Stephan Oswald’s biography of August von Goethe

Stephan Oswald’s biography of August von Goethe

Seven in death August von Goethe has no first name. “Goethe filius” is written on his tombstone in the Protestant cemetery in Rome with the bronze medallion designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen, “Goethe Sohn”. Underneath, Goethe père had the sculptor from Denmark write that his son died “patri antevertens”, “hurrying ahead of his father”, in 1830 at the age of forty. In the nineteenth century the grave became a place of pilgrimage, but not because a Weimar official with talent for administration and an exquisite family tree was buried here. No, it stood for the poet Goethe’s connection with Rome, the city in which, according to the testimony of his “Roman Elegies”, he had wanted to find his last resting place, “Cestius’ time over”, in the cemetery on the Cestius- Pyramid. His son, who had fulfilled his father’s wish, fell victim to the blessing curse of his name while he was still dead.

The Germanist Stephan Oswald, who is emeritus at the University of Parma, undertakes to “save the honor” of August von Goethe with his biography. In doing so, he runs into open doors, because it is not only recently that many honor-saving publications have been published about the children of famous or notorious fathers. It is all the more astonishing that this does not apply to the son of the greatest German poet. The last biography of August, written by Wilhelm Bode, was published in 1918; since then, many individual studies have been published, but no overall view on the subject. So Oswald is almost breaking new ground, and he does it with the self-confidence of a restorer who is clearing away entire layers of encrusted and encrusted prejudices.

Image: CH Beck

The most common cliché about the illegitimate son of Privy Councilor Johann Wolfgang and his lover and later wife Christiane Vulpius is that he was a good-for-nothing and small-minded. Oswald refutes it according to all the rules of biographer art. August was a changeable but well-behaved student who was familiar with minerals and rock formations from an early age. As Councilor of the Grand Duchy of Weimar, he was responsible for supervising the construction industry, which he carried out conscientiously. From the beginning of 1816, his father also brought him into the administration of the grand ducal “Immediate Institutions for Science and Art”, which included no fewer than fourteen institutions, including today’s Anna Amalia Library and the Anatomical Collection in Jena. Finally, in that fateful year in which August’s mother died, the aging poet entrusted him with the management of Goethe’s household, from the quisquiles of catering with Rhine wine, liver sausage and smoked salmon to the procurement of ink and stationery to the nerve-wracking fee negotiations for the ” Last hand edition” of Goethe’s works. As Oswald sums it up, it was “life on a hamster wheel”.

Father Goethe maneuvered his only son into this hamster wheel according to plan. From the official legitimacy of August by grand-ducal decree to the years of study in Heidelberg and Jena to the post of assessor in Kapellendorf, he put the Filius on track in every respect. When August joined the volunteer corps in 1813, with which the small state of Weimar took part in the defeat of Napoleon, Goethe made sure that his offspring stayed as far away from the fighting as possible. It was possibly the last moment in which August could have rebelled against his father’s rule; instead he complied. On the return of the victorious volunteer associations, he was challenged to a duel by one of his peers, who taunted him as a slacker. Father Goethe made sure that the duel was forbidden. August compensated for the disgrace with a Napoleon cult, which thrived in his late years.


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