sixteen years old, he entered the university of Königsberg, with a view to preparing himself for a legal career. The chief features of interest in his student years were an intimate friendship for Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1775–1843), a nephew of the novelist Hippel, and an unhappy passion for a lady to whom he gave music lessons; the latter found its outlet, not merely in music, but also in two novels, neither of which he was able to have published. In the summer of 1795 he began his practical career as a jurist in Königsberg, but his mother’s death and the complications in which his love-affair threatened to involve him made him decide to leave his native town and continue his legal apprenticeship in Glogau. In the autumn of 1798 he was transferred to Berlin, where the beginnings of the new Romantic movement were in the air. Music, however, had still the first place in his heart, and the Berlin opera house was the chief centre of his interests.
In 1800 further promotion brought him to Posen, where he gave himself up entirely to the pleasures of the hour. Unfortunately, however, his brilliant powers of caricature brought him into ill odour, and instead of receiving the hoped-for preferment in Posen itself, he found himself virtually banished to the little town of Plozk on the Vistula. Before leaving Posen he married, and his domestic happiness alleviated to some extent the monotony of the two years’ exile. His leisure was spent in literary studies and musical composition. In 1804 he was transferred to Warsaw, where, through J. E. Hitzig (1780–1849), he was introduced to Zacharias Werner, and began to take an interest in the later Romantic literature; now, for the first time, he discovered how writers like Novalis, Tieck, and especially Wackenroder, had spoken out of his own heart. But in spite of this literary stimulus, his leisure in Warsaw was mainly occupied by composition; he wrote music to Brentano’s Lustige Musikanten and Werner’s Kreuz an der Ostsee, and also an opera Liebe und Eifersucht, based on Calderón’s drama La Banda y la Flor.
The arrival of the French in Warsaw and the consequent political changes put an end to Hoffmann’s congenial life there, and a time of tribulation followed. A position which he obtained in 1808 as musical director of a new theatre in Bamberg availed him little, as within a very short time the theatre was bankrupt and Hoffmann again reduced to destitution. But these misfortunes induced him to turn to literature in order to eke out the miserable livelihood he earned by composing and giving music lessons. The editor of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung expressed his willingness to accept contributions from Hoffmann, and here appeared for the first time some of the musical sketches which ultimately passed over into the Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier. This work appeared in four volumes in 1814 and laid the foundation of his fame as a writer. Meanwhile, Hoffmann had again been for some time attached, in the capacity of musical director, to a theatrical company, whose headquarters were at Dresden. In 1814 he gladly embraced the opportunity that was offered him of resuming his legal profession in Berlin, and two years later he was appointed councillor of the Court of Appeal (Kammergericht). Hoffmann had the reputation of being an excellent jurist and a conscientious official; he had leisure for literary pursuits and was on the best of terms with the circle of Romantic poets and novelists who gathered round Fouqué, Chamisso and his old friend Hitzig. Unfortunately, however, the habits of intemperance which, in earlier years, had thrown a shadow over his life, grew upon him, and his health was speedily undermined by the nights he spent in the wine-house, in company unworthy of him. He was struck down by locomotor ataxy, and died on the 24th of July 1822.
The Phantasiestücke, which had been published with a commendatory preface by Jean Paul, were followed in 1816 by the gruesome novel—to some extent inspired by Lewis’s Monk—Die Elixiere des Teufels, and the even more gruesome and grotesque stories which make up the Nachtstücke (1817, 2 vols.). The full range of Hoffmann’s powers is first clearly displayed in the collection of stories (4 vols., 1819–1821) Die Serapionsbrüder, this being the name of a small club of Hoffmann’s more intimate literary friends. Die Serapionsbrüder includes not merely stories in which Hoffmann’s love for the mysterious and the supernatural is to be seen, but novels in which he draws on his own early reminiscences (Rat Krespel, Fermate), finely outlined pictures of old German life (Der Artushof, Meister Martin der Küfner und seine Gesellen), and vivid and picturesque incidents from Italian and French history (Doge und Dogaressa, the story of Marino Faliero, and Das Fräulein von Scuderi). The last-mentioned story is usually regarded as Hoffmann’s masterpiece. Two longer works also belong to Hoffmann’s later years and display to advantage his powers as a humorist; these are Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober (1819), and Lebensansichten des Katers Murr, nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler (1821–1822).
Hoffmann is one of the master novelists of the Romantic movement in Germany. He combined with a humour that reminds us of Jean Paul the warm sympathy for the artist’s standpoint towards life, which was enunciated by early Romantic leaders like Tieck and Wackenroder; but he was superior to all in the almost clairvoyant powers of his imagination. His works abound in grotesque and gruesome scenes—in this respect they mark a descent from the high ideals of the Romantic school; but the gruesome was only one outlet for Hoffmann’s genius, and even here the secret of his power lay not in his choice of subjects, but in the wonderfully vivid and realistic presentation of them. Every line he wrote leaves the impression behind it that it expresses something felt or experienced; every scene, vision or character he described seems to have been real and living to him. It is this realism, in the best sense of the word, that made him the great artist he was, and gave him so extraordinary a power over his contemporaries.
The first collected edition of Hoffmann’s works appeared in ten volumes (Ausgewählte Schriften, 1827–1828); to these his widow added five volumes in 1839 (including the 3rd edition of J. E. Hitzig’s Aus Hoffmanns Leben und Nachlass, 1823). Other editions of his works appeared in 1844–1845, 1871–1873, 1879–1883, and, most complete of all, Sämtliche Werke, edited by E. Grisebach, in 15 vols. (1900). There are many editions of selections, as well as cheap reprints of the more popular stories. All Hoffmann’s important works—except Klein Zaches and Kater Murr—have been translated into English: The Devil’s Elixir (1824), The Golden Pot by Carlyle (in German Romance, 1827), The Serapion Brethren by A. Ewing (1886–1892), &c. In France Hoffmann was even more popular than in England. Cp. G. Thurau, Hoffmanns Erzählungen in Frankreich (1896). An edition of his Œuvres complètes appeared in 12 vols. in Paris in 1830. The best monograph on Hoffmann is by G. Ellinger, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1894); see also O. Klinke, Hoffmanns Leben und Werke vom Standpunkte eines Irrenarztes (1903); and the exhaustive bibliography in Goedeke’s Grundriss zur Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung, 2nd ed., vol. viii. pp. 468 ff. (1905). (J. G. R.)