Jean Paul  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Jean Paul (21 March 1763 – 14 November 1825), born Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, was a German writer a central writer in German Romanticism. He is best known for his grotesquely humorous novels and stories.


Life and work

Jean Paul was born at Wunsiedel, in the Fichtelgebirge mountains (Franconia). His father was an organist at Wunsiedel. In 1765 his father became a pastor at Joditz near Hof and, in 1767 at Schwarzenbach, but he died on 25 April 1779, leaving the family in great poverty. After attending the Gymnasium at Hof, in 1781 Jean Paul went to the University of Leipzig. 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 Leipzig he returned in 1784 to Hof, where he lived with his mother. From 1787 to 1789 he served as a tutor at Töpen, a village near Hof; and from 1790 to 1794 he taught the children of several families in a school he had founded in nearby Schwarzenbach.

Jean Paul began his career as a man of letters with Grönländische Prozesse ("Greenland Lawsuits", published anonymously in Berlin) and Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren ("Selections from the Devil's Papers", signed J. P. F. Hasus), 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 even Richter had little sympathy for their satirical tone.

A spiritual crisis he suffered on 15 November 1790, in which he had a vision of his own death, altered his outlook profoundly. His next book, Die unsichtbare Loge ("The Invisible Lodge"), a romance published in 1793 under the pen-name Jean Paul (in honour of Jean Jacques Rousseau), had all the qualities that were soon to make him famous, and its power was immediately recognized by some of the best critics of the day.

Encouraged by the reception of Die unsichtbare Loge, Richter composed a number of books in rapid succession: Leben des vergnügten Schulmeisterleins Maria Wutz in Auenthal ("Life of the Cheerful Schoolmaster Maria Wutz", 1793), the best-selling Hesperus (1795), which made him famous, Biographische Belustigungen unter der Gehirnschale einer Riesin ("Biographical Recreations under the Brainpan of a Giantess", 1796), Leben des Quintus Fixlein ("Life of Quintus Fixlein", 1796), Der Jubelsenior ("The Parson in Jubilee", 1797), and Das Kampaner Tal ("The Valley of Campan", 1797). Also among these was the novel Blumen- Frucht- und Dornenstücke, oder Ehestand, Tod, und Hochzeit des Armenadvokaten Siebenkäs ("Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces; or, the Married Life, Death, and Wedding of Siebenkäs, Poor Man's Lawyer") in 1796–97.

The book's slightly supernatural theme, involving a Doppelgänger and pseudocide, stirred some controversy over its interpretation of the Resurrection, but these criticisms served only to draw awareness to the author. This series of writings assured Richter a 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 in 1797, Richter went to Leipzig, and in the following year, to Weimar, where he started work on his most ambitious novel, Titan, published between 1800–1803. Richter became friends with such Weimar notables as Herder, by whom he was warmly appreciated, but despite their close proximity, Richter never become close to Goethe and Schiller, both of whom found his literary methods repugnant; but in Weimar, as elsewhere, his remarkable conversational powers and his genial manners made him a favorite in general society. The English writers Thomas Carlyle and Thomas de Quincy took an interest in Jean Paul's work.

In 1801 he married Caroline Meyer, whom he had met in Berlin the year before. They lived first at Meiningen, then at Coburg; and finally, in 1804, they settled at Bayreuth. Here Richter spent a quiet, simple, and happy life, constantly occupied with his work as a writer. In 1808 he was fortunately delivered from anxiety about outward necessities by Prince Primate Karl Theodor von Dalberg, who gave him an annual pension of 1,000 florins, which was later continued by the king of Bavaria.

Jean Paul's Titan was followed by Flegeljahre ("The Awkward Age", 1804-5). His later imaginative works were Dr Katzenbergers Badereise ("Dr Katzenberger's Trip to the Medicinal Springs", 1809), Des Feldpredigers Schmelzle Reise nach Flätz ("Army Chaplain Schmelzle's Voyage to Flätz", 1809), Leben Fibels ("Life of Fibel", 1812), and Der Komet, oder Nikolaus Marggraf ("The Comet, or, Nikolaus Markgraf", 1820–22). In Vorschule der Aesthetik ("Introduction to Aesthetics", 1804) he expounded his ideas on art; he discussed the principles of education in Levana, oder Erziehungslehre ("Levana, or, Pedagogy", 1807); and the opinions suggested by current events he set forth in Friedenspredigt ("Peace Sermon", 1808), Dämmerungen für Deutschland ("Twilights for Germany", 1809), Mars und Phöbus Thronwechsel im Jahre 1814 ("Mars and Phoebus Exchange Thrones in the Year 1814", 1814), and Politische Fastenpredigten ("Political Lenten Sermons", 1817). In his last years he began Wahrheit aus Jean Pauls Leben ("The Truth from Jean Paul's Life"), to which additions from his papers and other sources were made after his death by C. Otto and E. Förster.

Also during this time he supported the younger writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, who long counted Richter among his influences. Richter wrote the preface to Fantasy Pieces, a collection of Hoffmann's short stories published in 1814.

In September 1821 Jean Paul lost his only son, Max, a youth of the highest promise; and he never quite recovered from this shock. He lost his sight in 1824, and died of dropsy at Bayreuth, on 14 November 1825.

Characteristics of his work

Friedrich Schiller said of Jean Paul 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".

In working out his conceptions, Jean Paul found it appropriate to express any powerful feeling by which he might happen to be moved. He made it his style to use seemingly out-of-the-way facts or psychological notions which occurred to him. Hence every one of his works is irregular in structure and his style lacks directness, precision, and grace. 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.

The love of nature was one of Jean Paul's deepest pleasures; his expressions of religious feelings also are marked by a truly poetic spirit, for to him 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.

Jean Paul's personality was deep and many-sided; with all his willfulness and eccentricity, he was a man of a pure and sensitive spirit, with a passionate scorn for pretence and an ardent enthusiasm for truth and goodness.

The last scene of Jean Paul's Flegeljahre was the inspiration behind Robert Schumann's composition Papillons, Op. 2. Schumann's Humoreske, Op. 20 is also inspired by Jean Paul.


  • Joy is inexhaustible, unlike seriousness.
  • Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life. (Musik ist der Mondschein in der düsteren Nacht des Lebens.)
  • Many young people get worked up about opinions that they will share in twenty years.
  • Too much trust is a foolishness, too much distrust a tragedy.
  • The German language is the organ among the languages. (Die deutsche Sprache ist die Orgel unter den Sprachen.)
  • A man never describes his own character so clearly as when he describes another.
  • We learn our virtues from our friends who love us; our faults from the enemy who hates us. We cannot easily discover our real character from a friend. He is a mirror, on which the warmth of our breath impedes the clearness of the reflection.
  • What a father says to his children is not heard by the world, but it will be heard by posterity.
  • Der lange Schlaf des Todes schliesst unsere Narben zu, und der kurze des Lebens unsere Wunden. (The long sleep of death closes our scars, and the short sleep of life our wounds.) Hesperus, XX.


English translations

Richter's more important works have been translated into English, for example:

  • Quintus Fixlein and Schmelzles Reise, by Carlyle
  • Walt and Vult by Lee (1846)
  • Titan by Brooks (1863)
  • Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces by Ewing (1877)
  • Levana by Wood (1887)

19th century works on Jean Paul

Richter's Sämtliche Werke (Complete Works) appeared in 1826–1828 in 60 volumes, to which were added 5 volumes of Literarischer Nachlass (literary bequest) in 1836–1838; a second edition was published in 1840–1842 (33 volumes); a third in 1860–1862 (24 volumes). The last complete edition is that edited by R. Gottschall (60 parts, 1879).

Editions of selected works appeared in 16 volumes (1865), in Kürschner's Deutsche Nationalliteratur (edited by P. Nerrlich, 6 vols, pp. 388–487), &c. The chief collections of Richter's correspondence are:

  • Jean Pauls Briefe an F. H. Jacobi (1828)
  • Briefwechsel Jean Pauls mit seinem Freunde C. Otto (1829–33)
  • Briefwechsel zwischen H. Voss und Jean Paul (1833)
  • Briefe an eine Jugendfreundin (1858)
  • P. Nerrlich, Jean Pauls Briefwechsel mit seiner Frau und seinem Freunde Otto (1902).

See further:

  • The continuation of Richter's autobiography by C. Otto and E. Fürster (1826–33)
  • H. Dring, J. P. F. Richter's Leben und Charakteristik (1830–32)
  • Richard Otto Spazier, JPF Richter: ein biographischer Commentar zu dessen Werken (5 vols, 1833)
  • E. Förster, Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Leben von J. P. F. Richter (1863)
  • Paul Nerrlich, Jean Paul und seine Zeitgenossen (1876)
  • J. Firmery, Étude sur la vie et les œuvres de J. P. F. Richter (1886)
  • P. Nerrlich, Jean Paul, sein Leben und seine Werke (1889)
  • Ferdinand Josef Schneider, Jean Pauls Altersdichtung (1901); and Jean Pauls Jugend und erstes Auftreten in der Literatur (1906).
  • Thomas Carlyle's two essays on Richter.

Further reading

  • Fleming, Paul. The Pleasures of Abandonment: Jean Paul and the Life of Humor. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006.

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