Brief Lives:
J.W. Goethe
Hesperus Press, 2010

"Living as I do in millennia..." So began one of Goethe's many observations recorded toward the end of his life by his dutiful secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. It expressed the extraordinary intellectual ambition that surrounded Goethe his entire life and captured the sheer intellectual breadth of a writer who, perhaps more than any other in the entire tradition of Western literature, tried to know more about everything. Religion, literature, politics, history, art, architecture, drama, geology, anatomy, botany, mythology, mining, cartography, optics, even numismatics - Goethe was conversant in all of these fields, informed, up-to-date, and very often a participant in all of the latest breakthroughs. He ran a mine, oversaw a university, discovered a bone in the human skull, collected thousands of rocks, and met Napoleon, all the while writing some of the most elegant, sophisticated, and influential works in the history of literature.

If Goethe imaginatively participated in the culture of thousands of years, his actual life coincided with some of the more decisive transformations of European society. During his almost 83 years, Goethe lived through the Seven Years War, the French Revolution, the end of Holy Roman Empire, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo and the July Revolution of 1830 in France. Through it all he lived as an aloof privy councilor to a minor Duke of a small court in a town of a few thousand inhabitants. He dreamt of Italy and went to the spa. As he once remarked to a friend, "When people think I'm in Weimar, then I'm already in Erfurt." His life, like his work, was always about moving on. What makes him so hard to follow (in the sense of to understand and to come after) was precisely the way he saw things so singularly, the way he impressed everything he did with a deeply individual sensibility. This book is an attempt to track that elusive breadth that was uniquely Goethe's.