1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (Jean Paul)

Johann Paul Friedrich Richter
(also known as: Jean Paul)
German author

JOHANN PAUL FRIEDRICH RICHTER, (1763-1825), usually called JEAN PAUL, the greatest German humorist, was born at Wunsiedel, in Bavaria, on the 21st March 1763. His father was a schoolmaster and organist at Wunsiedel, but in 1765 he became a pastor at Joditz, and in 1776 at Schwarzenbach, where he died in 1779. Having attended the gymnasium at Hof for two years, Richter went in 1780 to the university of Leipsic. His original intention was to enter his father's profession, but theology did not interest him, and he soon devoted himself wholly to the study of literature. Unable to maintain himself at Leipsic, he secretly left it in 1784 and lived with his mother at Hof. From 1787 to 1789 he served as a tutor at Töpen, a village near Hof; and afterwards he taught the children of several families at Schwarzenbach. During all these years he had to struggle with extreme poverty, but he never lost the buoyancy of his temper, nor did he doubt for a moment that his genius would in the end be generally recognized. His hardships left no trace of bitterness on his frank and manly spirit.

Richter began his career as a man of letters by writing the Grönländische Processe and Auswahl aus des TevfeU Papieren, the former of which was issued in 1783-84, the latter in 1789. These works were not received with much favour, and in later life Eichter himself had little sympathy with their satirical tone. His next book, Die Unsichtbare Loge, a romance, published in 1793, had all the qualities which were soon to make him famous, and its power was immediately recognized by some of the best critics of the day. Soon after the appearance of this book he abandoned his work at Schwarzenbach, and lived again with his mother at Hof, occasionally paying long visits to a friend at Baireuth. Encouraged by the reception of Die Unsicht-bare Loge, he sent forth in rapid succession Hesperus (1794), Biographische Belustigungen unter der Gehirnschale einer Riesin (1796), Leben des Quintus Fixlein (1796), Blumen-, Frucht-, und Dornenstücke, oder Ehestand, Tod, und Hochzeit des Armenadvocaten Siebenkäs (1796-97), Der Jubelsenior (1797), and Das Kampaner Thal (1798). This series of writings secured for Bichter a great place in German literature, and during the rest of his life every work he produced was welcomed by a wide circle of admirers.

After his mother's death he went in 1797 to Leipsic, and in the following year to Weimar, where he had much pleasant intercourse with Herder, by whom he was warmly appreciated. He did not become intimate with Goethe and Schiller, to both of whom his literary methods were repugnant; but in Weimar as elsewhere his remarkable conversational powers and his genial manners made him a favourite in general society. He was especially liked by women, and Erau von Kalb, who has also a place in the biography of Schiller, even offered to obtain a divorce in order to marry him. In 1801, however, he married Caroline Mayer, a bright, accomplished, and amiable lady whom he met in Berlin in 1800. They lived first at Meiningen, then at Coburg; and finally, in 1804, they settled at Baireuth. Here Eichter spent a quiet, simple, and happy life, constantly occupied with his work as a writer. In 1808 he was fortunately delivered from anxiety as to outward necessities by the kindness of the prince primate, who gave him a pension of a thousand florins. Before settling at Baireuth, Bichter had published Das heimliche Klaglied der jetzigen Männer (1801), and Titan (1800-3); and these were followed by Flegeljahre (1804-5). Titan and Flegeljahre he regarded as his masterpieces, and this judgment has been confirmed by posterity. His later imaginative works were Dr Katzen-berger's Badereise (1809), Des Feldpredigers Schmelze Reise nach Flätz (1809), Leben Fibels (1812), and Der Komet, oder Nikolaus Marggraf (1820-22). In Vorschule der Aesthetik (1804) he expounded his ideas on art; he discussed the principles of education in Levana, oder Erziehungslehre (1807); and the opinions suggested by current events he set forth in Friedenspredigt (1808), Dämmerungen für Deutschland (1809), Mars und Phbbus Thronwechsel im J. 1814 (1814), and Politische Fasten-predigten (1817). In his last years he began Wahrheit aus Jean PauVs Leben, to which additions from his papers and other sources were made after his death by C. Otto and E. Förster. In 1821 Richter lost his only son, a youth of the highest promise ; and he never quite recovered from this shock. He died of dropsy on the 14th November 1825.

Schiller said of Richter that he would have been worthy of admiration "if he had made as good use of his riches as other men made of their poverty." And it is true that in the form of his writings he never did full justice to his great powers. In working out his conceptions he found it impossible to restrain the expres-sion of any powerful feeling by which he might happen to be moved. He was equally unable to resist the temptation to bring in strange facts or notions which occurred to him ; and of such facts and notions he had a vast store, for he was an omnivorous reader, and forgot nothing that had ever touched his fancy or awakened his sympathies. Hence every one of his works is irregular in structure, and in some of them it is hard to detect the governing idea by which the relation of the parts to the whole is supposed to be controlled. His style, too, lacks directness, precision, and grace. With the main idea of a sentence he almost invariably associates a crowd of subordinate ideas ; and they are often grouped in an order so capricious and so fantastic that the meaning can be made out only by the closest study. The splendour of Richters genius, however, makes it easy for the class of readers to whom he appeals to forgive even these grave defects. His imagination was one of extraordinary fertility, and he had a surprising power of suggesting great thoughts by means of the simplest incidents and relations. No German prose writer has presented more fascinating pictures of childhood and youth, of friendship and love ; nor has any one shown more finely how' sordid circumstances may evoke the noblest qualities of loyal and generous minds. The love of nature was one of Richter's deepest pleasures, and he communicates his own delight in its beauty by many a description glowing with all the colour and the radiance of the real world. His expressions of religious feelings are also marked by a truly poetic spirit, for to Richter visible things were but the symbols of the invisible, and in the unseen realities alone he found elements which seemed to him to give significance and dignity to human life. His humour, the most distinctive of his qualities, cannot be dissociated from the other characteristics of his writings. It mingled with all his thoughts, and to some extent determined the form in which he embodied even his most serious reflections. That it is sometimes extravagant and grotesque cannot be disputed, but it is never harsh nor vulgar, and generally it springs naturally from the perception of the incongruity between ordinary facts and ideal laws. There are works of imaginative genius which we may read and enjoy without necessarily thinking of the author. The writer may reflect nature with so much fidelity that at first sight no element may seem to be imported into his conceptions from his personal peculiarities. But we appear always to see Richter's face and to hear his voice behind the printed page ; and his creations are true and suggestive only in so far as they are [manifestations of his own inward life. This means, of course, that his genius was not in any important sense dramatic, and that he was much more closely akin to the romantic than to the classic school; but it does not imply that his works produce a monotonous impression. Richter's personality was so deep and many-sided that in every new book he had some fresh secret to disclose. And the more he is known through his unconscious self-revelation the more he is loved and honoured; for we soon learn that with all his wilfulness and eccentricity he was a man of a pure and sensitive spirit, with a passionate scorn f«r pretence and an ardent enthusiasm for truth and goodness.

In 1826-38 a complete edition of Richter's works was published in sixty-five volumes, including several posthumous works. The second edition (1840-42) was in thirty-three volumes, the third (1860-63) in thirty-four. There are also a good many volumes of Richter's correspondence. See Döring, Leben und Charakteristik Richter's (1826); Kunz, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1839); and Nerrlich, Jean Paul und seine Zeitgenossen (1876). There are two admirable articles on Richter in Cavlyle's Miscellanies.

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