Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Raspe, Rudolf Eric
RASPE, RUDOLF ERIC (1737–1794), author of the original ‘Baron Munchausen,’ was born in Hanover of obscure parentage in 1737. From 1756 to 1760 he studied successively at the universities of Göttingen and Leipzig, and in 1762 he obtained a post as one of the clerks in the university library at Hanover. During the interval he seems to have acted as tutor to a young nobleman. In 1763 he contributed some Latin verses to the Leipzig ‘Nova Acta Eruditorum,’ and in the following year he was appointed secretary to the university library at Göttingen. While there, he worked at a translation of Leibnitz's philosophical works, which was issued at Göttingen in 1765. He followed up this laborious work by an ambitious allegorical poem on the age of chivalry, entitled ‘Hermin and Gunilde’ (1766), which was favourably received. About the same time he translated selections from Ossian, and published a treatise on ‘Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry,’ which first directed German attention to the rich storehouses of mediæval romance. In 1767 he became professor at the Collegium Carolinum in Cassel and keeper of the landgrave of Hesse's rich collection of antique gems and medals. He was shortly afterwards appointed librarian of Cassel, and in 1771 he married. He began writing on natural science, a subject for which he had shown aptitude while at Leipzig; and in 1769 a paper in the fifty-ninth volume of the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ arguing the previous existence of elephants, or mammoths, in the boreal regions of the globe, procured his election as an honorary fellow of the Royal Society in England. In 1772 he translated into German Algarotti's ‘Treatise on Architecture, Painting, and Opera Music,’ while at the same time he contributed papers on lithography, on musical instruments, and other subjects to learned periodicals in Germany. The variety and facility of Raspe's writing proclaimed him a journalist, and, after a short tour in Westphalia in 1773, he started a periodical called ‘The Cassel Spectator,’ with Mauvillon as his co-editor. In 1775 he travelled in Italy on a commission to collect articles of vertu for the landgrave. Soon after his return he began abstracting valuable coins from the cabinets entrusted to his care, and he disposed of his thefts for upwards of two thousand rix-dollars. When disclosure became imminent, he fled in the direction of Berlin, an advertisement being issued by the authorities of Cassel for the arrest of ‘Councillor Raspe, a long-faced man, with small eyes, crooked nose, red hair under his stumpy periwig, and a jerky gait.’ Vain of his personal appearance, he is said to have dressed extravagantly in scarlet and gold. He was captured at Klausthal in the Hartz mountains, but he escaped from the police and fled to Great Britain, where he spent the remaining nineteen years of his life.
He was already an excellent English scholar, so that when he reached London it was not unnatural that he should look to authorship for support. In 1776 he published a volume ‘On some German Volcanoes and their Productions’ (London, 8vo), and during the next two years he translated into English the then highly esteemed ‘Mineralogical Travels of Ferber’ in Italy and Hungary (London, 1776, 8vo), and also Baron Born's ‘Travels through the Bannat of Temeswar, Transylvania, and Hungary’ (London, 1777, 8vo), to which was added as an appendix Ferber's ‘Mineralogical History of Bohemia.’ In 1780 Horace Walpole wrote of him to Mason: ‘There is a Dutch sçavant come over here who is author of several pieces so learned that I do not even know their titles, but he has made a discovery in my way which you may be sure I believe, for it proves what I expected and hinted in my “Anecdotes of Painting,” that the use of oil-colours was known long before Van Eyck.’ Raspe, he went on to say, had discovered a manuscript of Theophilus, a German monk of the fourth century, who gave receipts for preparing colours with oil. Three months later he wrote: ‘Poor Raspe is arrested by his tailor. I have sent him a little money, and he hopes to recover his liberty, but I question whether he will be able to struggle on here.’ The essay on the origin of oil-painting, which is ‘clear and unpretending,’ was published by the good services of Walpole in April 1781. Raspe already spoke English as readily as French. He wrote it, says Walpole, ‘surprisingly well,’ and in this same year his linguistic attainments are attested by two moderately good prose translations; one of Lessing's ‘Nathan the Wise,’ and the other of Zachariæ's mock heroic, ‘Tabby in Elysium.’ He formed ambitious plans, but his disguise as a Dutch virtuoso did not prevent the bad name he had earned from dogging him to London. The Royal Society struck him off its rolls, in revenge for which step he is said to have threatened to publish a travesty of its proceedings. In 1785 he projected an archæological expedition into Egypt, and in the same year was issued at Berlin his ‘Reise durch England,’ dealing with the arts, manufactures, and industry of his adopted country. He appears in the meantime to have been near starvation, when a remnant of his mineralogical reputation procured him the post of assay master and store-keeper of some mines at Dolcoath in Cornwall in 1782.
While still at Dolcoath Raspe put together a shilling chapbook of forty-nine pages, small 8vo, which appeared in London at the close of 1785, under the title ‘Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.’ The ‘Critical Review’ for December 1785 described the work as a satirical production calculated to throw ridicule on the bold assertions of some parliamentary declaimers. In reality it was a jeu d'esprit thrown off with a minimum of satirical purpose. Raspe seems to have compiled his humorous narrative from two sources. First, and most important, his personal reminiscences of Hieronymus von Munchausen (1720–1797), an eccentric old soldier who, for the double purpose of diverting his guests at Bodenwerder, and restraining the boastful garrulity of his huntsman Rosemeyer, had formed a habit of narrating alleged sporting adventures of farcical extravagance, with the dry precision of a man who is speaking the exact truth. Raspe's second source was his commonplace book, which harvested gleanings from collections of facetiæ such as Lange's ‘Deliciæ Academicæ’ (Heilbronn, 1665), a section of which was expressly devoted to mendacia ridicula; Von Lauterbach's ‘Travels of the Finken Ritter;’ and Heinrich Bebel's ‘Facetiæ Bebelianæ’ (Strassburg, 1508). Raspe probably saw no objection to affixing the baron's own name to an ephemeral production, written in a language that can have been known to few, if any, of the Baron's friends.
The first edition was probably small, and sold badly (no copy is known to be extant); a second edition, with a longer title, but otherwise unaltered, appeared at Oxford in 1786, and met with no better success. Thereupon the bookseller, Smith, to whom Raspe had sold his manuscript, disposed of the copyright to another bookseller, named Kearsley. Kearsley had a chapter prefixed and fourteen chapters added to the original five (ii.–vi. inclusive, of the current modern version). The new chapters, which were not written by Raspe, but by one of Kearsley's own journeymen, contained topical allusions to English institutions and recent books of travel and adventure, such as Drinkwater's ‘Siege of Gibraltar’ (1783), Mulgrave's ‘Voyage towards the North Pole’ (1774), Brydone's ‘Sicily and Malta’ (1773), Baron de Tott's ‘Memoirs’ (1785), and the narratives of recent balloon ascents by Montgolfier and Blanchard in France, and by Vincenzo Lunardi [q. v.] in England. Some of the new stories were borrowed from Lucian's ‘Vera Historia.’ The fresh matter, together with the addition by Kearsley of some quaint woodcuts, gave the book a new lease of life, at the enhanced price of two shillings. Four editions followed rapidly. A free translation into German was made by the poet Gottfried August Bürger, from the fifth edition, in the course of 1786. Hence it has been confidently asserted that Bürger was the creator of Munchausen, though the fact was expressly denied by his intimate friend and biographer, Karl von Reinhard (Berliner Gesellschafter, November 1824). A seventh edition, with a long supplementary chapter, appeared in 1793. Meanwhile, in 1793, there had been issued a voluminous sequel (now generally printed as a second part or second volume of the book), written as a parody of James Bruce's ‘Travels to discover the Source of the Nile’ (1790).
So composite was the structure of a work which soon acquired a world-wide popularity, and has probably been translated into more languages than any English book, with the exception of ‘The Pilgrim's Progress,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and ‘Gulliver's Travels.’ The bantering comment on passing events, with which the booksellers' hacks animated their continuations, seems largely responsible for the volume's immediate success. These accretions possess no literary merit. The book's permanent literary interest attaches exclusively to Raspe's original chapters, the spontaneity and dry humour of which can hardly be surpassed. Raspe worked in the spirit of Lucian and Rabelais, and he may almost be said to have recreated the literary type of fantastic mendacity which has been developed with great effect by the authors of ‘Colonel Crockett’ and ‘Sam Slick,’ and other modern humorists, especially in America.
Raspe's name was not associated during his lifetime with the work that constitutes his chief title to remembrance. In 1785 he was employed in Edinburgh by James Tassie [q. v.] in cataloguing his unique collection of pastes and impressions from ancient and modern gems. Early in 1786 Raspe produced a brief conspectus of the arrangement and classification of the collection, and this was followed in 1791 by ‘A Descriptive Catalogue,’ in which over fifteen thousand casts of ancient and modern engraved gems, cameos, and intaglios were enumerated and described in French and English. The two quarto volumes, with an introduction, dated from Edinburgh on 16 April 1790, are a monument of patient and highly skilled industry. In the autumn of 1791 Raspe went on a tour in the extreme north of Scotland, where he professed to discover signs of vast mineral wealth. To sustain his reputation as a mineralogist he brought out, in 1791, a translation of Baron Inigo Born's new process of amalgamation of gold and silver ores. By plausible manœuvres he inveigled a local magnate, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, into disbursing large sums for preliminary operations. When the time came for the fruition of his schemes, Raspe disappeared. The incident was crystallised in a tradition which Sir Walter Scott utilised in ‘The Antiquary.’ For purposes of concealment Raspe betook himself to a remote part of county Donegal; and, still masquerading as a mining expert, was carried off by scarlet fever at Muckross in 1794. A medallion from Tassie's collection is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, and a portrait from the same medallion was engraved in J. M. Gray's ‘Life of Tassie’ (1895).[Des Freiherrn von Münchhausen Reisen und Abenteuer (preface by F. Hoffmann), Stuttgart, 1871; Allgemeine Encyclopädie, Ersch and Gruber, s.v. Münchhausen; Meyer's Conversations-Lexicon, s.v. ‘Raspe;’ Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, s.v. Münchhausen; Biographie Universelle, xxvii. 119; Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature, s.v. ‘Raspe’ (giving a good account of the wild conjectures that have been made as to the authorship of Munchausen); Gent. Mag. 1856, i. 588–90, 1857 ii. 2; Watt's Bibl. Britannica, s.v. ‘Raspe;’ Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, vii. 343, 660; Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798, ii. 186; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornub. ii. 548; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual (Bohn), 1629; Cushing's Anonyms, 1890, p. 57; Dantes's Dict. Biogr. et Bibliographique, 1875, p. 834; Chambers's Book of Days, ii. 85, 86; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vols. ii. iii. xi. xii. passim, 3rd ser. v. 397, 468, vi. 505, ix. 153, 514; Henwood's Address at the Royal Instit. of Cornwall, 1869, pp. 16–18; Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham, vii. 314–15, 347, 473, 492, viii. 28, 35; Southey's Omniana, 1812, i. 155. For a longer account of Raspe and the evolution of ‘Münchhausen,’ see the preface by the present writer to the 1895 edition of the Travels.]