Thomas Mann’s Brush with Darkness

How the German novelist’s tormented conservative manifesto led to his later modernist masterpieces.

By Alex RossJanuary 17, 2022

Thomas Mann smoking a cigar and writing on a piece of paper.

Mann is a solemn trickster who is never altogether earnest about anything.Photograph courtesy the Thomas Mann Archive at the ETH Bibliothek Zurich


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In 1950, a Briefly Noted reviewer in this magazine made short work of “The Thomas Mann Reader,” an anthology culled from the German novelist’s vast prose output: “The total impression created by this three-hundred-thousand-word monument is that Mann is a major writer, but perhaps not all that major.” A New Yorker subscriber in Los Angeles, residing at 1550 San Remo Drive, in Pacific Palisades, was annoyed. “Yes, I may well be a ‘major author,’ ” Thomas Mann wrote to a friend, “ ‘but not that major.’ ” The creator of “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice” was at the summit of his fame, yet many younger critics dismissed him as a bourgeois relic, irrelevant in the age of bebop and the bomb. Another commentator numbered Mann among those “literary monoliths who have outlived their proper time.”

In Germany, that verdict did not hold. Circa 1950, Mann was a divisive figure in his homeland, widely criticized for his belief that Nazism had deep roots in the national psyche. Having gone into exile in 1933, he refused to move back, dying in Switzerland in 1955. Over time, his sweeping analysis of German responsibility, from which he did not exclude himself, ceased to be controversial. More important, his fiction found readers in each new generation. The accumulation of German-language literature about him and his family is immense, approaching Kennedyesque dimensions. Whatever resistance Mann inspires—Bertolt Brecht voiced the standard objection in calling him “the starched collar”—his chessboard mastery of German prose is not to be denied, nor can a certain historical nobility be taken from him. It is impossible to talk seriously about the fate of Germany in the twentieth century without reference to Thomas Mann.Published in the print edition of the January 24, 2022, issue, with the headline “Behind the Mask.”

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Alex Ross has been the magazine’s music critic since 1996. His latest book is “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.”More:Thomas MannLiteratureBooks

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