Thomas Mann Biography

German-born author Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1929, is considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Mann employed irony and psychological analysis in his narratives, and his heroes often undergo a spiritual conflict. In his best-known work, The Magic Mountain (1924; trans. 1927), Mann analyzed in detail contemporary European civilization. After losing his German citizenship in 1936 for his condemnation of fascism and Nazism, Mann became a United States citizen in 1944.


Mann was born in 1875 in Lübeck, an important trading port on the North Sea, into a prominent and wealthy family of merchants. But he was far more interested in poetry and music than in the family business or in schoolwork. After his father died in 1891, the business was sold and the family moved to Munich. There Mann began his literary career in earnest, achieving enough success with a number of short stories that his publisher encouraged him to attempt a longer work. The novel that resulted, Buddenbrooks (1901; translated 1924), eventually turned into a best-seller, making its author famous while he was still in his 20s. Its success allowed Mann to live comfortably and devote himself to writing for the rest of his life. In 1929 Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Mann married in 1905 and over the years fathered six children, although his erotic feelings were primarily directed toward men. He and his family lived in Munich until the threat of Nazi oppression forced them into exile in the early 1930s. In 1938 Mann moved to the United States. He lived first in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lectured at Princeton University, and then in Pacific Palisades, California. In 1952, however, he moved to Switzerland, alarmed by the atmosphere of political repression created in the United States by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s crusade against Communism. He remained in Switzerland until his death.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955), German novelist, essayist, and short-story writer, a Nobel laureate and one of the most prominent and influential European writers of the 20th century. Mann saw himself and was seen by others as the leading spokesman for German values and the chief representative of German culture from 1900 to his death in 1955. His courageous public opposition to National Socialism (Nazism) and the regime of German dictator Adolf Hitler kept those values and that culture alive in one of the darkest periods of German history. Mann’s novels and stories, translated into many languages, have been read, enjoyed, studied, and admired by countless thousands of people from all over the world.


Mann described Buddenbrooks, his first major work, as the story of the "decline of a family." Clearly based on material derived from his own family history, the novel chronicles the progress of the Buddenbrook family as its interests gradually shift from business toward the arts and the health of its members slowly worsens. The story concludes with the cool but moving account of the childhood death of Hanno, the most intellectually gifted of all the Buddenbrooks.

Mann continued to explore the relationship between art and the demands of practical life in many of his later works. The story "Der Tod in Venedig” (1912; translated as “Death in Venice," 1925) recounts the last days of a famous writer hopelessly in love with a boy he sees on the beach. Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), a novel, depicts the life of a group of patients at a mountain sanatorium in the years just before World War I (1914-1918). Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934-1944), a four-volume series of novels, retells in complex detail the biblical tale of Joseph. Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948), the fictional biography of a brilliant musician, is an allegory of Germany’s progressive destruction through Nazism. As the result of an encounter with a prostitute he knows to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease, the musician suffers throughout his adult life from ever-worsening illness until he finally succumbs first to madness and then to death. Mann's last major work was Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (1954; The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, 1955), a tale he began and published as a short story early in his career but expanded finally into a novel. It relates the early career of a successful confidence man whose criminal exploits are nothing short of works of art.

In addition to his many works of fiction, Mann wrote a number of essays on German literature and culture that stand among the most important cultural documents of the period. Several major essays reflect on poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, composer Richard Wagner, psychologist Sigmund Freud, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, all of whom were important influences on Mann's own artistic work. In the novel Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns, 1940), Goethe is the principal character. Wagner’s music plays a major role in the plots of the stories "Tristan" (1903; translated in Death in Venice and Other Stories, 1925) and "Wälsungenblut" (1921; “Blood of the Walsungs”). “Das Gesetz” (1944; "The Tables of the Law," 1945) is a story about Moses on Mount Sinai based in part on Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939). And the life of the character Adrian Leverkühn, protagonist of Doktor Faustus, bears an unmistakable resemblance to that of Nietzsche. Mann’s letters and diaries, many of which have been published, are important—and frequently cited—documents of German cultural history.


The significance of Mann's achievement, unquestionably enormous, has been different to succeeding generations of readers. Regarded by many at first as a cool intellectual keeping himself ironically distant from personal involvement with his characters, today Mann is frequently seen as a passionate participant in the struggle of homosexual men for respect and understanding. The publication of some of his diaries, withheld from publication for many years after his death, has given a new and revealing glimpse into the sometimes turbulent personal life of this enormously complicated man. We know now much more about the erotic basis for much of his work, and with this knowledge has come a deeper appreciation for the skill with which he wove together the personal and the public, the psychological and the mythical, in his fiction.

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